Authors of Their Lives
The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century
Publication Year: 2006
2008 United States Postal System's Rita Lloyd Moroney Award
In the era before airplanes and e-mail, how did immigrants keep in touch with loved ones in their homelands, as well as preserve links with pasts that were rooted in places from which they voluntarily left? Regardless of literacy level, they wrote letters, explains David A. Gerber in this path-breaking study of British immigrants to the U.S. and Canada who wrote and received letters during the nineteenth century.
Scholars have long used immigrant letters as a lens to examine the experiences of immigrant groups and the communities they build in their new homelands. Yet immigrants as individual letter writers have not received significant attention; rather, their letters are often used to add color to narratives informed by other types of sources.
Authors of Their Lives analyzes the cycle of correspondence between immigrants and their homelands, paying particular attention to the role played by letters in reformulating relationships made vulnerable by separation. Letters provided sources of continuity in lives disrupted by movement across vast spaces that disrupted personal identities, which depend on continuity between past and present. Gerber reveals how ordinary artisans, farmers, factory workers, and housewives engaged in correspondence that lasted for years and addressed subjects of the most profound emotional and practical significance.
Published by: NYU Press
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Many individuals and institutions, too numerous to mention, facilitated this study. Special mention needs to be made of the generosity of the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), which has provided me with funds to sustain my research and a forum for the presentation of my ideas before extraordinarily...
Introduction: Letters and Immigrants
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Immigrants before the era of instant electronic communication were compelled to write letters to family and friends in their homelands.1 The great age of European mass international migrations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was also an era of rapidly proliferating formal primary education and rising popular literacy. Across the lines...
Part I: Immigrant Epistolarity
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Currently, immigrant letters are used mostly to provide color and drama in historical narratives, or to document societal-level and group-level generalizations based on other primary sources, social science theory, or manipulation of aggregate data taken from published, mostly official, sources, such as census records. A number of excellent...
1. Traditions of Inquiry
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In the last decade, the immigrant letter has enjoyed a resurgence of attention among researchers, especially among social historians and scholars interested in popular literature. This has not always been the case. The marginality of the immigrant letter, especially within social history, until very recently stands in sharp contrast to its central...
2. Forming Selves in Letters
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The cycle of immigrant personal correspondence grew directly out of the existential circumstances shared by both the immigrants and those who remained in the homeland. Letters were the mobilization through language of an intense self-awareness of needs generated by those circumstances. Relationships that had once been...
3. Writing with a Purpose: Immigrant Epistolarity and the Culture of Emigration
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Immigrant personal correspondence became necessary because of the separation that resulted from emigration in an age before instantaneous electronic communications and rapid means of transportation made it likely that intercontinental migrations need not be lifelong or eventuate in long silences. The desire for continuity necessitated...
4. Using Postal Systems: Transnational Networks on the Edge of Modernity
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The family of George Hollingsworth left the West Riding of Yorkshire in the 1820s in a series of progressive emigrations that over time led to resettlement in Leicester, Massachusetts, of George and his five sons (John, Jabez, Joseph, James, and Edwin) and their families. All the Hollingsworths were textile artisans. Originally George and his...
5. Establishing Voice, Theme, and Rhythm
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Most immigrants and their homeland correspondents were familiar with the letter as a form of communication, but whether they had ever been responsible for organizing and sustaining a correspondence of their own, let alone a trans-Atlantic one, is another question. The obligations and knowledge involved in fulfilling these responsibilities...
6. When Correspondence Wanes
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While the subject of personal correspondence is pervaded by practical and theoretical difficulties, aspects of the exchange of letters that are especially difficult to conceptualize are the subjects of this chapter: the waning and termination of an exchange of letters between individuals and, relatedly, the fate of their letters thereafter. These are...
Part II: Four Lives in Letters
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The concluding four chapters are case studies in the epistolary construction of selves that as much as possible let letters between immigrants and their families provide direction for the story. Letters cannot speak for themselves. But the effort is made to understand the narrative of the individual in relationship to his or her correspondents...
7. Thomas Spencer Niblock: A Dialogue of Respectability and Failure
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Early in the morning of Sunday, May 15, 1853, an American steamship plying the seas off Cape Howe on the coast of northern Victoria, and bound for Sydney from Melbourne, entered waters known to Australian navigators as particularly perilous. The captain of the Monumental City made what was later revealed before a board of inquiry to...
8. Catherine Grayston Bond: Letter-Writing as the Practice of Existential Accounting
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Catherine Grayston Bond’s letters to her brother, Robert, and his wife, Ellen, record a deceptively simple story. A twenty-four-year-old Englishwoman and her husband, James, leave Lancashire in 1869 to work at farming and domestic service on the Connecticut estate of a wealthy American. Then, at some time between 1874 and 1879,...
9. Mary Ann Wodrow Archbald: Longing for Her “Little Isle” from a Farm in Central New York
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In the Firth of Clyde, not far off the coast of Ayrshire in western Scotland, lie two islands—Great Cumbrae and Little Cumbrae. Though only three-quarters of a mile off the coast of Millport, Great Cumbrae’s principal town, Little Cumbrae has been the much less thickly settled of the two. Most of the 723-acre island was then,...
10. Dr. Thomas Steel: The Difficulties of Achieving the Reunited Family
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In 1853, Thomas Steel, a forty-four-year-old Scottish medical doctor and farmer, had been living in rural Waukesha County, Wisconsin, for a decade.1 The first year on the prairie had been hard, filled with privation, loneliness, and disappointment. He had left England as a member of a community of two hundred Utopian socialists who had...
Abbreviations for Archives and Repositories Consulted
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Collections of Letters Consulted
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About the Author
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Page Count: 432
Publication Year: 2006