From the Mother Country: oral narratives of British emigration to the United States, 1860-1940
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This study investigates the experience of British (English, Scottish and Welsh) emigrants to the United States in the 1860-1940 period. It is based on the analysis of two large corpora of oral histories, about 180 interviews in total, preserved in libraries as well as archives and libraries’ special collections and manuscript departments scattered throughout the United States. In particular, the thesis draws on the interviews conducted by the Ellis Island Oral History Project researchers since the 1970s and the “life histories” gathered by the Federal Writers’ Project fieldworkers during the New Deal era. The critical examination of these sources makes it possible to shed new light on an extended period of British emigration to the United States, including the decades following 1900, which have largely been neglected by scholars so far. In fact, the FWP life histories of British immigrants have never been tapped by scholars before, and the same is true as regards the Ellis Island accounts, with the exception of the interviews with Scottish immigrants. The Introduction to the thesis presents the subject, scope, structure and objectives of the work, also providing a brief overview of the historiography in the field; the first chapter discusses both the reliability of oral histories as historical sources and their peculiarities; the second chapter specifically deals with the Ellis Island and Federal Writers’ Project interviews, on the fieldworkers’ research strategy and the interview approach they adopted, providing an in-depth critical analysis of the strengths and limits of the documents on which the dissertation’s conclusions are based. The following chapters trace the experiences of men and women who left Great Britain for the U.S. by dwelling upon the pre-emigration, emigration proper and post-emigration phases, and identify common aspects in Britons’ migratory experience as well as differences due to their age, gender and nationality. The analysis of the post-emigration phase focuses on Britons’ economic conditions, work activity and social mobility in America, as well as on cultural and identity issues. In particular, the last two sections of the thesis put to the test the widespread notions of British immigrants’ economic success and of their cultural “invisibility” in America. In fact, the evidence offered by the Ellis Island and Federal Writers’ Project oral histories challenge the image of Britons as successful immigrants who blended into American society relatively quickly and easily.