LINGUIST List 23.2831

Mon Jun 25 2012

Review: Ling & Literature; Discourse Analysis; Sociolinguistics: Miller (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 25-Jun-2012
From: Ghislain Potriquet <>
Subject: Accented America
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Announced at
AUTHOR: Joshua L. MillerTITLE: Accented AmericaSUBTITLE: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual ModernismSERIES TITLE: Modernist Literature and CulturePUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2011

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


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


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

In 1919, the German-American pundit Henry Louis Mencken took up thisintellectual challenge by publishing “The American Language: an Inquiry into theDevelopment of English in the United States”. Mencken’s book was a bestsellerthat long influenced subsequent studies of American English, and Miller quicklybrings into the open its many biases and flaws by engaging in a thoroughanalysis of its numerous editions. Miller renders his verdict on p. 86, when hestates, “His American Language appeared to be as polemical and jingoist asTheodore Roosevelt, (…) as thoroughly documented as linguists’ scholarship, andas responsive to the immediate moment as his own journalism”. Miller does notmerely read “American Language” as a pseudo-scientific study; instead, he seesit as a epistemologically modernist project, for “[Mencken’s] pursuit of deepstructures of hidden coherence underlying disorderly social realities paralleledthe interwar modernists’ fascination with incoherent surfaces and suspicions ofEnlightenment rationalism” (p. 86).

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

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

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

“Translating Englitch” presents the works of Jewish modernists Lionel Trillingand 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 workshave “the qualities of translation with no source text” (p. 231). Millerunderstands translation as a process that adds meanings and associations;therefore, by translating Jewish culture into English, both Trilling and Rothsought to pursue “the magical formulation of inclusion without assimilation” (p.230). An analysis of Henry Roth’s (1934) “Call it Sleep” illustrates thistranslation process and shows how the transcription of Eastern European Jews’speech in a phonetically exact but visually odd form purposely estranges mostreaders (p. 236). Lionel Trilling’s eponymous study of the British poet MatthewArnold (1939) is one of the literary critic’s many writings discussed in thisfifth 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 “Spanglicizingmodernism”. Its two central authors, Carlos Bulosan and Americo Paredes, bothengage in an overt critique of the English-only ideology in the 1940s, which islikely to resonate with today’s readers. What makes their critique differentfrom that of their predecessors is the centrality of non-English words; contraryto the Jewish American fiction discussed in the previous chapter, theirs isnontranslational (p. 273). This does not preclude them from being regarded asmodernists 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 aspivotal to U.S. modernism. Narrowly restrictive definitions of high urban andnational modernism neglect the substantive ways that populists, proletarian, andracialized 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 WashingtonGomez” (1940) are the two novels discussed in this final chapter. Both denouncethe inadequacy of presenting English as the exclusive language of Americans,challenge the racialized construction of illiteracy (p. 273), and point to anoncorrespondence between national borders and linguistic boundaries (p. 274).Moreover, the Filipino Bulosan and the Mexican-American Paredes interrupt theirnarratives with regional and local terms derived from indigenous languages(Tagalog, Ilocano and Nahuatl) to further undermine the legitimacy of coloniallanguages, English and Spanish (p. 277).

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


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

“Accented America” will be of interest to a broad audience; anyone interested inliterature, history, linguistics, and cultural studies in general will find muchfood for thought. The book can either be read as a whole or consulted forinformation 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 additionto a syllabus for an advanced course on African American literature. The firstten pages give the reader an overview of the literary and intellectual landscapeat the turn of the century (presenting the contributions of W.E.B. Dubois andFrederick Douglass, in particular) before proceeding with Miller’s originaldiscussion of Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen as modernist writers. The first twochapters would also make original reading assignments at the graduate level;they would provide students with a thorough survey of the language debates ofthe 1910s and 1920s, and as such, would be perfectly relevant on a culturalhistory syllabus. Anyone teaching a history course on the Progressive Era or acourse on the history of American linguistics may list these two chapters assupplemental readings.

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


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


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 and the “Groupe d'Étude sur le Plurilinguisme Européen” (GEPE

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