The metaphor of the melting pot has become the image of an assimilated American – a person who has discarded his ethnic identity to become American.
In 1917 Waldemar Ager wrote "Paa veien til smeltepotten" or "On the Way to the Melting Pot" as a protest against cultural assimilation.
A Melting Pot?
The term “the melting pot” was coined by Israel Zangwill in his famous play "The Melting-Pot" in 1908. Zangwill illustrated how people from different nations were melted together and born again as Americans.
Waldemar Ager (1869-1941) was much opposed to the common conception of America as a melting pot. He knew that the immigrants had to work and raise their children in America, but he thought it important to that they should hold on to their ethnic identities as Norwegians. In 1917, Ager wrote Paa veien til smeltepotten (On the Way to the Melting Pot) as a protest against cultural assimilation.
The following excerpt is taken from the opening chapter of the novel. We are at the Omley's. Mrs Omley is preparing dinner and waiting for her guests to arrive. The experienced housewife is rather nervous. She knows little English and needs to consult her daughter Sophie to read the cookbook.
"On the Way to the Melting Pot" as plain text
MRS. LEWIS OMLEY was very busy in the kitchen. There was a pile of empty tin cans just outside the door. Wherever she turned there were empty cups, dishes, and paper bags which gaped expectantly at her. Several things were cooking on the new range. It was no easy task keeping an eye on it all. She had to get finished. She could expect the people home from church any moment now. Her face was red from the terrible heat, beads of sweat collected on her eyelashes, and she kept using her apron to wipe her eyes.
Slumped over the table with one knee resting on a chair was Sophy, with the cookbook in front of her. Whatever her mother needed to know Sophy had to look up for her.
Mrs. Omley was both nervous and worried. The dinner steamed and bubbled on the stove. There was a hissing sound now and then as something boiled over. Hidden forces were at work, and Mrs. Omley was feeling far from secure. She paced about with as much tension as a general during a battle. It was her good name and reputation, and that of her family, that bubbled away on the stove.
She was preparing an American-style dinner, and that was no simple task. She had to serve something extra-special today because her fourth child was being baptized and he was a beautiful boy. It was really only the children one had to live for, and one couldn't do too much for them. And besides, she wanted to show off for the other women.
Mrs. Skare had served flødegrød and bakkelse and the like when one of her children was confirmed, and everyone had said that such just wasn't done in this country and that one had to conform to the customs of the land where one happened to be. For that matter an American woman who was married to a Norwegian was among Mrs. Omley's invited guests, so she had set out to make a "boiled dinner." The ladies in the Presbyterian church had served a dinner like that last winter and it had been written up in the newspapers. Lewis had read about it in the Daily Chronicle. But she had later regretted her decision and she regretted it now because the dinner had to cook such a terribly long time. The day was burning hot and the smell of cooked cabbage permeated the whole house.
"Are you sure now that it's proper to put out cranberry sauce with salted meat and cabbage like this, Sophy?"
Sophy, who had stayed home from church in order to help her mother, rolled over a little on her side and thrust her clenched little hand against her temple as she rested her elbow on the table. "I d'know; it says meat which has got to be kjød because meat is kjød in English, so then it must be kjød."
"Ja, well, we have it ready now so we might just as well use it, but had I only known - Ja, it can't be changed now. Take a look to see if they're coming."
Sophy rose up slowly and stretched. She was thin, but just as tall as her mother. She pulled herself over to the window and looked out.
"They're coming!" she exclaimed gleefully and was about to run out but her mother restrained her.
"Now you've got to be a nice girl and help me set the table."
A look of annoyance appeared in the girl's pretty, blue-violet eyes. "Well - what are you going to do then? Am I supposed-?"
"I don't want any monkeybisnis from you, Sophy. Hurry up, quick now, right away - is it maybe asking too much that a big, tall girl like you help her mother a little? Now be a good girl and help your mamma, Sophy - you see how much I have to do."
Mrs. Omley could never remain angry long enough to complete a lengthy sentence. And whenever Sophy got angry and spoke English, it was as though something so fine and ladylike came over her that her mother often felt ashamed at the thought of her own plainness. She couldn't understand everything Sophy said at such moments, but she felt a mother's pride when she saw Sophy straighten up and answer like a fine lady.
Sophy puckered her otherwise pretty mouth so that her upper lip rested on the bottom of her nose. This also made Mrs. Omley's heart beat faster because it made her think of the children in the wholesaler's family in Norway where she had worked as a maid and Lewis as a servant. There was something fine about Sophy because she wrinkled her upper lip just the way the upper-class people did - the wholesaler and his family were that kind of people - may our Lord hold his hand over her. Sophy could be clever, too, when she wanted to be, but it was not so often she wanted to be. The clatter of the dishes proclaimed that she was being clever now and that the table was being set quickly - just so she didn't break any of the things which had been borrowed. Mrs. Omley now remembered that the plates should be heated when the serving was to be fine and the food was fat. But she decided it would not be a good idea to have Sophy remove them from the table. She cried so easily and Mrs. Omley didn't want her sniffling when people arrived.
- Why did Mrs Omley need her daughter’s assistance?
- What is Mrs Omley cooking?
- What are they celebrating?
- Mrs Omley is from Norway. What do you think her Norwegian last name is?
- Which language does Sophie speak when she is angry? What does her mother think of this?
- Characterize Mrs Omley and Sophie. What can be said about their relationship?
- On the Way to the Melting Pot is called a satirical novel. Ager ridicules Norwegian Americans because they try so hard to become Americans and in doing so they discard the best qualities of their old cultural heritage. How is Ager’s view revealed in this excerpt?
- The novel was published in Norwegian. Why do you think Ager used the term "smeltepotten" and not "smeltedigelen" in the title?