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Review of  Accented America


Reviewer: Ghislain Potriquet
Book Title: Accented America
Book Author: Joshua L. Miller
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Sociolinguistics
Ling & Literature
Book Announcement: 23.2831

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Review:
AUTHOR: Joshua L. Miller
TITLE: Accented America
SUBTITLE: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism
SERIES TITLE: Modernist Literature and Culture
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2011

Ghislain Potriquet, Department of English and North-American Studies, University
of Strasbourg, France.

INTRODUCTION

Joshua L. Miller’s “Accented America: the Cultural Politics of Multilingual
Modernism” is a hybrid work that chiefly draws upon history and literature. At
its core are the writings of a dozen American modernist authors who all
challenged the prevalence of English as the natural idiom of American
literature. Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos and Henry Roth (to name a few) are
described as both “literary innovators” and “political agents” as “they
generated critiques of racialized national Anglo-Saxonism” (p. 20). “Accented
America” is not about American authors who wrote in languages other than English
(LOTE), but rather about those who defied literary conventions by combining
unconventional speech forms (e.g. code-switching, multilingualism or
vernacularism) in their prose, or as Miller puts it, “by using U.S. English to
speak in many other languages” (p. 20). The book spans the first half of the
twentieth century (1898-1945).

SUMMARY

The book’s first chapter is entitled “Reinventing Vox Americana”. It introduces
the reader to the language debates of the early twentieth century, when LOTE
became a sign of disloyalty, racial differences, mental incapacity and poor
hygiene in the United States (p. 42). Miller puts into dialogue some of the most
influential voices in this debate, among which was that of Theodore Roosevelt,
twenty-sixth president of the United States and champion of Americanization. For
Roosevelt, Americanization naturally entailed the learning of English and the
forsaking of all other languages (p. 46). Roosevelt’s understanding of
Americanization also delimited a “broadly national” literature, written in an
American vernacular, distinct from European literary canons (p. 47). Here,
Miller broaches a question central to “Accented America”: What is the American
vernacular and how does it relate to American identity?

In 1919, the German-American pundit Henry Louis Mencken took up this
intellectual challenge by publishing “The American Language: an Inquiry into the
Development of English in the United States”. Mencken’s book was a bestseller
that long influenced subsequent studies of American English, and Miller quickly
brings into the open its many biases and flaws by engaging in a thorough
analysis of its numerous editions. Miller renders his verdict on p. 86, when he
states, “His American Language appeared to be as polemical and jingoist as
Theodore Roosevelt, (…) as thoroughly documented as linguists’ scholarship, and
as responsive to the immediate moment as his own journalism”. Miller does not
merely read “American Language” as a pseudo-scientific study; instead, he sees
it as a epistemologically modernist project, for “[Mencken’s] pursuit of deep
structures of hidden coherence underlying disorderly social realities paralleled
the interwar modernists’ fascination with incoherent surfaces and suspicions of
Enlightenment rationalism” (p. 86).

“Documenting ‘American’”, the second chapter, follows up on Miller’s
introduction by visiting language debates of the 1910s and 1920s. It first
reveals how American linguists contributed to the war effort in a number of
ways: by teaching American soldiers Romance languages; by publishing army
phrasebooks (e.g. “Army French or Liberty French”); and by setting “loyalty
committees” to silence pacifists and enhance their reputation as a profession
(pp. 99-102). In this chapter, Miller also reports on the work of American
linguists who undertook the first atlas of American English in 1928 (pp.
119-131). Despite its scientific earnestness and achievements, this atlas
further conveyed the myth of a linguistically homogeneous nation by ignoring
LOTE and by treating them as temporary anomalies in its historical account of
English in America (p. 129). Miller notes that the works of prominent linguists,
such as Edward Sapir or Leonard Bloomfield, did not escape this racializing
tendency; “a striking feature of the 1920s’ and 30s’ scholarship on U.S.
languages was its bold dismissal of prescriptivist norms (…) accompanied by a
reinscription of norms via theories of voluntary or inevitable centrality of a
typically national language standard” (p. 109).

