15 March 2010

American literature not in English

Werner Sollors, in Sacvan Bercovitch's The Cambridge History of American Literature: Prose Writing, 1910-1950 (2003), writes:

“Code-switching and mixed languages are prevalent in American ethnic literature, whether such literature was originally written or published in English or in one of the many other languages that have been used in the United States. For American literature was also written in Yiddish (as was the letter that became Antin’s From Plotzk to Boston), Polish, Swedish, Welsh, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, or German – the list goes on and on – and this little-known non-English literature of the United States offers fascinating insights into American ethnic diversity in some formally accomplished and many thematically provocative works. The propaganda against foreign languages in the course of World War I marked only an interruption in a long tradition of non-English-language literary production in what is now the United States that started with recorded works in Native American and all colonial languages and continued with literature in scores of immigrant tongues. The propaganda may have been at least effective in removing this literature from scholarly attention in the second half of the twentieth century.” (p. 429)

Absolutely right! In fact, just a couple of years ago, in 2007, Benjamin Pimentel of California published a prize-winning novel in Filipino (Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street). American literature written in Filipino is alive and well, but monolingual American critics have no idea what treasures are being produced right under their noses. Vestiges of the First World War remain in literary scholarship, a strange irony, since literary critics have always prided themselves as being ahead of their times. In reading multilingual literature, they are clearly way behind American (and non-American) readers.

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