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

2
Forming Selves in Letters

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 experienced in the intimate setting of household and community were now vulnerable because of the prospect of permanent separation. Because personal identities are dependent on the individual’s sense of continuity in relation to people and place, the migrant and the homeland correspondent were both placed in the position of having disrupted the personal narratives by which they knew themselves. Intimate conversation, the ordinary, world-making discourse of individuals, would no longer suffice to provide anchors for the individual, so writing—an even less accustomed practice for many than reading—had to suffice to accomplish the goal of achieving continuity. Though the circumstances varied considerably from individual to individual, all immigrant correspondence lies conceptually at this conjuncture of the self-in-relationship, personal identity, the narrative construction of the self, discourse, and acts of literacy.

David Laing, a Scottish skilled railroad worker living at Logansport, Indiana, provides an example of this conjuncture. He had been in the United States for at least twenty-three years when he resumed a correspondence with his sister “Johan” (perhaps, Johanna) in 1873. Laing had attempted to correspond with his sisters in the past, but at some point, for reasons we cannot know, years passed without any answer to his letters, and at last he gave up and stopped writing. Then, long after he had lost hope of ever hearing from either his sister or any member of his Scottish family again, he received a letter that reintroduced him to people long absent from his life. At least several of his siblings were born after he emigrated, so he did not even know what they looked like.

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