Interrupted Allegiances: Indivisibility and Transnational Pledges
From time to time there has been born [sic] in upon this community the intimation that in “The Melting Pot” Mr. Israel Zangwill had written [sic] a most important play. The bill-boards have carried the indorsements [sic] of men of prominence in civic and National affairs, and even Col. Roosevelt, while still President, was quoted as among its most enthusiastic admirers. This merely goes to prove that even a President may be mistaken.
— NEW YORK TIMES, SEPTEMBER 7, 1909
San Francisco’s Chinatown nowadays is no milieu for the novelist who is an outsider. With the slave girls vanished, also the racketeering tongs, the social life of the quarter is other than what it was, or had seemed to be. And you get a notion of this in The Flower Drum Song. Mr. Chin Y. Lee has an objective eye on the scene.
—IDWAL JONES, NEW YORK TIMES, MAY 19, 1957
On December 21, 1898, following the fin-de-siècle U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley addressed American citizens at home and newly annexed Filipino subjects abroad. The twenty-fifth commander-in-chief maintained that American forces came “not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employment, and in their personal and religious rights.” McKinley buttressed such “friendly” foreign policy claims with the assertion that “all persons who, either by active aid or by honest submission, cooperate with the Government of the United States to give effect to these beneficent purposes will receive the reward of its support and protection.” The president solemnly concluded that:
it should be the earnest and paramount aim of the military administration to win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines by assuring them in every possible way that full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of a free people, and by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of the benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.1
Replete with allusions to democracy, householding, and asylum, McKinley euphemistically (albeit unintentionally) dictated the course of twentieth-century U.S. empire. More to the point, McKinley’s address reads foreign bodies through voluntary affiliation and naturalization.
Specifically, the imperial project that began with the Spanish-American War, built on the assimilation of Filipino bodies into the larger body politic, proved an oft-deployed template for subsequent U.S. excursions abroad. Indeed, as Amy Kaplan, Allan Isaac, and Victor Bascara contend, the characterization of U.S. nationhood through sentimental democratic principles (reminiscent and reflective of past exceptionalist claims) was primarily exported through military power and cultural influence.2 Correspondingly, McKinley’s recipe for “benevolent assimilation” used naturalistic ingredients to U.S. imperialistic ends. Constitutive of natural law (that is, political universality) and naturalization (which, as Priscilla Wald argues, “evinces the alchemy of the state”), McKinley’s address exalted democratic desire and reified sociopolitical sameness.3 In so doing, the president accessed an alchemical process wherein foreignness naturalistically gives way to “benevolent” American selfhood. McKinley was certainly not alone in his manipulation of domestic frames to serve foreign policy agendas. From Theodore Roosevelt to President Harry S. Truman, from the Spanish-American War to the cold war, utopian articulations of unproblematic assimilation were positioned alongside the forceful spread of U.S. democracy. McKinley’s declaration of “benevolent assimilation” and later cold war policies engendered a global (although asymmetrical) U.S. citizenship practice.
Even so, the very notion of “benevolent assimilation” was by no means limited to the political arena. Indeed, if Abraham Cahan and Edith Maude Eaton negotiated domestically driven “ethnic questions” at the turn of the twentieth century, then British Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill and first-generation Chinese American novelist Chin Y. Lee were analogously invested in foreign policy-determined “ethnic solutions.” The most well-known (or infamous) of their literary productions—Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot (1908) and Lee’s The Flower Drum Song (1957)—concentrate on two immigrant groups who lack clear nation-state affiliation because of pogram (Russia) and communism (China). Likewise, The Melting-Pot and The Flower Drum Song test, to different ends, the viability of state-authorized belonging for de facto political refugees. Significantly, Zangwill’s dramatic test and Lee’s literary assessment of selfhood engaged contemporaneous arguments over the present and future of immigration policy. Most important, the emphasis on refugees—implicit in Zangwill’s play and explicit in Lee’s novel—brings to the fore extrastatal identities formed through involuntary frames, such as forced relocation. The “refugee” as legible figure is at once a U.S. asylum seeker and the victim of civil war or international conflict, judged according to naturalization (im)possibility. When juxtaposed, The Melting-Pot and The Flower Drum Song appreciably render visible a half century of U.S. foreign policy and immigration legislation.
What is more, The Melting-Pot and The Flower Drum Song bring attention to the interplay of foreign policy and domestic initiative. The promise of “benevolent assimilation” abroad undeniably impacted U.S. immigration practices at home. Such naturalized frames ostensibly militated against domestic claims that new tides of immigrants were unassimilable because of political, cultural, and social difference. Nevertheless, “benevolent” discourses characteristic of turn-of-the-century foreign policy were in direct conflict with domestic calls to “shut the door.” The contradiction between the verbalization of ideal foreign subjects and the stigmatization of aliens at home was most manifest in early twentieth-century restrictive immigration policies. Within the political interstices of immigration debate and shifting immigration policy, Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot in particular strikes a relevant chord, for it directly confronts xenophobic anxiety while supporting the virtues of open-door domestic strategies.
Despite The Melting-Pot’s pertinent (and at times prescient) message, until the present day the play has occupied a litigious position within ethnic American literary studies. Typified by Jules Chametzky as the “locus classicus of assimilationist narratives,” scholarly considerations of Zangwill’s most eminent dramatic work privilege the play’s reception history and essentializing amalgamation theme.4 On another level, the play’s political significance is more visible through its correlation with McKinley’s nascent imperialist foreign policy. Expressly, The Melting-Pot extends the benevolent assimilation project into the U.S. cultural imaginary through a series of “good faith” citizenship performances. Circumventing divisiveness and transnational affiliation in favor of indivisibility and U.S. allegiance, Zangwill’s play casts the Jewish immigrant as a “model minority” in a “comedy of Americanization.” This “comedy of Americanization” employs stock white ethnic characters and concludes with an at-the-time impossible love match between the Jewish protagonist David and his love interest, the Christian Vera. Further, the play’s handling of nativist anxiety strategically depends on the rhetoric of naturalization as applied to the grammar of U.S. exceptionalism.
Equally, the grammar of U.S. exceptionalism, naturalization, and alienation is very much present in Chin Y. Lee’s 1957 novel, The Flower Drum Song. Even with reviewer Idwal Jones’s assertion that Lee offers an “objective eye” to view a Chinatown in the moment of transition, the work continues to dwell in the scholarly margins. Like The Melting-Pot, Lee’s novel has been ignored within Asian American literary studies. For example, in Asian American Literature (1982), Elaine Kim observes, “The Flower Drum Song presents a highly euphemized portrait of Chinatown life,” suggesting an emphasis on sentimental and assimilationist characterizations and plot.5 Notwithstanding Kim’s dismissive reading, I resituate and reevaluate The Flower Drum Song within and through the contested terrain of immigration policy.6 To that end, I argue that The Flower Drum Song constructs a historically specific Chinatown imaginary bounded by mid-twentieth-century policies of containment.
Lee characterizes San Francisco’s Chinatown as a transitional space that exists in the shadow of the first decade of the cold war. Set after the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949 and focused on the lives of Chinese refugees in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Lee’s novel is among the first Asian American texts published after the passage of the 1948 Displaced Persons Act and the 1952 removal of racial requirements from naturalization law in the McCarran-Walter Act. Additionally, the linkage between refugee and naturalized subject is conveyed in the characterization of first-generation Chinese subjects. This political negotiation—which brings into focus policy and law—occurs through the rhetoric and processes of naturalization.
Such narrative “give and take” takes the form of repudiation of the country of origin combined with uncritical acceptance of the country of settlement. Yet neither The Melting-Pot nor The Flower Drum Song offers uncontested paths to U.S. citizenship. In fact, naturalized rejections and approvals are challenged by ancillary characters. These secondary characters temporarily undercut the validity of monolithic citizenship, productively interrogating claims of indivisibility through transnational schema. Therefore, within this milieu and embedded in The Melting-Pot and The Flower Drum Song are a series of polemics (between primary and ancillary characters) about the very nature of U.S. citizenship. Alternatively, Zangwill’s Jewish protagonist—who counters dominant U.S. ethnoracial logics yet is complicit with imperialism—anticipates and resonates with subsequent cold war characterizations of the “model minority” Asian immigrant.
The Flower Drum Song likewise employs transnational frames, enacts citizenship performances, and illuminates the interplay of mixed feelings. However, Lee’s novel about Chinese refugees and intergenerational conflicts in San Francisco’s Chinatown implicitly reworks and revises Zangwill’s “comedy of Americanization.” Within The Flower Drum Song’s imaginary, multiple “dramas of alienation” converge on relocated and dislocated cold war subjects. In the midst of effected, affective, and disaffected citizenship pledges, The Flower Drum Song’s open-ended transnational resolution destabilizes Asian/American model minoritization as a naturalized category. As a close reading makes clear, the novel’s ambiguous conclusion undercuts the stereotype’s decidedly inflexible logics of assimilability. In the process, Lee facilitates a refugee-specific critique of U.S. cold war policy.
