Authors of Their Lives: The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century

By David A. Gerber | Go to book overview

6
When Correspondence Wanes

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 matters that have been almost wholly neglected in the near-century of scholarly attention, from Thomas and Znaniecki to the present, given to the correspondence of immigrants with their homelands. The problems involved are wide-ranging, from understanding who undertakes the writing of letters, and why they do so and then cease doing so, to analyzing how letters are saved and come to interface with both popular conceptions of the past and ultimately even the formal discourses of academic History. They frequently appear, as do so many other conceptual problems in the interpretation of correspondence, as puzzles in which gaps and absences have to be explained.

Three of the principal issues that must be considered make this clear. First, collections of archived letter-series are artifacts of an obscure and highly individualized process of saving, collection, and donation. We seldom know how or why these collections were brought together, and to this extent we cannot know how complete they are. Who brought the letter-series together for donation? What were their motives in doing so? What editorial prerogatives might they have exercised? Second, while in some cases it is clear why a correspondence ends—because, for example, of the death of one of the parties, or because families are reunited and no longer have to depend on letters for communication— in most cases the circumstances are obscure, and ultimately seem unknowable. Do the correspondents actually stop writing, or have later letters been lost, or perhaps purposely culled to destroy the embarrassing record of, for example, some conflict that alienated individuals and irreparably divided families and friends? Third, the end of a particular

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