In the case of Mark van Doren, who edited The Oxford Book of American Prose in 1932, his most blatant failure is leaving out Ulysses Grant, whose Personal Memoirs are written in the plain style by a former soldier who valued precision and concision. After Lincoln, he is the finest writer who ever served as U.S. president (I’m not forgetting the Founders). Van Doren includes Lincoln’s well-known letter to Grant written on July 13, 1863, with its magnanimous closing sentence: “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”
Among his laudable and unsurprising choices are three chapters from Moby-Dick, one from Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, one from Henry Adams’ History of the United States, and one from Henry James’ The American Scene. The last is the chapter devoted to Charleston, S.C., in which James asks, in some of the grandest prose written by an American:
“How can everything so have gone that the only ‘Southern’ book of any distinction published for many a year is The Souls of Black Folk, by that most accomplished of members of the negro race, Mr. W. E. B. Du Bois? Had the only focus of life then been Slavery?--from the point onward that Slavery had reached a quarter of a century before the War, so that with the extinction of that interest none other of any sort was left.”
In his preface, van Doren tells us he purposely included no selections from writers born in the twentieth century. He includes passages from Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915), George Santayana’s Reason in Society (1905) and Mencken’s Prejudices series. There’s no Hemingway, Faulkner or Fitzgerald but you’ll find Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Ring Lardner’s “I Can’t Breathe.” The names of several contributors were new to me. Most interesting is Edgar Watson Howe (1853-1937), an Indiana-born journalist who edited a magazine, E.W. Howe’s Monthly. Van Doren includes a selection of aphorisms excerpted from Ventures in Common Sense (1919), with an introduction by Mencken. Howe writes like a slightly anemic Mencken:
“No man may write interestingly and keep within the bounds of your beliefs. He must occasionally go so far as to pleasantly shock you, and cause the uncomfortable feeling that a good man cannot follow him all the way. The author who aims to write nothing offensive to anyone presently writes only hymns and leaflets explaining the Sunday school lesson; and then only children read him; and they read him because they will be scolded if they do not.”
Well, yes, but Mencken wrote it more colorfully. Van Doren’s anthology is about prose, not poseurs.