Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing

Christopher Hager, Author
Christopher Hager. Harvard Univ., $39.95 (318p) ISBN 978-0-674-05986-3
Ebook - 324 pages - 978-0-674-06748-6
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While Frederick Douglass invigorated abolitionists with his eloquent prose, many of his contemporaries, still enslaved or recently freed, scrawled barely legible letters to friends and family sold to distant masters. In this revelatory hybrid of history and textual analysis, Hager argues that the act of writing—often in defiance of states’ antiliteracy laws—was an exceedingly potent form of self-empowerment for these oppressed men and women, never mind their poor spelling and unorthodox methods (one potter carved poetry into his work, another “composed at the handle of the plough” and kept the lines memorized till he learned to write). Primary documents, intensely scrutinized, reveal powerful emotions and common hardships, bear witness to racial struggles across the country, and provide unalloyed insight into the stark yet hopeful reality after the Emancipation Proclamation. Particularly fascinating is the evolution of writing as a form of power: a former slave protests, via letter, to a Union general about Union soldiers attacking his neighbor’s wife, while another journals his integration into the U.S. Navy with perfunctory but increasingly assured entries. This thoughtful examination of the artifacts of a too-long-silenced population is made all the more eloquent by accompanying facsimiles of the arduously penned missives. 11 halftones. (Feb.)
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