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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Culture as Talk: American Literature and the Ethnography of Utterance, 1880-1945

  • Author(s): Benson, Alexandre Nicolas
  • Advisor(s): Hale, Dorothy J
  • et al.

Accounts of the American literary field at the turn of the twentieth century often emphasize its fascination with everyday speech, explaining this fascination in terms of a widespread popular interest in folk cultures. This dissertation, working between literary history and the history of anthropological linguistics, argues that we can reverse the direction of these accounts, using the literary representation of speech to explain the history of the culture concept. It's well known that anthropologist Franz Boas and his students relativized the idea of culture during this period, championing a new pluralistic theory of difference. What's less well known is that this theory owed many of the particulars of its elaboration to the practical obstacles ethnographers faced in transcribing folk speech. "Culture as Talk" links these productive difficulties of ethnographic method to features of literary form by viewing them as aspects of a single technical problem, the textual representation of "talk"--a term adopted here for its connotation of discourse that is socially embedded and that stands at a slant angle to the standard. If these pragmatic and vernacular qualities make talk key to writing about ethnic affiliation and alterity, they also make it a complex object to entextualize. How does one inscribe both the social universe indexed by a given speech act and, at the same time, the tonal idiosyncrasies of the particular voice that produced it? In the literary field, this questions play out across a wide range of genres and traditions, as the project demonstrates through close readings of John Oskison's Indian Territory fiction, Helen Keller's memoirs, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and Claude McKay's dialect poetry. Drawing on social-scientific theories of transcription, these readings qualify the commonplace opposition in literary studies between cultural studies and formalism by showing that, from the late nineteenth century on, the history of the culture concept has been, in part, a record of the formal effects produced when texts hit their limits at the object of talk.

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