Dialect in 19th-Century Prose & Verse

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The Mirth of a Nation: America's Great Dialect Humor icon

Black American Joker: an Inexhaustible Collection of Minstrels' and End-Men's. Amusing Answers...Comic Catches...Humorous Hoaxes... icon  (1897)

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I first noticed the phenomenon of "Dialect" poetry when I purchased an ancient and decrepit copy of The Grand Army Speaker by George M. Baker. This slim volume, published in 1888,  was composed of sentimental verses and prose intended to be read aloud by public speakers. Politicians, civic club leaders and Sunday school teachers probably dipped into volumes like this to find crowd-pleasing material with which to fill out their allotted times.

In the back of this particular Speaker is a listing of similar volumes which could be purchased from Mr. Baker's publishers, Lee & Shepard of Chicago, Illinois, including

  • Irish Dialect Recitations

  • Yankee Dialect Recitations

  • Medley Dialect Recitations (A multicultural approach, perhaps?)

One could also subscribe to their Reading Clubs, which offered similar fare: humorous or sentimental prose and poetry, with a number of individual selections in Irish, Yankee, Colored, or Southern "dialects."  

I don't have - nor do I aspire to - the academic ballast which would allow me to claim that these examples preserve some linguistic nuances that have otherwise been forgotten, though there might be something to that idea.

From all appearances - not least of which would be the all-inclusive nature of the selections - I'm judging that these were never intended to be personally offensive to the Irish, the Germans, the Yankees, the Southerners, or to African-Americans. Indeed, popular prejudices of the day would imply that several of those groups would never be able to read them, much less be offended by them. 

I suspect that the phenomenon of "Dialect Poetry" was simply a passing fancy in 19th-century entertainment tastes, and that is the spirit in which I present these examples to you today.

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