Brooks E. Hefner


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

Cover Interview of October 29, 2017

The wide angle

The Word on the Streets enters in a rather thorny place in modernist studies. In my mind—and I make the claim in the book—the field of modernist studies has been much more willing to move beyond the literary canon in theory than it has in practice. As a result, modernist scholars are still writing primarily about the same dozen or so authors that have been at the center of the study of literary modernism for decades. Occasionally these studies include a chapter with a new or relatively unknown writer, but by and large these studies remain firmly rooted in familiar names and texts. The big idea behind the method of The Word on the Streets is this: what if we took these post-canonical notions seriously and treated popular and non-canonical fiction as if it had its own self-conscious and self-reflexive aesthetic? How might granting popular and middlebrow writers this kind of aesthetic independence alter our understanding of American modernism as a complex literary practice?

This approach meant a return to a somewhat old-fashioned notion of modernism, a formalist attitude that emphasizes style and aesthetic distance rather than more common contemporary approaches that seek to understand modernist culture almost exclusively in its social and political complexity. It also meant throwing off some of the deeply entrenched prejudices against popular culture as compromised by its commodity status, and therefore part of an insidious culture industry against which modernism defines its own independence. This wasn’t all that hard to do because the writers I discuss here wrote, often explicitly, about their own writing methods and styles. For example, Jewish American writer Anzia Yezierska described the way that “Foreigners bring new color, new music, new beauty of expression to worn-out words. The foreign mind works on an old language like the surging leaven of youth. It rekindles and recreates our speech. Trite words, stale phrases, break up into new rhythms in the driving urge to express more vitally the rush of new experience, the fire of changing personality.” It’s not difficult to see, in Yezierska’s statement—from her review of another Jewish American writer’s memoir—both the concerns and anxieties of literary modernists: how do we make language new? How do we create a form of representation suited to the experiences of twentieth century modernity? For Yezierska, the hybrid speech of immigrants was precisely the place to look for these new modes of representation.

Canonical modernist figures certainly understood this: the writers I feature in this study moved across publishing contexts and zones of cultural prestige quite smoothly. Drawing on a recent emphasis on periodicals as central to modernist writing, I show how these writers, frequently relegated to the margins, were actually published, advertised, and praised alongside more familiar modernist figures in magazines both big and little. This attention to periodical and publishing history helps to recreate a more vibrant and complex picture of American modernism than we have previously been able to acknowledge.