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Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing by Christopher Hager (review)

From: The Journal of the Civil War Era
Volume 4, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 124-126 | 10.1353/cwe.2014.0003

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Say you're an archivist, and you've been given a box of letters written, you soon come to realize, by enslaved men and women in the antebellum South. After celebrating the gift, what do you do? Where do they go? Do you file the letters in existing subject-specific boxes: those labeled "Slave Religious Practices," for instance, or "Slaves in Kentucky"? Or do you sort them by author, cataloged into categories marked off by names previously unknown? The former, of course, highlights the letters as part of a larger collective history, instances gesturing toward experiences repeated across multiple lives. The latter marks the documents as exceptional, fragments of singular lives and singular moments of composition. In his remarkable Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing, Christopher Hager advances the latter option. For him, to treat the letters as distinctly authored documents—as vital instances of composition, expression, and literacy—is to transform them from artifacts into narratives and to, in turn, expand the range of modes through which the documents might speak across time.

Hager's interventions are methodological and recuperative as much as historical and critical. He aims "to broaden literary studies (to manuscripts in addition to printed works, marginally literate writers in addition to the well-educated) and inspire new modes of interpreting historical sources" (4-5). A frequently cited and published letter written by Maria Perkins to her husband provides an ideal case study. In the letter, Perkins describes her master's decision to sell her and her children: "I write you a letter to let you know of my distress my master has sold albert to a trader onmonday court day and myself and other child is for sale also . . ." (55). Where previous editors and writers ignore, apologize for, or rectify the letter's imperfections and idiosyncrasies, Hager applies close reading methods, interpreting them instead "as reflections of Perkins's experience" (63). He notes, for instance, that Perkins begins the letter fastidiously, editing her own writing in a way that indicates self-conscious composition over a period of time. By the letter's end, however, she seems to speed up, misspelling words she's already spelled correctly, running out of room as she comes to the end of a line. Moreover, this change in the nature of composition matches a change in the letter's content, which transitions from "an epistolary mode of outreach to her husband and toward a diaristic mode of private reflection" (67). By attending to the letter with such care, Hager approaches something we might otherwise miss in the historical record: Maria Perkins's private life and rich interiority, indexed here by spelling, handwriting, and self-corrections. While Hager thus suggests the potential value of close reading to historians, he also encourages scholars in my discipline, literary studies, to expand what we typically take to constitute the body of nineteenth-century African American literature. He makes this point effectively when he proposes a new category or genre of autobiographical writing, the "enslaved narrative," written from within the immediacies of slave experience rather than, as with slave narratives, from the perspective afforded by time, distance, and freedom.

Such a literary approach to slave manuscripts subtly alters the history of slavery and emancipation. Take, as just one instance, the history of racial belonging and African American community formation. Here such collectivities emerge inductively rather than deductively, shifting even within a single document, and they therefore take form in modes far more provisional and dynamic than scholarship typically allows. In chapter 4, "The Written We," Hager analyzes how men and women, slave and newly free, represented their own affiliations, belongings, and companionships. In particular, he examines the shifting first-person plural in the writing of William B. Gould, who began his diary five days after his self-emancipation during the Civil War and kept it through three years of service in the U.S. Navy. Hager reveals a "we" in Gould's writing that shifts from describing an aspirational community that includes everyone on board his ship, white and black, to a more local solidarity, "influenced by racial division and . . . frequently interrupted by Gould's sense of his own separateness" (128). While...



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