Gerber Receives National U.S. Postal Service Award for Research

Letters helped immigrants maintain personal identity in dramatically shifting world

Release Date: June 19, 2008

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- How did 19th-century immigrants maintain relationships with loved ones thousands of miles away, much less preserve ties with pasts rooted in places they had left voluntarily?

In his critically acclaimed book, "Authors of Their Lives: The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century" (2006, NYU Press), David A. Gerber, Ph.D., analyzes the cycle of correspondence between immigrants and their homelands to uncover the critical role played by letters in reformulating personal relationships made vulnerable by separation.

Gerber is professor and chair of the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo, and his book, now considered the definitive study of American and Canadian immigrant letters, has received the 2008 Moroney Senior Award from the United States Postal Service.

The award carries a $2,000 cash prize and was presented to him recently at ceremony at the Main Post Office in Buffalo. A Junior Award of $1,000 was presented to a graduate student in California.

The awards honoring Rita Lloyd Moroney, historian of the U.S. Postal Service from 1973-91, are designed to encourage scholarship on the history of the American postal system and to raise awareness about the significance of the postal system in American life.

Since its publication, "Authors of Their Lives" has been applauded by a broad range of historians and critics for the elegance, insightfulness and the astute and agenda-setting quality of Gerber's analysis.

In his focus on the cycle of correspondence between immigrants and their homelands, he attends in particular to the role played by letters in reformulating personal relationships. He found that, regardless of their of level of literacy, these 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.

Their letters, Gerber maintains, provided sources of continuity in lives disrupted by movement

across vast spaces that disrupted personal identities so dependent upon continuity between past and present.

Gerber is a 19th- and 20th-century American social historian with interests in personal identity and personal relationships among non-elite populations. His books include "The Making of an American Pluralism: Buffalo, New York, 1825-1861," "Black Ohio and the Color Line," "Anti-Semitism in American History" and "Disabled Veterans in History."

Known locally for his interest in historic preservation of Buffalo's urban built environment in Buffalo, Gerber has served on the board of directors of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County and works to encourage adaptive reuse of historic structures and the preservation of historic streetscapes and industrial landscapes.

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