A frighteningly timely book about a particularly ugly period in American history, a bigotry-riddled chapter many thought was closed but that shows recent signs of reopening.
In his latest book, Okrent (Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, 2010, etc.), the former managing editor of Life magazine and editor at large at Time Inc., chronicles a time when white-supremacist policymakers joined forces with pseudo-scientists promoting eugenics, creating widespread anti-immigration sentiment throughout the country. The author’s prodigious archival research covers the final decades of the 19th century and culminates in 1924, when Congress and President Calvin Coolidge passed the Johnson-Reed Act, the most restrictive immigration law in U.S. history; that act set quotas for various foreign nations. The formula used to determine the nation-by-nation numbers intentionally excluded not only would-be immigrants deemed inferior to white Christians, but also stranded people desperate to leave their home countries because of persecution and possible death. In the New York Times, one headline read, “America of the Melting Pot Comes to an End.” Much of the book focuses on policymaking, but Okrent does not stop there. One of the narrative’s great strengths is the author’s inclusion of dozens of minibiographies illuminating the backgrounds of the racist politicians and the promoters of phony eugenics “research.” Okrent keeps his personal commentary about these individuals to a minimum while presenting their biographies and the findings of their eugenics studies. Through the skilled, subtle use of language, however, Okrent makes clear that most of these immigration restrictionists were privileged bigots deserving of little respect. Sadly, there are few heroes in the book, though it’s certainly no fault of the author. Perhaps the most surprising villain is iconic book editor Maxwell Perkins. Legendary for his editing of novelists Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, among many others, Perkins also edited two books by famed eugenicist Madison Grant, including The Passing of the Great Race, which argued for the superiority of the Nordic race.
A relentlessly depressing but revelatory and necessary historical account.