Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature

Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature

Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature

Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature

Synopsis

The Dialect of Modernism uncovers the crucial role of racial masquerade and linguistic imitation in the emergence of literary modernism. Rebelling against the standard language, and literature written in it, modernists, such as Joseph Conrad, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams reimagined themselves as racial aliens and mimicked the strategies of dialect speakers in their work. In doing so, they made possible the most radical representational strategies of modern literature, which emerged from their attack on the privilege of standard language. At the same time, however, another movement, identified with Harlem, was struggling to free itself from the very dialect the modernists appropriated, at least as it had been rendered by two generations of white dialect writers. For writers such as Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston, this dialect became a barrier as rigid as the standard language itself. Thus, the two modern movements, which arrived simultaneously in 1922, were linked and divided by their different stakes in the same language. In The Dialect of Modernism, Michael North shows, through biographical and historical investigation, and through careful readings of major literary works, that however different they were, the two movements are inextricably connected, and thus, cannot be considered in isolation. Each was marked, for good and bad, by the other.

Excerpt

The white vogue for Harlem has long had an accepted place in histories of the 1920s, and the shallow Negrophilia of this period has often been acknowledged in accounts of the Harlem Renaissance. But it is less often acknowledged just how far this racial cross-identification went or how widespread it was. Writers as far from Harlem as T. S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein reimagined themselves as black, spoke in a black voice, and used that voice to transform the literature of their time. In fact, three of the accepted landmarks of literary modernism in English depend on racial ventriloquism of this kind: Conrad Nigger of the "Narcissus," Stein "Melanctha," and Eliot Waste Land. If the racial status of these works is taken at all seriously, it seems that linguistic mimicry and racial masquerade were not just shallow fads but strategies without which modernism could not have arisen.

To see these strategies simply as instances of modern primitivism is to miss a good deal of their importance. That the modern covets the primitive--perhaps even created it--is another frequently acknowledged fact. But to view this attraction merely as a return to nature, a recoil from modernity, is to focus myopically on a rather vapid message while missing its far more intriguing medium. The real attraction of the black voice to writers like Stein and Eliot was its technical distinction, its insurrectionary opposition to the known and familiar in language. For them the artist occupied the role of racial outsider because he or she spoke a language opposed to the standard. Modernism, that is to say, mimicked the strategies of dialect and aspired to become a dialect itself.

This might mean a number of different things, depending on how "dialect" is defined. The dialect of Uncle Remus, which was particularly important to Eliot and Pound, certainly offered itself as a natural alternative to more conventional speech, superior precisely to the degree to which it failed to approximate grammatical correctness. Though the dialect mouthed by Stein, Eliot, Pound, and the other white writers to be considered here sounded a good deal more like Uncle Remus than any actual African-American speaker of the 1920s, nonetheless it promised something a good deal more complicated. For the play among rival languages that dialect mimicry made possible led to a breakdown of both the privilege that the standard enjoyed and the myth that there could be a "natural" alternative. In this way, dialect became the prototype for the most radical representational strategies of English-language modernism.

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