Saturday, June 15, 2019

'An Astounding Intellectual Feat'

“The earliest report on the speech of Texas that I have been able to unearth was contributed to Dialect Notes in 1915 by Hyder E.Rollins, a native of Abilene, in the west central part, who had been instructor in English at the University of Texas in 1912-14.”

The scrupulous annotator is H.L. Mencken in his second supplement to The American Language, published in 1948. That same year – and it’s a grim irony he would have appreciated – Mencken suffered a stroke that left him unable to read or write for the remaining eight years of his life. The passage comes from the portion of the book’s opening section, “The Pronunciation of American,” with sections devoted to each of the forty-eight states. It’s notable because I’m familiar with Rollins from a very different context. On my shelf is the two-volume boxed Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821, edited by Rollins and published in 1958. I’ve also read his 1948 collection The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers. I had no idea Rollins was Texas native or that he made contributions to the study of Texas dialects. Mencken writes:

“The argot of the cattlemen supplied a number of terms, e.g., maverick, an unbranded calf; locoed, crazy; son-of-a-bitch, a meat and vegetable stew; chuck, food; and surface-coal, cow dung.”

Mencken seldom misses an opportunity to make a joke, especially where the South is involved, but here he plays it straight. I have no idea how linguists today rank the three volumes of The American Language, but Joseph Epstein in “The Music of the Grand American Show” puts the book into perspective:

“That a man unarmored by any degrees or other insignia of formal learning wrote this great theoretical lexiographical work of more than 2,300 pages, called The American Language, with (at my estimate) no fewer than 10,000 footnotes was, and remains, an astounding intellectual feat.”

Epstein may tantalize you into at least skimming one of the volumes. Mencken writes for the intelligent layman, not academics. The prose, of course, is a pleasure, and Mencken’s humor is only periodically in abeyance. Epstein writes:

“H.L. Mencken was one of that small but superior club of laughing pessimists that among Americans included George Santayana and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes, writing to Harold Laski, remarked on Mencken’s ‘sense of reality,’ adding ‘and most of his prejudices I share.’”

“Laughing pessimists” is good. Terry Teachout, author of a Mencken biography, has described himself as an “ebullient pessimist,” and Epstein once wrote that he relies on three writers to “lift one out of gloom, and away from the valley of small and large woes” – Montaigne, Justice Holmes (in his letters) and Mencken. Good company, all. Mencken, I find, is the most reliable and fastest-acting.


The Sanity Inspector said...

It's been said that no era vanished as quickly and completely as the 1920s did; so it's remarkable that Mencken managed to remain potent so long afterwards.

Cal Gough said...

Two more books to track down, thanks to you: Menken's tome and the Holmes letters.