Roosevelt’s “Corollary”: Naturalizing Immigrant Amalgamation and The Melting-Pot
Notwithstanding the triumphalism of his 1898 address, McKinley would not live to witness the long-lasting impact of U.S. imperialist forays in the Philippines. Instead, the legacy of American manifest destiny in the Pacific would fall to the vice president, Spanish-American War hero Theodore Roosevelt. Appropriately, in light of the Spanish-American War, McKinley’s death occurred within a backdrop of celebratory expansionism and alleged Western superiority. These emphases on U.S. imperial conquests domestically and abroad were spectacularly revealed in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, which included electricity exhibits, the debut of the x-ray, and an “Ethnology Building” containing a tableau of Western hemisphere “primitive peoples” and Native American village maps.7 McKinley survived a week after Leon Frank Czolgosz fired his fateful shot on September 6, 1901, eventually succumbing to his injuries on September 13. Sworn into office on September 14, Roosevelt’s first presidential proclamation predictably and sentimentally addressed his predecessor’s passing. Roosevelt declared that “McKinley crowned a life of largest love for his fellow men, of earnest endeavor for their welfare, by a death of Christian fortitude; and both the way in which he lived his life and the way in which, in the supreme hour of trial, he met his death will remain forever a precious heritage of our people.”8
Though seemingly incidental, the use of “heritage” and “our people” in Roosevelt’s memorial proclamation foreshadows the Republican president’s subsequent proclivity toward collective national characterizations. Such communal claims were time and again used by Roosevelt in the ongoing immigration debate. Cast in recent memory as a Progressive-era populist president and antitrust advocate, Roosevelt, both during and after his presidency, was very much invested in the ever-pressing “immigrant problem.” To that end, the Rough Rider president publicly deployed an identifiable antagonistic rhetoric against unassimilated, marked, immigrant bodies. For instance, Roosevelt cautioned his 1919 contemporaries:
In the first place, we should insist that the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equity with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming an American and nothing but an American. . . . We have room for but one flag, the American flag. . . . We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language . . . and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.9
Roosevelt’s emphasis on indivisibility as foundational to U.S. selfhood effectively marries the imperial foundation of McKinley’s policy in the Philippines to domestic anxieties about difference in the United States. To be sure, the notion of “good faith” and the stress on assimilation reinforced contempraneous understandings of “benevolence” as a contested but nonetheless intelligible characterization of U.S. exceptionalism abroad and at home.10
Central to Roosevelt’s 1919 letter is its accent on naturalization. Roosevelt’s initial antidiscrimination stance, “predicated upon the person’s becoming an American and nothing but an American,” accesses naturalization in its declaration of “one flag . . . one language . . . and . . . one sole loyalty.” According to Roosevelt’s naturalized ideal U.S. selfhood, immigrants acting in good faith would naturally become assimilated American subjects. Eschewing hyphenation in favor of amalgamation, Roosevelt’s citizenship doctrine by and large utilizes affective modes of pledging, allegiance, and English. The illegibility of multiple affiliations in the “making of new Americans” is even plainer in an earlier October 12, 1915, speech. Before a gathering of the Knights of Columbus in New York City, the president asserted: “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. . . . The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”11 The singularity of Roosevelt’s immigrant-focused resolve simultaneously acknowledges and dismisses difference according to an alchemical spectrum of naturalization. In the face of such acculturated arguments, Roosevelt’s interest in the power of affective selfhood performances was dramatically revealed in 1908, with the premiere of Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting-Pot.
In fact, Roosevelt was among the play’s most animated supporters. Throughout the performance, the president reportedly declared that Zangwill’s play was “all right!”12 Roosevelt’s enthusiasm continued into the second act, which bore witness to a standing ovation led by the president. No doubt attracted to the play’s use of amalgamation as a solution to the “immigrant problem,” Roosevelt’s reaction confirms The Melting-Pot´s naturalized themes. Moreover, Roosevelt’s presence would go beyond the play’s premiere. Roosevelt’s enthusiastic reaction in part foreshadows the dedication that appears in the published version of the play. Fittingly, Zangwill dedicated the play to the twenty-sixth president, “in respectful recognition of his strenuous struggle against the forces that threaten to shipwreck the Great Republic which carries mankind and its fortunes.”13 In so doing, the British Jewish playwright culturally cemented the politicized relationship between foreign and domestic, “benevolence” and amalgamation.
Regardless of avid presidential support, contemporaneous reviews of the play were less than stellar. In the 1909 review quoted above, the critic panned The Melting-Pot, averring that it was “sentimental trash masquerading as a human document,” “a very bad play viewed from almost any point of view,” and “awkward in structure, clumsy in workmanship, and deficient as literature.” In addition, the reviewer took to task the play’s narrative overreliance on long monologues, “sermons,” and “long labored speeches,” which resembled repeated pledges of allegiance to the United States by the immigrant protagonists.14 Notwithstanding aesthetic critiques, The Melting-Pot’s “long labored speeches” necessarily link allegiance to naturalization and foreign policy. Besides, The Melting-Pot dramatically revived a century-old metaphor that intersected with the “birth” of the United States as a distinct immigrant nation.
In 1782, Congress adopted the national motto, e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”). That same year, French immigrant-turned-naturalized-American writer Hector St. John Crèvecoeur distinctively observed that the newly arrived immigrant “becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”15 Reminiscent of John Winthrop’s assertion of possible New World rebirth, Crèvecoeur (in Letters from an American Farmer) characterizes a form of U.S. selfhood premised on the ability of the immigrant body to transform or “melt” into an indistinguishable American. Crèvecoeur individualizes e pluribus unum processes with a focus on the singular immigrant subject, bonding the sole citizen to a larger “race of men.” “The new race of men” engendered by Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer reproduces the end product of an alchemical equation and metaphorically mobilizes naturalization as a process with a clear beginning and end. After all, according to Crèvecoeur, seemingly disparate ingredients combine and turn out an identifiable form of sociocultural citizenship.
Irrespective of previous geographic location, Crèvecoeur’s “Alma Mater” suggests indivisibility forged from the crucible of democratic possibility. Such indivisibility is part of a larger American project that ideally grows through immigration, which in turn enables the “making” of new citizens. Still, the 1790 codification of naturalization as a political and politicized means of transformation from immigrant to U.S. citizen counters Crèvecoeur’s assimilationist and expansionist assertion. On the one hand, the 1790 naturalization law outlines an oppositional, exclusionary citizenship practice, marked by overt racial logics and implied class privilege. This “privileged” reading is apparent in the deliberate multisited divisiveness that elevates the “free white person” over the indentured servant, the African/African American slave, and the Native American.
On the other hand, the 1870 revision of naturalization law to superficially include black and white bodies in the process of “making Americans” seemingly concretizes Crèvecoeur’s notion of a “new race of men.” Nonetheless, this “new race” of American men circulated in a segregated political economy, apparent in emergent Jim Crow legislation and evidenced by increased U.S. immigration prohibitions such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. Hence, Crèvecoeur’s assertion of natural amalgamation, formed within an assimilationist immigration flow, was largely undecipherable to nativist politicians and cultural producers. Such lawmakers reconfirmed the dominantly held a priori nature of U.S. citizenship through geography (location) and, to varying degrees, race (Anglo-Saxon whiteness).
The “crucible of democratic possibility” vital to Crèvecoeur’s casting of nascent U.S. nationhood and McKinley’s “benevolent” assimilationist U.S. foreign policy foreground Zangwill’s “comedy of Americanization,” The Melting-Pot. Originally calling it The Crucible, Zangwill admitted in a 1908 pre-premiere interview that he had spent three years writing a play that had no plot. Yet the play “without a plot” would enjoy, as mid-century literary critic Maurice Wholgerten observed, a “significance quite disproportionate to its literary importance,” reviving enduring metaphor of immigration, amalgamation, and naturalization into the larger U.S. body politic.16 The Melting-Pot effectively situated the United States within an essentializing discourse of reconciliation, wherein centuries-old ethnoreligious conflicts could be resolved. Likewise, the United States functions as an idealized location in which the stateless Jewish subject (or, for that matter, any immigrant) could be an American citizen.
In the process, Zangwill rearticulates the “melting-pot” metaphor so that it directly responds to the rise of nativism and increased immigrant-focused anxiety. Zangwill’s “comedy of Americanization” translated well in light of a U.S. imperialism built on assimilative objectives. Fusing a Romeo and Juliet narrative of star-crossed lovers to an immigrant story dominated by patriotic desire, The Melting-Pot features two Russian protagonists—David Quixano, a Jewish male, and Vera Revendal, a Christian female—who, through the course of four acts, overcome not only a violent Russian history of pogroms but the outwardly insurmountable and multigenerational divide between Jew and gentile, foreigner and American.
