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No other American novelist has written so fully about language—grammar, diction, the place of colloquialism and dialect in literary English, the relation between speech and writing—as William Dean Howells. The power of language to create social, political, and racial identity was of central concern to Americans in the nineteenth century, and the implications of language in this regard are strikingly revealed in the writings of Howells, the most influential critic and editor of his age.

In this first full-scale treatment of Howells as a writer about language, Elsa Nettels offers a historical overview of the social and political implications of language in post-Civil War America. Chapters on controversies about linguistic authority, American versus British English, literary dialect, and language and race relate Howells's ideas at every point to those of his contemporaries—from writers such as Henry James, Mark Twain, and James Russell Lowell to political figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Hay.

The first book to analyze in depth and detail the language of Howells's characters in more than a dozen novels, this path-breaking sociolinguistic approach to Howells's fiction exposes the fundamental contradiction in his realism and in the America he portrayed. By representing the speech that separates standard from nonstandard speakers, Howells's novels—which champion the democratic ideals of equity and unity—also demonstrate the power of language to reinforce barriers of race and class in American society.

Drawing on unpublished letters of Howells, James, Lowell, and others and on scores of articles in nineteenth-century periodicals, this work of literary criticism and cultural history reaches beyond the work of one writer to address questions of enduring importance to all students of American literature and society.

Elsa Nettels, professor of English at the College of William and Mary, is the author of James and Conrad.

"An excellent summary of dominant attitudes toward language and usage, and therefore toward class, race, nationalism, and imperialism, in leading white middle-class American publications in the second half of the nineteenth century."—American Literature

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






William Dean Howells, English language, Sociolinguistics


Literature in English, North America

Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells's America
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