Howells: A Promising Starting Point for Research

This project has definitely been challenging. I’ve struggled with finding research for my topic and trying to narrow my topic down to what I actually want to be studying. I think my biggest problem was that my topic was way too narrow. I wanted to focus specifically on how dialect in Uncle Remus influenced/affected/etc. society as a whole. While that’s interesting and all, I wasn’t getting anywhere. So, a bit discouraged, I went into office hours for help. When explaining what it was that I wanted to research, what came out of my mouth was something completely different than what I had been working on. I want to study dialects in literature to see how society reacted/how society was influenced by the representation of dialects. Still related, of course, but a bit broader, allowing me the opportunity to find more research for my new topic.  While it still needs a bit more narrowing down, I’m at least getting somewhere with my research.

While in office hours, William Dean Howells was brought to my attention and I’ve found a book that will be very helpful in guiding me to a more specific topic. The book, Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America by Elsa Nettels, focuses on Howells as a “writer about language,” including his opinions on the English language as well as his use of dialect for his characters.

Since I’ve only recently checked out the book from the library, I’m not entirely sure what I’ll discover about my topic. What I can tell so far is that it will be helpful in narrowing down my topic and will most likely lead me to other resources that I can use for research.

In the book’s introduction, Nettels says that, “In novel after novel Howells showed how characters reveal themselves and their social conditions by their speech” (3). Later on in a chapter entitled “The Problem of ‘Negro Dialect’ in Literature”, it is said that, “Howell’s belief in the power of dialect to unite readers in the recognition of their common humanity thus receives its severest test in the writing, including his own, which purports to render the speech of blacks” (73). It seems this book will provide me with some very valuable information of both the benefits of dialect in writing, and what that meant for society, as well as the problems that arise for certain groups when their dialect is portrayed in a work. Of course, it’s too early for me to tell since I haven’t actually read the book yet, but the table of contents seem very promising!

The beginning chapters of this book will be very helpful as they provide a background of Howells’ views about language. And because one of the chapters focuses specifically on American and British English, it made me wonder if people in Britain were reading Howells. I immediately went to the Reading Experience Database and found that people were reading his reviews and books (I haven’t looked too far into this, though, since I’m still establishing my ideas). What Middletown Read also had entries too. So I’m confident that reading Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America will help immensely, both in finding more research materials and in formulating a more precise topic.

That being said, there were a few others books I found that were related to the keywords of Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America, which I’m adding to my temporary bibliography, below.

Jordan, Cynthia S. Second Stories: The Politics of Language, Form, and Gender in Early American Fictions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1989. Print.

Nettels, Elsa. Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 1988. Print.

Sewell, David R. Mark Twain’s Languages: Discourse, Dialogue, and Linguistic Variety. Berkeley: University of California, 1987. Print.

I may also use the websites below, to see who was reading Howells’ works.

Reading Experience Database

What Middletown Read


2 thoughts on “Howells: A Promising Starting Point for Research

  1. This is a really interesting idea! I’m curious how you are planning to determine if Uncle Remus really influenced/affected/etc. society as a whole. Not familiar with the text itself, I am wondering if this might be better pointed towards a more specific aspect, such as how it affected a particular movement or event. Looks like lots of great stuff to come!

    • I agree, you certainly have an interesting topic in terms of what book you will be following. I’m looking forward to see where you go in terms of measuring social impact! I think that’s the challenge for a lot of us during this project

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