Establishing Voice, Theme,
Most immigrants and their homeland correspondents were familiar with the letter as a form of communication, but whether they had ever been responsible for organizing and sustaining a correspondence of their own, let alone a trans-Atlantic one, is another question. The obligations and knowledge involved in fulfilling these responsibilities were of a different order than writing the occasional letter to a friend or family member residing in the next town. This chapter examines the nature and execution of these responsibilities in the early period—up to five years, but as we shall soon see, subject to a number of qualifications—of correspondence.
The classic “first letter,” as it came to be conceived by historians, is a dramatic narrative of adventure, danger, and redemption that conforms to the classic literary form, the romance. As the psychologist Dan P . McAdams has written, the message of the romance from Homer’s Odyssey to such memorable movies as Stand by Me and Raiders of the Lost Ark is that “We embark on a long and difficult journey in life in which circumstances constantly change and new challenges continually arise. We must keep changing and moving if we are to win in the end. But we are confident that we will win.”1 In terms of the immigrant’s experience, the elements of romantic drama that we expect to see articulated in the typical immigrant’s first letter are departure amidst sadness; material deprivation or frustration over a lack of opportunity in one’s homeland; apprehension about and hope for the future; danger at sea, and finally, safety in a land of promise and expectation for a new and better life.
A narrative of this sort might provide poetic, and for Americans and Canadians, patriotic, satisfactions, but one seldom encounters it in the immigrants’ letters. There was no need to recapitulate the reasons for