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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1771

The essays in American Babel, Marc Shell informs readers in his brief preface, originated in a three-day seminar on “The Non-English Literatures of the United States” held in Mexico during the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in 1997. Most of the essays in this resulting collection focus on non-English expressions and traditions in American literature (such as Arabic, Yiddish, and Vietnamese) and explore the theoretical issues which inform the study of American literary history in general and often place American literature in a wider global context.

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Shell does not spell out the organizational plan for this large volume, but he has assembled the essays into six different sections: “Introduction” contains two essays, a longer one by Shell (“Babel in America”) and a second, shorter piece by the Algerian writer Alexander Del Mar (“The Name of America”) originally written in 1911. The body of the volume is contained in the middle four parts of the book, in sections on “Resistance and Assimilation” (five essays), “Authoritative and Nonauthoritative Languages” (five), “Loss and Gain” (five), and “Nationalism and Internationalism” (seven). The volume concludes with an “Afterword,” an essay by Shell on Mark Twain’s famous short story “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”(1865) and its translation into French and back, an analysis which tries to tie together metaphorically some of the themes touched on in earlier essays.

As with any collection of this size and scope, there is a great range in the value and quality of the different contributions, and little overall consistency or continuity. There are, for example, three essays on Chinese American literature, three on German American literature, and three on Welsh language and literature in America, but none at all on Slavic or Italian American contributions to American literature, and only glancing looks at African American and Latino literatures. (Although he does not say so, Shell and his contributors may intend to focus on those literatures which have not been studied as systematically in the past.) The contents can also be intimidating: While the writing is on the whole accessible, these are academic essays; one runs to thirty pages and has eighty footnotes. What Shell establishes in this collection, however, in spite of its unevenness and its scholarly apparatus, is the significance of non-English works in the development of American literature from its very beginnings.

The movement to open up the American literary canon to diverse literary traditions grew in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and peaked with the 1990 publication of The Heath Anthology of American Literature (edited by Paul Lauter and others, and now in its fourth edition), which added hundreds of pages of non-European writers to the “canon” of American literature for the first time. What the Heath anthology established—and all other anthologies of American literature in the 1990’s rushed to echo—was the linguistic and cultural diversity of American literature from its beginnings in Native American oral traditions through slave narratives and the literature of immigration in the nineteenth century, to the popular ethnic writers in fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction in the late twentieth. (In “Carved on the Walls: The Archaeology and Canonization of the Angel Island Chinese Poems” in this volume, Te-Hsing Shan shows the dangers implicit in placing ethnic literatures into the literary mainstream through volumes like the Heath anthology.)

American Babel is an important addition to the scholarship which has been closely trailing this popular and academic rediscovery of American literary diversity. The volume shows that criticism is nowhere close to the full recognition of the immense contribution of ethnic literatures to the literary cultures of the United States. In particular, American Babel argues for greater examination of what Shell calls “American multilingualism,” the polyglot linguistic traditions which have been in America since before its discovery by Europeans. German literature written in German in the United States—to take just one example—has a long history; Benjamin Franklin established the first German-language newspaper in North America in 1732, and the “German language remained a strong, unofficial presence in the United States throughout the nineteenth century.” The German department at any reputable American university studies mainly literature from Germany, however, and departments of English generally consider only American literature written in English. Literary works published in this country in German—or in any other language but English—may fall between the cracks of these exclusive academic provinces and often drop from sight. As Steven Rowan proves in his essay in this collection, for example, Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein’s 1854 novel Die Geheimnisse von New- Orleans (the mysteries of New Orleans) is an important and overlooked work in both the gothic and American-exotic traditions of early nineteenth century romantic literature. Werner Sollors does a similar reevaluation of Ferdinand Kurnberger’s novel Der Amerika-Mude (1855). In an ethnic investigation into another important multilingual tradition, Ala Ayres’s opening essay recovers the “Autobiography of Omar Ibn Said” penned in 1831, the only extant slave narrative written in Arabic. Finally, Lawrence Rosenwald establishes that “Alfred Mercier’s Polyglot Plantation Novel of Louisiana” (L’Habitation Saint-Ybars, published in 1881) may be “the only systematically bilingual novel in American literature,” using as it does both standard spoken French and Louisiana French Creole. American Babel identifies many such literary works, and in the process confirms “the full magnitude of multilingualism in the United States” and lays out many new areas for future scholarly study in American literary history.