Nevertheless, multiple stories threaten the intended love match between David and Vera. David’s Uncle Mendel is anti-Christian and from the outset refuses to acknowledge the viability of his nephew’s romantic relationship with a gentile. The American-born Quincy Davenport, the son of wealthy capitalists, is also interested in Vera, a relocated socialist alienated from her parents due to their tsarist views. This romantic investment, coupled with Davenport’s position as a capitalist patron of the arts, figures keenly within the play’s plot. An accomplished musician/composer, David initially relies on Davenport’s orchestra for employment. Davenport’s eventual (and opportunistic) refusal to hire David underscores a selfish (and capitalist) desire for Vera, who becomes a contested love commodity. Davenport attempts to solidify the dissolution of the David/Vera match by funding Vera’s father and stepmother in their trip to the United States.
In financing Vera’s parents, Davenport makes possible a nonimmigrant transit for foreign bodies that circulates in direct opposition to the play’s dominant immigration imaginary. Both father and stepmother literally and historically represent Russia. Given their tourist purpose, neither expresses an interest in permanent relocation to the United States. As such, they remain nonimmigrant Russian nationals, committed to the country of origin in citizenship and allegiance. Further complicating matters in The Melting-Pot, Vera’s Russian baron father oversaw the massacre of Jews in David’s home village, including the protagonist’s immediate family members. Following an argument with his daughter at the end of the third act, the baron asks David to avenge his familial loss and kill him accordingly. Against all affective odds, David refuses, dramatically forgiving (through lack of action) the Baron’s crime against his family. David’s willingness to forget past conflicts corresponds to the play’s larger naturalized message, which hinges on the repudiation of Old World politics.
A secondary plot within the play involves David’s symphony, which is composed during the real time of the play. This symphony is based on and reflective of David’s early and repeated assertions that the United States is a “great Crucible” for foreign bodies. Therefore, David’s symphony, aesthetically driven by immigration, emblematically engages the melting-pot metaphor. For the premiere, David insists that the symphony be performed before a newly arrived immigrant audience, reinforcing the composition’s pro-immigrant stance. This symphonic “masterpiece,” as labeled by David and the orchestra’s conductor, Herr Pappelmeister, is scheduled in none-too-subtle fashion for the Fourth of July, which incidentally sets the temporal stage for the final act. The most patriotic of holidays, the Fourth of July setting is a significant, albeit predictable, site for a spectacular naturalization ceremony. What is more, the Independence Day premiere foreshadows a naturalized and naturalization ending. With regard to The Melting-Pot’s primary players, David and Vera dramatically express in the concluding scene their U.S. loyalties in imagined and real time. On stage, the protagonists pledge allegiance before their fellow immigrants; off-stage, this affective citizenship performance is witnessed (and verified) by American audience members, including the aforementioned President Roosevelt.
This date-oriented discussion between conductor and composer takes place in act 3. In this penultimate act, David and the conductor Herr Pappelmeister also confer on the appropriate venue for the protagonist’s “masterpiece.” The conductor originally proposes Carnegie Hall, which prompts David to ask, “But what certainty is there your Carnegie Hall audience would understand me? . . . It was always my dream to play it first to the new immigrants—those who have known the pain of the old world and the hope of the new.” Herr Pappelmeister disagrees and argues that such an audience would not do as a result of inferior “breeding.” The conductor tells David, “I fear neider dogs nor men are a musical breed.” David responds, “The immigrants will not understand my music with their brains or their ears, but with their hearts and their souls,” revising the “hearts and minds” discourse of McKinley’s “benevolent assimilation” to accommodate an emotional, rather than intellectual, citizenship project (151). Herr Pappelmaster acquiesces, and this decision to play to “hearts and minds” cements The Melting-Pot’s multivalent message, which brings together sentimental readings of U.S. foreign policy and romantic characterizations of the United States as a “nation of immigrants.”
Needless to say, immigrant bodies undeniably dominate the heterogeneous demographic imaginary of The Melting-Pot. The degree of each character’s assimilation is indexed through accented speech and adherence to traditional custom. Protagonist David is a first-generation “unaccented” Russian Jewish immigrant composer who falls for the similarly “unaccented” first-generation Russian Christian Vera. Minor characters include David’s grandmother (the non-English-speaking orthodox Frau Quixano) and David’s abovementioned uncle (the less orthodox, first-generation Mendel). Frau Quixano and Mendel signal varying degrees of foreignness and Jewishness. Further, there is Herr Pappelmeister, a German immigrant conductor, and the previously discussed Quincy Davenport, the only native-born American. In addition, The Melting-Pot cast of characters employs the stereotypical white ethnic character Kathleen, a heavily accented maid.
In The Melting-Pot, Kathleen’s role is configured primarily through cultural conversion. The Irish Kathleen initially dismisses Frau Quixano’s orthodox beliefs, particularly the grandmother’s kosher practice of separating the cookware in accordance to Jewish custom and biblical law. Indeed, Kathleen threatens to leave the Quixano home in protest. As the stage directions dictate, Kathleen (after hearing from David about Frau Quixano’s experiences in Russia and the United States) “hysterically burs[t] into tears, dropping her parcel, and untying her bonnet strings.” The Irish domestic declares, “Oh, Mr. David, I won’t mix the crockery, I won’t –,” validating Frau Quixano through traditional food practices (151). At play are an identifiable politics of empathy that involve Kathleen and Frau Quixano. Kathleen’s empathetic reaction suggests to audience and fellow cast member alike that she too has suffered alienation as a consequence of her foreign location. Kathleen subsequently elects to remain in the Quixano employ, which corroborates her newly found understanding of faith and confirms her acceptance of Jewish difference. In a later scene, Kathleen enthusiastically celebrates Purim with Frau Quixano, a festival that celebrates the victory of Jews of Persia over Haman, who unsuccessfully plotted their extermination.
David’s role in converting Kathleen from an antipathetic to empathetic position takes on the valences of naturalization, replete with loyalty pledges and declarations to the U.S. nation-state. Still, as the play progresses, the audience is introduced to both willing and unwilling converts to U.S. selfhood. Kathleen’s empathetic shift operates in direct contrast to the actions of Mendel, who repeatedly destabilizes claims of U.S. exceptionalism through citizenship. These character dynamics are apparent early in the play. For example, in The Melting-Pot’s first act, David declares:
Not understand that America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to. . . . A fig for your feuds and your vendettas! Germans and Frenchman, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American. (37)
Reminiscent of Crevécoeur’s articulation of “melted sameness,” Zangwill’s protagonist updates the 1782 amalgamation metaphor, signaling the emergence of Ellis Island as a viable entry point for immigrants and would-be Americans. Addressing Vera, Mendel, and the audience, David’s emphasis on “languages, histories, blood hatreds, and rivalries” characterizes the potential diversity of immigrants through negative frames. Such frames are by no means permanent in the United States, nor are they secularly contained, a point made clear in David’s divine assertion that “God is making the American.” The iteration of a “crucible” and “making” dramatically brings to light naturalization processes comprising state mechanisms that erase difference. On another level, this passage anticipates David’s later refusal to kill the Baron despite “feuds and . . . vendettas,” cementing the protagonist’s allegiance to the United States.
The renunciation of past feuds manifest in David’s declarations is steeped in the rhetorical structure of naturalization. In speech and action, David critiques the country of origin and praises the idealized principles of the country of settlement. Though not an “official” naturalized citizen, David strategically accesses naturalization requirements. Staunchly dedicated to the principles of the United States, willing to “pledge [his] heart” and life to protect his country, David is the ultimate immigrant patriot. He models sentimental understandings of U.S. citizenship and emerges as a model minority subject. David’s dream—to write a symphony to America—represents, to quote from the official oath, a “work of national importance under civil direction.”18 Implicitly, within the dramatic narrative fabric of The Melting-Pot is an understanding that the United States is a nation-state of unfulfilled promise that accepts voluntarily amalgamated immigrant bodies.
Such romanticized national frames are further apparent in the following exchange between David and Mendel. After David’s enthusiastic characterization of America as God’s Crucible, Mendel responds: “I should have thought the American was made already—eighty millions of him.” David replies, “Eighty millions! . . . Eighty millions! Over a continent! What, that cockleshell of a Britain has forty millions! No uncle, the real American has not yet arrived” (37). Emphasizing “arrival,” David immediately and implicitly alludes to Ellis Island, a primary site for immigrants and immigration. Eschewing Anglo-Saxon whiteness in favor of Ellis Island heterogeneity, David sets aside Britain as a cockleshell, an island geographically and (by implication) politically inferior to the U.S. continent. The assertion that the “real American has not yet arrived” suggests that the immigrant-to-come provides a solution to the question of unrealized selfhood potential.
