Date of Award

Summer 2010

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Comparative Literature and Literary Theory

First Advisor

Charles Bernstein

Second Advisor

Nancy Bentley

Third Advisor

Jean-Michel Rabate


In the early twentieth century, a time of massive population shifts from external immigration and internal migration, the question of whose voices would be heard—both politically and aesthetically—became central to American politics and culture, and authors found new and innovative ways of representing those voices on the page. Yet these textual transcriptions of speech and song are typically considered either as nostalgic representations of a folk past, or as exhibits of populations whose language is marked as non-standard. This dissertation argues that vocal production is in fact a progressive and future-oriented force in American modernist texts, and finds a pedagogical potential in formal innovations that often encouraged readers to themselves perform the voices they read on the page. It examines polemically cross-generic texts by Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Henry Roth, and Muriel Rukeyser in the contexts of modernist experimentation and of leftist attempts to effect social change through literature, and argues that these authors self-consciously strove to reshape the ways in which their readers performed American identity to themselves and others. Adapting the genres of the long novel, the folk anthology, the modernist long poem, and the documentary, they demonstrate both a deeply felt imperative to represent marginalized communities in aesthetically innovative and ethically responsible ways, and a self-conscious awareness of the limits of such representations. Their works thereby both delineate and manipulate American national identity. In contrast to scholarship that finds a divide between aesthetic innovation and politically-engaged didacticism, then, this dissertation suggests that authors negotiated the ability of speech and song to bridge the two.