Using the Immigrant's Voice: Humor and Pathos in Nineteenth Century "Dutch" Dialect Texts

By Kersten, Holger | MELUS, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Using the Immigrant's Voice: Humor and Pathos in Nineteenth Century "Dutch" Dialect Texts


Kersten, Holger, MELUS


The nineteenth century, and particularly its second half, was a period in American literature in which enormous interest in linguistic variation was displayed. Writers experimented with language and used just about every form of expression that fell into their hands. In a sense, they were recorders of the huge linguistic variety that characterized America. Many of these language experiments were disseminated in small, cheaply made paperback anthologies produced by publishing houses such as Beadle and Adams. Often the subtitles of the publications indicated the scope of these little volumes, which typically included writings in "Dutch, French, Yankee, Irish, Backwoods, Negro and other dialects" (Beecher). All literary genres were represented in these compilations, but the texts were usually short, the longest hardly exceeding four pages of print. Anecdotes and short narratives stood beside poems, dramatic dialogues and similar pieces, many of them intended for recitation.

It seems that the entertainment value of these texts lay as much in their subject matter as in their linguistic form. A creative use of language was apparently relished by writers and readers alike. People delighted in language for its own sake: "during much of the 19th century, readers in the United States found ... renderings of dialect delicious funny" (Blair and McDavid xxiii), they enjoyed new coinages, comic shouts and mock pompous words. In a way, it looked like the growing nation was surveying its linguistic diversity. To a certain extent, these language games and experiments can be regarded as attempts at finding new forms and ways of expressing the conditions of life in the New World. It may also have been an attempt to challenge the predominance of formalized styles of writing and recitation which had become a symbol of cultural achievement (Blair and Hill 276).

Although writing in dialect has been a feature of American literature from its very beginning, the period of the Civil War holds a prominent place in the perfection of the dialect voice. Artemus Ward, Josh Billings, Petroleum V. Nasby and other humorists, generally subsumed under the heading of the Literary Comedians or the "Phunny Phellows," created a humor of verbal expression and relied extensively on "the eccentricities of language" (Pound 257). While many exhausted themselves in deliberate unlettered spellings, the technique rehearsed by these humorists eventually paved the way for the climax of dialect writing in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884.

Apart from the intention of wanting to create funny stories, the urge to use dialect may also have come from a desire to approximate the real speech of real people, the wish to create a literature that depicted its objects more realistically. Local color writers, for example, used the sound of real language to endow regional portrayals with more realistic detail. Harriet Beecher Stowe in Oldtown Folks, George W. Cable in Old Creole Days, and Joel Chandler Harris in his "Uncle Remus" tales all used dialect to boost the lifelikeness of their narratives.

While these writers have been examined in the context of the growing literary tradition of the United States, the type of dialect writing that set out to imitate the speech of immigrants has usually been excluded from scholarly scrutiny on the basis of the assumption that this form of expression was nothing but a stock dialect invented to denigrate the foreigner. Customarily, the products of this phenomenon have been brushed aside as low quality productions without merit. This attitude corresponds to the opinion of nineteenth century literary critics and reviewers who, more often than not, slighted the material that was presented in non-standard language. Based on their fixed notions of what literature and drama should be, they generally devalued the literary creations of a host of foreign dialect writers. This was particularly obvious in reviews of plays that relied entirely on dialect. …

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