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American Passage: The History of Ellis Island Hardcover – June 9, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Starred Review. 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., Library of Congress
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“Mr. Cannato’s writing is vivid and accessible, and his approach is admirably even-handed.” (The Wall Street Journal)

“Historian Vincent Cannato appears to have overlooked nothing in telling the tale of the historic island, now a national monument. . . . Cannato is not only a meticulous researcher and historian, he’s also a lively storyteller. A rare combination.” (USA Today)

“Cannato does a masterful job of weaving together a slew of singular immigrant stories with the larger issues that surrounded newcomers. He gives us the politics, the health scares and epidemics, the crowding, the corruption and the public policy.” (The New York Post)

“Cannato navigates the crosscurrents of immigration since the 1700s, illustrating his tale generously with odd facts and highly readable stories.” (Associated Press)

“The story of America is one of immigration. By bringing us the inspiring and sometimes unsettling tales of Ellis Island, Vincent Cannato’s American Passage helps us understand who we are as a nation.” (Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein)

“Reading Vincent Cannato’s American Passage was an amazing journey into our nation’s immigrant past. Never before has Ellis Island been written about with such scholarly care and historical wisdom. Highly recommended!” (Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge)

“Immigration has long been a critical slice of the American narrative, and here, in American Passage, Vincent Cannato tells its story with great brio. From landing point to national Monument, from immigrants to interpreters, we see the veritable Babel of Ellis Island play out across the years.” (Jay Winik, author of The Great Upheaval and April 1865)

“To his great credit Cannato does not pretend to answer our tough questions about immigration, nor to find a ‘usable past’ in the history of Ellis Island. He just tells one heck of a story that oozes with relevance.” (Walter A. McDougall, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of Throes of Democracy)

“Although Ellis Island is about immigrants from far-away places, it is in fact as American as Thanksgiving and apple pie. This amazing story is recounted beautifully in Vincent Cannato’s well-written and evocative book, which will bring pleasure and profit to readers.” (Kenneth T. Jackson, editor in chief, Encyclopedia of New York City)

“Cannato resists the temptation to setimentalize Ellis Island. He understands that, now as then, immigration is an issue that leaves Americans uncomfortable and contentious, even as it continues to bring new blood and energy into the country.” (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (June 9, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060742739
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060742737
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #410,606 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David M. Sherman on July 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Professor Cannato has created a remarkable work of history. It is beautifully written and superbly researched. Cannato reshapes your views on Ellis Island without preaching or taking a one-sided view of history. The reader is never overwhelemd yet the depth of research is remarkable; stories of individuals (their triumphs and tragedies) adds to the cogent research.I enjoyed the chapter structure; wonderful, grabber introductions, fascianting, detailed body of work, and conclusions that help the reader wrap up the main points. Informative, well-written, and a myth buster....This is the way history ought to be written. Bravo.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Like many in this country I am the descendant of folks who crossed the ocean in steerage, and then made it safely through Ellis Island, which is the subject of this excellent book. When I read of all the requirements that were put onto those hoping to enter this country, I am extremely grateful that I am here today and not planting potatoes somewhere in Poland.

The book goes through the entire history of Ellis Island, from its first incarnation as a place to hang criminals, through its various stages of immigration reception, through the many changes and renovations made to it, and finally to the tourist attraction (and national treasure) that it is today.

I had occasion to take my wife, two of my chilren, and my two granddaughters to Ellis Island a few years ago, and I was in awe of the place, and couldn't believe what my forebearers had to go through so that I could be there observing. Using the computers there, we were able to find my father's father, and my wife's mother's father, and learned how and when they arrived on our shores.

The book says that names weren't changed by officials there, but I tend to disagree. My grandfather's name was Appolinarious (sp?), but it was changed to Paul at Ellis Island. It's easier to say, because in Polish his name is pronounced much differently than it is written above.

We should all take some time out to see this place, and then stop to admire and thank our ancestors for having the courage to come to a new land and raise their families.
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Format: Kindle Edition
When I speak at community meetings, it is almost inevitable that someone stands up and tells me that when his great-grandfather came over from Germany in the 1870s he did it the right way, not like these immigrants today. "He came legally and had to pass a bunch of tests at Ellis Island, he had to have a sponsor to vouch for him and only then was he allowed in." The person then usually says "We need a new Ellis Island."

Of course, when his great-grandfather came, there were no tests for newly arriving immigrants, anyone who wanted to come could immigrate here (so long as they weren't Chinese), so saying he came legally is meaningless, and the Ellis Island immigration station did not exist.

In fact, if your ancestors came before 1892, they definitely did not come through Ellis Island.

But since so many people think their families got their start there, the truth may be less relevant than the perception.

I am always on the lookout for books on American immigration history, so I was happy to come across a new history of Ellis Island. American Passage, unfortunately, is only partially successful in telling the story of the iconic place of American immigration.

There are many ways to tell the story of Ellis Island. Vincent Cannato chooses to begin his telling with the story of feuds between various officials at the immigration station. Bureaucratic infighting is rarely interesting, and the fights among the big-wigs at Ellis are no different. The first third of the book is taken up with who said what to who sort of nonsense. Hardly a grabber.
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Format: Hardcover
Vincent Cannato does a wonderful job of demystifying Ellis Island and in American Passage does a wonderful job of showing how Ellis Island was a metaphor for the battle regarding what constituted America's immigration policy and what resulted in the restrictive policies of the post WW I era.

Cannato shows that the vast number of immigrants of the Ellis Island era, while not from the preferred parts of Europe like earlier immigrants, were by and large hardworking individuals who sought to have their own little piece of the American dream. The great struggle regarding which group should be admitted and which group should not is mapped out in epic detail. He also does a wonderful job at demonstrating the internal political struggles that beset Ellis Island during its peak years of operation.

Cannato also shows that not all the immigrants who came into the country during this period were of ideal motives. Where the book tends to drag is that it draws too much from leaders and senators and does not offer a balanced view by showing successful immigrants. However that does not stop this from being a very interesting story and an interesting read.
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