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The Word on the Streets

The American Language of Vernacular Modernism
Brooks E. Hefner

BUY Cloth · 296 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940403 · $75.00 · Oct 2017
BUY Ebook · 296 pp. · ISBN 9780813940427 · $35.00 · Oct 2017
BUY Paper · 296 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940410 · $35.00 · Oct 2017

From the hard-boiled detective stories of Dashiell Hammett to the novels of Claude McKay, The Word on the Streets examines a group of writers whose experimentation with the vernacular argues for a rethinking of American modernism—one that cuts across traditional boundaries of class, race, and ethnicity.

The dawn of the modernist era witnessed a transformation of popular writing that demonstrated an experimental practice rooted in the language of the streets. Emerging alongside more recognized strands of literary modernism, the vernacular modernism these writers exhibited lays bare the aesthetic experiments inherent in American working-class and ethnic language, forging an alternative pathway for American modernist practice.

Brooks Hefner shows how writers across a variety of popular genres—from Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner to humorist Anita Loos and ethnic memoirist Anzia Yezierska—employed street slang to mount their own critique of genteel realism and its classist emphasis on dialect hierarchies, the result of which was a form of American experimental writing that resonated powerfully across the American cultural landscape of the 1910s and 1920s.


"Hefner’s book gives a spectacular new provenance for vernacular modernism within the protocols and practices of American language use, both spoken and written, in the first half of the twentieth century. This is first-rate work, genuinely distinguished, and certain to play a major role in numerous key fields."

Jennifer Wicke, Visiting Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement, and Social Reading

"A thoughtful, well-written, and revisionist account of literary experimentation in North American modernism. Using high modernism as a control in his thought experiment, Brooks Hefner corrects the critical notion that modernists borrowed extensively from mass culture without ever being contaminated by it."

Peter Kalliney, University of Kentucky, author of Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics

About the Author: 

Brooks E. Hefner is Associate Professor of English at James Madison University.

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