[I believe that anything can be cut to 300 words.]
Of the two highly symbolic pieces of land in New York harbor, the more obvious icon is the Statue of Liberty; the lady embodies every immigrant’s dream of America. But I’ll take Ellis Island—that’s an icon with its feet in reality. Almost half the people now living in America can trace their ancestry to the 12 million men and women and children who entered the country there. mainly between 1892 and 1924. “It’s their Plymouth Rock,” says M. Ann Belkov, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Immigration Museum, which occupies the distinctive red brick building, now handsomely restored, where the immigrants were processed. “Tourists who come here are walking in their families’ footsteps,” Belkov told me. “Three of my four grandparents first stepped on land in the U.S.A. in this building.”
Unlike most museums, which preserve the dead past, Ellis Island feels almost alive, or at least within reach of living memory. People we all know made history–American history and their own history–in the vast Registry Room, where as many as 5,000 newcomers a day were examined by officials and doctors and were served meals that contained strange and wonderful foods. Many had never seen a banana. “The white bread was like cake already,” says one old man who came from Russia, his voice typical of the many oral recollections that animate the building, along with exhibits displaying the much-loved possessions that the immigrants brought from their own culture: clothes and linens and embroidery, ornaments and religious objects and musical instruments.
Strong faces stare out of innumerable photographs: men and women from every cranny of the world. The captions quote them eloquently on the poverty and persecution that impelled them to leave (“always there was the police”) and on the unbelievable freedoms that awaited them here. One of them says, “It was as if God’s great promise had been fulfilled.”
stem: william zinsser
titel: the 300-word challenge, on writing short essays
bron: the writer who stayed
perspectief: Is there anything more about Ellis Island that an ordinary reader needs to know? The first paragraph is packed with necessary facts about the site: its setting and historical importance. It also contains an ideal summarizing metaphor (“It was their Plymouth Rock”) and a tremendous fact about American possibility: in two generations the granddaughter of three of those immigrants had become superintendent of the place where they “first stepped on land in the U.S.A.” The second paragraph fills the long-empty buildings with people–old-world men and women marveling at white bread and bananas—and with the belongings they couldn’t bear to leave behind. The final paragraph tells what kind of people they were–what they looked and sounded like. It also explains why they left the oppression at home to seek a new life in America. The language is highly compressed. Facts are crammed into one sentence that I would normally spread over three or four sentences, adding rhythm and grace and some agreeable details. But nothing fundamental has been lost; the grammar and the syntax are intact. My only preparation was to arrange an interview with Ellis Island’s superintendent; places are only places until they are given meaning by the people who look after them. I just spent a day walking around the site, taking as many notes as I would for a 5,000-word article. Nonfiction writers should always gather far more material than they will use, never knowing which morsel will later exactly serve their needs.