Brooks E. Hefner


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

Cover Interview of October 29, 2017

A close-up

The best entry point for the book is probably the introduction. I use that rather lengthy section to demonstrate the permeability of modernist boundaries and to lay out my argument for exactly what vernacular modernism is and how it works: how it relates to modernist writing and how it differs from popular nineteenth century dialect writing that understood language as marking strict social hierarchies. I also use the introduction to highlight the importance of popular linguistics in the era, a legacy of Mencken’s American Language. Readily incorporating “foreign words and phrases” (in Mencken’s words), this fast-moving, constantly innovating American language meant that slang dictionaries and word-lists (produced at an astounding rate during this time) were likely obsolete by the time they reached publication.

The introduction also situates this vernacular modernism within what I call the political economy of modernist reading. Using Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I track the ways in which this text moved with ease across a variety of boundaries between highbrow and middlebrow readerships, noting that its impact seems to derive in part from this very motion.

If a reader is looking for a case study to sink her teeth into, then I would suggest turning to the chapter on hard-boiled crime fiction. With a focus on the well-known detective writer Dashiell Hammett and his lesser-known antecedent Carroll John Daly, it teases out quite a few of the themes and methods that run throughout the book. Linking the self-conscious development of the hard-boiled aesthetic in the pulp magazine Black Mask to the vogue for underworld dictionaries and the semi-canonization of crime writers like Dashiell Hammett, this chapter makes an argument for hard-boiled writers working in a vernacular modernist mode that reflects the power and the politics of vernacular language and slang. It also argues that a turn toward the vernacular served as a watershed moment in the history of crime fiction, replacing the rational realism of classic detective fiction with a modernist world filled with ambiguous meaning and epistemological doubts.