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Immigrant Diaries and Memoirs

Immigrant Diaries and Memoirs

by Bruce S. Elliott, Carleton University

The immediacy of first-person narrative draws us to life writings, such as diaries, memoirs and letters, by ordinary people. The most common such writings are by immigrants. Their letters and diaries divulge the urge to record and communicate novel experiences; their memoirs and reminiscences testify to the immigrants' awareness of the changing world around them.

The distinction between these genres -- diaries, memoirs and letters (and indeed, between public and private, literature and communication) -- is often blurred. Emigrants' writings were read aloud, transcribed for circulation and sometimes published in the press. Shipboard journals were mailed home; letters written day by day were bound as diaries. Some inveterate scribblers, like the educated Cobourg farmer Robert Hume, employed their diaries as raw material for ventures into literary publication.

Even people averse to writing might have kept a diary during the Atlantic crossing, for example, because emigration was a momentous decision. Whether recording anecdotal adventures, taking control of a new experience by reducing it on paper to a daily routine, or responding to pressures from home to pass along useful information, enforced leisure at sea gave time to write.

Long mined by historians for their information content, voyage diaries, travel journals and memoirs may be probed more deeply to explore perceptions and constructions of what their authors saw and experienced. The authors did not record everything they saw. What accounted for what they chose to record, and for the ways in which they saw events and wrote them down? What shaped and tempered their understanding of new experiences?

Personal travel narratives drew upon the form and subject matter of emigrants' guidebooks, and even sometimes acted as such. Even the barely educated conformed to literary conventions to some degree. A voyage demanded a narrative chronology, and the memoir of a voyage became a tale of progress from civilization to 'howling wilderness' and back to civilization.

In travel narratives we can detect the influence of popular culture, the press, Biblical language and metaphors, sermon literature and Shakespeare. This is because new arrivals struggled to describe what they saw by imposing familiar categories; they viewed the landscape through eyes accustomed only to distant shores. The people and the land seemed untamed, even savage, by contrast with what they knew. Even when immigrants rejoiced in novelty they strove to impose old world social assumptions, and to replicate accustomed values in a new land.

Life writings are among our best sources for understanding gendered experience, for men and women experienced emigration differently. They encountered differing employment opportunities, and shifting power relations within the family. Children's diaries, represented here by the Hallens, are as rare as they are delightful. For those of the appropriate class, theirs was a more literary society than ours, and children born to a writing family learned early how to express themselves verbally and on paper. Then as now, children had recourse to imagery to express in drawings what they could not entirely convey in words. Children's diaries impress us with both their childlike view of the world and their maturity of expression.

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