The Washington Post
American Passage: The History of Ellis Islandby Vincent J. Cannato
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
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 isultimately the story of what it means to be an American.
The Washington Post
Using a variety of primary sources, Cannato (The Ungovernable City) describes Ellis Island as a place and as an experience for the approximately 12 million immigrants who passed through it from 1892 to 1924. He follows its reincarnation as a detention center for wartime aliens and as a monument and museum, which he admits may celebrate uncritically "ethnic triumphalism" and upward mobility. Cannato writes that understaffing resulted in only perfunctory screening for mental, physical, and moral traits that might have made newcomers public charges, and he disabuses readers of the fallacy that examiners, rather than steamship officials or immigrants bent on assimilation, changed entrants' last names. With a focus on how "actual people created, interpreted, and executed immigration laws," Cannato maintains that regulation, which sometimes degraded into restriction, formed part of Progressive era reform and growing federal involvement to safeguard what was deemed the public interest. 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. Essential reading.
Frederick J. Augustyn Jr.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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Meet 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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