KELLY VAUGHAN ’17
Professor Christopher Hager, Associate Professor of English, was recently awarded the prestigious Frederick Douglass Prize for his book, “Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing (Harvard University Press, 2013).” Professor Hager has conducted research in slavery, emancipation, and Civil War-Era literature, which contributed to his interest in exploring these topics further for “Word by Word.” In doing research over the years, Hager found a substantial amount of letters and diaries written by African-American slaves, which defied the stereotype that all slaves were illiterate. Hager spent about five years researching and writing “Word by Word,” which clearly paid off, given the complimentary feedback and success of the book.
Hager says that the book is about “African American slaves and recently free slaves who could write were writing about and how they were writing.” He saw this as an “interesting and important conflict because [he] was always taught in school that slaves were illiterate.” Hager took it upon himself to analyze the documents, including a number of lengthy quotations, and included photographs for his readers to be able to see first-hand, noting that pictures of the handwritten manuscripts themselves have something interesting about them. Because he had access to documents that the average person may not come across, Hager says he “felt a great sense of challenge and a sense of responsibility for trying to develop some insight into these peoples’ lives. In many instances, I was trying to piece back together the thought processes of people who lived 150 years ago.”
One of Hager’s biggest challenges was attempting to make sense of the documents, which were written by people who had never been formally taught how to write. Hager said the complexity of the language and ideas written in these letters was “imperfect,” due to the slaves’ complete lack of education.“Therefore,” Hager says, “they couldn’t spell and sometimes had a hard time expressing their thoughts the way they wanted to.”
Hager spends a large portion of the book “trying to look closely at what’s going on underneath the surface.” These primary sources are something that Hager encourages English majors and writers in general to utilize in order to have a stronger interaction with history. “When I was an undergraduate, I never saw an original manuscript written by someone in the 19th century. If I wanted to understand historical context for literary work, I read about it in a book. Now you can go online and find thousands and thousands of pages of letters written by people hundreds of years ago.” More often that not, Hager will share primary sources with his students in class rather than having them using books. Hager believes that this resource can “heighten the sense of insight” one has when studying a particular historic period, or even more specifically, an individual’s experience during that period.
Besides the fact that “Word by Word” was presented the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, a prestigious honor recognizing an outstanding, nonfiction book in the subject of anti-slavery and emancipation movements, Hager says he is proud of the fact that “some people think [he] did a good job and a responsible job in trying to recover the thoughts and feelings [of some slaves].” In reconstructing and analyzing the materials, Hager felt he was able to allow readers to “gain access to their experience without projecting ourselves onto them or put words in their mouth.”
Furthermore, Hager had to analyze the documents in the way a historian typically would, rather than a literature scholar. Moving back and forth between both the disciplines, Hager had to think like a historian in finding the right materials to use while analyzing them in the way he has been trained to do as a literature scholar. “Historians work with those materials in a somewhat different way- they don’t try to analyze them in a way that students in a literary class analyze a poem. They look at them for evidence of some events that occurred and what happened.”
Hager’s research for this book led him to teach a brand new class called “Literacy and Literature” (cross-listed under American Studies and English), which presented a challenge within itself. Hager says that it was “very difficult to figure out how to take some of the material [he] was looking at and present it to his students.” Hager’s investment in these areas has allowed students and scholars alike to gain deeper knowledge about the lives of slaves and the era of emancipation. “Although it’s impossible to really know what the real experience of slavery, maybe we can get closer to an understanding of slavery than we think.”