You are here

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

Hefner’s book highlights a broad, diverse, politically progressive, artistically daring, and severely understudied tradition of "vernacular modernism" in early twentieth-century American writing.... It testifies to the strength of The Word on the Streets that one comes away from it thinking not just about what US modernism excluded in the past, but what it might encompass in the future.

American Literary History

Taking H. L. Mencken as the "theoretical voice" for his concept of vernacular modernism, Hefner (James Madison Univ.) makes the case that the linguistic experimentation of high modernism was anticipated by popular fiction.... [Hefner's] insights into the various literary subsets will serve as valuable groundwork for scholars with a variety of interests.


Brooks Hefner’s The Word on the Streets seeks to revolutionize the way modernist studies is done, healing the breach between the international high modernist canon largely published for elite audiences in little magazines and expensive collectors’ editions and the popular, proletarian, and ethnic writers whose experiments with the American language were contemporary with them.... The Word on the Streets is an important reimagining of modernist studies and an important resource for teaching about modernism in accessible and representative ways.

Modern Philology

The Word on the Streets’s most important achievement is providing a framework that allows us to consider popular writers, African American writers, immigrant writers, detective fiction writers, proletarian writers, humorists, and high modernists together, because of their shared concern with the American language.... [A]n important reimagining of modernist studies and an important resource for teaching about modernism in accessible and representative ways.

Modern Philology

Hefner’s essential study is a relevant reminder that the rhetorical and stylistic toolkit of Modernism was put to use to assert the linguistic and cultural autonomy of communities seen from London as marginal. He convincingly argues that thecomplex phenomenon simply referred to as ‘Modernism’ needs even more deconstruction for us to perceive it in its multifaceted reality and as a movement which empowered Englishspeaking writers with a linguistic means to articulate themselves in a form of speech that was at once universal and local.

Forum for Modern Language Studies

Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books