'wide-ranging and ambitious...Sollors develops an approach which breaks through the dead-end of "ethnic studies" and which should be of real interest and value in this country.' New Society
From the Author
Melting Pot and Pluralism in American Literature and Culture
The Ling Liang Church (or Grace Church) at 173-175 East Broadway in New York City has a large sign that reads: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." The text comes from Matthew 11:28. It is the same passage that inspired Emma Lazarus' Statue of Liberty poem, "The New Colossus," and that gave hope to the hero of Israel Zangwill's drama The Melting-Pot, the play which made its title a by-word in America. To increase the trans-ethnic connection, the building of the Chinese-American Church originally housed the largest Yiddish Daily in New York, Abraham Cahan's Forward. Such signs direct us to understand the culture in which they are displayed as a melting-pot culture of biblical allusions, immigration, dramatic changes and trans-ethnic connections. Nothing is "pure" in America--or in the modern world, for that matter. Yet energetic and delightful though the ethnic mix is in American music and popular culture, in books and in movies, in videos and murals, our perception is still shaped by romantic ideas of ethnic purity or of national cultures in nation states. This book asks its readers to look at the amazing cultural vitality and melting-pot vibrancy that emanates from a people of such varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds. How important are these different pre-American pasts to a culture that loves the future? The book describes stories that are told to create a sense of common destiny among a diverse people. Some of these stories come, as Matthew's inscription on New York's Lower East Side, from the Bible. For example, many Americans of the most diverse origins have retold the story of Moses' Exodus from Egypt, across the Red Sea and into the Promised Land, and painted their own histories as an escape from bondage or a search for a new Canaan. Other stories are American-made and show a new concern for the emotional side of romantic love, for the right of the young ones, of "consenting adults," to choose their own spouses and political systems--against old worlds or old parents, and most especially across racial and ethnic fault lines. Melting-pot love may triumph as intermarriage, accompanied by new world symphonies, but the story can also end with the lovers' death. The United States has the majority of all lovers' leaps in the whole world; and many immigrants have--like Eduard Friml, a Czech immigrant who married a Chinese-American--sung about Indian love calls by scenic waterfalls. Other tales concern heroes who are torn in their choice of a spouse, torn between characters who remind them of their past and characters who promise the future. Then there are real and imaginary autobiographies of story-tellers who explain how they made the transition, left part of their selfhood behind, often to their own deep regrets, and how they settled for a new individual identity, sometimes with the help of a map that made them steer a middle course between stubborn traditionalism and total assimilation. Among the many other stories that have been told since the days of the Puritans and that have crossed all imaginable ethnic boundaries are tales of generations, in which, as if by magic, the third generation emerges as the fulfillment of the Dream. In the broad polyethnic selection of examples, some particularly noteworthy comparisons are made between black and Jewish writers; and some of the familiar American patterns even emerge in texts that were not written in English. "I claim New York by right of love. Others claim the 'big city' for their own by right of nativity." Thus starts Konrad Bercovici's book Manhattan Side-Show (1931). He was not the only participant-observer of America to make the distinction between nativity and love, and Beyond Ethnicity is also an exploration of this tension between community membership by descent and by consent. The writers, story-tellers, artists, editors, and publishers of the American tales examined in this book have often been especially attracted to what is new and most modern. Far from sticking to their cultural baggage they embraced the new possibilities of ad-stripping and editorializing, of syndicating stories, and of any other modern method to reach audiences, and many have advanced formal experimentation and the internationalization of American literature. Their works have helped shape a multicultural world beyond ethnicity.