The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism
University Press 2011
Recent political debates around language have often been controversial, sometimes poorly informed, and usually unedifying. It’s striking to consider that such debates have, at least in the USA, been current for more than 100 years; and perhaps surprising to learn that they can be seen to have a striking effect on the development of modernist literature.
In Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2011), Joshua Miller begins by evoking a time when the existence and substance of a distinctly American national language is first being argued, and when Presidents, language mavens and the new breed of linguistics scholars are exchanging opinions in major public fora. Against this background, he reads the work of some of the major American writers of the interwar years as exploring and negotiating the relation between language and cultural identity.
In this interview, we talk first about Mencken’s rehabilitation as a public figure through his work on language, and his role in the political debates on the status of American English. We then discuss how the cosmopolitan language backgrounds of Gertrude Stein and John dos Passos variously informed their work, how the relationship between language and African American identity plays out in the works of Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen, and how Spanish and indigenous languages shape the writing of Carlos Bulosan and Americo Paredes.