In a vintage Atlantic essay, a child of Italian immigrants rejected the "melting pot" ideal.
Ralph Waldo Emerson called America a "smelting pot" that would forge "a new race, a new religion, a new state." Historian Frederick Turner saw the Western frontier as a "crucible" where "immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused." Henry James described New York City as "a vast hot pot" where different cultures merged and bubbled together.
By 1920, Gino Speranza was fed up with all of these metaphors. A lawyer and journalist, Speranza was the child of Italian immigrants -- his parents were members of an elite class in Verona, Italy, who became members of an elite class in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Early in his life, Speranza enthusiastically defended the American "melting pot" ideal.
But after World War I, something changed. Americans as a whole had become more suspicious of foreigners. The Immigration Act -- passed on today's date in 1917 -- barred several categories of newcomers from entering the country, from homosexuals to epileptics to illiterate people over the age of 16.
Speranza took this restrictiveness a few steps further. In a February 1920 Atlantic essay, he argued that turning "'raw' citizens" into true Americans was no simple process. It demanded "an unreserved spiritual conformity" that meant shedding every last vestige of foreignness. "There cannot be two nationalisms," he wrote, "even if one is major and one minor, even if one claims to be American first and German second."