Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2013
In 1858 a young man in the Saarbrücken area wrote to his brother who worked in Pennsylvania as a coal miner:
Dear Peter, I must let you know that we were firmly decided to join you, but then there was very bad news from America everywhere, that everything had stopped and there was no work, me and my wife still want to go to America but you must write telling me exactly if we are to join you, and how it is now.
This quotation from a letter to a German emigrant in the United States and many similar ones reveal two points in our context. Whereas it is plausible to assume that a fair number of Germans had no image of America at all, since they either had no chance to learn about it or simply did not care, the letter writer quoted must have had such an image. But he and many others like him apparently felt that it was so vague or incomplete or contradictory that a truly vital decision could not be based on it. The missing keystone was the personal opinion of a relative who lived in America.
One may also infer that an image had an entirely different weight and quality for people seriously considering emigration from that of their contemporaries who did not. For the former, it was an existential proposition and the basis for a crucial decision; for the latter, it may have held some intellectual attraction, or entertainment value, or at most some enticement to social, political, or commercial action, but constituted neither a powerful magnet nor a potential threat to their previous and future existence. Whereas emigrants’ images of the United States is addressed here, more attention is paid to the less existential images of people who did not intend to emigrate.