Brooks E. Hefner


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

Cover Interview of October 29, 2017


Ultimately, I hope to provide in The Word on the Streets a model for how scholars might begin to rethink the complexity of popular writing. All too often popular writing is trotted out as a kind of raw material that more talented writers transform into capital-L Literature (or capital-M Modernism) through some form of literary alchemy. And this can happen even in well-meaning studies that seek to promote popular writing as radical or valuable. My method here is to give these writers some credit for being more than merely “fiction factories” writing for money; in my account, these writers are deliberate about their choices and deeply interested in the power and complexity of language.

By giving these writers credit for understanding and practicing their craft, The Word on the Streets steps away from ideological readings that indict writers—especially popular and middlebrow writers—for their complicity with power structures. I wouldn’t exactly call this approach “postcritical” (in the way the Rita Felski describes such a method), but I would say that if we want to preserve the gains of cultural studies—in particular, the diversification of the canon—we need to acknowledge that these writers were often quite articulate about their own writing practice. Whether it is the strategic use of urban vernacular and street slang in the Harlem novels of Rudolph Fisher and Claude McKay as a means of raising questions about the politics of uplift in the Harlem Renaissance, or the emphasis on working-class and baseball slang in Ring Lardner to revise the class dynamics of American humor, these vernacular modernists mounted their own critique of nineteenth-century linguistic conventions and offered new possibilities for the genres they transformed.

The vernacular modernists I discuss are well aware of the complicated politics of language in the modernist era: a moment characterized by nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment, labor unrest, and racial discrimination and violence. In each of my case studies, I tease out the ways in which the transformation of each of these individual genres wrestles directly with how language—both standard and non-standard vernacular languages—remains deeply connected to these politics.