Day 12 of the History of American Immigration Seminar: Personal Correspondence and the Culture of Emigration in Nineteenth Century

The lecture was led by David Gerber of University of Buffalo, an expert on analyzing the letter of immigrants and how they inform us in terms the day to day experiences of immigrants of 19th Century.

Prof. Gerber collected massive amount of immigrant letters and found them a pattern. Historians read letters of immigrants with a view of answering questions they’ve in mind already. This is mistake as historians need to view letters with fresh mind. Letters, says Gerber, carry a meaning that can only be decoded by reading them aloud. In doing so, one needs to focus on the relationships between the letter writer and receiver. This correspondence facilitates the continuality of who we are, which is driven from the relationships we engage, which in turn, shapes the essence of who we are.

The millions of letters written by immigrants are the only source to help us inform the experience of average immigrants. Zenniecki, a Polish immigrant who was a sociologist at the University of Chicago was a pioneer in analyzing the correspondences between Polish peasants in Europe and America. Zennicki, by analyzing these letters, was able to analyze how the peasants of Europe were dealing with the effects of the disorganization of modernization.

In this view, letters were seen as “artifacts or relationships” that revealed how modernization negatively affected immigrant families. However, not all historians saw the immigrant families as dysfunctional and suffering. These were historians who were interested in finding the authentic voices of “little people,” the immigrants.

Prof. Gerber is critical of what he calls the “instrumentalist” approach of using immigrant letters to test a pre-conceived hypothesis. This results from the long tradition of historians to push immigrants into categories of ethnicity that is not always reflected by the individual. The idea that individual is insignificant results from the approach of seeing immigrants as parts of rigid categories. An examples of these are the botanical metaphors of the two classical texts on immigration “the Uprooted” and “the Transplanted.”

Putting the immigrants in the categories of ethnicity and class leaves no room for the creative adaptations and feelings of nostalgia and hope that immigrants engage in. These feelings can be decoded from the personal letters that immigrants send and receive from old countries.

The themes that run through these letters are the ideas of “self” and “individuation.” While reading these letters are problematic in that they are written poorly in terms of grammar, punctuation and the quality of the ink and letter, yet with patience one can gleam the feelings and emotions as well as the objectives of the authors.

They key question to ask is what value do these letters have? The value of these letters is found by in the intent of the writers. Immigrants wrote letters mainly to maintain relationships. At times, the identity of authors of the letter writers emerges not from who they are but who they intend to become. In one letter, an immigrant writes home and proclaims to have become a “yankee.” Letters can reveal the psychological process that immigrants were going through.

Now the participants of the debate are engaging in a debate over the seriousness of the meaning of letters of immigrants. Some people are saying that the meaning of these letters reveal who’s reading as opposed to what is in the reading of these letters.

…I posed a question on the comparative value of 19th century immigrants and those of contemporary immigrants. The speaker acknowledged the value of such project but he hasn’t done it, saying it’s a project for someone else.

Major point for the letters immigrants send is what’s called a vicarious tourism, meaning the excitement immigrants tell in their letters is enjoyed by receivers as they imagine what life is like in America.

We broke for lunch and called it a day.


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