As a followup to the critique from my previous blog post, as well as a way to move forward with my research for the paper, I’m going to respond more to Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America. After reading the relevant sections of the book over the weekend, I’ve been able to move forward with my research topic and establish a very good sense of the direction I’m going in, which I’ll get to later.
While the focus is ultimately on Howells, I became more interested in the topic of spelling reform and dictionaries. English spelling was chaotic in his opinion, and he hated the spelling in dictionaries (Nettels 3,4). The most striking sentence about the use of dictionaries was, “Because Americans were not bound by birth to a particular social class and its usages, they enjoyed the prospect of climbing the social ladder by acquiring certain tastes and manners, above all those habits of speech widely regarded as ‘the surest test of a gentleman’” (11). Dictionaries, among other things, were one of the mediums used to learn the “proper language”. This seemed interesting to me, so I wrote it down and continued reading. Throughout much of what I read, there was this same general idea repeated, that language indicated one’s social class. The words that were accepted in society, as well as the “correct” pronunciations, would be present in those dictionaries, so those that were considered established members of society would be the individuals who used those words (18). The rest of the book continues on to focus more on dialects, which I originally wanted to focus on. But this detail about language, dictionaries, and social class really stuck with me.
Now for my paper I’m thinking on focusing more on dictionaries. Who was reading them? More specifically, what were individual’s occupational rank? It’d be interesting to delve deeper into what the book says to see if people attempted to better themselves in society through dictionaries. Although I’ve only just begun, the data I’ve collected so far from What Middletown Read is very promising. After searching “dictionary”, there were approximately 122 patron results. Most transactions were classified as “low white collar” and “skilled”. Using dictionaries as a way for social betterment seems like a proper conclusion, but still something I want to look into more closely. There were many details, such as women being classified occupationally by what their husbands or fathers were classified as that I want to research more.
In addition to looking further into the specific dictionaries, I’d probably also look up spelling reform at the time. Maybe there was a larger movement around the time of What Middletown Read’s collection, or maybe one just before. Either way, I need to look further into the historical aspect of the time period so as to look for more context. And, as I discussed during my individual conference today, there might be particular wording in the dictionary prefaces that explain the author’s purpose for compiling the dictionary. Perhaps spelling reform will be a reason, or maybe I will discover something else.
This book was really interesting and SUPER helpful, as I now have a clearer, less hazy topic and I know the direction I’m moving in!