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date: 25 September 2022

The Vernacular in American Literaturelocked

The Vernacular in American Literaturelocked

  • J. Peter MooreJ. Peter MooreJohn Martinson Honors College, Purdue University

Summary

At its most basic level the term “vernacular” denotes the nonliterary or common language of a given region. While the idea of a literature of the vernacular suggests a contradiction, this contradiction is useful in considering the study of American literature, if for no other reason than the notion of an American literature, up until the 20th century, also seemed like a contradiction. There is ample basis then for arguing not for the existence of a vernacular tradition in American writing, but that American writing itself is, if not a collection of vernacular traditions, a body of writing defined in relation to vernacularity. While the term provisionally acknowledges a range of meanings from the lowly and indigenous to the amateur and popular, all of these meanings are discursive and thus contingent upon context. The act of applying the term to a text tells us as much about the classificatory values of a moment as it does about the text itself. Abstracted then, the category of the vernacular serves two primary functions. It introduces difference, and it suggests hierarchy. This dual framework has historically allowed for the identification of neglected forms, which stand in contradiction to reigning models. The vernacular provides a means of celebrating marginalized modes of expression as well as the identity formations they index, while at the same time running the risk of pandering to stereotypes. Literary scholars of the vernacular tend to focus on questions of diction, and yet the category is not strictly linguistic; it includes a range of intuitive, improvisatory, and contextual practices. This leaves the perennial question, what is the literary vernacular—a style of language, a philosophy of form, a function of technological capture and dissemination, or a model of reception? In pursuing this question, readers are primed to see the ways in which the category opens onto several critical issues, from the representation of cultural difference to the identification of transnational bonds and contingent universals.

Subjects

  • North American Literatures
  • 19th Century (1800-1900)
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)

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