On the Way to the Melting Pot

 by Waldemar Ager
Book Cover: On the Way to the Melting Pot

Paa Veien til Smeltepotten 
Waldemar Theodor Ager (1917)
(Digitized on-line at the Hathi Trust digital library)


On the Way to the Melting Pot
Translation by Harry T. Cleven 
Prairie Oak Press (1995)
ISBN 1-879482-23-8


On the Way to the Melting Pot is Waldemar Ager's biting, satirical rebuttal to Israel Zangwill's popular 1908 play, "The Melting Pot." In its pages, we watch helplessly as Norwegian immigrant families race to outdo one another in Americanizing themselves, forsaking their Old World traditions, values and even language. It is, in fact, a point of pride for many of the families that their children are idlers who can not hold meaningful conversations with their Norwegian-speaking parents. In the Skare household, for instance, the children learned quite early that their mother did not understand their speech. "Mother became like a piece of household furniture--the most useful in the whole house, essential and incomprehensible." Into this milieu enter Lars and his fiancée, Karoline, two young Norwegians just off the boat; and through their eyes readers obtain a Lettres Perses perspective on immigrant life in a small American midwestern city.

Ager penned the novel in 1917, during the crest of the last big wave of European immigration, and at the beginning of America's decade-long spasm of xenophobia and "100% Americanism." American doughboys had just gone to France to "Hang the Kaiser!" and a push was on at home to level German pride, cultural traditions and language. The anti-German fervor spilled over onto other hyphenated Americans as well, and Ager undoubtedly wrote Melting Pot in part as a reaction to cries of "English only." A contemporary reviewer in a Seattle newspaper wrote: "This is the great Norwegian book production in America. . . . With a master's skill, [Ager] swings the whip of satire and every other kind of whip that he has in hand over meanness and soul-sickness. No one has ever made such fun of veneration for all that is foreign [English] and contempt for native values." In Immigrant Idealist, his literary biography of Ager, Einar Haugen has this to say about the book: "From beginning to end it is a satirical depiction of a population in full flight from their Norwegian past to their American future. . ." and praises the book for its lively dialogue. On the Way to the Melting Pot opens the window wide on many of the questions and pressures with which our own parents and grandparents had to struggle. ~ Lizbeth Ager


Excerpt

Karoline, a hired girl for Judge Highbee, has a set-to with one of his American guests:

It was on the Seventeenth of May that they had some strangers for tea. Karoline had decorated herself with a big Norwegian Seventeenth of May ribbon which she had worn at the festivities at home the year before. One of the ladies present took notice of it as Karoline served and asked what it meant. "It is the Seventeenth of May," Karoline said simply, and looked puzzled.

"Of course I know that," the woman answered forbearingly, "but what does the date have to do with that ribbon?"

"The Seventeenth of May is the same in Norway as the Fourth of July is here in this country," said Karoline.

"Oh, yes, I understand, but you're not in Norway now, you are in America."

"Yes, but I am still Norwegian all the same," the girl said shyly. "If I were an American and were in Norway on the Fourth of July, I would do something to show it. There are several at home who have been in America, and they fly the American flag on the Fourth of July."

"Well, that's different, of course."

"I can't see any difference."

The woman tossed her head back and turned to the others. "There ought to be a law against such a thing," she said. "Daughters of the Revolution and Women's Relief Corps should take up this matter. When people come here from lands where they have been oppressed and can take advantage of all the freedom our people have fought and suffered for, then they should be forbidden to go here and wave the colors of other countries right in our faces. If this land isn't good enough for them then they can just stay where they are until they can learn to appreciate freedom."

At first Karoline did not know what she should say and fumbled, at a loss for words, with the tri-colored ribbon. The worst of it was that she didn't know if she could formulate her thoughts well enough when she spoke English. But she had to say something: "Excuse me, ma'am," she said, "Norway is not an oppressed country and I do not have one more bit of freedom here than I had in Norway--and in Norway I could have voted in the elections. I thought of waiting to travel to America until I had had one opportunity to vote in my life because I knew that here women are not considered much better than mental patients and criminals are regarded in Norway--and if I didn't get a chance to vote once there, then I knew I would never have a chance because here women have no such rights."

This came out in sobs and broken sentences, but when she finished, Judge Highbee stood up and he was clearly so moved that it made her almost fearful.

"Don't bother yourself about this, Carrie," he said as though struggling to suppress his emotion. "You will have an opportunity to vote here, too. We will no doubt have to revise our ideas about foreign people and foreign lands. In certain things they are further ahead than we are--in some very vital areas they are ahead of us. The day will come, and it is not so far off, when our American women will have the same rights as the Norwegian women. Until that happens, you are doing the right thing in wearing your ribbon. But," he raised a threatening finger toward her, "if I find you on the Fourth of July without an American ribbon--well, you know what the results will be."

"Maybe I can use the same one, because it is red, white, and blue," she said quickly. He laughed. "You are smarter than I thought," he said. "They are the old freedom colors, and they do not belong to us alone."

And Mrs. Highbee touched Karoline's arm lightly as she turned to go. "Is that ribbon all the way from your home--in Norway?"

"Yes."

"May I clip a little piece from it and wear it in honor of the land which does not consider women to be idiots or dumb animals?"

"Oh! Take the whole ribbon, ma'am--please take the whole thing."

"No--I couldn't do that."

"Take enough so I can have a little piece too," said another of the ladies.

"Me too," said a third.

Karoline was red and embarassed and stood curtsying with moist eyes as the scissors clipped and her ribbon, bit by bit, went to the ladies. As though in a dream, she heard Judge Highbee's voice in the speaking tube which went out to the stableboy's room: "Dennis, put two of our flags by the front steps--one on each side. It's Norway's independence day and we want to celebrate."