Vol 31 (2011)
Work in Progress

Golden Door Voices: Towards a Critique of the Ellis Island Oral History Project

Mario Varricchio
University of Edinburgh


This article foregrounds the thematic structure of the Ellis Island Oral History Project narratives and the interview strategy adopted by the fieldworkers by focusing on a sample of interviews with emigrants from Great Britain. The analysis makes it possible to reveal the cultural bias informing the work of the Ellis Island researchers – and therefore the whole collection of Ellis Island oral histories – as revealed by their approach to the interview and relationship with the interviewees. The Ellis Island fieldworkers determine most of the elements constituting the fabric of the informants’ narratives as well as many of the “silences” on significant aspects of the migratory experience which characterize the accounts. Furthermore, they display a largely celebratory attitude based essentially on an uncritical acceptance of the American Dream myth. Therefore, though they represent a valuable source for investigating the history of emigration to the United States in the twentieth century, the Ellis Island oral histories fall short of scholars’ expectations.