The subject that would identify H.L. Mencken as a uniquely American voice was The American Language, a book he believed would be “my swan song.” Through the humid months of 1918, a shirtless Mencken could often be found on the sleeping porch of his home in Baltimore amongst piles of reference works and dictionaries. He sweated through each tome, taking notes and dog-earing pages. He also dug out articles he’d previously published in the Evening Sun, the Smart Set, and the New York Evening Mail. From this chaos of material came a certain order.
In 1918 linguistics was hardly recognized as a science. One of the aims of education was to preserve the sanctity of the King’s English, a pedagogical aim based on the notion that American English was inferior to that spoken in England. Mencken could find but a few scant articles on American pronunciation and even less on grammar. He found this surprising since the difference between the American and English languages was a subject that had preoccupied America since the colonial days. In 1789, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster foresaw that this new country, with its relations with Indian tribes, would forge a new vocabulary. But not just in words alone did the two languages differ — something remarked upon by Mark Twain in 1882 when he wrote that in England his American tongue was unintelligible to most Englishmen. Yet the bulk of the material Mencken uncovered, as he writes in the Preface to the First Edition, was dedicated “to absurd efforts to prove that no such thing as an American variety of English existed — that the differences I constantly encountered in English and that my English friends encountered in American were chiefly imaginary.”
In “Mencken Revisited,” the noted linguist Raven McDavid Jr. wrote: “No professional scholar of the time would have dreamed of presenting a discussion of the totality of American English.” This was a role for which Mencken was well cast. As an experienced journalist, a social historian, and a critic of modern culture (the booboisie), Mencken was skilled at summarizing information in a clear style. The writing of linguists was dull in comparison.
Even for a writer of Mencken’s talent, however, the book wasn’t easy to write. “This tome is infinitely laborious and vexatious — a matter of writing and rewriting,” Mencken told his future biographer, Ernest Boyd. Yet by the end of six months, Mencken had typed the last sentence of The American Language. He wrote in the Preface: “It is anything but an exhaustive treatise upon the subject . . . . All it pretends to do is to articulate some of those materials — to get some approach to order and coherence into them, and so pave the way for a better work by some more competent man. That work calls for the equipment of a first-rate philologist, which I am surely not.” He described “that damned American language book” to friends as “a heavy, indigestible piece of cottage cheese.” As for continuing with the subject, he wrote to Ernest Boy, “Never again! Such professorial jobs are not for me.”
The indexes remained, and throughout the autumn of 1918 Mencken struggled to complete them while an outbreak of influenza struck the nation. As many as 1,500 obituaries filled newspaper columns each week. More civilians were dying at home from influenza than troops abroad. In August Mencken wrote, “All that could be seen from our house were funerals.”
Alfred A. Knopf published The American Language in 1919, and the first edition was a runaway success. With one powerful stroke Mencken had severed the umbilical cord which linguistically bound America to England. In addition it was clear that the center of American cultural gravity had shifted and had swung toward Mencken though not all were pleased about this. As his most virulent critic, Stuart Sherman, put it in his book Americans, Mencken had leapt into the center stage off American culture “at a hard gallop, spattered with mud . . . high in oath.”
In 1920 when Knopf published Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series, they wanted a revision of The American Language. The orders were rolling in and the royalties on the small first edition were more than on any of his previous books, leading Mencken to joke, “the moral is plain: fraud pays.” Despite his sarcasm, Mencken would see that his was the first work of its kind to transcend traditional barriers between scholarly and popular books. What at first had been drudgery now enthralled him as he saw how each new edition recaptivated an old audience and captured a new one.
But revising the manuscript filled him with dread. He wrote in “Preface to the Revised Edition” that the corrections and suggestions from the first edition that needed to be incorporated into the second “were of such bulk that they almost alarmed me into abandoning the work altogether.” Mencken’s revision, which included the addition of four new chapters, an appendix, and an extended bibliography, was demanding physically and mentally. Three new sections dealt with American slang. The first, “Specimens of the American Vulgate,” included a facetious translation of “The Declaration of Independence” into common speech. Two pieces by Ring Lardner that showcased the common argot of professional baseball players were also included. A second addition, “Non-English Dialects in America,” acknowledged the influence of Yiddish and Spanish on the American language. The third addition included a section entitled “Proverb and Platitude,” in which Mencken included examples of “the national talent for extravagant and pungent humor.”
The American Language was nothing less than a declaration of linguistic independence. No more would America suffer the oppression of literary colonialism. A new day had dawned on American literature. “American writers were finally able to take flight from the old tree and to trust for the first time their own dialect,” Edmund Wilson observed. “Mencken showed the positive value of our own vulgate heritage.”
Despite his belief that the book was filled with errors, he was able to explain to linguist Raven McDavid that he had achieved his “central objective” of “convincing[ing] 100% of Americans that language is really interesting, and not only interesting but important.”