There are several popular metaphors for our diverse, pluralistic American society, but the quilt may be the best of the lot. The old “melting pot” metaphor, invented nearly a century ago by Israel Zangwill, seems out-of-date in a culture where people are proud to be American but deeply divided over numerous issues. The “salad bowl” metaphor, too, has wilted; it’s too easy to pick out unwanted ingredients. The quilt metaphor, to its credit, suggests that many and varied pieces can successfully be assembled and stitched together to create a beautiful and functional whole without any of the pieces losing their distinct characteristics.
It isn’t widely known, but there is powerful precedent for declaring the quilt metaphor to be the best descriptor for America. During the Civil War, Henry W. Bellows of the U.S. Sanitary Commission compared women’s work to a “great national quilting party.” At this party, American women created a National Quilt of “many patches, each of its own color or stuff”, he wrote, which were “tacked and basted, then sewed and stitched by women’s hands, wet often with women’s tears, and woven in with women’s prayers.” Bellows predicted that the new quilt that would emerge at war’s end would “tear anywhere sooner than in the seams, which they have joined in a blessed and inseparable unity.”1
We again live in a time of discord. Politicians berate each other uncivilly in the halls and chambers of the Capitol, while pundits scream at each other on so-called news shows. Americans seem more polarized than ever, divided into red and blue camps, yet they long for compromise and cooperation for the good of the country and everyone in it. Most of us want to believe that Americans can come together to create a functional whole, just as numerous pieces of fabric can be joined to form a beautiful quilt. We want to believe that we can still pitch in together to accomplish tasks that need to be done, as we did in mobilizing all sectors of our society to win World War II. Most Americans do care about what happens to others, honor our heroes, and believe that we can air our disagreements and come to compromise in a cooperative and civil manner. For all these reasons the American quilt has become both cultural icon and national metaphor. That is appropriate, for in their various forms, both elaborate and humble, they give visual expression to deeply held values and traditions we think of as American at the core.
Marshall Fishwick, a popular-culture expert, describes icons as “external expressions of internal convictions” and notes that they are “sensitive indicators of who we are, where we come from, where we intend to...