Alternatively, David’s statement takes on self-referential importance vis-à-vis the play’s ending. After all, it is not until the conclusion of the play that David, as a naturalized subject, “arrives” via citizenship. However, David’s citizenship arrival is contingent on his ability to successfully declare—without interruption—his adherence to national ideals through a legible naturalization grammar. This allegiance pledge is abruptly interrupted by Mendel, who avers that the American has already been “made” as a consequence of geographic location. As evident in the previous passage, Mendel claims that Americanness is achieved through residence, that is, living in the United States. In so doing, Mendel becomes a cynical character witness to claims of David’s declarations of wholesale U.S. exceptionalism. Mendel’s skepticism anticipates in limited fashion similar anti-assimilationist sentiments that circumscribe pro-immigration movements. Mendel in effect collapses the space between an on-stage Americanization debate and off-stage immigration politics.
This alternative immigrant viewpoint is further expressed in act 2, scene 1. In the midst of patriotic reverie, David turns to an American flag, pledging:
Flag of our Great Republic, Guardian of our homes, whose stars and stripes stand for Bravery, Purity, Truth, and Union, we salute thee. We, the natives of distant lands, who find [Half-sobbing.] rest under they folds, do pledge our hearts, our lives, our sacred honour to love and protect thee, our Country, and the liberty of our people forever. [He ends almost hysterically.] (56)
According to the stage direction, Mendel responds “soothingly,” stressing to his nephew: “Quite right. But you needn’t get so excited over it” (56). David’s pledge to the “Flag of our Great Republic,” a public declaration of affiliation and loyalty, intentionally evokes the indivisible politics of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Despite David’s original subject position as a native of a “distant land,” he eschews his citizenship past in favor of naturalized U.S. selfhood. Repudiating the country of origin and embracing the country of settlement, David legibly performs a naturalization oath, constructed through loyalty to dominant U.S. values.
Accordingly, David’s belief in the nation makes him a vociferous patriot; unlike other white ethnic characters within The Melting-Pot’s imaginary (save for the Russian Vera), David’s utterance occurs with no regional or ethnic accent. Out of context, it is unclear what David’s ethnoreligious background is, reinforcing the play’s larger focus on the viability of immigrants as successfully amalgamated sociopolitical subjects. Even so, Mendel’s intervention—which initially “soothes” his overly emotional nephew—affectively undercuts David’s oath of allegiance. In qualifying David’s pledge, Mendel in effect puts a stop to it. Hence, Mendel’s obstructionist intervention disallows the completion of a naturalization process as performed by David. Such avuncular interruptions persist until the conclusion of the play. It is only through Mendel’s absence that David is able to successfully perform a naturalization oath without interruption. Reminiscent of a Bahktinian dialogic frame, wherein utterances are relationally configured within a given text, Mendel’s subversive role is resolved when he does not occupy the same stage space.19
In a different yet related instance, the native-born Davenport, Vera’s baron father, and Vera’s Russian stepmother threaten the couple’s voluntary love match and David’s culturally embedded naturalization. To reiterate and expand a previous point, Davenport reintroduces Old World politics by funding the baron and baroness’s trip to the United States. Responsible for the loss of David’s family in Russia, the baron (and his wife) embody anti-Semitic politics and interconnected Old World values. In contrast, David is effectively a product of New World rebirth, which is reconfirmed by David’s refusal to seek revenge against the baron. The tension between Old and New World dynamics (as articulated through characterization and plot) engenders a reconciled transnational dialectic. Thus The Melting-Pot is a play marked by a series of negotiations: between Old World and New, the past and the present, successive and different generations, religious practice and cultural dynamics. The older generation (inclusive of uncles, grandparents, mothers, and fathers) is partially dismissed to make way for the new generation (personified by Vera and David) intent on reproducing American subjects.
However, the memory of the past—and Vera’s connection to that past—proves a final personal impediment for the protagonist. Indeed, the resolution of this past importantly determines whether or not the play is a comedy or tragedy. Given The Melting-Pot’s emphasis on U.S.-based reconciliation, the play’s paradoxical relationship to transnational affiliations understandably addresses the less-than-desirable potential of immigrant bifurcation. Taken together, David and Vera’s love match analogously speaks to processes of U.S. citizenship. Indeed, if naturalization affords the immigrant subject an alternative relationship to the nation-state, then The Melting-Pot extends this sensibility to the affective realm. Fittingly, Vera and David’s relationship is “doomed to fail” in the Old World because of “age-old” conflict. In contrast, the New World marriage between Jew and gentile is able to succeed precisely because of the ability to remake oneself through naturalized frames.
The final moments of The Melting-Pot confirm this naturalized reading. Relying on a narrative of progression and succession, the final act mobilizes the dominant notion that the immigrant subject must shed transnational affiliations (such as the traumatic memory of the pogroms) to fully “become” American. As David admits to Vera:
I preached of God’s crucible, this great new continent that could melt up all race-differences and vendettas, that could purge and re-create and God tried me with his supremest [sic] test. He gave me a heritage from the Old World, hate and vengeance and blood, and said, “Cast it all into my Crucible.” And I said, “Even thy Crucible cannot melt this hate, cannot drink up this blood.” And so I sat crooning over the dead past, gloating over the old blood-stains—I, the apostle of America, the prophet of the God of our children. (193)
Such naturalized rhetoric, which comprises both repudiation and declaration, is repeatedly used in the play. In turn, this frame functions as an index upon which to measure the national loyalties of other characters in the play. Central to David’s argument about U.S. superiority is the issue of reconciliation. Suggestive of putting to rest old debts, feuds, and prejudices, reconciliation becomes one of the primary solutions to the “immigrant question” and the “great ethnic question.” Negotiable differences include a priori religious affiliation, country-of-origin conflicts (such as that between the Baron and David), or generational differences (for example, between Vera and her father or Mendel and David). Therefore, within its dramatic imaginary, The Melting-Pot promotes U.S.-centric models of geographic, historic, and cultural reconciliation.
Though not exact, David’s final speech coheres with the spirit and grammar of the U.S. naturalization oath. The connection between dramatic and political performance is concretized in The Melting-Pot’s final scene. David pointedly asks Vera, “what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward?” (199). Not only does David emphasize the “glory of America”; he also renounces two geopolitical locations—Rome and Jerusalem. As a site, Rome calls forth a reading of Christian secular empire. In contrast, Jerusalem brings to mind a Judaic location and Judeo-Christian conflict. “America’s glory”—constructed through “all races and nations”—is cemented in The Melting-Pot’s concluding stage directions:
[An instant’s solemn pause. The sunset is swiftly fading, and the vast panorama is suffused with a more restful twilight, to which the many-gleaming lights of the town add to the tender poetry of the night. Far back, like a lonely, guiding star, twinkles over the darkening water the torch of the Statue of Liberty. From below comes the softened sound of voices and instruments joining in “My Country ’tis of Thee.” The curtain falls slowly.] (199)
The temporal setting for David’s final American pledge of allegiance—the Fourth of July—and the use of patriotic props as scenic backdrops (such as the Statue of Liberty), verifies the play’s foci on affective and political citizenships. At the same time, the “softened sound of voices” who join in the performance of “My Country ’tis of Thee” attests to the performative dimension of citizenship. Indeed, David and Vera’s theatrical declaration of love for each other and for country gives way to the collective, polyvocal performance of patriotism, or “country love.”
Fittingly, the territorialization of immigrant transcendence and selfhood coincided with Zangwill’s political agenda as a British Jewish writer. As Maurice Wohlgelernter reminds us, Zangwill was a “novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, polemicist, Zionist, Territorialist, pacifist, suffragist, and staunch advocate of a universal religion” invested in mainstream late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century thought about the creation of a Jewish homeland.20 In his work, Zangwill consistently explored the viability of a Zionist state and the feasibility of a territorialist agenda. He founded the Jewish Territorialist Movement, which was dedicated to the creation of Jewish state wherever geographically and politically possible. In particular, Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1907) makes visible Jewish alienation through marginalized frames (as a minority in London) and displacement due to the absence of a politically identifiable homeland. Performed the following year, The Melting-Pot continues Children of the Ghetto’s contemplation of territorial citizenship, and emerges from Zangwill’s own admission that after Territorialism, “America is the best solution to the Jewish question.”20
The Melting-Pot predictably constructs a homeland through idealized American frames, which allegedly allow modes of religious tolerance and routes to political freedom unavailable in the Old World. Within this milieu, The Melting-Pot’s Jewish characters (David, Mendel, and Frau Quixano) need not convert to become Americans (a liberating dimension apparent in the original 1790 law). Rather, the United States becomes a seemingly ideal asylum for Jewish immigrants who wish to maintain their religious affiliations without Old World anti-Semitism and prejudice. England is not an option for the play’s setting, despite Zangwill’s own nation-state affiliation. After all, as David asserts, the “cockleshell” England was “not in the making” and represents an “old civilization stamped with the seal of creed.” (97). Instead, “the new secular Republic” (the United States) is configured as a “promised land.”
