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Power of Prose

American Debuts

American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways.  Christa Smith Anderson explores local color, beginning with a look at how Herman Melville and Mark Twain pioneered the use of a new American language in their 19th century novels.

For the earliest Americans who published their writing, the mother tongue was English. The departure from standard English as it was handed down from across the Atlantic was at first very small. But by the time Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) manuscript made its way overseas, an American way of writing and speaking was becoming discernable and subject to change by British editors. “This here,” as in “I wonder now if this here has any effect on my head,” was shortened to “this.”   “I did not know but what” became “I did not know that.” In addition to eliminating idioms, British editors did not allow Melville the “extravaganzas” of the American edition; British readers saw “extravagances.” As for grammar, Shakespeare may have gotten away with “Woe is me,” but no such allowance was made for Melville. “’Tis not me!” became “’tis not I,” and “it is not me” became “it is not myself” in the British edition. [1]

Although early American and British editions of Moby Dick illustrate the points at which standard English and American English were beginning to part ways, there would soon emerge an American writer whose works no amount of standard-English editing would “fix.”  To remove the Americanisms from the works of Mark Twain would prove mighty near impossible. 

A Distinct New American Voice

Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, was a newspaper reporter and steamboat pilot before he created some of American literature’s most well-known characters. As a writer, Twain relied on his ear as much as anything. Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog, originally published in 1865, was the first of Twain’s works to bring him fame. The story introduced readers to a “feller” who was “uncommon lucky” and “always ready and laying for a chance” to take a bet; in fact, there wasn’t a “solitry” thing this Jim Smiley wouldn’t bet on.[2]

Another of Twain’s commercially successful characters, Tom Sawyer, had it pretty good too when it came to luck. But it was Tom’s comrade Huck, who was always trying to fend off bad luck, whose story became a landmark in American literature. 

Mark Twain’s

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.  I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is arguably the first distinctly American novel. This is due in no small part to the fact that Huck Finn can no more speak the Queen’s English than he can pray a lie. And he learns “you can’t pray a lie” when he finds that the words won’t come even as he is kneeling to ask God to make him a better boy: 

I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all.  [4]

Society has taught Huck that the biggest sin of all is helping a runaway slave escape to freedom, even though in his adventures Huck sees senseless and fatal family feuds, a narrowly averted mob lynching, the shenanigans of a fraudulent Duke and King, and plenty of other unseemly things. Huck finds himself in an awful spot, caught “betwixt two things”: turning in Jim or going to hell. After all Huck’s been through with Jim, who presents quite a contrast to Huck’s knife-wielding, half-crazed drunkard of a father, Huck decides on what he sees as the only viable option: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell." Despite the fact that some deemed the novel downright “coarse” and “more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people,[5] Huck Finn was a sensation — and rightly so.  The moral compass of a young, poor narrator to whom proper English may as well have been a foreign language proved far more complicated and ultimately reliable than the mores of the “civilized,” better-educated society. And the thoroughly American voice is unmistakable on every page.

A Canvas of Local Colors

Writers today are told, “Write what you know.”   That common dictum comes from influential magazine editor William Dean Howells, who in the latter half of the
19th-century devoted much of his time to convincing U.S. writers to do just that. Write what you know, even when it parts from the conventional language and formats of literary tradition. Writers answered Howells’ call, resulting in a wealth of mid-to-late 19th century literature capturing the true colors of America’s varied communities and regions. Howells, who once proclaimed, “The arts must become democratic,” was instrumental in placing Twain’s work in a realm of serious literary consideration. He said Twain was “sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.” Howells befriended many “regionalists” who wrote in distinctly American voices with colloquial language unique to particular regions of the country. The genre is called “local color,” for the vivid literary portraits painted with vernacular language. Howells introduced those works to readers of the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Weekly. Twain was among the Western writers; George Washington Cable wrote of the French Creole culture of the South; Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman introduced many readers to the local color of the Northeast.

