- I Remain Yours: Common Lives in Civil War Letters by Christopher Hager
There are three reasons for reading this extraordinary book: one, the rich archive assembled in its pages; two, the sophisticated arguments about the importance of letters for marginally literate people during the Civil War; and three, the ease and elegance of Christopher Hager's prose. Turning his attention from the African American populations that were his focus in Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing (Cambridge, Mass., 2013) to white Americans affected by the war, Hager contributes to the archival recovery of soldiers' letters undertaken, for instance, by historian Robert E. Bonner. Offering a history of cultural experience that connects the home front to the battlefront, Hager' s book also contributes significantly to the literary study of the Civil War and shows how Civil War letters call into question tacit assumptions about class.
Letters have been important for literary scholarship in contexts ranging from studies of the epistolary novel to Jürgen Habermas's claim that letters brought about The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) and Michael Warner's adaptation of the Habermasian model to the American context. But as Hager points out, these studies draw on letters written by people who were highly literate. In drawing our attention to those who were not, Hager shows that these broader claims about letters apply to a particular slice of the population, and he offers a compelling account of the different work letters do for those forced into writing by the war. Hager argues that the war transformed their relationships to one another, and he carefully explains how we can track these changes. In doing so, this book is not just an intervention into literary history but also a profound meditation on feeling, sentiment, and affect. Inaugurated in the late 1990s with publications such as Julia A. Stern's The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel (Chicago, 1997), studies of the political importance of feeling have also given rise to theoretical inquiries, especially in the work of Lauren Berlant, and have more recently congealed into so-called affect studies. Hager is deeply conversant with this scholarship, but his engagement is almost double-voiced in the sense that he does not avail himself of theoretical language to make complicated arguments about letters. I Remain Yours: Common Lives in Civil War Letters thereby is accessible to a broader readership while it also contributes significantly to the scholarly fields it engages. Clear of purpose and prose, the book contains moments of eloquence, for instance when Hager describes a writer who "rippled recorded history's surface" (p. 250). [End Page 177]
Strange as it may sound, the eloquence of Hager's book also presents a potential problem: the writers he studies struggled with the basics of writing. The problem Hager confronts, then, is how to keep his work from overwhelming the writers he represents. Hager solves this problem by conscientiously allowing the writers to speak for themselves, refusing to correct spelling or to translate their letters to make them more accessible to modern readers. In doing so, Hager does not just write about feelings but also remains sensitive to the people with whom he engages. Hager's "intellectual and emotional history of poorly educated people" is erudite as well as compelling and should find a broad range of readers inside and outside the academy (p. 10).