It is both fortuitous and overdetermined that the critic most responsible for the view of dialect writing that American studies and cultural studies critics are challenging today was a man by the name of Krapp. Writing in the 1920s, George Philip Krapp (1925, 1926) insisted that dialect writing was a highbrow literary convention that always involved a patronizing class-based condescension. Krapp’s view came to dominate scholarship on the topic through much of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is echoed decades later in the ten-volume Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, which avers that dialect speakers in literature are usually presented as inferior, primitive, and backward (Asher and Simpson 1994). To be sure, the hierarchy that Krapp and others invoke was, historically, a component of much dialect writing. But recent scholarship emphasizes that the story is more complex and more interesting: dialect writing can be subversive as well as repressive, radical as well as conservative, as capable of interrogating status quo distributions of power as of reaffirming them. For these reasons, scholars of American studies and cultural studies are now considering dialect writing in more nuanced ways, increasingly recognizing that a practice previously sidelined as ephemeral and retrograde can be seen, in many cases, as the forerunner to important vernacular voices that have enriched twentieth- and twenty-first-century US and American culture.
Long dismissed by scholars as unworthy of serious attention, dialect writing carries a lot of baggage, conjuring up visions of elitist disdain, class bias, cheap humor, ethnocentrism, and racism. But contemporary scholars increasingly argue that dialect writing can also be a site of subversion, resistance, empathy, respect, and social critique. Gavin Jones (1999, 11), for example, questions the idea that the principal function of dialect in the Gilded Age (1865–1901) was to reinforce an elitist ideology, and he urges scholars to attend to “the political dynamic of subordination and resistance that defined linguistic conflict at the end of the nineteenth century.” Holger Kersten (1996, 2000) similarly rejects critical evaluations of dialect writing as “inferior” and instead argues that departures from “correct” traditions of usage often represent consciously innovative literary experiments, including those that use the perspective and speech of ethnic immigrant characters to present a critique of US culture from the outside. Eric Lott (1993) and Michael North (1994) argue that an analogous critique informs the centrality of black dialect in both popular and elite white cultural forms ranging from nineteenth-century minstrelsy to twentieth-century modernist poetry.
Because of the long-standing assumption (articulated by Krapp) that the use of dialect in literature implied the subordinate status of the dialect speaker, for over a century, readers have often misinterpreted the work of writers such as Mark Twain and Paul Laurence Dunbar (D. Smith 1991; Dunbar 1993, 2005). Neither Twain nor Dunbar considered dialect speakers inferior or undeserving of respect; on the contrary, both authors were sometimes apt to assign superior qualities to dialect speakers, thereby inverting the presumptive hierarchies of value embodied in the linguistic choices that they made. Far from being presented as objects of ridicule, black vernacular speakers in work by Twain and Dunbar often underscore, through the compelling power of their voice and their message, the superficiality and thinness of the dominant white culture. Aunt Rachel in Twain’s “A True Story” (1874) and Jim in Huckleberry Finn ( 1985)—both speakers of “black dialect,” as traditional literary terminology would have it—are the figures we admire most in their respective texts. Through them, Twain undermines the ideology of black inferiority that pervaded both popular belief and “scientific” opinion of his time. Other scholars have explored what we can learn about racial hierarchies and the politics of dialect outside the United States by analyzing the choices translators made when translating Twain’s black vernacular speech into German and French (Berthele 2000; Lavoie 2002). The signifying slave preacher in Dunbar’s poem “An Ante-bellum Sermon” (1993, 13) similarly embodies the richness and depth of black vernacular speech and makes all other speech look one-dimensional and pallid by comparison. We need to attend more closely to the subversion behind the stereotype in both Twain’s and Dunbar’s works if we are to grasp the complexity of their projects as writers.
Dialect, as it turns out, in the hands of sly and talented artists and astute and sensitive critics, may do cultural work that is a good deal more complicated than we may have thought. Rather than reifying a hierarchy that postulates something called “Standard English” on top and “dialect” of various sorts at the bottom, scholars today increasingly recognize the ways in which US English is a dynamic amalgam of a range of varieties of speech and writing in which vernacular forms have always played, and continue to play, critical roles. Late twentieth-century literary experiments such as Alice Walker’s vernacular, epistolary novel The Color Purple (1982); Sherley Anne Williams’s blues-infused historical novel Dessa Rose (1986); and Gloria Anzaldúa’s code-switching blend of poetry and nonfiction Borderlands / La Frontera (1987) remind us of the distinctive and radical energy and vitality of some of dialect writing’s contemporary heirs.