WORD BY WORD by Christopher Hager


Emancipation and the Act of Writing
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Hager (English and American Studies/Trinity Coll.) debuts with an examination of the emerging literacy of slaves and former slaves in the decades around the Civil War.

The author begins his analysis with a document written by a person known to history only as “A Colored Man,” a slave who in 1863 New Orleans, copied and commented on the U.S. Constitution. This text allows Hager the opportunity to outline his case, to speculate about the relationship between freedom and literacy, and to note how many slaves saw literacy as a way to enter a society that had systematically excluded them for centuries. The author focuses on texts that, in most cases, were not published—or written for publication. Although he supplies some history when needed (e.g., Nat Turner and the Emancipation Proclamation), his interest is not so much in external events as in the internal activities that were producing words and texts. He discusses an 1852 letter from Maria Perkins, for example, and notices how some sought to emulate the conventions they had learned from the writing of whites. Hager suggests we need a term for a genre he calls “the enslaved narrative,” personal stories written by people still enslaved, not by the liberated or the escaped. An interesting section involves the writing of William Gould and the gradual emergence of the word we in his diary as he began to feel more a part of the literate world. Another category of documents are the letters of protest written during and after the war by African Americans complaining about their treatment, in some cases their maltreatment by Union soldiers. Hager also examines the emerging publications for black writers and readers.

Sometimes dense but always engaging account of how the path to freedom was paved, in part, with written words.

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-674-05986-3
Page count: 296pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2012


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