The short-story form is particularly well-suited to local color, and Howells noticed that women proved particularly adept. Many short stories by women writers were, Howells believed, “faithfuler and more realistic than those of the men. [7]

In addition to Jewett and Freeman’s writings from the Northeast,  Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Kate Chopin were known for bringing Louisiana Creole to life on the page.   Chopin is considered to be a "practitioner of Howellsian realism." [8] Her use of particular regional speech underscores the realism of her work. The closing words of Chopin’s Athenaise, spoken by the main character of the same name, capture the blend of dialect and bilingualism then particular to Louisiana Creole:

Listen, Cazeau! How Juliette’s baby is crying! Pauvre ti chou, I wonder w’at is the matter with it? [9]

Howells’ penchant for democracy in literature applied not only to the short story.  He claimed it was “European” to view the novel “as something fit only for age and experience, and for men rather than women.” In contrast, the perception of the “novel as something which may be read by all ages and sexes” was an “old-fashioned American ideal.[10]

Frank Norris, the young San Francisco author of the novel McTeague, believed that, “the future of American fiction lies in… an abandonment of ‘elegant prose’ and ‘fine writing.’” Howells wrote that high-society types would “not have a good time” with McTeague, for there wasn’t a society person to be found in it." [11]  From McTeague:

'Vairy goot,' commented Mrs. Sieppe. 'Bier, eh? And some damales.'

'Oh, I love tamales!' exclaimed Trina, clasping her hands.  [12]

Howells likened the 1899 novel to a blizzard, shifting a literary climate from “the romantic to the realistic temperature. [13]

Norris died at the age of 32. He was not alive when for a new edition in 1928, his punctuation was revised and his dialect spellings edited and “Anglicized.[14]

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Herman Melville, The life and works of the famous American author who was one of the first successful writers of voice.
  • William Dean Howells, Learn more about  this early 20th century magazine editor from The William Dean Howells Society.
  • George Washington Cable,  A writer and critic, Cable has been called the most important southern artist  in the late 19th century.
  • Sarah Orne Jewett, An American short story writer, her fiction is characterized by its intimate views of characters' lives and humor.
  • Mary Wilkins Freeman, Learn more about this feminist writer.
  • Alice Dunbar-Nelson, For most of her career Dunbar-Nelson wrote about race and gender conflicts.
  • Kate Chopin, Revisit the life and work of this renowned nineteenth-century Louisiana author through a Louisiana Public Broadcasting production.
  • Frank Norris,  Learn more about this nineteenth-century author.
  • Chopin, Kate. Bayou Folk: And, a Night in Acadie. New York: Penguin, 1999.
  • Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
  • Nagel, James, and Tom Quirk, eds. The Portable American Realism Reader.  New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
  • Norris, Frank. McTeague. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Donald Pizer. New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1977.
  • Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Electronic Text Center: University of Virginia Library.

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Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.

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  1. Ament, William S. “Some Americanisms in Moby Dick” American Speech  7, No. 5  (June 1932): 365-367.
  2.   Nagel, James, and Tom Quirk, eds.The Portable American Realism Reader. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1997.
  3. Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Eds. Walter Blair and Victor Fischer. A Publication of the Mark Twain Project of The Bancroft Library. Published in cooperation with the Univ. of Iowa. Univ. of Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: California Press,  1986.
  4. Twain, p. 269.
  5. Twain, p.271.
  6. Boston Evening Transcript.  March 17, 1885. 6.
  7. Ibid.
  8. "Kate Chopin." Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Realism, Naturalism, and Local Color, 1865-1917. Gale Research, 1988. Reproduced in Biography  Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group.
  9. Chopin, Kate. “Athenaise.” The Portable American Realism Reader. Eds. James Nagel and Tom Quirk.142.
  10. Howells, William Dean. “A Case in Point,” McTeague.  Norton Critical Edition.  Ed. Donald Pizer. Frank Norris. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.,1977.
  11. Howells, p.325.
  12. Norris, Frank. McTeague.  Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Donald Pizer. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977. 53.
  13. Howells, p. 326.
  14. Howells, p. xi .

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