The essays deal with more than linguistic issues, however; several of the best ones get to the complexity of American political and social history. As Shell writes in his long introductory essay, language often becomes the prism through which citizens come to understand racial and national issues. Kenneth Nilsen’s essay on “Irish Gaelic Literature in the United States,” for example, gets at the complicated area of social class in the nineteenth century—use of the Irish language in this country was often a signal of poverty and ignorance—and the bifocal vision of the Irish living in America, torn between two countries; the essay uncovers some wonderful poetry written in the United States in Irish Gaelic during both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Esther Whitfield’s “Mordecai and Haman: The Drama of Welsh America” studies how a traditional Welsh festival (eisteddfod) in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at the end of the nineteenth century reflected the changing interests of an immigrant community. Yota Batsaki’s essay on Greek American literature at the beginning of the twentieth century (“Unfaithful Translation: Bilingual Versions as Greek- American Strategies of Concealment”) reveals the social and political complexity which characterizes any serious study of multilingual literature, here how Greek language and literature became crucial tools of immigrant survival. At the same time that nineteenth century immigrants were losing their native language and culture, they were gaining American language and nationality. This development was never smooth, however, and varied from ethnic group to ethnic group, even within individual groups. American Babel gets at some of the complexity of this transitional process, and at how literary and linguistic questions often turned out to be matters of national and political identity as well.

Other essays focus on the value of the non-Anglophone American literary traditions themselves. In “Written in Sound: Translating the Multiple Voices of the Zuñi Storyteller,” Dennis Tedlock analyzes one oral narrative from west-central New Mexico and shows the artistic complexity of the different voices in the tale: “The result is a multivocal discourse of a kind that never existed—or so we have been solemnly told—until European novelists invented it” at the beginning of the twentieth century. The dominance of Anglo-American literary traditions through the twentieth century, in short, has obscured multilingual American literary contributions like the Zuñi. Stephen G. Kellman, in “Translingualism and the American Literary Imagination,” summarizes how many modern writers have worked in two or more languages: Vladimir Nabokov in Russian and then English, Joseph Conrad and Jerzy Kosinski in Polish and English, Gloria Anzaldua and Rolando Hinojosa in Spanish and English, and so on. Some of the greatest Modernist monuments of the earlier twentieth century—T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925- 1968), and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), to name just three—are works which transcend the limitations of single languages. American culture, meanwhile, continues to labor under the myth and limitations of monolingualism. As Shell reminds readers in his introduction, the harsh truth is “that a country once polyglot, with thousands of bilingual schools, has become unilingual, if barely literate, in the twenty-first century.”

One of the best essays in the collection explores this complex multilingual interaction. James Loeffler, in “’Neither the King’s English nor the Rebbetzin’s Yiddish’: Yinglish Literature in the United States,” explains the relationship between Yiddish and English languages in the United States, and the “Yinglish” dialect that was the result of this linguistic exchange. The two languages enriched each other and helped to create a third, hybrid mix of the two, and Loeffler shows how writers such as Abraham Cahan, Leo Rosten, Philip Roth, and others benefited from this rich exchange.

Toward the end of his essay, Loeffler writes that “Some 80 percent of the world’s Yiddish speakers were murdered during the Holocaust,” and readers are suddenly brought back to where American Babel nearly always returns, to the interchange of language, culture, history, and politics. As Loeffler quotes the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich in a footnote to his essay, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” In other words, and as Marc Shell makes clear in his introductory essay and most of his contributors corroborate, language is never “pure” but always mediates among issues of national identity, cultural conflict, and political power. The same thing is true of American literatures. During all the years of the dominant “melting pot” theory of American history, ethnic literatures—Native American and African American literatures as well as the literatures of immigration and exile—were often ignored or viewed as exceptions which proved the monolithic cultural rule. All literatures, according to this conservative ideological stance, were aiming for consensus, assimilation, “Americanness.” Now the academic pendulum has swung the other way, and non-Anglophone literature is being recognized for its uniqueness and its crucial contribution to the diversity of the American landscape. American Babel—in essays on Haitian literature and Vietnamese literature in the United States, pidgin pastoral poetry in Hawaii, or German Jewish women poets writing in exile in this country—confirms this in a number of essays of originality and value. The book is a major corrective to the monolingual view of American culture.

Source for Further Study

Library Journal 127 (September 1, 2002): 174.

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