Writing home

Read a good article last night:

David A. Gerber “Acts of Deceiving and Withholding in Immigrant Letters: Personal Identity and Self-Presentation in Personal Correspondence.”  Journal of Social History, Vol 39, No. 2 (2005) pp 315-330. I accessed it through my university library, but I see that it’s available through SLV as well.

With the current trend to write the “I” into history ( something that I am ambivalent about and will no doubt explore one day in another post)  you’ll often read about the emotional rush that researchers feel when holding a letter.  The precariousness and contingency of its journey into your hands, the physicality and smell of the paper and the knowledge that your subject had picked up a pen, smoothed out that very sheet, re-read it on finishing-  it all gives the act of reading the letter an edge of sanctity that is lost when reading it on microfilm, or digitally.

In this article, the author has obviously moved beyond that initial response- as must we all eventually. Instead of attending to the content of the letter, he looks instead at the immigrant letter as a strategy in maintaining interpersonal relationships across distance.  We know for ourselves that what we project and present in letters is not necessarily the case, and he focusses on what is not made explicit, what is hidden and held back.  Perhaps that’s part of the uneasiness about an online communicative presence now- that the interconnectedness of different online genres means that our different personae are no longer quarantined from each other. We may intend to remain silent, but instead earlier conversations are overheard.

Gerber’s research involves immigrant letters written between Canadian and American migrants and their families in Britain.  They were separated by a sea-journey of approximately 7-10 days which could stretch out to as long as 4-6 weeks: whatever the range it was certainly of a different magnitude to the voyage to Australia.  He describes his immigrants as “venturesome conservatives”, pessimistic about Britain’s future after the Napoleonic Wars and hostile to modernity and again I find myself wondering whether this also applied to Australia.

In these letters there is a psychological need to continue the relationship they are seeking to maintain in some way.  It’s often a collaborative exercise, even though in the archives we often only read one side of the communication.  Of course there is the issue of incompleteness and representativeness: letters may not have been collected or saved; they may be in private hands; they may have been culled; and the illiterate or those with completed families may not appear at all.

He explores the reasons – using examples from his letters- of outright lies and misrepresentations, but also untruths and silences.  Letter-writers might not want to cause worry to those at home; perhaps they had been discouraged from emigrating and have the need to save face.  On the other hand, perhaps it suited their purposes to exaggerate their situation.  Either way, there was the danger of being found out.  As Gerber points out “Gossip became transnational” as letters were shared between family and acquaintances in both settings.  Even silence is itself a type of communication.  It was a way of changing the tenor of the relationship.  For example, a child could take her time in replying to a parent and there is nothing at all that the parent could do about it.

Often the reason that we come to a body of correspondence is because we need the content that we hope they contain, or because the writer or recipient is important to our research in some way.  We become swept up in the details they offer, and the relationships that we try to reconstruct from them.  This article reminded me of the relationships that underpin the artefact itself, as a genre, that lie at the bottom of the act of writing and reading at a distance.


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5 responses to “Writing home

  1. As you note, there were plenty of factors to consider, especially when the new arrivals are non-English speaking landing in an English speaking country. But in the end, the family’s Hope For The Future rested on the immigrants, not on the older or more fearful people who did not make the decision to sail off to a distant land. Letters were always hope-based.

    Your letter-writers may have had a really tough time in their new land, but almost always it did indeed suit their purposes to boost their situation. Some new immigrants to Australia (I don’t know about other countries) had the possibility of returning to their homeland, but for most, returning would have been impossible.

    You were discussing only the immigrants, but just once I had the opportunity to read the letters of the person who did not immigrate: my aunt who stayed in Russia, when her brothers and sisters moved to Australia. The letters were full of sadness about being left behind, of course. But there were constant comparisons between Russia’s cold weather, hard work, poor incomes and… what? She didn’t know enough about Australia to compare sensibly.

    • It would have been interesting to know how the Australian-based correspondents responded to her. I wonder if they continued to try to encourage her to come over, or whether they ignored her complaints.

  2. Reading the silences is an important task in historical research. A letter, an autobiography, a diary, a conversation are all opportunities for self-representation, for presenting oneself in the best light and advancing one’s agenda. The person I am interested in was legally trained and an astute politician. He was always right (in his eyes) and was extremely capable in presenting his views backing them up with the right evidence culled from what appears to be a very good filing system. It is easy to get drawn into his point of view. However by honing in on what he did not say and comparing his assertions about himself with his actions reveal some things that he probably would prefer were not highlighted.

    It is easy to slip into the trap of becoming a protagonist for the people we are researching. This is why articles such as Gerber’s are so valuable.

    • “My” judge of course is also legally trained, and most of his letters read like a courtroom address, full of bluster and confidence. I haven’t been able to find any letters where he breaks out of this mode- even letters to his son are written (not surprisingly) from a position of power and authority. I have found gossipy-type letters- just one series to one person- and I’d love to have others for comparison.

  3. Pingback: Lucy Peel’s Journal in Lower Canada | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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