We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Authors of Their Lives

The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century

David Gerber

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


pdf iconDownload PDF (32.6 KB)
pp. vii-viii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (31.9 KB)
pp. ix-x

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...

read more

Introduction: Letters and Immigrants

pdf iconDownload PDF (103.3 KB)
pp. 1-28

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

pdf iconDownload PDF (20.0 KB)
pp. 29

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (33.1 KB)
pp. 31-32

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...

read more

1. Traditions of Inquiry

pdf iconDownload PDF (94.7 KB)
pp. 33-56

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...

read more

2. Forming Selves in Letters

pdf iconDownload PDF (124.4 KB)
pp. 57-91

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...

read more

3. Writing with a Purpose: Immigrant Epistolarity and the Culture of Emigration

pdf iconDownload PDF (157.6 KB)
pp. 92-139

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...

read more

4. Using Postal Systems: Transnational Networks on the Edge of Modernity

pdf iconDownload PDF (87.2 KB)
pp. 140-161

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...

read more

5. Establishing Voice, Theme, and Rhythm

pdf iconDownload PDF (134.9 KB)
pp. 162-200

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...

read more

6. When Correspondence Wanes

pdf iconDownload PDF (91.1 KB)
pp. 201-223

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

pdf iconDownload PDF (19.9 KB)
pp. 225

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (35.1 KB)
pp. 227-229

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...

read more

7. Thomas Spencer Niblock: A Dialogue of Respectability and Failure

pdf iconDownload PDF (102.2 KB)
pp. 230-256

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...

read more

8. Catherine Grayston Bond: Letter-Writing as the Practice of Existential Accounting

pdf iconDownload PDF (95.0 KB)
pp. 257-280

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,...

read more

9. Mary Ann Wodrow Archbald: Longing for Her “Little Isle” from a Farm in Central New York

pdf iconDownload PDF (105.9 KB)
pp. 281-308

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,...

read more

10. Dr. Thomas Steel: The Difficulties of Achieving the Reunited Family

pdf iconDownload PDF (104.8 KB)
pp. 309-335

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

pdf iconDownload PDF (20.5 KB)
pp. 337


pdf iconDownload PDF (313.0 KB)
pp. 339-397

Collections of Letters Consulted

pdf iconDownload PDF (39.4 KB)
pp. 399-401


pdf iconDownload PDF (124.3 KB)
pp. 403-421

About the Author

pdf iconDownload PDF (30.8 KB)
pp. 422

E-ISBN-13: 9780814733219
E-ISBN-10: 0814733212
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814731710
Print-ISBN-10: 0814731716

Page Count: 432
Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Immigrants' writings, American.
  • Great Britain -- Emigration and immigration -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
  • Letter writing -- History -- 19th century.
  • Transnationalism -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
  • United States -- Emigration and immigration -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
  • Canada -- Emigration and immigration -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
  • British -- Canada -- Correspondence.
  • Immigrants -- United States -- Correspondence.
  • Immigrants -- Canada -- Correspondence.
  • British Americans -- Correspondence.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access