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

3
Writing with a Purpose
Immigrant Epistolarity and the
Culture of Emigration

Immigrant personal correspondence became necessary because of the separation that resulted from emigration in an age before instantaneous electronic communications and rapid means of transportation made it likely that intercontinental migrations need not be lifelong or eventuate in long silences. The desire for continuity necessitated that personal relationships sundered in time and space be reformulated and renegotiated. The letter served as the medium for doing so, but for correspondents the letter soon passed from a medium for a relationship to, in a practical sense, the relationship itself, for relationships became constituted through words on paper.

Immigrants and those they left behind in their homelands formed a transnational culture of emigration, which, though defined ultimately by relationships that had existed in the homeland, united new and old worlds in the singular transnational space of the letter. The concept of culture is used in this context to suggest the mutually and continuously constructed ideas, attitudes, and feelings that united emigrants and those with whom they kept in contact in Britain. These aspects of culture were not fixed and formalized, but instead operated in a wide conceptual space where meanings that assist in making sense of the world were sought and formed, and served to guide behavior.1 At the heart of this culture in the nineteenth century was personal correspondence, which was neither in the homeland nor the new world, but rather on paper and “in the mail,” and overcame temporal and physical boundaries. International migrants began to participate in this culture before leaving for their destinations. To the extent that they had read or heard the letters of other international migrants read, and been party to the excitement that surrounded the arrival of letters from distant places,

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