Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism

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Accented America is a sweeping study of U.S. literature between 1890-1950 that reveals a long history of English-Only nationalism: the political claim that U.S. citizens must speak a nationally distinctive form of English. This perspective presents U.S. literary works written between the 1890s and 1940s as playfully, painfully, and ambivalently engaged with language politics, thereby rewiring both narrative form and national identity.

The United States has always been a densely polyglot nation, but efforts to prove the existence of a nationally specific form of English turn out to be a development of particular importance to interwar modernism. If the concept of a singular, coherent, and autonomous 'American language' seemed merely provocative or ironic in 1919 when H.L. Mencken emblazoned the phrase on his philological study, within a short period of time it would come to seem simultaneously obvious and impossible. Considering the continuing presence of fierce public debates over U.S. English and domestic multilingualisms demonstrates the symbolic and material implications of such debates in naturalization and citizenship law, presidential rhetoric, academic language studies, and the artistic renderings of novelists.

Against the backdrop of the period's massive demographic changes, Accented America brings a broadly multi-ethnic set of writers into conversation, including Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Henry Roth, Nella Larsen, John Dos Passos, Lionel Trilling, Américo Paredes, and Carlos Bulosan. These authors shared an acute sense of linguistic standardization during the interwar era and contend with the defamiliarizing sway of radical experimentation with invented and improper literary vernaculars. Mixing languages, these authors spurn expectations for phonological exactitude to develop multilingual literary aesthetics. Rather than confirming the powerfully seductive subtext of monolingualism-that those who speak alike are ethically and politically likeminded-multilingual modernists composed interwar novels that were characteristically American because, not in spite, of their synthetic syntaxes and enduring strangeness.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Joining such works as Hana Wirth-Nesher's Call It English and Lawrence Rosenwald's Multilingual America, Joshua Miller's Accented America offers compelling readings of major Anglophone writers against the background of what Miller calls 'the genealogy of monolingualism' and the emergence of a vox Americana in a multilingual country in the period from 1898 to 1945. Readers interested in notions of 'the American language' will find Accented America fascinating." —Werner Sollors, author of Ethnic Modernism

"Accented America makes a brilliant case for the multilingual dimension of American modernist writing. By focusing on how authors imagined, negotiated, translated and represented the languages that shaped their worlds, Miller has greatly enriched ongoing debates about ethnicity, race and class in modernist fiction. He has demonstrated that attention to linguistic policies, strategies, and voices brings poetics and politics into sharper focus." —Hana Wirth-Nesher, author of Call It English

"A remarkable piece of scholarly work. It is a dense book that will dazzle its readers with its acute literary analyses...Accented America deserves to be unanimously praised as an outstanding contribution to the understanding of American modernism and language diversity."—Linguist List

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195337006
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/21/2011
  • Series: Modernist Literature and Culture Series
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Joshua L. Miller is Associate Professor of English at the University of Michigan where he teaches courses in twentieth-century U.S. literature and visual culture. He has written broadly on language politics, transnational modernism, and photography. He is currently at work on a book on twentieth-century photo-text collaborations and a collection of essays on translation, new media, global English, and cultural critique.

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Table of Contents

Series Editors' Foreword
Introduction: "every kind of mixing"

Chapter One: Reinventing vox Americana
Language, Hygiene, and National Security Mencken and the Cultural Work of Polemical Philology Contemporary "American" as Standard Vernacular

Chapter Two: Documenting "American"
"A Standardization Not Imposed But Voluntarily Accepted"

Chapter Three: Foreignizing "english"
The Making of Americans' Speech: Stein's Aural "english"
Multilingual Fusion and the Limits of Cosmopolitan Expression: Dos Passos's U.S.A.
Locutions of Dislocation and the Political Uses of Despair

Chapter Four: Vernacularizing Silence
"Flesh of their Language"
"Been Shapin Words T Fit M Soul": Toomer's Cane

Chapter Five: Translating "Englitch"
"Kent'cha Tuck Englitch?": Linguistic Dissonance in Call It Sleep
"The Purpose of Jewish Life is Cultural, is it not?": The Politics of Trilling's Style The Return of the Depressed

Chapter Six: Spanglicizing Modernism U.S. Empire and Imposed Syntax
"Born a Foreigner in his Native Land": Paredes and Binational Speech
"Citizenship, then, is the basis of all this misunderstanding?": Bulosan's America
Idioms of Annexation Conclusion: "say something american if you dare"

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