U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Horace Kallen from a Marxian Perspective

Apologies for the title; I couldn’t resist. The “Marxian” perspective I refer to is the one from Vaudeville and Hollywood, not Germany or the British Museum.

Historians of American film and American Judaism have often argued that the Jewish thebigstoreperformers and movie-makers who flocked to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s brought no unique perspective, and particularly no uniquely Jewish perspective to their film. The Marx Brothers, for example, born in New York City to Jewish immigrants, did not play Jewish characters on screen, and their films are said to contain no content originating from their Jewish background or their experience as first generation Americans in New York.

Proponents of this view should take a look at the dramatic song that comes at the climax of The Big Store. Produced in 1941, The Big Store is the Marx Brothers’ only war film (A Night in Casablanca, which spoofed the 1942 classic, Casablanca, came in 1946). It may not be a coincidence that the Marx Brothers’ only film produced during the war contains the only real expression of a perspective on American life in the Marx Brothers cannon. For toward the climax of the movie, while the audience is held in suspense with knowledge of a murder plot, Tommy Rodgers, a young singer played by Tony Martin (himself the grandson of Jewish immigrants), sings a musical version of Horace Kallen’s 1915 essay, “Democracy versus the Melting Pot.”

The number is the “Tenement Symphony,” written by Hal Borne, Sid Kuller, and Ray Golden for the Marx Brothers’ film. In this song, Tommy Rodgers, about to become the victim of an assassination attempt during his performance, sings: “I sought a variation on a theme that I thought pretty / And I found my inspiration on the east side of the city.” “The Cohens and the Kellys / The Campbells and Vermicellis,” Rogers explains in song, “All form a part of my Tenement Symphony.” Here, of course, the idea is to call to mind the different ethnicities that make up the tenement, and the symphony. When Rogers sings “Oh, Marie, you’ll be late for your date with Izzy,” the audience gets an image of an Italian girl with a Jewish boy. Rodgers continues:

“The sounds of the ghetto inspired the allegretto
You’ll find them in my Tenement Symphony
The cry of a vendor met a lullaby sweet and tender
I combined them in my Tenement Symphony”

And finally, the refrain:

“And from this confusion
I dreamed of a grand illusion
It’s my Tenement Symphony in four flats”

The fact that none of the three Marx Brothers in the film are involved in this particular musical number suggests that the Brothers and the writers took the song’s content seriously, and wanted a serious character to deliver it. In addition, the threat of assassination that lingers over Rogers’ performance of “Tenement Symphony” lends urgency to the song and forces the audience, who otherwise might start snoring during this scene, to pay attention. In The Crisis of Democratic Theory (1973), Edward A. Purcell, Jr. argues that a relativistic, “open-minded,” value-neutralism became the core American principle in opposition to European totalitarianism in the 1930s and 40s. It is possible that with “Tenement Symphony,” when, under threat of assassination, Tommy Rogers sings of the beauty that comes from a “confusion” of diversity, the Marx Brothers asserted their perspective on the value of American society in face of the Nazi threat. Historians of American film, American Judaism, and the rise of Hollywood should use this small scene to being to rethink their assumptions about the lack of political commitment or “Jewish” content in Hollywood’s early films.

Historians might also use “Tenement Symphony” to reexamine Horace Kallen’s influence on American culture. It’s hard to think of the idea of a symphony of Cohens and Kellys on “the east side of the city” without thinking of Horace Kallen, a German-Jewish immigrant who initiated the idea of American society as a symphony of diversity in his 1915 essay “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot.” Kallen concluded his essay by asserting:

“As in an orchestra, every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, founded in its substance and form; as every type has its appropriate theme and melody in the whole symphony, so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument, its spirit and culture are its theme and melody, and the harmony and dissonances and discords of them all make the symphony of civilization, with this difference: a musical symphony is written before it is played; in the symphony of civilization the playing is the writing, so that there is nothing so fixed and inevitable about its progressions as in music, so that within the limits set by nature they may vary at will, and the range and variety of the harmonies may become wider and richer and more beautiful.”

