In the late 19th and early 20th centuries dialect was not common in American Literature. Writers who attempted to accurately capture American dialect and slang often failed to make it believable. In my essay, "Dialects in American Literature," I will compare and contrast three writers who used dialect in their writings and explain the difference between effective and ineffective use of dialect. The writers I will be discussing are Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and William Dean Howells.
The use of dialect in American literature comes from using a combination of realism and regionalism. According to dictionary.com "realism is an inclination toward literal truth and pragmatism and regionalism is the use of regional characteristics, as of locale, custom, or speech, in literature or art." Regionalism includes local language, which is often expressed by using dialect. Three examples of accurately capturing regionalism are: Bret Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" (1869), Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884-1885), and William Dean Howells "A Hazard of New Fortunes" (1890).
The Biography of Bret Harte states that he was born in Albany New York on August 25, 1839. In 1854, his mother, a widow, moved him to California. In California Harte worked as a miner, school teacher, express messenger, printer, and journalist. While Harte was in San Francisco writing for "The Californian" he worked with Mark Twain, Charles Warren Stoddard, Prentice Mulford and the editor, Henry Webb. He contributed many poems and prose pieces to the paper. Bret Harte was appointed Secretary of the United States Branch Mint at San Francisco in 1864. He held that office until 1870. Harte then became the first editor of the "Overland Monthly." "The Luck of Roaring Camp" published in the "Overland Monthly" brought him instant and wide fame. He was thereafter requested to contribute poems and articles to a number of publications. His stories of the American West were much in demand in the eastern United States. In 1871 he moved to New York. He later moved to Boston.
"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" was first published in an issue of the Overland Monthly magazine in January, 1869. Bret Harte was also the editor of Overland Monthly magazine at the time of the stories debut. The story was a successful follow-up to "The Luck of Roaring Camp," which was written in August, 1868.
In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," a group of inappropriate people are thrown out of a small western town. What I mean by "inappropriate," is that they were not liked by the local citizens. They were considered outcasts. The outcast characters were, "Duchess," also known as "Mother Shipton," and "Uncle Billy," a suspected sluice-robber and confirmed drunkard. The other character in the story is Mr. John Oakhurst, a gambler. Bret Harte establishes regionalism through description of his characters and also the dialogue that he gives his characters. For example, Uncle Billy says "Is this yer a d---d picnic?" With inward scorn, as he surveyed the sylvan group, the glancing firelight, and the tethered animals in the foreground hurst returns to the group he speaks in a particular dialect.'
This dialogue Hate uses is a great example of capturing dialect that is local to time and place. The dialect portrays the way people actually talked. The story takes original characters and places them in a typical western situation. Harte uses regionalism through dialect to successfully portray his characters the way they actually are. I enjoyed reading "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," and truly believe that the use of dialect successfully portrayed the people of the time. According to Edward O'Brien in an essay written in 1923 about the advance of the American short story, "Harte is far from being the greatest of American story writers, but he is probably the most representative of the characteristic qualities and weaknesses, and...