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Reviewed by:
  • Letters across Borders: The Epistolary Practices of International Migrants
  • Max Paul Friedman
Letters across Borders: The Epistolary Practices of International Migrants. Bruce S. Elliott, David A. Gerber and Suzanne Sinke, eds. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 320 pp.).

Since the days of Oscar Handlin, scholars have agreed that migrants are not "uprooted" but nurture transnational communities. Until recent developments in communications and transportation technology, the substance of these webs [End Page 836] was spun from letters. Letters can be central to efforts to write social history from below, since they represent "the largest body of the writings of ordinary people of the past that historians and other researchers possess." (p.3) This collection presents the work of scholars who grapple with the limitations of the sources in form as well as in content. Taken together, these essays suggest that far from being a familiar and well-worn genre, migrant letters, and the epistolary practices that surround them, will continue to provide the impulse to new ideas in scholarship for some time to come.

The introduction by the three editors offers some thoughtful observations on postal communications: The prepaid iconographic stamp serves as a symbol of nationalism, so that meaning can be gleaned before the envelope is even opened. Letters are usually written and read as part of a two-way exchange, but archives typically have access to only one side of the conversation, so that these sources automatically present difficulties of interpretation. And as valuable as these nuggets of writings from below may be, there remains the unresolvable problem of the representativeness of the writers.

Wolfgang Helbich and Walter D. Kamphoefner confront this problem in the first essay, where they try to categorize a sample of letters from German immigrants according to push factors ranging from "family discord" to "misery." They then observe that any such formula will be unreliable because of the overrepresentation of highly educated persons among the donors to archives, as well as the tendency of letter writers to play down the factors that cast themselves in an unfavorable light. "Putting these findings of misrepresentation into hard figures is most difficult," they readily acknowledge (p. 50). But they defend the principle that a sample of emigrant letters large enough to yield frequently recurring themes will permit analytical claims, even if these claims must remain short of a "Gallup poll" of the immigrant community at large.

Eric Richards also takes up this question in his essay, "The Limits of the Australian Emigrant Letter." Australia was a remarkably literate society by the 1880s, when Australians wrote and received more letters per capita than did North Americans. Ideally this would yield a democratic sample of letters in the archives, but Richards observes a bias toward the more affluent families, who preserved and donated their correspondence. He takes issue with some classic tropes about Australia, such as the tragic "convict gentleman" category. For example, Robert Hughes had presented the letters of Richard Taylor as an example of a despairing emigrant torn from his father's home. But Richards notes that reading the entire cycle of Taylor's letters shows that in later years he praised the colony, declared he would never return to England, and invited family members to join him. Thus, even within a small sample of correspondence, selection can drive interpretation.

One of the interesting themes that emerges from this collection is the effort by some of the scholars to analyze the role of affective ties in the migration experience. Traditionally, analyses of push factors and pull factors have focused on the material conditions related to land and labor. Yet anyone who has first-hand experience of international migration, or who has read the writings of international migrants, can attest to the crucial role of emotions. Given that there is a labor shortage or rapid growth in population with limited land availability, why do certain people decide to leave? The answer can sometimes be as intangible as [End Page 837] love. Suzanne Sinke has studied two centuries of correspondence that can lead to betrothal. Since migration is gendered with men often being the first to move, producing a sex imbalance, mail-order bride services were in demand...


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