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Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells's America

Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells's America

Elsa Nettels
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 328
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    Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells's America
    Book Description:

    No other American novelist has written so fully about language -- grammar, diction, the place of colloquialism and dialect in literary English, the relation between speech and writing -- as William Dean Howells. The power of language to create social, political, and racial identity was of central concern to Americans in the nineteenth century, and the implications of language in this regard are strikingly revealed in the writings of Howells, the most influential critic and editor of his age.

    In this first full-scale treatment of Howells as a writer about language, Elsa Nettels offers a historical overview of the social and political implications of language in post-Civil War America. Chapters on controversies about linguistic authority, American versus British English, literary dialect, and language and race relate Howells's ideas at every point to those of his contemporaries -- from writers such as Henry James, Mark Twain, and James Russell Lowell to political figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Hay.

    The first book to analyze in depth and detail the language of Howells's characters in more than a dozen novels, this path-breaking sociolinguistic approach to Howells's fiction exposes the fundamental contradiction in his realism and in the America he portrayed. By representing the speech that separates standard from nonstandard speakers, Howells's novels -- which champion the democratic ideals of equity and unity -- also demonstrate the power of language to reinforce barriers of race and class in American society.

    Drawing on unpublished letters of Howells, James, Lowell, and others and on scores of articles in nineteenth-century periodicals, this work of literary criticism and cultural history reaches beyond the work of one writer to address questions of enduring importance to all students of American literature and society.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6131-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    In a letter for the celebration of William Dean Howells’s seventy-fifth birthday, Henry James praised his friend for revealing more finely than any other novelist the nature of American life: “Stroke by stroke and book by book your work was to become, for this exquisite notation of our whole democratic light and shade and give and take, in the highest degreedocumentary;so that none other, through all your fine long season, could approach it in value and amplitude.”¹

    Many others—contemporaries of Howells and later critics—have granted Howells the same preeminence. As early as 1879, Thomas Wentworth Higginson,...

  5. Chapter One Language in Howells’s America
    (pp. 7-21)

    In his lifelong fascination with language, Howells was a man of his age. With his contemporaries in America and Europe he followed the developments in the new science of philology, which evolved in the early nineteenth century. He wrote about language during the years when linguistic study in America issued in publications such as the successive editions of Webster’sAmerican Dictionaryand Bartlett’sDictionary of Americanisms,and in the founding of organizations—the American Philological Association (1869), the Modern Language Association (1883), and the American Dialect Society (1890). Reflected in these endeavors was the widespread interest of American readers in...

  6. Chapter Two “Good Natural English”
    (pp. 22-40)

    Probably the best known fact about Howells and language is his deleting profanity from the manuscripts Mark Twain asked him to edit. But to take this fact alone as representative of Howells’s practice is to disregard the complexity of his view and to imply that because he advised Mark Twain to remove Huck Finn’s complaint “They comb me all to hell” fromThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer¹ he was therefore a prudish slave to genteel conventions and a hidebound stickler for rules. Almost the opposite is true. Twenty years before Matthews and Lounsbury attacked the grammarians inHarper’s Magazine,Howells...

  7. Chapter Three American and British English
    (pp. 41-61)

    Of all the issues pertaining to language discussed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, none was more vigorously debated than the relation of American and British English. More than any other, this issue raised questions of far-reaching political and cultural importance: Were American English and British English one language or two? If one language, was British English the standard? Did an American literature exist or was the literature written by Americans merely a branch of English literature? Implicit in these questions was the fundamental question: What should be the political relation of the United States and Great Britain?...

  8. Chapter Four Realism and Dialect
    (pp. 62-71)

    Fifty years after Emerson in 1837 delivered his oration “The American Scholar” to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard, Howells in his “Editor’s Study” of October 1887 quoted the famous declaration: “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; ...I embrace the common; I sit at the feet of the familiar and the low.” Like Emerson half a century earlier, Howells in his letters, fiction, and criticism exhorted American writers to turn their backs on the past, to cast away foreign models, to seek to capture the essence of the commonplace, and to create their own tradition...

