12 January 2013

I had bad indigestion last night during my writing time. I writhed in pain for a bit on my bed, then went to sleep early. My guilt over not writing made the experience all the less unpleasant. We soldier on.

“David Skinner, author of The Story of Ain’t, was recently interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio. His book is about the controversy caused by the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Webster’s Third was controversial because it included slang words like “ain’t”. The cultural critic Dwight MacDonald famously paned the dictionary from the pages of The New Yorker. He saw the inclusion of slang words as further proof that the encroachment of mass culture into high culture was threatening the stability of civilization. The interview made me think about the breakdown of the genteel tradition in America.

As George Santayana has it, the genteel tradition is American culture that is a hold out from the British aristocratic culture. I’m interested in the breakdown of the genteel tradition, as it relates to Midwestern modernism. The best illustration is Drieser’s Sister Carrie. Drieser is categorized with the realists, but recognized as an important forerunner of modernism. In Sister Carrie, he wrote of a single woman from rural Wisconsin who comes to Chicago, and becomes (amongst other things) the mistress of a married traveling salesman. The book scandalized contemporary audiences with its depiction of an unmarried woman living alone in the city and having an affair with a married man. The book is about the changes wrought by the coming of modernity and the economic upheaval of industrial capitalism. Drieser’s Chicago is a place where the strictures of the genteel tradition, no longer adequately explain the world around him.

Skinner notes in the interview that Time magazine influenced American writing and language with its use of colloquial prose. Bill Keller’s quotes Alan Brinkley in his review of The Publisher: Henry Luce and the American Century, ““His magazines were mostly reflections of the middle-class world, not often shapers of it,” Brinkley concludes. “Where Luce was most influential was in promoting ideas that were already emerging among a broad segment of the American population — most notably in the early 1940s.” It would be interesting to do a study of Luce’s publications and the Midwest. Time, for example, was a major factor in the Midwestern Regionalist’s rise to national prominence.

My project on Midwestern intellectual and cultural history is concerned, partly, with the Midwest’s lack of recognition as a distinct region. The reason for this, in part at least, seems to be that Midwestern culture is seen as simply American culture. Luce and his publications are very much concerned with documenting American culture during the American Century. A study of Luce publications and the Midwest might help to illustrate how Midwestern culture was appropriated for broadly American culture. There has been much scholarship on various aspects of Luce publications, so there would be a readymade conversation to join in.”

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