The first two chapters expound the English-only ideology of the early twentieth
century. The subsequent chapters examine how American writers took up the
challenge of debunking the English-only myth. Chapter 3 is entitled
“Foreignizing English” and deals with the works of Gertrude Stein and John Dos
Passos. Throughout these pages, Miller makes a number of high-level stylistic
analyses of their major works (“The Making of Americans and U.S.A.”, chiefly)
and puts them in perspective instantly. While Gertrude Stein presents English as
a “historical hodgepodge of multiple languages” (p. 142), Dos Passos’s
characters’ multiple speech forms never merge (p. 166) but each, in their own
way, reversed the national motto from “‘e pluribus unum’ to ‘ex uno plures’” (p.
137).

Chapter 4 examines the contribution of African American writers to modernist
writing. Its title, “Vernacularizing Silence”, is inspired by a 1917 silent
parade of protest in New York City to denounce murders committed against the
African American community of East Saint Louis, Illinois. Silence was also one
of the strategies adopted by African American modernists, “whether as an overt
protest, as a means of registering the historical loss of African cultures
through the circumatlantic slave trade or as covert form of code switching and
identity crossing” (pp.184-185). Miller then proceeds with the analysis of two
novels -- “Cane” (1923), by Jean Toomer, and “Passing” (1929), by Nella Larsen
-- and observes that, “their literary idioms register loss and linguistic
constraint through multivalent silences, code-switching characters, condensed
symbolist vernaculars and linguistic withdrawal” (p. 226).

“Translating Englitch” presents the works of Jewish modernists Lionel Trilling
and Henry Roth, “a pairing that may raise some eyebrows”, as Miller concedes (p.
229). Both were engaged in “translation projects”, that is to say, their works
have “the qualities of translation with no source text” (p. 231). Miller
understands translation as a process that adds meanings and associations;
therefore, by translating Jewish culture into English, both Trilling and Roth
sought to pursue “the magical formulation of inclusion without assimilation” (p.
230). An analysis of Henry Roth’s (1934) “Call it Sleep” illustrates this
translation process and shows how the transcription of Eastern European Jews’
speech in a phonetically exact but visually odd form purposely estranges most
readers (p. 236). Lionel Trilling’s eponymous study of the British poet Matthew
Arnold (1939) is one of the literary critic’s many writings discussed in this
fifth chapter. Miller sees Trilling’s work as a call for a “refined,
cosmopolitan appropriation of English as Jewish criticism” (p. 257).

The sixth and final chapter of “Accented America” is entitled “Spanglicizing
modernism”. Its two central authors, Carlos Bulosan and Americo Paredes, both
engage in an overt critique of the English-only ideology in the 1940s, which is
likely to resonate with today’s readers. What makes their critique different
from that of their predecessors is the centrality of non-English words; contrary
to the Jewish American fiction discussed in the previous chapter, theirs is
nontranslational (p. 273). This does not preclude them from being regarded as
modernists by Joshua L. Miller, who takes up an important critical stance on pp.
278-279, “I read a broad range of nonurban, nonelite interwar cultures as
pivotal to U.S. modernism. Narrowly restrictive definitions of high urban and
national modernism neglect the substantive ways that populists, proletarian, and
racialized writers actively participated in cultural projects of contesting,
deforming and recomposing the linguistic tenets of modernity”.

Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart” (1946) and Paredes’s “George Washington
Gomez” (1940) are the two novels discussed in this final chapter. Both denounce
the inadequacy of presenting English as the exclusive language of Americans,
challenge the racialized construction of illiteracy (p. 273), and point to a
noncorrespondence between national borders and linguistic boundaries (p. 274).
Moreover, the Filipino Bulosan and the Mexican-American Paredes interrupt their
narratives with regional and local terms derived from indigenous languages
(Tagalog, Ilocano and Nahuatl) to further undermine the legitimacy of colonial
languages, English and Spanish (p. 277).