  9. Chapter Five The Problem of “Negro Dialect” in Literature
    (pp. 72-86)

    Nowhere was the unifying force of language more vigorously asserted by Howells’s contemporaries than in their definitions of race. According to Brander Matthews, a “community of language” was more potent than any other community in creating “the unrelaxing bonds that hold a race firmly together.” But to define language as the “uniting bond between men” was also to acknowledge its power to divide people of different tongues. In the words of Charles Dudley Warner, precisely because language is “the final expression of national life and of thought,” language is “a veil between the races, never quite thin enough, with the...

  10. Chapter Six Language, Race, and Nationality in Howells’s Fiction
    (pp. 87-104)

    The equality of races Howells believed to prevail in “the republic of letters” is absent in the society he portrayed in his fiction and essays. Unnamed blacks—usually waiters, janitors, or servants—appear briefly in several of Howells’s novels (e.g.,Their Wedding Journey, A Hazard of New Fortunes, An Open-Eyed Conspiracy),but blacks are prominent figures in only one work of fiction,An Imperative Duty,and in two essays: the first of theSuburban Sketches,which portrays the black cook, Mrs. Johnson, and “Police Report” (1882), which records the testimony of four black litigants in a Boston court. Of all...

  11. Chapter Seven Language and Class in the Early Novels
    (pp. 105-125)

    When Howells in his essays and reviews defended the use of dialect in fiction, he was usually referring to speech that identifies people with a particular race or region. But his own fiction illustrates the observation of George Philip Krapp that the most pervasive form of nonstandard speech is “class dialect which distinguishes between popular and cultivated or standard speech.”¹ Many of Howells’s characters speak nonstandard English that has no racial or geographical significance. Almost always, however, provincialisms and solecisms, whatever the race or place of the speaker, signal a social position inferior to that of the standard speakers.


  12. Chapter Eight Language and Class in Novels of Country and City
    (pp. 126-152)

    When Henry James praised Howells’s early novels, he often expressed his faith in his friend’s power to go farther, to convert into literature more of the American experience. He pronouncedThe Lady of the Aroostook“the most brilliant thing you have done,” then urged Howells to “attack the great field of American life on as many sides as you can. Plunge into it, don’t be afraid, and you will do even better things than this.” Several months later, in a letter dated July 22, 1879, when he had learned of the subject of Howells’s next novel,The Undiscovered Country,centering...

  13. Chapter Nine Language and Complicity in The Minister’s Charge
    (pp. 153-162)

    Two years after publication ofThe Rise of Silas Lapham,inThe Minister’s Charge(1887), Howells again dramatized relationships between characters of provincial New England and upper-class Boston. The presence of Bromfield Corey and the minister, David Sewell, one of the two central characters inThe Minister’s Charge,connects that novel to the previous novel. But in The Minister’s Charge Howells portrayed experiences and types different from those in his earlier novels of New England. He regarded this novel as a turning point in his career; he described it to Henry James as “an example of work in the new...

  14. Chapter Ten Language and Equality in the Late Novels
    (pp. 163-189)

    AfterThe Minister’s Charge,the conflict of principles in Howells’s theory of realism grows more apparent as his increasingly fervent allegiance to the ideal of equality accompanies his ever more emphatic defense of dialect as a means of revealing the conditions and the culture of fictional characters. In a succession of novels—Annie Kilburn, A Hazard of New Fortunes; The World of Chance,and the Altrurian romances—Howells dramatized the evils of economic and social injustice: the degradation of the poor, the strife between employers and workers, the ruthless self-interest fostered by the struggle for survival in what Basil March,...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 190-196)

    Both Howells and Henry James wrote essays about the speech of American women forHarper’s Bazarin 1906. Both insisted upon the importance of propriety in speaking as an index of moral character and culture. “There is no isolated question of speech,” James wrote; “the interest of tone is the interest of manners, and the interest of manners is the interest of morals, and the interest of morals is the interest of civilization.” Howells was equally emphatic: “The average must be first taught that it is worth while to speak beautifully, that it is even a duty to speak beautifully.”...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 197-226)
  17. Works of William Dean Howells
    (pp. 227-228)
  18. Index
    (pp. 229-236)