Wellesley Professor Examines Linguistic Diversity in American Literature

February 20, 2009

Arlie Corday,

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- Throughout its history, America has been the scene of multiple encounters between communities speaking different languages. Literature has long sought to represent these encounters in various ways, from James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier fictions to the Jewish-American writers who popularized Yiddish as a highly influential modern vernacular.

In Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature, Rosenwald considers how multilingual fictions can be translated and incorporated into a national literary history.
Multilingual America

Now Wellesley College’s Lawrence Rosenwald, the Anne Pierce Rogers professor of English, is the first author to consider the whole linguistic representation in American literature in his new book, Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Rosenwald considers how multilingual fictions can be translated and incorporated into a national literary history.

His inspiration came during a Saturday morning trip from Boston to Somerville to attend Shabbat services, partly via subway, where he noted, in addition to the English/Spanish bilingual transit authority notices, “an advertisement for “guaranteed Swahili”; a similar advertisement for TOEFL courses; a man to my left reading a newspaper in a language that looked to me like Chinese; two men across from me conducting a conversation in Amharic (not a language I recognize, but as one of them left the car I asked him, in English,  what language he had been speaking). I was making my own contribution to this multilingual scene, too, in that when I wasn’t looking around or writing something down I was reading Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften.”
His travels that day took him past a Haitian church with a French name and two French Bible verses posted outside. At his destination, Havurat Shalom, he heard the Hebrew liturgy as well as the Russian spoken by two members of the congregation.

“It is exhilarating to imagine a novelist, one with a Dickens-like alertness to the ways in which apparently sundered lives intersect one another, who could make these diverse phenomena into a single story,” he said, noting that such a novel would have to be multilingual to do “justice to the linguistic diversity of its characters and scenes.”

Noting that no such novel exists, Rosenwald said, “A final aim of this book is to help create a climate in which gifted writers might dream of such a novel as a legitimate artistic goal, publishers assess such a novel as an enterprise worth supporting, and readers and critics feel that such a novel should command their attention.”

The book has reaped praise for its range and goals. “Lawrence Rosenwald brings to the project an impressive range of languages and a different vision of what we might want to do with texts,” said Yale University’s Wai Chi Dimock. “His goal is to write a history of American literature showcasing languages as the key players. Multilingual America is an impressive achievement: all Americanists will sit up and pay attention.”

“This is a remarkable work,” agreed Jonathan Arac of the University of Pittsburgh. “This book addresses an extremely important and timely subject. Every scholar or teacher of American literature will learn much from it, and it will be greatly useful to many students of American literature and culture (around the world as well as domestically), as well as to students and scholars of comparative literature and of intercultural encounter more broadly.”
Rosenwald joined the Wellesley College faculty in 1980. From 1993 to 1997 he held the Whitehead Associate Professorship in Critical Thought. In 1997, he became the Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of American Literature. He received his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Wellesley College has been a leader in the education of women for more than 130 years.The College's 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduatestudents from all 50 states and 65 countries.