Brooks E. Hefner


On his book The Word on the Streets: The American Language of Vernacular Modernism

Cover Interview of October 29, 2017

In a nutshell

The Word on the Streets is a book, first and foremost, about slang: how slang and vernacular language gain purchase as experimental and self-conscious forms in American literature. The book charts how a variety of popular genres underwent a transformation in the early twentieth century, as authors began to see slang as a way of reformulating their respective genres’ aesthetic practices. This reformulation, I argue, is a part of what we understand as literary modernism, that multifaceted movement that famously sought to “make it new” in all aspects of the arts. Central to these modernist goals was the self-conscious alienation of language, which could take forms from stream of consciousness narration to the impenetrable incorporation of ancient languages and neologisms.

Modernism also defined itself against commercial art (or “mass culture” as critics like Andreas Huyssen would have it), though scholars in recent years have been quick to note that even these difficult texts participated in a specialized market. So, it’s become easy to see how modernist giants like Gertrude Stein or William Faulkner crossed the line into commercial zones. But scholars have been reluctant to imagine any of that “mass culture” as crossing the line into self-conscious literary experimentation. This is where The Word on the Streets comes in. In the early twentieth century, popular writers in a wide variety of genres began to understand slang and vernacular language as a way to experiment with new forms of representation, to raise questions about knowledge, and to challenge entrenched boundaries based on race, class, and ethnicity.

The “vernacular modernism” of my subtitle refers to this loose aggregation of writers, working in wildly different popular traditions, who turn to slang and vernacular language(s) to enact a kind of experimental transformation within their received genres. This practice is contemporaneous with a growth of scholarly and popular interest in the so-called “American language” (best exemplified by H.L. Mencken’s magnum opus of the same name). But it goes far beyond any kind of linguistic standardization: multi-ethnic and cross-class slang was a moving target during this period, and Mencken claimed that this “American language” was defined by its “steady reaching out for new and vivid forms.”

The vernacular modernist writers I examine include humor writers, crime fiction writers, Jewish American memoirists, and African American urban novelists. They were published in middlebrow and lowbrow venues for popular audiences, but nearly every one of them grazed the boundaries of capital-M Modernism. In The Word on the Streets I hope to give these writers their due and to shatter the (often unspoken) presumption in modernist studies that popular writers are not really worthy of close formalist analysis. I also hope to provide a way for thinking about American modernist practices that cuts across traditional boundaries of race, class, and ethnicity.