University of Illinois at Chicago

Dialects of the Tribe: The Unexpected Origins of American Literary Modernism

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posted on 2021-05-01, 00:00 authored by Mika Turim-Nygren
Although Huckleberry Finn has always been celebrated for sounding as lifelike as a “real boy talking out loud,” Mark Twain himself thought that “the moment ‘talk’ is put into print” it turned into a “corpse” on the page, “nothing but a dead carcass.” This dissertation takes up the problem of translating living speech into a modern literary language, which so obsessed American writers from 1868-1898 that dialect became almost synonymous with literary ambition – for Twain as well as for the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Yiddish-speaking Jewish socialist immigrant Abraham Cahan, and the local-color “miniaturist” Sarah Orne Jewett, who has since become a major focus in the field of queer studies. No one could have promoted this kind of writing more fervently than Atlantic editor William Dean Howells, who championed dialect as the “life that language has on the lips of men.” And yet when Howells encountered the one dialect he considered more impressive even than Twain’s – Stephen Crane’s Maggie (“Mr. Crane can do things that Clemens can’t”) – he was dismayed to discover that it made language look not like it was living but like it was dying: “language itself decays in their speech.” Literary historians have largely continued to characterize dialect in Howells’s terms – as the effort to transcribe talk “as we speak it” – even while they have often expressed skepticism about his underlying nationalist ambition “to get the whole of American life into our fiction.” This dissertation argues, by contrast, that dialect could only achieve its literary aims by becoming “inarticulate,” as Howells called Crane’s dialect – which is to say, unspeakable. I argue that the obsession with reproducing real talk led to the production of a distinctively literary language, one that belonged on the page rather than in anyone’s mouth. As dialect writers became increasingly successful at phonetic mimesis, the very artificiality of the effort to put speech into print began to interest them more than the natural-sounding authenticity that had been their original motivation. Any real-life accent that dialect represented – whether African-American or Jewish-American – was thus transformed into modernist literary prose irreducible to any particular demographic. Understanding dialect in these terms not only produces a new sense of the importance of the literary among the late 19th-century writers whose motivations are more commonly understood as mimetic, but also reveals the crucial role dialect writers played in engendering the modernist projects of the first half of the 20th century, long after the enthusiasm for phonetic accents had died out — from William Carlos Williams’s claim that his poetry came “out of the mouths of Polish mothers,” through Gertrude Stein’s sense of writing as “They are all of them repeating and I hear it,” all the way to T.S. Eliot's Mallarméan desire to “purify the dialect of the tribe.”



Michaels, Walter Benn


Michaels, Walter Benn



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

Coviello, Peter Brown, Nicholas Ashton, Jennifer Warren, Kenneth

Submitted date

May 2021

Thesis type



  • en