In contrast, The Melting-Pot’s Christian characters are more likely to convert. To reiterate, Kathleen (the Irish maid) is at once skeptical of Jewish practice and critical of its tenets. All the same, through David’s proselytizing, Kathleen’s outlook on the “Jewish question” shifts. In the end, it is the Catholic Kathleen who reminds Mendel and David of religious holidays (e.g., Purim); in fact, Kathleen is the only character who actively assists Frau Quixano in the ritual rehearsal of Jewish tradition. Analogously, the Christian Vera voluntarily accepts her future husband’s faith, vociferously defending her love choice to those who doubt its validity (her baron father, her baroness stepmother, the American, Davenport, and first-generation Jewish immigrant Mendel). To be sure, in act 3, after an argument with the baron over the “necessity” of pogroms, she tells David, “I come to you, and I say in the words of Ruth, thy people shall be my people and thy God my God!” (165). Like the biblical Ruth who expresses this sentiment to her mother-in-law, Vera will without a doubt follow David into his community. The connection between this parable and the Old Testament moreover proves her commitment to wholeheartedly accept and embody her intended husband’s history and faith.
The prevalence of immigrant characters in Zangwill’s play underscores the critical characterization of Quincy Davenport, the sole native-born American. Paradoxically, in terms of The Melting-Pot’s patriotic rhetoric, Quincy Davenport is in fact politically and culturally the least American. Davenport brings the Old World quite literally into the New World with his self-interested financial sponsorship of Vera’s parents and Herr Pappelmeister’s orchestra. Situating Old World culture in a superior position, Davenport denounces his country of origin—the United States—in favor of European preferences. In so doing, Davenport (through affective declarations and affinities) becomes a denaturalized subject. Conversely, The Melting-Pot’s characterizations of first-generation David and Vera are legibly “more American” because their connection to naturalization frames, which marries voluntary romantic desire to patriotic aspiration. Not coincidentally, the strategic deployment of immigrant bodies in the service of U.S. nationhood anticipates contemporary Jewish American Mary Antin’s 1912 autobiographical assertion that the immigrant is more American than her/his native-born counterpart precisely because of an unfailing belief in the U.S. exceptional mythos.21
At its initial Washington, D.C., premiere, early reviews situated the sentimental Zangwill alongside his more famous contemporaries—European realists Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. To some critics, The Melting-Pot was politically abhorrent because of its mention of “racial fusion” as a solution to unassimilability.22 Such a “racial” answer was unacceptable to nativists, yet it also collided with racist politics apparent in Jim Crow law and anti-Chinese exclusion policy. The contemporaneous reading of problematic racial fusion undermines The Melting-Pot’s primary love match between Jew and gentile. It is also potentially at play in the last act of the play, wherein David tells Vera:
It is the fires of God round His Crucible. . . . There she lies, the great Melting-Pot—listen! Can’t you hear the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [He points East.]—the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian, black and yellow. . . . (199)
Zangwill very much takes to task turn-of-the-century racialized anxieties about the immigrant body. In the play’s imaginary, the Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian, black and yellow, are equal human freight, ingredients for the stirring and seething melting pot. On another level, The Melting-Pot makes apparent a simultaneous naturalized solution to the “immigrant question,” “Chinese question,” and “Negro question.” Nevertheless, the endurance of racist policy and practice dramatically illustrates that such a naturalized solution was neither hegemonically practicable nor state-sanctioned. Undeniably, ethnicity and race still served as the bases for naturalization denials, restrictive immigration policy, and segregation.
At the very least, The Melting-Pot touches upon the tension between imagined U.S. exceptionalism and real racist practice. The Melting-Pot therefore tapped into what Benedict Anderson famously observed as a set of sociopolitical “imagined realities” which foreground turn-of-the-century patriotic and nationalistic discourses. As Anderson asserts, such “realities” included “nation-states, republican institutions, common citizenships, popular sovereignty, national flags, and anthems . . . and the liquidation of their conceptual opposites: dynastic empires, monarchical institutions, absolutisms, subjecthoods, inherited nobilities, serfdoms, ghettos, and so forth.”23 Although Anderson’s characterization moves beyond the purview of the singular U.S. nation-state, such national signifiers are nevertheless reminiscent of The Melting-Pot’s deployment of patriotic symbols. The play’s reliance on polar opposites (such as the baron and Vera) and identifiable national images (the American flag and the Statue of Liberty) illuminate Anderson’s assertion that citizenship is “imagined” through national symbols that make possible “the liquidation of their conceptual opposites.” Simultaneous to the construction of rhetorical and structural state-authorized apparatuses (institutions, citizenship, anthems, allegiances, and naturalization oaths), Anderson underscores what is elided, eliminated, and revised in the process of turn-of-the-century selfhood and nationhood.
Certainly, the history of slavery and the persistence of Jim Crow, the decimation of Native peoples, and anti-Asian immigration acts make less possible an unproblematic narrative of democratic achievement. And, as continuing politics make clear, the amnesia around these histories is complicit to the construction of imperial nationhood reliant on supremacist logics, civilizing impulses, and “benevolent” assimilation. Correspondingly, as Joe Kraus argues, the play (a combination love story, symphony, melodrama, and slapstick comedy) was performed in front of an American audience that was “renegotiating the aesthetic conventions of theater as one means of articulating what it meant to be American at all.”24 Such enthusiastic reception by one of the architects of American imperialism, Theodore Roosevelt, was consistent with the play’s pro-American stance and a casting of the United States as a uniquely “kind” imperial power.
Still, if the play’s tolerant logics did not match up to contemporary domestic policy, then neither did Zangwill’s dedication to Roosevelt adequately address the brutality of U.S. empire. Regardless of President McKinley’s assurance that the “mission of the United States [in the Philippines was] one of benevolent assimilation,” the bloodiness of the Philippine-American War (1899–1902)—in which more than 200,000 Filipinos died—largely suggests that “the policy of benevolence” rested on violence.25 Significantly, the ruptures between the articulation of U.S. imperial power and the reality of it in Asia would occur time and again in the twentieth century, as U.S. foreign policy would repeatedly make not “new Americans” but new refugees.
Returning to the Source: The Cold War and Chin Y. Lee’s The Flower Drum Song
On January 12, 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered his “Speech on the Far East,” wherein he addressed the hot-button issue of communist China. Acheson at once acknowledged the heterogeneity of “the peoples of Asia,” who were “so incredibly diverse and their problems are so incredibly diverse that how could anyone, even the most utter charlatan, believe that he had a uniform policy.” Despite the recognition of “incredible diversity,” Acheson still advocated a uniform foreign policy of containment. Modifying turn-of-the-century notions of benevolent assimilation to fit more comfortably with cold war realpolitik, Acheson firmly proclaimed:
there is a new day which has dawned in Asia. It is a day in which the Asian peoples are on their own, and know it, and intend to continue on their own. It is a day in which old relationships between east and west are gone, relationships which at their worst were exploitations, and which at their best were paternalism. That relationship is over, and the the relationship of east and west must now be in the Far East one of mutual respect and helpfulness. We are their friends. Others are their friends. We and those others are willing to help, but we can help only where we are wanted and only where the conditions of help are really sensible and possible.26
Acheson’s speech accentuates what other critics and historians note was a profound sense of U.S. loss following the “fall of China” in 1949. Dependent on discursive friendship and voluntary affiliation, Acheson’s address calls attention to patterns of paternalistic exploitation in U.S. foreign policy. Indicating that the United States must recognize that “Asian peoples are on their own,” Acheson opens the interventionist door with the politically charged mention of “willingness.” Acheson explains that Asian peoples can be helped “only where the conditions . . . are really sensible and possible.” Such conditions—built on U.S. willingness to intervene and the compliance of the Asian nation-state—euphemistically obscure imperial logics in a manner similar (but not identical) to the fin-de-siècle U.S. project in the Philippines.
If Acheson addressed Asia through U.S. foreign policy, then Senator Pat McCarran continued the cold war fight on domestic soil. That same year, the Democratic senator from Nevada was chief sponsor and architect of the Internal Security Act, which established the Subversive Activities Control Board. Intended to police domestic communist threats, the Subversive Activities Control Board would, in theory, register suspicious “red” organizations and individuals. Though no organizations (including the Communist Party of the United States) faced negative outcomes as a consequence of registration, the act nevertheless mobilized nascent cold war anxieties through congressional law. Although the Internal Security Act was symbolically important, given the milieu of the postwar period, more recognized was the Nevada senator’s cosponsorship with Democratic Senator Francis Walter of Pennsylvania of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act.
