Book Review: Alcatraz: History And Design Of A Landmark

Alcatraz:  History And Design Of A Landmark, by Donald MacDonald and Ira Nadel

Although from time to time I have visited a few prisons, I have never visited Alcatraz, nor have I even watched many of the large amount of films that have been made about the place, which this book spends quite a bit of its limited space talking about.  But one thing about the book that did strike me as particularly interesting was when I was looking at the life of Alcatraz when it was a fort before it became mainly a prison, and I thought to myself, “this place looks exactly like Fort Sumter,” only to find out that it was constructed with the same sort of fort design that Fort Sumter (which I have visited) had.  While I do not often visit the San Francisco Bay area, this book at least gave me somewhere to visit should I find myself there with some time to kill.  I suppose it would not hurt to add another prison to my list of places to visit, because it is one that has a great deal of historical interest as well as gardens and birds to look at, and a melancholy feeling of those soldiers and guards and prisoners who found themselves there for so long on that ship-looking island.

In less than 150 pages this book manages to capture a lot of interest in its text as well as its drawings and photography.  After a short introduction the authors comment on the name of Alcatraz and points out how variable it was at the beginning before a settled spelling was chosen for it (1).  After that the authors spend some time looking at its choice as a citadel and then its transition to fortress (2), the addition of a lighthouse (3), and the transition from a fortress to a dedicated prison (4).  After that the authors spend some time talking about escapes (5), most of which were intensely unsuccessful, as well as life on a rock (6) where there were no natural springs of water.  The authors spend a long time talking about the occupation of the island by American Indian activists, which ended in a way that demonstrates the wastefulness of leftist activism in general (7), before looking at gardens (8), birdwatching (9), and the Alcatraz of today and tomorrow as a park open to the public (10).  After this main material the authors include appendices on Alcatrax in the movies (i), inmates and wardens (ii), and escape attempts (iii) before various supplementary material.

What is it that makes Alcatraz such a compelling place?  For one, there is the juxtaposition between the high culture of San Francisco, a place that prides itself on being more free than most places are (and not always in morally upright ways) and the presence of a grim prison vulnerable to shortages of food and water and where escape attempts are usually either unsuccessful in getting out of the prison itself or fatal in dealing with the island and the waters surrounding it and their hazards.  Alcatraz has long been a symbol for filmmakers to exercise their speculative interests as well as a potent symbol for tourists as well as political activists, and it is somewhat of a surprise that it was thought that the mystique of Alcatraz would quickly fade.  The fact that Alcatraz island is both a strategic rock as well as a deeply lonely one and that it was originally a (minor) source of guano allows the reader to ponder the difference between economically important islands, bastions for lighthouses and fortresses, and places for isolated and maximum security prisons in being in one and the same place, and what that means for people now and in the future who are fascinated by the mystique of such a place.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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