Over the last two decades, numerous scholarly works have appeared telling us about the centrality of the study of language in American literature and culture. Indeed, the tradition goes at least as far back as Matthiessen and Feidelson, but it took on increased strength and vigor in the wake of the linguistic turn given to literary criticism by the expounders of Derrida and Foucault. Much of the work has been in intellectual history, or that branch of literary scholarship with which it has a kind of kinship. We’ve learned in great detail about the salience of language (and language-based thought) in American politics, religion, philosophy, education, as well as (last but not least) literature. The cumulative effect of all this scholarship has been to suggest that our major writers-and many of our minor ones as well-were heavily invested in contemporaneous linguistic thought and that their works were contributions to a broad-based and sophisticated discourse on language.
Generally speaking, Authority and Speech emerges out of the same milieu. But Barnett’s study takes a different tack. We find here no effort to situate texts historically, none of the thick description that recently distinguished, say, Jay Fliegelman’s Declaring Independence and Thomas [End Page 342] Gustafson’s Representative Words. What we have is more-or-less old-fashioned literary criticism that examines “the changing relationship of personal and social expression in the direct discourse of fictive speakers in the American novel.” Through a series of skillful close readings that take us from Cooper’s Deerslayer to Barthelme’s Snow White, Barnett draws upon speech-act theory and sociolinguistics to give a new, linguistic twist to an otherwise conventional Americanist theme: that the American novel is about the conflict between individual and society. In Authority and Speech, the focus is not on the individual’s actions (whether or not the character returns to Boston or lights out for the territories) but on how characters speak to each other and how the representation of fictive speech changes over time. Barnett’s thesis is, roughly, that dialogue in the American novel begins in a state of “verbal confidence” in the nineteenth century and devolves into a state of linguistic skepticism and communicative failure in the twentieth.
By drawing upon speech-act theory and sociolinguistics, Barnett implicitly departs from the Trilling-Chase school of criticism that views “the American Novel and its tradition” as generically distinct from the Great Tradition of the British novel. In the absence of “real” social fabric in America, the familiar argument goes, writers turn to the romance form (that is, to language and style) as a “world elsewhere.” For Barnett, it seems, all fiction is fundamentally social, and fictive speech may be analyzed using those rules and principles upon which actual speech is analyzed. In some works, the assumption is questionable: we need more than speech-act theory to understand, say, the efficacy of Dimmesdale’s sermon and “the tongue native to the human heart.” Yet Barnett’s approach can be refreshing and illuminating even in The Scarlet Letter, and certainly in “Bartleby,” The Sun Also Rises, and Miss Lonelyhearts. Readers will no doubt find helpful insights in each chapter.
But some will no doubt find her overarching thesis-that the history of the American novel is a gradual but certain fall from sociolinguistic grace-troubling. Did “the American novel” really begin with “verbal confidence”? What about Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland with its “double-tongued deceiver” or Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry with its devastating critique of the democratization of public discourse? Although these well-known early novels may be said to be about the breakdown of speech, Barnett neglects even to mention them. And do Hawthorne and Melville really envision language as [End Page 343] more “adequate to the needs of speakers” than do James and Howells, let alone the many novelists who, Barnett admits in her conclusion, “continue to construct traditional narratives in our own post-Joycean and now postmodern or...