The Magazine

The Golden Door

Ground zero in the 'third wave' of immigration.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

For most, the cavernous spaces we now can tour released their residents quickly and efficiently into American life after only the most cursory interview and informal medical assay. While inspectors looked for "undesirables" who were "feeble-minded" or showed "moral turpitude" (code terms for evidence of political radicalism, former prostitution, or criminality), they found comparatively few. In the larger scheme of things, most made it through the net easily, and the United States, despite the best efforts of many fearful and unwelcoming people, became more Jewish and Catholic, more eastern and southern European, than it had been before.

To relate what he calls this "biography .  .  . of a place," Cannato strips Ellis Island of the romance and myths long attached to it. The result is a deeply researched and lively work, as much a history of tragedy, bribery, patronage, nativism, and anti-Semitism as it is of civic service, idealism, aspiration, and care. Where other historians would have been tempted, in the academic conventions of our era, to situate the history of Ellis Island within genealogies of "whiteness studies," or the construction of memory, Cannato takes a more direct, narrative approach. In doing so, he brings alive many aspects of the history overlooked by earlier historians.

Few, for example, will have heard of William Williams, director of Ellis Island in the early years of the 20th century. A shrewd political operator as well as a representative type of the Mugwump Anglo male, Williams sought to limit the inflow of "new" immigrants-those who would reduce, as they eventually did, the sway of "old stock" Americans (that is, those whose roots were in northern Europe). That his efforts were to little avail should not obscure the fact that his views were consonant with those of many other Americans already here.

It is sobering to read the words of the distinguished and influential sociologist E. A. Ross to the effect that "on the physical side the Hebrew are the polar opposites of our pioneer breed. Not only are they undersized and weak-muscled, but they shun bodily activity and are exceedingly sensitive to pain." It was also Ross who wished to raise a monument "to the American Pioneering Breed, the Victim of too much Humanitarianism and too little common sense." Such views were what passed for wisdom in the parlors of the polite and professorial in those days and what led, by 1894, to the founding of the Immigration Restriction League.

Not surprisingly, momentary realities frequently strengthened such prejudice. During the Red Scare that followed World War I, Ellis Island saw its population of alien radicals and "Reds," many of them like the anarchist Emma Goldman subsequently deported, soar. And during the next world war the island again became the temporary home for those suspected of disloyalty. One was the great operatic bass Ezio Pinza, imprisoned there in 1942 for three months for his patriotic support of his distressed Italian homeland. Little could he then know that, a few years later, he would take Broadway by storm in a musical about another island and eventually win a Tony Award for his performance in the role of South Pacific's Emile de Becque.

As so often in the history of American immigration, individual achievement made a mockery of restrictionist efforts.

As Cannato is at pains to relate, stubborn reality-an open door, human desperation, individual aspiration toward betterment, and the need for the labor of arm and mind-usually rendered restrictionist thinking and acts largely irrelevant. If the "science" of eugenics, racial and ethnic prejudice, political fears, and status anxieties colored the nation's immigration history during Ellis Island's heyday, the stories that Cannato has mined from the archives lend that history a larger, personal touch.

We're not surprised that Emma Goldman called Ellis Island "the worst dump I ever stayed in." But we also learn how immigration regulations clashed with life. How were officials, many of them more tender-minded than Williams, to resolve the tragic predicament of a large family, some of whose members were ill: Send them all home or, dividing the healthy from the sick, admit some and send the rest packing?

And we see once again how little sway presidents often have over the nation's affairs. Three chief executives-Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson-actually visited the island. Taft was present at one applicant's hearing and urged that the applicant be admitted. His appeal was heard-then denied. Yet Taft represented the generally permissive attitude that Ellis Island's officials, typical of the majority of Americans, brought to their responsibilities.

"It is hard," Cannato remarks, "to describe Ellis Island as a restrictionist nightmare."