I wonder where else Kallen’s image of a America-as-symphony may have had an impact in American culture. I also wonder whether any of the Marx Brothers were aware of Kallen’s essay (Julius Marx, better known as Groucho, was an avid reader of American literature and political thought, believe it or not…).Were the writers– Borne, Kuller, and Golden– aware of Kallen, or did their use of the symphony image come from other sources?

Above all, I would be interested in seeing an exploration of where other metaphors for American society as melting pot or symphony or some other construction appear in American culture. Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s musical Flower Drum Song, which appeared on broadway in 1958, contains another great example of a metaphor for the diversity of American culture. Based on the 1957 novel by Chinese-America C.Y. Lee, Flower Drum Song explores the problems of assimilation and maintaining tradition for Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. “I am happy to be both Chinese and American!” one character in this musical declares. “You are like the Chinese dish the Americans have invented: chop suey,” another replies, “everything is in it, all mixed up.” Thus begins the musical number, “Chop Suey.” Unlike “Tenement Symphony,” “Chop Suey” does not refer to different ethnicities, but lists popular items of American politics and culture:

“Chop suey, chop suey!
Living here is very much like chop suey:
Hula hoops and nuclear war,
Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor,
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, and Dewey,
Chop suey!”

The song ends on an affirmative note:

“Chop suey, chop suey!
Mixed with all the hokum and bally hooey.
Something real and glowing grand,
Sheds a light all over the land.
Boston, Austin, Wichita, and St. Louie,
Chop suey!”

Both “Tenement Symphony” and “Chop Suey” appear in the context of ideas about immigrants in America, and both stress the aspect of “confusion” or the element of “everything all mixed up” in American life. From the confusion, Horace Kallen and the writers of The Big Store “dreamed of a grand illusion”– the harmony of an American culture around an ideal– and Rodgers and Hammerstein, like Americans cooking Chinese food, invented Chop Suey.

I would be interested in examining other instances in American culture– particularly in the period discussed here (1941-1958)– where artists, writers, and entertainers produce a metaphor for American diversity, or where they used metaphor and song to try to find an American identity in a confusion of diversity, or used art and entertainment to answer the question: what has America to offer in response to European totalitarianism?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post Rivka! Really interesting to read how the musical metaphor for diversity developed.

    Actually, if the Marx brothers got it from anyone, it was probably not Kallen, but actually Israel Zangwill himself, the British Jew who wrote the play “The Melting Pot” in 1908. In that play, the lead character, David Quixano, is a musician trying to compose an “American symphony” that would include all the different immigrant components. Zangwill is best known for the Melting Pot metaphor, which is contrasted with Kallen’s symphony, but there are actually a lot of similarities between the two. And Zangwill’s play was much more popular than any of Kallen’s essays.

    Of course the musical metaphor might be even older than that. In his 1905 book “The American Scene” Henry James refers to something musical as well when describing New York. Alain Locke refers to the “music of civilization” in a 1908 speech he gave at Oxford. And back in the 19th century I think Ernst Renan uses a similar musical metaphor for the different cultures of Europe in his essay “What is a Nation?.”

    I don’t know as much about the post-WW2 period, but there’s always Paul Robeson singing “The Ballad for Americans.”

    As for the Marx brothers themselves, I used to be more familiar with the literature on how Jewish or not Jewish they were, but it’s been a long time.

  2. Wow, what a fascinating post! Certainly offers a lot of food for thought. You could also throw in here the attempts to include African Americans in this “melting pot”, such as through WWII era movies featuring African Americans, their rise in pop culture (Joe Louis before this, and Jackie Robinson come to mind) and also the rhetoric used by Black intellectuals and activists in the 1940s and 1950s to talk about Black Americans being part of a larger American society.

    And of course, there’s “Ballad for Americans”.

  3. Josh Kun’s Audiotopia is the best source on musical metaphors of melting pots. I’ve written a bit about this, too, in relation to Paul Whiteman, the smoothing and sweetening of “jungle” music, and intellectual property law.

    The melting pot metaphor has a pretty horrific history, as the references above to Renan and Henry James qua racial thinker no doubt indicate. Meyer’s The Five Dollar Day is still a good source on Henry Ford’s Americanization pageants involving immigrant workers and comically oversized “melting pot” props.

    The Marx Brothers were geniuses, of course. Only a maniac could argue with that.

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