Traditions of Inquiry
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 position in both History and Sociology throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The immigrant letter was then generally regarded as the document that could provide the basis for reconstruction of both the sociological and the historical disciplines. In a foundational work of American sociology, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918– 1920), William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki utilized letters to and from immigrants in the United States at the center of a work that was intended to move American sociology toward more scientific theorizing rooted in empirical research.1 Voted by social scientists in 1938 the most influential work in American sociology in the years since World Wa r I, The Polish Peasant is now recognized as providing intellectual foundations for most of the central nonbehaviorist, phenomenological trends in the discipline—life history, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, and personality theory.2
Less influential in the formation of disciplines, but ultimately more influential in thinking about the immigrant letter, were those works of early- and mid-twentieth-century American social history that saw the immigrant letter as the basis for a new American history. As early as the 1920s, the immigration historians George Stephenson, Marcus Lee Hansen, and Theodore Blegen were proposing that the immigrant letter be used to create a more inclusive, democratic history of the United States that might replace the traditional master narrative created by scholars, journalists, educators, and politicians, with its elite, AngloSaxon, male perspective.3 From Norway, where he had gone to collect immigrant letters, Theodore Blegen announced in 1929 the intention to
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Publication information: Book title: Authors of Their Lives: The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century. Contributors: David A. Gerber - Author. Publisher: New York University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2006. Page number: 33.
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