Ernest Hemingway once declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” a claim so provocative that Lionel Trilling based an essay on it. Was it indeed possible that Twain’s picaresque adventure could be so influential? For Trilling, the answer was yes, not because of its racial or social themes but because of its language. Previously, antebellum America “was inclined to think that the mark of the truly literary product was a grandiosity and elegance not to be found in the common speech,” hence the recurrent passages of stilted grandiloquence on the part of Cooper, Poe, and Melville. But while “the language of ambitious literature was high and thus always in danger of falseness, the American reader was keenly interested in the actualities of daily speech.” This meant, to a large extent, dialect, that instrument that is embarrassing to modern sensibilities...


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