Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Daniel Okrent's "The Guarded Gate"

Daniel Okrent is the prize-winning author of six books. Before The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America, he published Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2011), which was cited by the American Historical Association as the year’s best book on American history. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in history. Among his many jobs in publishing, he was corporate editor-at-large at Time Inc., and was the first public editor of the New York Times.

Okrent applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Guarded Gate and reported the following:
My page 99 reveals the following (among other things): that in 1906, the Washington Post editorial page said "90 percent of the Italians coming to the United States were 'the degenerate spawn of the Asiatic hordes which, long centuries ago, overran the shores of the Mediterranean' "; that a retired Supreme Court Justice "called for a complete ban on immigration from Sicily and Calabria"; and that as the social status of the widely disliked eastern European Jews began to rise, "some of them sought to consign other groups...to lower rungs of the ladder.... 'The Americans may be right,' said the Russian-born physician, economist, and social reformer I.M. Rubinow. Poles, Italians, Irish, and other groups, he insisted 'are culturally inferior'."

This certainly gives a hint of one of the book's two primary themes -- that discrimination against and distaste for eastern and southern European immigrants in the early 20th century was both widespread and intense. The only possible misimpression it would leave with the reader is any sense that discrimination against eastern European Jews was somehow less virulent than it was against other groups, when in fact, for a variety of reasons, the book pays much more attention to their circumstances than to that of the Italians or other groups. What's missing from page 99 is the other main theme: that in the late 1910s and into the '20s, the discrimination against all the suspect eastern and southern Europeans was justified by the junk science of racial eugenics. And what's really missing is the rich cast of characters, many of them well-known (Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Margaret Sanger, etc.), whom I attempt to portray with both comprehension and, when appropriate, wit.

The story The Guarded Gate tells -- how the merger of xenophobia and eugenic "science" led to the severe, long-lasting, and openly discriminatory Immigration Act of 1924 -- is a grim one, but it's also a necessary one. If I've done my job, the combination of narrative, character, and what Jeffrey Toobin of CNN describes as prose "that any novelist would envy" will not just inform the reader, but please him or her as well.
Learn more about the book and author at Daniel Okrent's website.

The Page 99 Test: Last Call.

--Marshal Zeringue