The English language "is
the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible, "writes
Walt Whitman in his preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass.
Whitman's poetic effort to find a language to embody what lies beyond
the comprehension of man was at once a religious project-an effort
to comprehend divinity on earth-and a national project: to capture
the perfectionism that the American experiment implied. In one
sense, this book re-examines Whitman's poetic project by placing
it within nineteenth-century American history and setting it beside
other examples, from English literary history, of this effort to speak
the ineffable. The book focuses mostly on U.S. writings about
American English, from the War of 1812 to the immediate antebellum period,
with various excursions into post-Revolutionary writing and American
modernist and postmodernist poetry, as well as English literature from
the Middle Ages, which touches centrally on this question. Apart
from Whitman, it is difficult to say who the most important writers
are in this book since it ranges so broadly-at times sporadically-across
literary history. For the twentieth century, it highlights Wallace
Stevens; for the nineteenth century, its stops include Herman Melville,
James Russell Lowell, Walter Channing, and Charles Brockden Brown.
The phrase, "rhetoric of
the inexpressible" may seem an oxymoron, but to label it thus
would be to miss the point of Richards's argument. She is not
interested in moments that silence expression, or in individuals traumatically
muted by oppression. Rather, Richards explores the poetic state of having
too much language, rather than not enough. She analyzes not the
gaps that stem from human inadequacy but the attempt of poetic language
to capture the realm of perfection that necessarily goes beyond language.
Thus she aims to define the sharp edge of literary expression more broadly,
to show how it articulates unspoken (in this extreme case, unspeakable)
Poetic language does this,
Richards argues, through a kind of "framing" whereby language becomes
distanced from itself (hence the title, Distancing English).
In Whitman's 1855 preface, for example, two voices emerge: one says
that it cannot express perfection, and the other that this expression
has already occurred. The internal difference between these two
voices forms the topos of the inexpressible, as Richards terms it, which
emerges across literary history as a poetics of loss and inadequacy.
Turning to English literature,
chapter two tracks the inexpressible in traditions of religious poetry.
Subsequent chapters show how the impossibility of expressing perfection
in imperfect language recurs in the temporal framework of American
English, particularly following the new-found national confidence after
the War of 1812. Here the book ties into a postcolonial anxiety
about American English, in which the language of the past is heroic
and inexpressible and thus remains in active tension with the expressive,
"choral" language of the present. The main thrust of the argument
is that the inexpressible, as a rhetorical problem, is part of language
itself, not beyond it. Poetic language by its very nature is given
life by its performance of the tensions in this effort to speak the
Since this book is a poet's
account of the literary history of American English, it jars with the
relentlessly political bent of American studies. The politics of American
English has been examined closely by scholars such as David Simpson,
Thomas Gustafson, Christopher Looby, and Michael Kramer, to name but
a few. Unlike their books, this one studiously avoids the
more obviously political valences of framing as a literary technique
and a linguistic dynamic. But since Richards claims to be writing
a kind of history, this avoidance creates a number of problems, especially
in the chapters dedicated to American humor and the tall tale tradition-topics
that do not quite fit the rest of the book.
Both the literary device of
framing and the social tensions that tend to generate nineteenth-century
American humor have distinct social trajectories. In American
literature, a rich tradition of "framing"-much of it humorous
in intent-works by juxtaposing speakers and/or languages from different
social classes, or different races. Richards does not sufficiently
situate her work in the context of this more obvious politics
of the inexpressible, in which a tension emerges between the standard
language and dialects that appear either beyond the phonetic range of
conventional spelling or else beneath ideas of linguistic propriety.
Richards's concern with the high tradition of poetic inexpressibility
would have benefitted from some framing itself, to show how this poetics
offers a way out of the now overly-scripted account of the politics
of the de-voiced and the misspelled. Though the book does consider
the politics of expression following the War of 1812 and American postcolonial
anxieties about language in general, it slights many of the anxieties
that tend to underscore debates over language-anxieties often emerging
from attempts to speak the inexpressibly low, not high. More attention
to both ends of this spectrum would have clarified the importance (and
increased the argumentative scope) of the poetics of linguistic inadequacy.
The book would thus have satisfied those readers who want to think about
the limits of language beyond the questions of disenfranchisement and
trauma that it usually implies.
Gavin Jones is Professor of
English at Stanford University. His latest book is American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840-1945 (Princeton, 2009).