Monday, November 23, 2020

'The Quintessential Voice of American Letters'

“In all human beings, if only understanding be brought to the business, dignity will be found, and that dignity cannot fail to reveal itself, soon or late, in the words and phrases with which they make known their high hopes and aspirations and cry out against the intolerable meaninglessness of life.” 

The final phrase cinches it. The sentence begins in inspirational mode, the sort of speech one might expect to hear at a luncheon meeting of the Kiwanis, a service club characterized by “moronic Kiwanian optimism,” as H.L. Mencken once put it. It is the final sentence in the first edition of The American Language (1919). Only in the concluding four words does it become indelibly Menckenian.

Mencken was the most enthusiastically articulate of writers. He reveled in words and published millions of them in his half-century as a journalist who transcended journalism. He forged one of the great American prose styles while occasionally writing some embarrassingly foolish things. The cruelest irony reserved for a writer struck Mencken on this day, November 23, in 1948. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that left him with semantic aphasia. For the final eight years of his life, his ability to read, write and speak remained severely damaged.


Read the concluding chapters in Terry Teachout’s The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2002) to appreciate the sadness of Mencken’s fate. But also read Terry’s description of Mencken’s contribution to American literature:


“He was to the first part of the twentieth century what Mark Twain was to the last part of the nineteenth—the quintessential voice of American letters. Perhaps even a sage of sorts, too, though an altogether American one, not calm and reflective but as noisy as a tornado: witty and abrasive, self-confident and self-contradictory, sometimes maddening, often engaging, always inimitable.”


Even better, read Mencken’s Days Trilogy, the Prejudices series and The American Language with its two supplements.

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