20 / 2004
Marjan Drnovšek


From the antiquity on, letters are written communication intended to individuals or several people, to an intimate circle or to the public. That is valid for emigrant correspondence, which became mass during the time of contemporary migrations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Slovene historiography is devoting increasing attention to the so-called private materials among which letters emigrants exchanged with their fellow countrymen in the old homeland, with friends, different societies, state authorities in emigrant and immigrant space, Church institutions, monetary institutions, and similar, are most numerous. That is why I deal with migration letters in a broad meaning of the word and not only as with emigrant letters, which are actually mere emigrant letters to addressees in the old homeland. American sociology has discovered such archival material with William Isaac Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, Europe somewhat earlier, if I mention the Dane Karl Larsen whom many other followed. At present, known names of experts on emigrant letters are Charlotte Erickson, Giorgo Cheda, Wofgang Helbich, Ulrike Sommer, Samuel L. Baily and Franco Ramella, Antonius Holtmann, and many others. In recent years, a move in regard of researching Slovene emigrant correspondence has been made, if I just mention John A. Arnez, Henry Christian, Jerneja Petrič, Darko Friš, Aleksej Kalc, Marjan Drnovšek.

The question of the relation between private and public in emigrant correspondence is not merely the question of the relation between the published – for example in newspapers – and private letters. It is about different intentions of the writers of the letters, and contacts with different addressees, which formed the content of the letters. Consequently, I treat in detail the so-called family letters that were intended for the eyes of close relatives only, and a number of those that became public by being read in public or by being published in newspapers. Many letters to families were because of their content calling for publication, especially those from the pioneer times of colonisation in the United States of America as they contained much information on the journey across the Atlantic, the settlement itself, and life in the new environment. The number of letters emigrants addressed to newspaper editorial offices was increasing (public or open letters). Analysed are with reference to correspondence of emigrants with secular and Church authorities and societies, the so-called petition letters (for example: applications to state offices for help in cases of status difficulties), monetary and legacy letters, support letters for acquisition of visas, letters to emigrant societies and organisations in the old homeland, and letters between emigrant offices and future emigrants. A special group are public and less public letters such as invitation letters, e.g. for immigrating to America, missionary letters, published informative letters, e.g. on life in a new environment, published warning letters, e.g. about emigrating to new environments, e.g. to Brazil at the end of the 19th century, advisory letters, e.g. on economic conditions in the new environment, church pastoral letters, support letters, e.g. for encouragement of emigrants in regard of preservation of national identity, itinerary letters, and the so-called concealed letters, which were during the communist Yugoslavia confiscated or were sent to the country by secret canals. Twelve letters that represent different types of private and public letters are published in the supplement.

Infinite is the palette of relations between private and public in emigrant correspondence, especially if we step over the threshold of merely classic correspondence between individuals and look round different categories of letter contacts that were occurring between emigrants and the old homeland in the last two centuries. We can imagine expectations and fears of an individual because of a letter that arrived or there was not one; despite their lesser preservation, we can identify the principal lines of private or intimate on the one side and official letters on the other, we can understand the curiosity of people in regard of contents of the letters that lead to their publishing in media; yet on no account can we understand that the attitude toward those materials was and still is contrary to all expectations as regards their value for the individual, and the significance for judgment of most personal and at the same time public events with Slovenes in the field shortly denoted as emigration. Emigration are not only organisations, societies, preservation of Slovene identity in foreign lands, the problematic of assimilation, contacts with the old homeland, and similar, but above all people, emigrants and their descendants, an all other close and remote who remained in the old homeland. Especially those people experienced stories of their very own that, if at all, are preserved only in notes we usually find in letters. That is why letters should arouse in us greater curiosity; they detect individuals who were not part of the iceberg above the sea level, but were composing a larger and deeper part underneath about which we know least. Only letters if preserved, reveal the destinies of those people. Unfortunately, there are very few preserved with Slovenes; fortunately, gazettes from the time of most massive emigration in the Austrian period, less after, and least during the last economic wave in the socialist period, had enough ear to have published letters. Cursory rummaging in antique shops and at flea markets reveal fragments of private correspondences from which we can only surmise their richness if they were entirely preserved.