The Evolution of Lower Class Speech: Stein, Faulkner, and Hurston

In the novels/novella Melanctha (1909), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), respectively, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, and Zora Neale Hurston are faced with the task of speaking for characters that are of a lower class than his/her own. The characters in Melanctha do use the correct vernacular dialect. Stein modified black speech to create a unique way of speaking, which many critics refer to as “Steinese.” The aesthetic of the “mask of dialect” appeal to many African American readers; however, some critics argued that the inaccurate portrayal of black life was Stein’s way of compensating for her social distance (white privilege) from her characters. In As I Lay Dying William Faulkner avoids stereotypes associated with a white middle/lower class farming families by using narratives to display each character with a unique way of speaking and thinking. For example, Dewy Dell’s speech may seem uneducated and incorrect, but she is actually using words that are unique to her, not to the lower class. Considering the amount of education and experiences Dewey Dell has been exposed to, she is not unintelligent. Dewey Dell’s older brother’s speak differently than she does, in order to show that every person in the lower/middle class does not speaks the same way and that they have varying levels of ability and knowledge. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston respectfully incorporates the black vernacular into her writing, like many other writers successfully did in their post World War I works during the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston accurately uses vernacular language tied to gender oppression and conformity. There is an overlap between the narrator’s idiom and the character’s idiom, creating a sympathy between the two, thereby showing that the black vernacular language has expressive power. From 1909 to 1937 there is a gradual evolution of writer’s abilities to give lower class characters language that accurately portrays their ways of social living, yet without abiding by stereotypes.