Miller ends “Accented America” with a brief conclusion in which he recapitulates
the common features of his modernist literary corpus. Interestingly, these works
also follow a similar reception pattern (p. 320). Miller concludes with an
analysis of essays penned by Japanese American internees and shows how these
anonymous authors carry on the critique of their modernist predecessors.

EVALUATION

“Accented America: the Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism” is a
remarkable piece of scholarly work. It is a dense book that will dazzle its
readers with its acute literary analyses (see, for instance, Miller’s reading of
Dos Passos’s preface to U.S.A on p. 164). Miller also proves to be a remarkable
historian and recounts the language debates of the early twentieth century with
talent. His reading of Henry Louis Mencken’s “American Language” alone makes
“Accented America” worthy of shelf space. Most importantly, this book proves its
point quite convincingly and extends the boundaries of American modernist
literature. It is a prime example of what literary criticism can achieve when
put in perspective so meticulously and cleverly.

“Accented America” will be of interest to a broad audience; anyone interested in
literature, history, linguistics, and cultural studies in general will find much
food for thought. The book can either be read as a whole or consulted for
information on specific authors (Chapters 3 to 6) or periods (Chapters 1 and 2).
As such, it should find its place on many syllabi. For instance,
“Vernacularizing Silence” (Chapter 4) would provide a very interesting addition
to a syllabus for an advanced course on African American literature. The first
ten pages give the reader an overview of the literary and intellectual landscape
at the turn of the century (presenting the contributions of W.E.B. Dubois and
Frederick Douglass, in particular) before proceeding with Miller’s original
discussion of Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen as modernist writers. The first two
chapters would also make original reading assignments at the graduate level;
they would provide students with a thorough survey of the language debates of
the 1910s and 1920s, and as such, would be perfectly relevant on a cultural
history syllabus. Anyone teaching a history course on the Progressive Era or a
course on the history of American linguistics may list these two chapters as
supplemental readings.

Several minor shortcomings should be pointed out, however. Most can be
attributed to editorial choices, which are, in essence, disputable. Miller’s
study is thoroughly documented but lacks a bibliography. Some of the pages in
the foreword and introduction are somewhat misleading as they suggest that
“Accented America” will illuminate recent language debates. Miller’s book does
much more than that and the language debates of the early twentieth century
should not be compared with today’s inflated controversies over the use of LOTE
in public places like cheese steak joints. In other words, the intensity of the
language debates in the 1910s and 1920s were far greater, as were the number of
federal and state laws enacted to regulate language use. Furthermore, in the
following decades, language debates did not entirely retreat from the public
forum to migrate to the literary field, as Miller suggests (p. 10); Carlos Kevin
Blanton’s “Strange Career of Bilingual Education in Texas, 1836-1981” shows the
contrary. One last criticism that can be addressed toward “Accented America” is
that the reader may sometimes lose its main thread. Miller does discuss
modernist works in relation to one another but could have delved into other
issues, such as the reification of language hierarchies (pp.109, 129-130, 161,
184). However, overall, “Accented America” deserves to be unanimously praised as
an outstanding contribution to the understanding of American modernism and
language diversity.

REFERENCES

Blanton, Carlos. 2007. The Strange Career of Bilingual Education in Texas,
1836-1981. College Station (TX): Texas A&M University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Ghislain Potriquet is an Associate Professor of American studies at the University of Strasbourg. His research interests revolve around the issues of language diversity and the law. He is affiliated with two research centers: “Savoirs dans l’Espace Anglophone: Représentations Culture Histoire” (SEARCH http://search.unistra.fr/ and the “Groupe d'Étude sur le Plurilinguisme Européen” (GEPE http://www.gepe-strasbourg.fr/).

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