Date of Award

5-2016

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Legacy Department

History

Committee Member

Alan Grubb, Committee Chair

Committee Member

Stephanie Barczewski

Committee Member

Pamela E. Mack

Abstract

How does the image of a vacant chair and nineteenth century anxiety about the family play out in the writing of letters during the First World War? The purpose of this thesis is to explore the role of letters as a possible symbolic representation of the individual soldier and to answer questions regarding how this representation paralleled the history of family dynamics during the nineteenth century and into the first part of the twentieth century. Reid Mitchell's book, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home, is cornerstone to the argument of this thesis. His text helps to visualize the image of an empty chair within the domestic sphere during war. It is Mitchell's book that establishes the framework of an issue that existed in the nineteenth century, which he mentions briefly - the family in crisis. In directing conversation towards perceived problems which the family, in both England and America, faced leading up to the First World War, it becomes evident that society viewed industrialization and urbanization as threats to this basic element of community. The eruption of the war only strengthen the fear that the integrity of family would be beyond repair if connections between the soldier and his home were not maintained. Several groups, like the Red Cross and the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.), recognized that the stability of those on the home front depended upon filling the "vacant chair" with an appropriate substitution in family connection during the war and vice versa. Letters became a symbolic representation, or material replacement, of the individual no longer in the home. Reforms such as Britain's passage of the Penny Post, and in America the revisions to legal domestic relations, such as marriage contracts and new moral codes provide examples of responses that rose in reaction to the issues surrounding the family during the nineteenth century. In addition, the involvement of the Y.M.C.A. and the Red Cross during war supported the practice of writing letters home by assisting and encouraging letter writing to the soldiers. These social groups helped to strengthen this bond between soldier and family by offering letterhead and envelopes. With the help of digital analysis of word patterns and trends of actual unpublished letter collections of soldiers from the First World War, the vital connection between soldier and home is placed in context of the anxiety of keeping family connected.

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