Sunday, July 12, 2009

Vincent J. Cannato's "American Passage"

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.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, and reported the following:
Opening American Passage to page 99 puts the reader inside one of the few chapters that does not take place at Ellis Island. This is a chapter that tells the story of the Boston Brahmins, those Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the late 19th and early 20th century who greatly feared the influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. These men and women were already losing the demographic fight in Massachusetts to the Irish Catholics and now a new crop of immigrants threatened to destroy even more thoroughly Anglo-Saxon America.

This page discusses the case of Prescott Hall, a young Harvard grad and co-founder of the Immigration Restriction League. A melancholic man, Hall was deeply pessimistic about the future of America.

Insecurity and melancholy went hand in hand with these New Englanders’ fears of being displaced, in terms of absolute numbers as well as political power and cultural influence. By the late 1800s, Boston Brahmin society was in decline. An increase in divorces and suicides and a decrease in birth rates among native-born Protestants—especially when compared with large Irish Catholic families—only added to the sense of loss and pessimism. The new immigration from eastern and southern Europe provided the double whammy to the Brahmin psyche, reinforcing whatever gloom and insecurity was caused by their loss of control to the Irish.

The respected economist Francis Walker tried to give a theoretical interpretation for the decline of the Anglo-Saxons. New immigrants created such degraded conditions in America, Walker argued, that native-born Protestants were simply refusing to bring children into such a world. The page ends with another patrician, New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, exhorting Americans toward the “strenuous life.” Unlike his Brahmin friends, Roosevelt would try to balance his fears of the new immigrants with a more pluralistic approach.

This backlash of the “nativists” is a common story when discussing immigration. While the fears of these Anglo-Saxons play an important role in the book, I try not to overemphasize them, as so much historical writing about immigration does. I focus much more on how the larger debate about immigration influenced immigration laws and how those laws get implemented at Ellis Island.
Browse inside American Passage, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Visit Vincent J. Cannato's website.

--Marshal Zeringue