Good Reads: ‘American Passage’

Ellis Island occupies a hallowed place in imaginations — some might say, the Plymouth Rock for Americans who didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. This is a vast oversimplification (it leaves out a lot of Americans who didn’t land in either place). But it fueled enough fat family-saga novels to cement certain imagery firmly in place: the large, close-knit families struggling together across the gangplank into a new world; the arbitrary name changes by brusque inspectors; the triumphant journey from dirt-poor tenement to American-style riches in the suburbs.

Vincent J. Cannato’s American Passage is a history of Ellis Island that is well worth reading if your ancestors passed through it, or even if they didn’t. It  supplies a wealth of information about how the place began and, importantly, how it worked, starting with a detailed account of Ellis Island’s very different predecessor, Castle Garden.

Castle Garden was a state-run operation, originating in response to activism by immigrant-aid societies whose mission was to protect and aid immigrants — a mission that also propelled Castle Garden, at least in its early years. Ellis Island, by contrast, was a federal facility born in an age of increased resentment and apprehension at the surge of immigration at the end of the 19th century. Aiding and protecting took a back seat to quality control — the drive to ensure that only the fittest, strongest and most productive new arrivals made the cut.

Cannato writes supple, succinct prose, with an excellent eye for compelling historical examples — such as families separated, often forever, when one member was deemed too “feeble-minded” or physically infirm to be admitted. He illustrates with infuriating examples the lengths to which inspectors went to ensure that the immigrants’ characters were sufficiently elevated, a quest which predictably led to crass harassment: “Did he sleep with you on the boat?” asked one inspector who made “moral turpitude” his personal mission.

American Passage also dispels some cherished misconceptions about Ellis Island. Despite what hundreds of family stories say, Ellis Island inspectors did not change names to make them more “American-sounding”: “Name changes largely occurred either on the other side of the Atlantic, when steamship officials recorded names in their manifests, or after Ellis Island, when immigrants filled out naturalization papers or other official documents,” Cannato writes.

The narrative is full of similarly illuminating details, and ends with a meditation on Ellis Island’s slide into decay and neglect, followed by its return as a point of pilgrimage, a highly charged symbol of American aspirations. It’s a nice wrap-up to an excellent overview of the years in which the United States, and its immigration policy, reached a troubled maturity.

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