A landmark moment in U.S. naturalization history, the McCarran-Walter Act removed racial requirements for naturalized citizenship. Even though Chinese and South Asian immigrants were granted access to naturalized citizenship in 1943, to cement the pro-Ally relations between China and India during the Second World War, other groups such as Japanese immigrants were denied access because of Supreme Court precedent. At least on the surface, the McCarran-Walter Act enabled first-generation Asian immigrants to gain en masse naturalized citizenship for the first time since In re Ah Yup (1879), Ozawa v. United States (1922), and United States v. Thind (1923). But even with seemingly progressive racial moves, the act nonetheless was steeped in cold war politics.
Above all, the McCarran-Walter Act’s continued reliance on nation-state quotas, the strategic use of exclusionary provisions for those affiliated with communism abroad, and the at-will deportation of allegedly communist alien bodies corresponded to the politics of the Internal Security Act. Following the successful passage of the McCarran-Walter Act, the Nevada senator opined:
I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated, or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. America is indeed a joining together of many streams which go to form a mighty river which we call the American way. However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary, are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States.27
Drawing on Theodore Roosevelt’s aforementioned declaration of “good faith” assimilability, McCarran cautions against the “transplanting of . . . problems en masse to the United States.” For these reasons, the rhetoric and sentiment behind the mid-century senator’s policy echoes the conditional “benevolent assimilation” offered by McKinley and his successor.
Analogously, the connection between early and mid century occurs through a divergent reading of Chin Y. Lee’s The Flower Drum Song. Chiefly, while Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot brokered a solution to contemporaneous anxieties about the Jewish immigrant, Lee’s Flower Drum Song, on the surface, performed an analogous function for extant Asian immigration. It was published at a time when Asia, as a geographically complex location, was the focus of cold war initiatives abroad, and central to mid-century debates was the question of whether Asian subjects could (or, equally important, would) repudiate communism in favor of democratic rule. As Asian immigrants arrived on U.S. shores and Asian Americans were more demographically visible, turn-of-the-century questions about “assimilability” persisted. Within this conflicted cold war context, Lee’s novel produces a destabilizing reading of a Chinese/Chinese American identity that undermines an emergent, sociologically driven, model minoritization. At stake in Lee’s novel is not necessarily a solution to the “immigrant question” but rather an examination of its political and racial problems. Key to this exploration is the novel’s focus on the refugee, a potent emblem of dislocation.
Correspondingly, The Flower Drum Song’s emphasis on dislocation as a primary theme and mode of characterization is foreshadowed in the opening paragraph of the novel. The unidentified, omniscient narrator observes:
To the casual tourist, Grant Avenue is Chinatown, just another colorful street in San Francisco; to the overseas Chinese, Grant Avenue is their showcase, their livelihood; to the refugees from the mainland, Grant Avenue is Canton. . . . The Chinese theatres, the porridge restaurants, the teahouses, the newspapers, the food, the herbs . . . all provide an atmosphere that makes a refugee wonder whether he is really in a foreign land. And yet, in this familiar atmosphere, he struggles and faces many problems that are sometimes totally unfamiliar.28
The setting for the novel—San Francisco’s Chinatown—is introduced as a foreign space that is “here and there.” Revising Frank Norris’s turn-of-the-century tripartite characterization of Chinatown, Lee expresses a markedly different reading of three distinct modalities. Specifically, to the “casual tourist” (an assumed outsider), Chinatown is a domestically foreign location, noteworthy as just “another colorful street in San Francisco.” To overseas Chinese immigrants, Grant Avenue, Chinatown’s main thoroughfare, is home, a space for their livelihood. For the stateless refugee—Chinatown’s most recent arrival—the neighborhood embodies “Canton,” an alienated site. And, as The Flower Drum Song progresses, Chinatown emerges as a contradictory location. Lee’s Chinatown both engenders U.S. alienation and enables Old World nostalgia. Consequently, The Flower Drum Song’s Chinatown setting becomes a global location where capital and individuals travel across borders. The novel’s characters carry multiple global allegiances that work in alienating tandem with generational differences, fomenting further conflict and discord. To be sure, Chinatown is a largely denaturalized place wherein citizenship is both a contested and an illusive goal.
The Flower Drum Song’s novelistic subversion of Americanization as an ultimate selfhood goal for Asian immigrants operates in direct opposition to its comedic, more well-known musical version. Indubitably, the more popular stage adaptation of the work—Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s The Flower Drum Song—strategically downplayed refugee dynamics, stressing instead sympathetic assimilationist themes. Accordingly, the musical attempts to represent the viability of Asian immigrant “Americanization” for U.S. audiences. The Flower Drum Song musical follows patriarch Master Wang, his sister-in-law (Auntie Liang), and two sons. Whereas The Melting-Pot novel drew heavily from a Romeo and Juliet plot, The Flower Drum Song musical employs A Midsummer Night’s Dream narrative twists.
Principally, nightclub owner Sammy Wong is betrothed to Mei-Li through an arranged marriage.29 This involuntary love match is necessarily complicated by Sammy‘s romantic relationship with Linda Low, his featured nightclub singer. Meanwhile, Mei-Li develops an amorous interest in Wang Ta, Master Wang’s eldest son. However, Wang Ta is initially infatuated with Linda Low. In turn, Linda Low is in love with Sammy. When she finds out about the arranged marriage, Linda begins a relationship with Wang Ta as an act of romantic revenge.
Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, the musical’s characters eventually and successfully achieve voluntary romantic love. Mei-Li weds Wang Ta, and Sammy Wong marries Linda Low. The matrimonial plots that dominate the musical foreground an equally important naturalizing narrative. Explicitly, such couple combinations are naturalized according to sentimental American tenets and values. The undocumented, working-class Mei-Li fruitfully pursues a relationship with the Americanized Wang Ta, who is firmly middle class. Their eventual marriage potentially grants Mei-Li American citizenship and substantiates “classless” nationhood claims. Likewise, Sammy is able to domesticate—or tame—the ever-flirtatious Linda through marriage, fulfilling his male role within an identifiable 1950s patriarchal order.
Beyond romantic frames, these naturalization impulses are evident in the musical’s characterization of the recently naturalized Aunt Liang, who celebrates her citizenship exam success at a gala held at Master Wang’s house. The scene’s featured song, “Chop Suey,” is a polyvocal production involving Aunt Liang and other Chinese/Chinese American characters. As Master Wang’s house is naturalized as a setting for Aunt Liang’s U.S. citizenship, so do the song’s lyrics naturalize the performers. Constitutive of U.S. pop cultural allusions (to celebrities, American-produced commodities, and hula hoops), American selfhood is constructed through mid-century U.S. consumption. Metaphorically, the song’s title and lyrical accentuation of consumerism underscores Aunt Liang’s new American self, who (like chop suey) is a “Chinese” commodity naturalized to suit American palates and tastes. And so, the musical version of The Flower Drum Song puts forth a dominant set of citizenship values, accents, and emphases.
Although Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical surely pays homage to Lee’s 1957 novel, it is a liberal, not strict, adaptation. The comic tone of the musical is largely absent in Lee’s version (as is Sammy Wong). Another principal character in the musical—Linda Low—is named “Linda Tung” and occupies a minor role The Flower Drum Song novel. While the musical Linda Lowe achieves heteronormative validation by the play’s end, Lee’s Linda Tung is dismissed as a superficial, materialistic fraud relatively early in the novel. Interestingly, two of these characteristics—Linda’s superficiality and materialism—become pro-American attributes in The Flower Drum Song’s theatrical and cinematic versions. What is more, central to Linda Low’s success is her access to sexual capital. On the contrary, such sexual capital proves a liability for Linda Tung, whose alleged sexual promiscuity ostracizes (and denaturalizes) her from Chinatown.
Naturalization and Alienations: Refugees and The Flower Drum Song
Such revised characterizations are not limited to Linda Tung/Linda Low. Like her musical counterpart (Auntie Liang), Madam Tang is the most enthusiastic would-be patriot in the original Flower Drum Song. In the novel, Madam Tang constantly rehearses U.S. citizenship class lessons to prepare for a future naturalization exam. A devotee of U.S. traditions and ideologies, Madam Tang represents an idealized selfhood solution for Chinese refugees and immigrants. As the narrator reveals,
For two years Madam Tang had been attending the American citizenship class at the Marina Adult School. She had no idea when the Immigration Service would write to her asking her to go to the preliminary hearing; Madam Tien, one of her closest friends, had waited six years before such a letter reached her. However, Madam Tang kept hoping and studying, memorizing every word of the American Constitution. (29–30)
Madam Tang’s affective affiliation to the United States, manifest in her devoted study of the Constitution, is left largely unrequited and unacknowledged. Having “no idea when the Immigration Service would write to her” and emphasizing hope, the narrator brings to light an uncertain dimension to Madam Tang’s quest for selfhood. This uncertainty remains unresolved by the novel’s conclusion, which lacks the musical’s “Chop Suey” celebration of naturalization. Implicitly, the cold war politics at play in the McCarran-Walter Act obstruct Madam Tang’s naturalization. Undeniably, Madam Tang’s previous political affiliation as a Chinese subject and current status as a refugee paradoxically make her both a threat and a welcome addition vis-à-vis cold war policies of containment.
