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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 196-197

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Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America. By Gavin Jones. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press. 1999. xi, 288 pp. Cloth, $45.00; paper, $18.95.

“When we Americans are through with the English language, it will look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy.” Jones uses this epigraph from Finley Peter Dunne before his chapter “Vaudeville Dialectics,” but these remarks might also stand, with some revision, as a description of the major theme of his excellent book. During the Gilded Age, roughly from the 1870s to century’s end, the illusion of a homogenous America, or of an American culture defined by an intellectual elite, was being “run over” by the freight train of modernity, and the enormous wreckage was reflected in the nation’s language. Thus the word “dialectics” puns on the myriad “dialects” that were fragmenting the American polis, causing some to believe that the “cultural purity” of the language as spoken by the Best People was in danger of being contaminated by a host of subterranean, linguistic viruses. Many thought, however, that democracy, mobility, and the mutability of U.S. life meant that there could never be a uniform national language, that its very essence lay in its continued revitalization through change, though even here its apologists wondered if innovation might often be a double-edged sword. Did the American West, for instance, create a more expansive vocabulary or more opportunity for windy nonsense?

The brilliance of Jones’s argument is that he does not limit “dialect” to localisms but sees the rage for “dialect” literature in the Gilded Age as symptomatic of a cultural crisis caused by the hybridization of U.S. life. Especially perceptive is his discussion of George Washington Cable and the word creole, which originally referred to the “white” descendents of French-speaking people but eventually came to mean a miscegenated language spoken by people of mixed blood. Indeed, Jones does not limit his analysis to language per se but shows how its instability is an important concern in major American texts—inarticulateness in Melville’s Billy Budd and James’s The Princess Casamassima, slang in Crane’s Maggie, and “hybrid constructions” in Cable’s Grandissimes—thereby reflecting the instability of culture itself. Perhaps his most insightful chapter on this subject of linguistic hybridity is the one defending Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry. Jones convincingly argues that Dunbar was a “wily manipulator of literary conventions,” sometimes giving whites what they wanted to hear, sometimes subtlety subverting those expectations, as in his poem “When Malindy Sings” and in his extraordinary short story, “The Lynching of Jube Benson.”

If I had to make one criticism, it would be Jones’s neglect of H. L. Mencken’s American Language (1919) as a final chapter to the politics of language during the Gilded Age. Mencken also quotes Dunne’s amusing remarks about English “musical comedy,” for by 1919 the “gilt” of the Gilded Age had been peeled away by the overwhelming vulgarities of modern life, especially by the new immigrants, urbanization, and the “rising tide of color.” To what extent [End Page 196] did Mencken follow the linguistic arguments that preceded him, to what extent did he neglect them in favor of his own agenda, especially his advocacy of an American “modernism?” But Jones has written an original book, and one can only hope that he will provide us with a second study dealing with the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Charles Scruggs
University of Arizona



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pp. 196-197
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Archived 2005
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