2008 United States Postal System’s Rita Lloyd Moroney Award
In the era before airplanes and e-mail, how did immigrants keep in touch with loved ones in their homelands, as well as preserve links with pasts that were rooted in places from which they voluntarily left? Regardless of literacy level, they wrote letters, explains David A. Gerber in this path-breaking study of British immigrants to the U.S. and Canada who wrote and received letters during the nineteenth century.
Scholars have long used immigrant letters as a lens to examine the experiences of immigrant groups and the communities they build in their new homelands. Yet immigrants as individual letter writers have not received significant attention; rather, their letters are often used to add color to narratives informed by other types of sources.
Authors of Their Lives analyzes the cycle of correspondence between immigrants and their homelands, paying particular attention to the role played by letters in reformulating relationships made vulnerable by separation. Letters provided sources of continuity in lives disrupted by movement across vast spaces that disrupted personal identities, which depend on continuity between past and present. Gerber reveals how ordinary artisans, farmers, factory workers, and housewives engaged in correspondence that lasted for years and addressed subjects of the most profound emotional and practical significance.
“David Gerber provides a new reading of the immigrant letter. Though informed by social theory, it is Gerber's astute analysis which provides the reader a rare entree to the psychology of particular immigrants. A unique achievement!”
-Rudolph J. Vecoli,Professor of History, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
“Authors of Their Lives is the definitive study of American and Canadian immigrant letters. David Gerber employs psychology, epistolary scholarship, as well as his superlative capacities as an empathetic reader, to reveal how letters constitute not only a record of immigrant experience, but were an agent in fashioning that experience. Authors of Their Lives is an invaluable contribution to transnational history at the most personal and persuasive level.”
-John R. Gillis,author of Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World
“[I]n this excellent study . . . Gerber uses sophisticated social theory — quite elegantly — for a readable and insightful analysis of the immigrants and what migration meant to them. . . . Gerber also breaks new ground by analyzing the ‘rhythm’ of letter writing — how immigrants' writing changed over time and what that reveals about their psychology, emotion, and adjustment. . . . Altogether, Gerber provides a fresh model and another high standard for scholars of American immigration.”
-Journal of American History
“This is a fascinating book. David Gerber carefully analyzes the letter itself to focus on the development of individual identities in the face of migration.”
-Jon Gjerde,author of The Minds of the West: The Ethnocultural Evolution of the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917
“Gerber provides an insightful examination of the role letters play in the shaping of identity. . . . Will certainly help historians to address personal immigrant letters more critically.”
-American Historical Review