In contrast, Madam Tang’s brother-in-law, Master Wang (Wang Chi-Yang), is bonded to an older generation of Chinese immigrants who in fact remember a pre-Communist Chinese tradition. Such traditional proclivities are evident in Master Wang’s initial reluctance to use Western banks, his distrust of Western medicine, and his insistence that his sons not become “too Americanized.” For example, early in the novel, Madam Tang and Master Wang debate the pros and cons of using American banks after news of a robbery has hit the Chinatown papers. Madam Tang contends:
My sister’s husband . . . the American government is a democratic government; it is for the people and by the people, with three principles of the Constitution which are liberty, equality, and justice. You just cannot order the government to send you two soldiers to guard your house day and night as though you were a feudal lord. This is not China. You had better get that idea out of your mind. Besides, the American government has three departments: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. All you can do is ask the police department of the Executive Department to catch the thief. (33–34)
Madam Tang’s insistence that her brother-in-law adjust to an American sensibility consists of equal parts naturalization oath and citizenship test. Nonetheless, as the unidentified narrator previously averred, Madam Tang has spent the last two years attending the American citizenship class. It remains unclear as to how long she will have to wait for her preliminary citizenship hearing. As the novel later makes clear, though a model citizenship candidate, Madam Tang occupies the same political category as Master Wang. Indeed, both are de facto transnational refugees who lack nation-state certainty. Correspondingly, Master Wang’s meditations about his place within Chinatown and the United States—which reinforce a “lost” sensibility”—occupy the same contemplative plane as Madam Tang’s never-scheduled naturalization exam.
Notwithstanding Madam Tang’s devotion to U.S. selfhood principles, she still adheres to Old World class biases. Explicitly, Madam Tang initially rejects Wang Ta’s decision to marry the undocumented “peasant” Mei-Li, signaling disdain for working-class subjects regardless of “countrywoman” status. However, like Mei-Li, Madam Tang is ultimately a refugee who must contend with U.S. immigration law. Hence, The Flower Drum Song’s principal players are haunted by the specter of immigration policy and U.S. racial schemas. Such policies threaten the domestic imaginary. For example, when the patriarch Master Wang decides that his eldest son Wang Ta must marry, he turns to the possibility of an arranged marriage via a “picture bride.” However, such a marital path is largely closed due to immigration policy prohibition and bureaucratic red tape. Even The Flower Drum Song’s most dedicated U.S. advocate (Madam Tang) admits that such policies ensure that when Wang Ta’s bride “arrives in this country, it is about time for her to die.” As Madam Tang reminds, “To apply for an immigration quota, it takes about ten years; to wait for Wang Ta to become a citizen, it takes five years, and by the time he is permitted to bring his wife over, it will take another five years. Again ten years” (158).
When Master Wang threatens to deport Mei-Li and her father due to a false theft allegation, Wang Ta states, “we are all refugees from the Mainland China” (235). This assertion by Wang Ta to his father reminds the reader of Americanized Wang Ta’s origin as a Chinese-born subject. Globally, the declaration necessarily brings to the fore diasporic histories that persist even with intergenerational temporalities and semi-naturalized plots. Accessing a collective identity forged through loss, Wang Ta attempts to make cohesive the experiences of Chinese/Americans in the novel. Nonetheless, Master Wang’s silencing response to his son—“Hold your tongue!”—militates against such pan-Chinese classifications.
With Wang Ta’s collective articulation that “we are all refugees,” the novel at best offers an ambiguous resolution to the dilemma of transnational identities. Conversely, The Flower Drum Song (as novel) critically identifies the dilemma that faces the Chinese refugee. Such a figure is forcibly relocated, involuntarily classified as perpetual foreigner/model U.S. citizen, and occupies a tenuous ethnoracial, extrastatal position. Equally, The Flower Drum Song explores the degree to which mid-century Chinese Americans are faced with similar but by no means identical senses of dislocation. Wang Ta, the eldest son and protagonist, is at odds with his second-generation Chinese American identity. Such struggle ostensibly occurs in relation to his father’s more traditional ways. Yet, it is Wang Ta’s hyphenated identity that makes less certain his filial location as Chinese or American. As Chinese refugees, Mei-Li and her father embody a possible solution to Wang Ta’s identity crisis. To that end, Mei-Li and her father (as recently arrived migrants) are more immediately connected to the country of origin, in this case, mainland China.
Correspondingly, Mei-Li and her father from the outset represent holders of Old World tradition, and this status carries cultural capital for both Master Wang and Wang Ta. To be sure, Wang Ta is initially smitten with Mei-Li’s Chineseness. Still, it is Mei-Li’s willingness to transnationally combine Chinese and U.S. practices that ultimately makes her a suitable love match. As The Flower Drum Song comes to an end and Mei-Li’s undocumented status is made public, the two decide to marry in the face of ostensibly insurmountable class differences without full parental support. This lack of parental support in effect renders Wang Ta and Mei-Li “refugees” vis-à-vis familial affiliation. This choice forces the couple to leave Chinatown, further reinforcing a reading of refugee frames. In so doing, the novel’s plot complicates a simplistic reading of affiliation (such as what it means to live in the United States) through its focus on refugees who, despite relocation, are diasporically, nostalgically, and transnationally connected to the country of origin.30 Rather than offer a naturalized solution like Zangwill, Lee instead focuses on the failure of U.S. citizenship to concretize selfhood and belonging.
As The Flower Drum Song draws to an end, Master Wang’s family is in disarray. Besides Wang Ta’s exilic marriage, Master Wang’s youngest son (an avid consumer of U.S. popular culture) is missing by novel’s conclusion. The reason for his absence—that he is playing baseball with his Americanized friends—highlights his naturalization, wherein he privileges U.S. sport and pop culture. This naturalization and Wang Ta’s marriage-driven departure foreground the novel’s somber tone, which mourns—and does not celebrate—acts of Americanization such as voluntary love matches and baseball. The Flower Drum Song concludes with a rather dystopian U.S. vision. Within this loss-oriented milieu, the United States ceases to be an asylum refugee site and instead is the stage for disruption and alienation. Indeed, this dystopian perspective is made plain through The Flower Drum Song’s patriarch, Master Wang.
Seemingly an ancillary character, Master Wang is nevertheless the first figure introduced and the last discussed. As the opening pages of The Flower Drum Song reveal, Master Wang “escaped the mainland of China five years ago” as a result of the Communist takeover of the late 1940s (5). Although ethnically Chinese, Master Wang is still alienated in San Francisco’s Chinatown community. This alienation is immediately confirmed following the Grant Avenue description, which sets the stage for Master Wang’s introduction. A Chinatown refugee, Master Wang speaks in a “Hunan dialect, which neither a Northerner nor a Cantonese can understand. . . . His working knowledge of the English language was limited to two words: ‘yes’ and ‘no’” (4). Though the patriarch “loved to walk on Grant Avenue,” he would not venture further than Bush Street, which he considers “no longer Chinatown but a foreign territory” (5–6).
Similarly, Master Wang “seldom went farther to Kearny, for he regarded it as a Filipino town and had no desire to go there” (7). Primarily limited to his home and Grant Avenue, Master Wang is thus a voluntarily and involuntarily contained subject. Despite his alienated cultural position, Master Wang and his family lead an economically comfortable existence in Chinatown. Undeniably, the novel’s love plot (involving Wang Ta) and intergenerational conflict between father and son dominate The Flower Drum Song’s imaginary. Further, Madam Tang’s naturalization attempts form a substantial side story. Nonetheless, Master Wang’s alienated contemplations constitute a significant part of the novel. For example, The Flower Drum Song’s pace relies on Master Wang’s periodic walks through Chinatown.
Master Wang’s Chinatown strolls are largely punctuated by acts of consumption, which include the perusal of Chinatown commodities, exchanges with Chinatown business owners, and restaurant scenes. In fact, Master Wang is not the only Chinatown pedestrian. All The Flower Drum Song’s characters enact similar pedestrian acts. Still, what differentiates Master Wang’s walks from the others is the emphasis on affective belonging. In particular, Master Wang does not simply walk through Chinatown. Rather, Master Wang engages in nostalgic reverie and consumption. Accordingly, such excursions make apparent Master Wang’s allegiance to (and disassociation from) mainland China, his country of origin.
