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American Passage: The History of Ellis Islandby Vincent J. Cannato
Synopses & Reviews
For most of New York's early history, Ellis Island had been an obscure little island that barely held itself above high tide. Today the small island stands alongside Plymouth Rock in our nation's founding mythology as the place where many of our ancestors first touched American soil. Ellis Island's heyday — from 1892 to 1924 — coincided with one of the greatest mass movements of individuals the world has ever seen, with some twelve million immigrants inspected at its gates.
In American Passage, Vincent J. Cannato masterfully illuminates the story of Ellis Island from the days when it hosted pirate hangings witnessed by thousands of New Yorkers in the nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth century when massive migrations sparked fierce debate and hopeful new immigrants often encountered corruption, harsh conditions, and political scheming.
American Passage captures a time and a place unparalleled in American immigration and history, and articulates the dramatic and bittersweet accounts of the immigrants, officials, interpreters, and social reformers who all play an important role in Ellis Island's chronicle. Cannato traces the politics, prejudices, and ideologies that surrounded the great immigration debate, to the shift from immigration to detention of aliens during World War II and the Cold War, all the way to the rebirth of the island as a national monument. Long after Ellis Island ceased to be the nation's preeminent immigrant inspection station, the debates that once swirled around it are still relevant to Americans a century later.
In this sweeping, often heart-wrenching epic, Cannato reveals that the history of Ellis Island is ultimately the story of what it means to be an American.
Ellis Island, through which 12 million immigrants passed between 1892 and 1924, is a museum and tourist attraction now, "a success," according to Vincent J. Cannato, "attracting some 2 million visitors a year." A small patch of land in New York Harbor, known two centuries ago as Gibbet Island because so many pirates were hanged there, it occupies a large but somewhat ambiguous place in American history.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) On the one hand, it is deservedly celebrated as the country's gateway, not the only one but the largest and most important. On the other hand, it is the place where a deep conflict in American beliefs has been played out: "The nation's immigration law was predicated on the idea that a self-governing people could decide who may or may not enter the country. But that idea came into conflict with other ideals such as America's traditional history of welcoming newcomers. More importantly, it conflicted with the idea that the rights guaranteed in the Constitution were universal rights. How could the Declaration of Independence's basic creed that all individuals were created equal mesh with the idea that some immigrants were desirable and others undesirable? That conflict between American ideals is central to an understanding of why Ellis Island was created in the first place." Obviously, the story of Ellis Island remains pertinent today, for the issues it raises still vex and divide us. In the early years of the 20th century, most immigrants came to the United States from Europe, and the question in the minds of many Americans was whether some of them (British, French, German) were more "desirable" than others (Eastern and Southern Europeans). Now the great wave of immigration is from Latin America, and because many of these people enter the country illegally, the question is whether this makes them "undesirable," even though many of them work productively and contribute to the national economy. Ellis Island was established as a "sieve" through which immigrants could be filtered, the desirable allowed to enter, the undesirable deported back to their countries of origin. But as became plain from almost the moment it opened, defining "desirable" and "undesirable" was difficult and often caused intense controversy. William Williams, director of Ellis Island for many years, was a WASP aristo who "linked undesirability to southern and eastern Europeans," just as many Bostonians regarded the Irish as undesirable. One blue-blooded New England Yankee, discussing the "'masses of peasantry' from Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Russia in the 1890s," didn't beat around the bush: "These people have no history behind them which is of a nature to give encouragement. They have none of the inherited instincts and tendencies which made it comparatively easy to deal with the immigration of olden time. They are beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence. Centuries are against them, as centuries were on the side of those who formerly came to us." Out of such sentiments grew the Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894 "to advocate and work for the further judicious restriction or stricter regulation of immigration," i.e., No Italians Need Apply. These and other efforts by Boston Brahmins and their allies stirred up noise and debate but don't seem to have had all that much effect on the decisions made by officials at Ellis Island, who were chiefly preoccupied with questions of physical and mental health, the ability to earn a gainful wage and "moral turpitude," a euphemism for everything from prostitution to adultery to premarital sex. During World War I "alien enemies" — "any male over the age of fourteen born in Germany, residing in the United States, and not a naturalized U.S. citizen" — found their rights sharply limited and were at risk of being arrested; after the war, fear of radicals generally, and anarchists specifically, added a new category of "undesirables." A "recurring theme throughout Ellis Island's history," Cannato writes, is "the chasm between immigration law as written and immigration law as enforced." Or, as he puts it elsewhere, "The immigration problem was a conflict between abstract laws and the individual tragedies those laws sometimes created." It was one thing to deny admission to the "feeble-minded," but quite another when an entire family presented itself for admission and one child was deemed to fit that category. How were officials to respond: Deny admission to the entire family, or admit all save the offending girl? In one such case the second course was chosen, leaving the girl to live out the rest of her life — how she did so we do not know — on her own. Generally, though, Ellis Island tended toward the permissive. Some of those who worked there were bigoted, and many, it seems, were simply incompetent, but Cannato reports numerous instances in which people who were borderline "undesirable" for one reason or another were granted admission on essentially humanitarian grounds. President William Howard Taft, making a visit to the island, found himself caught up in one such case, though his sympathetic response to the immigrant under examination ultimately was overruled by authorities directly responsible. The immigration center was closed in 1954, by which time a quota system was in effect and overall immigration had declined sharply. Two years later the General Services Administration put the entire 27-acre island up for sale, but reaction against turning over the historic site to private interests — "the high bidder was a New York builder ... who wanted to turn Ellis Island into Pleasure Island, a high-end resort with a convention center, marina, and recreational and cultural facilities" — was strong enough to persuade the Eisenhower Administration to take it off the market. It deteriorated until 1981, when a fundraising program for its restoration was undertaken, eventually under the leadership of Lee Iacocca, whose parents went through Ellis Island in 1921. Cannato, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, has written a popular rather than scholarly history of Ellis Island, but he resists the temptation to sentimentalize the place. He understands that, now as then, immigration is an issue that leaves Americans uncomfortable and contentious, even as it continues to bring new blood and energy into the country. Ellis Island may have been converted into something of a feel-good theme park, but the questions it raises remain unresolved. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"This measured book helps to place in perspective discussions — sure to matter to genealogists and those engaged in political discourse — of Ellis Island and the idea of immigration as a privilege rather than a right." Library Journal
Book News Annotation:
Immigration has been a foundation of the development of American culture and character and a significant factor in the country's overall history, and Ellis Island is the American monument to immigration. Cannato (history, U. of Massachusetts) offers sometimes dramatic accounts from immigrants, officials, interpreters, and others to relate the history of the tiny but important island. In doing so, he explores the controversial politics and prejudices, as well as the ideologies, that were a part of the chaotic immigration debate. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
"By bringing us the inspiring and sometimes unsettling tales of Ellis Island, Vincent Cannatos American Passage helps us understand who we are as a nation.”
— Walter Isaacson
“Never before has Ellis Island been written about with such scholarly care and historical wisdom. Highly recommended!"
The remarkable saga of Americas landmark port of entry, from immigration post to deportation center to mythical icon.
About the Author
Vincent J. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
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History and Social Science » Americana » New York