Howells' language, Norris' "storytelling," Sinclair's ideology—these are the subjects of the books under review, and each seems almost made for the application of one or another postmodernist critical strategy. However, all are quite innocent of any such ambition, and, although it is always refreshing to be spared the jargon [End Page 734] of contemporary theory, all three books are weakened by the absence of theory and the insights it can provide.
For example, Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells's America appears to suggest some crucial connectedness between Howells' language and his representation of society&mdashperhaps a study of how his language "deconstructs" his social and moral ideology. Whereas Nettels sometimes hints at such a possibility, she never truly engages it. Rather she is almost exclusively concerned with Howells' use of dialogue for individual characterization. She concentrates on Howells' rendering of regional or ethnic departures from the grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and usage of the "good natural English" employed by such auctorial surrogates as Basil March, the Reverend Sewell, or the lawyer Atherton in A Modern Instance. Those characters—and, even more, Howells' narrators-use language to rationalize and control experience and thus to define and, they might hope, promulgate Howells' idealized democracy. Dialect or "ungrammatical" characters, whether rustics or immigrants, lack such linguistic sophistication and consequently seem marginal to or even inimical to the American ideal.
Therein, according to Nettels, lies Howells' great dilemma. The means of his realism—in this case the faithful rendering of nonstandard speech—potentially conflict with its end, "to unite people in recognition of their common humanity." That is, regardless of an ungrammatical character's innate goodness, that character must inevitably seem "low" in comparison to the normative middle class characters. "Common humanity" thus might seem not so "common" after all, and linguistic differences might point to debilitating class or cultural differences subversive of democracy.
Nettels suggests that Howells tries to overcome this problem by insisting that dialect speech derives from "the personal rather than the provincial character of the speaker." That is, individuals are not bound by necessity to the nonstandard speech of their locality or ethnicity but can, usually through reading, less frequently through formal education, enter the privileged linguistic community. Examples are Kitty Ellison of A Chance Acquaintance, Lydia Blood of The Lady of the Aroostook, Penelope Lapham, or, most notably, that reformed westerner Basil March. Thus participation in the ideal America is a matter of individual responsibility, and Howells is saved from the spectre of an undemocratic class structure.
So far, so good. Probably nobody has examined Howells' dialogue as closely as Nettels. She argues convincingly that no other nineteenth-century American writer was so conscious of the varieties of American speech or so clearly perceived speech as "the unfailing sign" of class and culture. Nettels usefully calls attention to the surprising abundance of direct comment on language in Howells. Not only do his narrators constantly intrude their judgment of characters' speech, but also virtually every novel contains important scenes in which characters judge one another on the basis of language. Nettels supports her contentions by the detailed examination of a dozen novels and briefer discussions of many others, and her attention to less often studied works like A Chance Acquaintance, The Lady of the Aroostook, and The Ragged Lady is welcome and instructive. The trouble is that her book delivers less than it might, perhaps less than Nettels herself believes. Despite his attentiveness to actual American speech, the range of Howells' dialect characters is really quite narrow. The vast majority are speakers of one or another regional dialect, but regional differences are significant only in relation to the [End Page 735] privileged language, not in relation to each other. There are far fewer instances of ethnic dialect speakers and only a few important...