Master Wang’s immigrant consumer acts substantiate this reading. The narrator relates that Master Wang subscribes to all the Chinatown newspapers. Significantly, Master Wang reads them while sitting “comfortably in his rattan chair.” These newspapers connect the refugee father to the politics of Chinatown and those of mainland China. The chair, purchased through order in Chinatown, collapses the space between the United States and China. The newspaper headlines prompt anti-communist commentaries. In line with an ideal cold war politics, Master Wang’s dislike of communism makes him seem to be the willing democracy convert. Even so, Lee qualifies this dislike, making impossible a cold war/Master Wang alliance. To that end, the narrator stresses that Master Wang’s anti-communist stance is born out of a pro-Chinese, prerevolutionary affiliation. Indeed, Master Wang is not a cold war stalwart but instead a refugee victim of a political ideology that “destroyed Chinese traditions and turned the Chinese order upside down” (7).
If material objects such as the rattan chair speak to a precommunist Chinese past, then Master Wang turns to capitalistic practices (consumption) to fulfill his “home country” nostalgia. Though unintentional, such consumption foments a superficial link to mid-century U.S. selfhood. At stake in cold war articulations was the successful deployment of democracy and capitalism in claims of U.S. superiority. Hence, what separated the American from his communist counterpart was the ability to not only vote but also buy. Nonetheless, Master Wang’s purchasing power lacks naturalization impulse. Instead, Master Wang’s purchases—which are imported from China and remind him of his former home—attest to the patriarch’s desire to remain in some ways unassimilable.
On another level, such consumer desires make visible Master Wang’s transnational and largely unresolved citizenship. Though geographically “at home” in the United States, the patriarch resides in Chinatown, an alienated site. Though Master Wang speaks an unintelligible Hunan dialect, Master Wang temporarily finds cultural asylum through material means (that is, Chinatown objects). Master Wang’s home, decorated with “Chinese paintings and couplet scrolls, furnished with uncomfortable but expensive teakwood tables and chairs,” provisionally assuages the patriarch’s sense of being in a foreign land.31 Nevertheless, such objects do not permanently relocate Master Wang to the country of origin. As Master Wang admits to his herbalist, he lives in a “foreign house . . . equipped with foreign contrivances and boilers supplying steam heat day and night” inhabited by “children born in a foreign land” (72). Fittingly, these imported commodities function as metaphors for Master Wang’s own sense of being an imported (and not assimilated) subject.
Master Wang’s tenuous (but all the same persistent) desire to “return” is also evident in his socioeconomic practices. As previously mentioned, the patriarch initially refuses to deposit his money in a Western bank because of the American strangers who work there. Even so, Master Wang (following a robbery) is forced to change his position. This forcible shift—like the commodities he buys—coincides with the involuntary choices made by refugees. Perhaps most telling is the Western suit Master Wang wears in a fleeting attempt to naturalize his appearance following the robbery. The narrator remarks:
He acted very stiff that day. He felt uncomfortable in the foreign suit. The trousers seemed too tight; the open collar of the coat made him feel naked and cold, as though the front part of the clothes had been torn away in an accident. And when he lifted his arms, the sleeves seemed to pull them down; furthermore, the heavy shoulder pads bothered him, making him feel as if someone was putting his arm around his shoulders. After that day, he packed the foreign suit at the bottom of his trunk and never wanted to wear it again. (57)
The narrator’s detailed description focuses largely on Master Wang’s affective relationship to the suit. Uncomfortable, tight, and foreign, the suit makes Master Wang feel as though someone was putting his arm around his shoulders, an apt metaphor for cold war containment. The suit’s inability to fulfill its ostensible function—as clothing that provides warmth—is at once reminiscent of Abraham Cahan’s David Levinksy and its mention of “ill comport.” Moreover, the suit’s ill fit underscores Master Wang’s uncomfortable and incongruous position as a Chinese refugee in the United States. Like the suit, which is unnatural, cold, and bothersome, Master Wang’s relationship to the nation is largely contested. The patriarch’s inability to wear the suit matches his failure to put on a convincing American citizenship performance.
Such ill-fits continue into The Flower Drum Song’s final pages. Throughout the novel, Master Wang suffers from a persistent cough, furthering a reading of “ill comport.” At last, Master Wang yields, and the final scene of the novel involves his trip to a Western hospital. This decision is in some ways the most alienated and abject. As the narrator notes, Master Wang “was now deserting his herb doctor, his best friend, and the only man in Chinatown with whom he could happily associate.” And, as Master Wang makes his way to the clinic, he resigns himself to “the world of the younger generation” (244). As a member of the “older generation,” he is by his own admission obsolete. Despite the dominance of intergenerational conflict, it is this specific change in consumption, not a clearly stated shift in values, that signals Master Wang’s partial—yet forced—naturalization. Ironically yet appropriately, Master Wang turns away from the more “natural” elements of herbal medicine. Consistent with The Flower Drum Song’s narrative structure, this decision does not render an unproblematic, facile solution. Indeed, Master Wang’s “resignation” underscores an involuntary dimension to his visit that is consistent with his refugee status.
Still the novel offers—at its end—a transnational although brief glimmer of hope for the patriarch. Master Wang spies the hospital sign, which interrupts thoughts of resignation. The sign, “hanging under the red-tiled pagoda roof . . . [was] well-written . . . the product of years of patient practice in the Sung School.” Master Wang then “looked at the revolving door, braced himself a little, took a deep breath, mounted the marble steps, and entered the building” (245). Though “Western,” the hospital nevertheless carries Old World markers such as the Chinese characters and the pagoda architecture. Architecturally, the hospital represents a transnational blending, which brings together local and global. Its façade reminds Master Wang of his country of origin, yet it houses country-of-settlement medical practices. Though imperfect (the characters on the sign are “lacking strength in some strokes”), the hospital remains multifaceted and multilayered space (245). The “transnational” hospital provides a partial solution to Master Wang’s dilemma of belonging.
In the face of its potential as a solution, this ending nonetheless leaves open the roots of Master Wang’s citizenship problem: the dissolution of his family, his continued Chinatown outsiderness, and his refugee status. Given the back-and-forth nature of Master Wang’s acculturation attempts, it is difficult to ascertain whether this “final” decision will last. With no epilogue, it remains unclear whether his newfound sense of belonging is temporary or permanent. Indeed, as the narrator asserts, Master Wang “was the one who also hated change and always dreamed of going back to the old village in China, to die in China, and be buried in a good coffin, with numerous offspring visiting his grave every spring, making offerings and burning incense for him” (243).
As Robert G. Lee argues, in The Flower Drum Song musical, “the theme of an ethnic generation gap is substituted for the interrogation of racial exclusion that organizes the novel.”32 Without a doubt, Lee’s original work is less concerned with romantic possibility and unimpeded access to U.S. citizenship than is the stage version. Instead, The Flower Drum Song is a somber novel made unstable precisely because of unresolved intergenerational conflict (emblematic of affective belonging) and exclusionary immigration policy. Though Aiiieeeee! editors Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Inada, and Shawn Wong comment that Lee’s novel emerges from “whiteness, not . . . Chinese America” and comes “from a white tradition of Chinese novelty literature,” a close reading of character and plot makes possible an alternative consideration of narrative rupture, discontent, and racialization.33
In fact, The Flower Drum Song novel is not so much about achieving whiteness as it is concerned with negotiating Chineseness in a racialized imaginary. But though divergent in plot and characterization, the novel and musical versions of The Flower Drum Song do converge on the ways in which Asian immigrants and Asian Americans were constructed through shifting frames of ethnicity and foreign policy. In particular, the emphasis on assimilation in the stage version assuaged contemporaneous dominant-held anxieties about the very viability of an Asian American citizenry in a postwar domestic imaginary. Correspondingly, this comforting narrative of assimilation carried currency on the world stage. Certainly, as U.S. empire extended its reach into Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the model minoritization of Asian Americans at home was revised abroad through cold war characterizations of would-be democracies threatened by the march of a Soviet/Chinese “red menace.”34
Israel Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot, on the other hand, relies on a more stable (and progression-oriented) model minority characterization. In so doing, Zangwill’s “comedy of Americanization” anticipates naturalized categories of ideal subjects who could easily be deployed in the service of both U.S. foreign policy and claims of exceptionalism. Such utopian projections operate in stark contrast to Lee’s The Flower Drum Song, which refuses to naturalize the Asian immigrant experience. Written in the “hopeful” glow of the McCarran-Walter Act, The Flower Drum Song nevertheless forces a reading of how U.S. immigration policy is necessarily restrictive. Further, Lee’s cold war novel refuses a celebratory ending for its refugee characters in a manner that acknowledges the limitation of U.S. foreign policy. Presciently, the “drama of Americanization” that dominates the novel’s plot and characterization provocatively anticipates more dystopian readings of U.S. citizenship. Such dystopian readings privilege limitation over possibility, favor cold war imperialism over benevolent assimilation, and make visible the continued exclusionary nature of both whiteness and citizenship.