When Walt Whitman in An American Primer called his native language "a tongue that spurns all laws," he furnished a description that can serve as a perfect characterization for the mode of literary expression during the period spanning the final decades of the nineteenth and the beginning decades of the twentieth centuries. It was a phase in American literary history that was particularly rich in texts that, in order to achieve their literary effects, availed themselves of the expressive potential inherent in unconventional language use. Produced by writers such as Finley Peter Dunne, Charles Godfrey Leland, Thomas A. Daly, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alexander Posey and others-names rarely listed in standard literary histories-these texts derived their appeal from the way they used language but also from the perspective their linguistic strategy created. While dialect texts enjoyed a tremendous popularity, the critical reception by literary scholars has mostly been one of indifference or even scorn. Encouraged by the more favorable evaluations of dialect writing that have appeared in recent times, in this essay I argue for a reappraisal of these neglected forms of literary activity in the United States. Their linguistic virtuosity, their potential value as documents of folklore and linguistic diversity, and their significance in the development toward alternative forms of literary expression make them an unusual treasure in America's literary heritage.
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