Accented America: The cultural politics of multilingual modernism

Accented America: The cultural politics of multilingual modernism. By Joshua L. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 414. ISBN 9780195336993. $25.

Reviewed by Josep Soler-Carbonell, University of Oxford

This book provides an elegant and in-depth analysis of linguistically experimental modernist novels written between 1898 and 1945. It concentrates on language politics and the multilingual characters portrayed by authors such as Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Henry Roth, Nella Larsen, John Dos Passos, Lionel Trilling, Américo Paredes, and Carlos Bulosan. The authors’ lives and biographies are carefully analyzed in combination with their works, which are interpreted as a result of their social, cultural, and political background. In brief, this is not only a very detailed literary critical analysis, but could also be considered an ethnography of modernist and interwar literature.

The primary object of study of this volume is literature, particularly the language politics and linguistic experiments of modernist writers. It also offers insight into important topics such as Americans’ views of English and of languages other than English at that time. Joshua L. Miller’s analysis offers interesting resonances with current debates over identity, culture, and language in the United States, such as the ‘English-only’ movement and its origins.

The book consists of six chapters preceded by an introduction, acknowledgements, and a foreword by the series editors, and followed by a concluding chapter, notes, and an index. The introductory chapter sets down the book’s aims and method. The first two chapters (‘Reinventing vox americana’ and ‘Documenting “American”’) provide a detailed picture of the historical background of the cultural politics of English in the United States. M focuses on two figures: Henry Ford and H. L. Mencken. The Ford English School and its ‘mass-production’ methods of teaching English to immigrants, together with its explicit link to personal hygiene, were important ways of instilling national ideals in the working class. H.L. Mencken’s The American language set another relevant precedent in the English debate in the United States. It described a vernacular language that, because it was so flexible, could always assimilate new forms (e.g. words, accents) without losing its essential shape or its national character.

In the rest of the book, M analyzes how modernist writers responded to debates over culture, politics, and language and how they challenged them by means of hybridism and linguistic experimentation, reflecting traces of the languages and accents on which English had imposed. In Ch. 3 (‘Foreignizing “English”’), M offers a contextualized reading of Gertrude Stein and John Dos Passos. Ch. 4 (‘Vernacularizing silence’) concentrates on Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen, Ch. 5 (‘Translating “Englitch”’) on Henry Roth and Lionel Trilling, and Ch. 6 (‘Spanglicizing modernism’) on Carlos Bulosan and Américo Paredes.

One negative aspect of the book that I would highlight is the referential system that the author has used. Cited material is referred to in the form of endnotes at the end of the book, but there is no separate list of bibliography or cited works, which hinders readers from having an easy access to the author’s sources. The book, however, is a welcome contribution to scholarly debates over language politics, culture, and identity in the interwar United States.

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