Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism

Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism

Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism

Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism

Synopsis

American literary works written in the heyday of modernism between the 1890s and 1940s were playfully, painfully, and ambivalently engaged with language politics. The immigrant waves of the period fed into writers' aesthetic experimentation; their works, in turn, rewired ideas about national identity along with literary form. Accented America looks at the long history of English-Only Americanism-the political claim that U.S. citizens must speak a singular, shared American tongue-and traces its action in the language workshop that is literature. The broadly multi-ethnic set of writers brought into conversation here-including Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Henry Roth, Nella Larsen, John Dos Passos, Lionel Trilling, Am rico Paredes, and Carlos Bulosan-reflect the massive demographic shifts taking place during the interwar years. These authors share an acute awareness of linguistic standardization while also following the defamiliarizing sway produced by experimentation with invented and improper literary vernaculars. Rather than confirming the powerfully seductive subtext of monolingualism-that those who speak alike are ethically and politically likeminded-multilingual modernists compose literature that speaks to a country of synthetic syntaxes, singular hybrids, and enduring strangeness.

Excerpt

Joshua Miller’s Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism has much to teach students of modernism and American studies about the relationship between experimental fiction written in the United States between 1898 and 1945 and debates about English as the unofficial national language. However, Miller’s cultural history, which illuminates the recent return of the language debate in response to resurgent anxieties about immigration, will also speak to readers well beyond the academy. For as Miller’s meticulous scholarship shows, everything being said now on this subject, whether in town hall meetings or on talk radio, was already being discussed and contested in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. Accented America is thus at once deeply literary and fundamentally political. It broadens our sense of what should count as modernist and what should count as American without diluting either term, and it suggests how the U.S. debate about “English only” might advance beyond its current deadlock. Furthermore, while Miller focuses primarily on the United States, his range of reference extends to comparable debates in Africa (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is the most prominent figure here), and the history he tells should be of interest to people in many nations, such as France, where, as in the United States, debates about language have functioned as proxies for conflicts grounded in race and class.

As modernist studies continue to expand its reach well beyond the literary canon that began to form in the 1950s, in part by globalizing its purview, in part by traversing once sacrosanct distinctions between high and low, and also by rediscovering historically marginalized writers, the question of what counts as modernist has become more fraught. Most now would agree that modernism was never an exclusively metropolitan phenomenon. But what about form? Should . . .

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