I have now finished the manuscript for Examining Lives and am set to send it to the publisher. So now my focus has turned to my next book Coming to Amerika, the draft of whose introduction is below.
We are, as John F. Kennedy once famously wrote, a nation of immigrants. Driven by poor harvests, famine, warfare, religious persecution, political and economic oppression, we came to the United States attracted by the opportunity for a freer life and greater economic security. The story, of course, is more complex than this. There are those of us who were brutally brought here as slaves and found no freedom or opportunity. And, there were those already here who lost much in people, property and their ways of life as a result of contact with immigrants.
These are the sweeping generalizations of standard history books. Beneath them, however, lies what I call history at the “ground level”— the unique stories of the individuals who lived the events so briefly described in the books. Coming to Amerika is one such unique story. It follows the fortunes of members of the Lodholz and Reb families as they journey and settle in the United States. The story is also unique, however, from much of the literature on immigration in its breath and depth. It is based on family letters and documents spanning over 100 years, from 1850 to 1950. It provides a richness of detail about their lives through the lens of a wide variety of family members, each with his or her own quirks and personality.
Coming to Amerika is divided into two parts. Part One: The First Generation focuses on the Lodholz family, their journey to the United States, their settlement in Terryville, Connecticut and their eventual move to the prairies of the Kansas Territory. One member, however, stayed behind to work in the factories of Terryville. The contrast between urban and rural life in the late 19th century is dramatic. The one daughter in the Lodholz family married Henry Reb and Part Two: The Second Generation focuses on them and their many children from the 1890’s, through the Great Depression and up until 1950, when the family farm was finally divided.
It is difficult to convey from our present perspective how important letters were to our ancestors. Often separated by many long miles of difficult to traverse terrain, relatives and friends found in letters an emotional attachment to loved ones as well as information about their health, joys and sorrows; hard times and bountiful harvests; the quick strike of death and the newborn child.
This family seemingly threw nothing out. Letters were saved to be savored on multiple readings. Even receipts for the sale of eggs and small drawings by children were placed safely away. In preparing to write Coming to Amerika, I found myself submerged in their world. I hope that you can take yourself back almost two centuries now and find pleasure in submerging yourself in their world too. It reads I hope like a good epistolary novel.
NOTE ON TRANSCRIPTION OF LETTERS AND DOUMENTS:
The letters and documents in Part One: The First Generation were written in Old German. I have generally kept to the translators’ wording while formatting the material into more coherent paragraphs. Paper was valuable and postage cost money so the letters were often crammed with writing.
The letters and documents in Part Two: The Second Generation were written in English. In transcribing these, I have kept the spelling of the writers and provided the modern correction only when it is not obvious what the word signified. Keeping the original spelling allows the reader to catch the accent of the letter writer. The letters contain run-on sentences and paragraphs, often skipping abruptly to new topics, one indication that the letters were often written in several sessions. In this case I have divided sentences, inserted punctuation and created paragraphs in order to make the text easier to follow.
In both parts I have added contextual information about events mentioned and unfamiliar terms and items. This information is hardly meant to be exhaustive and leaves the reader to explore further if curious about it.
The letters are of course arranged chronologically, but they are not consecutive, that is, there was obviously more correspondence than was actually saved. The sequence of letters, however, provide a consistent story of interwoven lives.