H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.III. The Period of Growth
1. Character of the New Nation
“That struggle,” adds Lossing, “occurred, and that independence was won, by the Americans in the War of 1812.” In the interval the new republic had passed through a period of Sturm und Drang whose gigantic perils and passions we have begun to forget—a period in which disaster ever menaced, and the foes within were no less bold and pertinacious than the foes without. Jefferson, perhaps, carried his fear of “monocrats” to the point of monomania, but under it there was undoubtedly a body of sound fact. The poor debtor class (including probably a majority of the veterans of the Revolution) had been fired by the facile doctrines of the French Revolution to demands which threatened the country with bankruptcy and anarchy, and the class of property-owners, in reaction, went far to the other extreme. On all sides, indeed, there flourished a strong British party, and particularly in New England, where the so-called codfish aristocracy (by no means extinct today) exhibited an undisguised Anglomania, and looked forward confidently to a rapprochement with the mother country. This Anglomania showed itself, not only in ceaseless political agitation, but also in an elaborate imitation of English manners. We have already seen how it even extended to the pronunciation of the language.
In our own time, with the renewal of the centuries-old struggle for power in Europe, there has been a revival of the old itch to take a hand, with results almost as menacing to the unity and security of the Republic as those visible when Washington voiced his warning. But in his day he seems to have been heard and heeded, and so colonialism gradually died out. The first sign of the dawn of a new national order came with the election of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency in 1800. The issue in the campaign was a highly complex one, but under it lay a plain conflict between democratic independence and the European doctrine of dependence and authority; and with the Alien and Sedition Laws about his neck, so vividly reminiscent of the issues of the Revolution itself, Adams went down to defeat. Jefferson was violently anti-British and pro-French; he saw all the schemes of his political opponents, indeed, as English plots; he was the man who introduced the bugaboo into American politics. His first acts after his inauguration were to abolish all ceremonial at the court of the republic, and to abandon spoken discourses to Congress for written messages. That ceremonial, which grew up under Washington, was an imitation, he believed, of the formality of the abhorrent Court of St. James; as for the speeches to Congress, they were palpably modelled upon the speeches from the throne of the English kings. Both reforms met with wide approval; the exactions of the English, particularly on the high seas, were beginning to break up the British party. But confidence in the solidarity and security of the new nation was still anything but universal. The surviving doubts, indeed, were strong enough to delay the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, providing for more direct elections of President and Vice-President, until the end of 1804, and even then three of the five New England states rejected it, and have never ratified it, in fact, to this day. Democracy was still experimental, doubtful, full of gun-powder. In so far as it had actually come into being, it had come as a boon conferred from above. Jefferson, its protagonist, was the hero of the populace, but he was not of the populace himself, nor did he ever quite trust it.
It was reserved for Andrew Jackson, a man genuinely of the people, to lead and visualize the rise of the lower orders. Jackson, in his way, was the archetype of the new American—ignorant, pushful, impatient of restraint and precedent, an iconoclast, a Philistine, an Anglophobe in every fibre. He came from the extreme backwoods and his youth was passed, like that of Abraham Lincoln after him, amid surroundings but little removed from downright savagery. Thousands of other young Americans of the same sort were growing up at the same time—youngsters filled with a vast impatience of all precedent and authority, revilers of all that had come down from an elder day, incorrigible libertarians. They swarmed across the mountains and down the great rivers, wrestling with the naked wilderness and setting up a casual, impromptu sort of civilization where the Indian still menaced. Schools were few and rudimentary; there was not the remotest approach to a cultivated society; any effort to mimic the amenities of the East, or of the mother country, in manner or even in speech, met with instant derision. It was in these surroundings and at this time that the thoroughgoing American of tradition was born; blatant, illogical, elate, “greeting the embarrassed gods” uproariously and matching “with Destiny for beers.” Jackson was unmistakably of that company in his every instinct and idea, and it was his fate to give a new and unshakable confidence to its aspiration at the Battle of New Orleans. Thereafter all doubts began to die out; the new republic was turning out a success. And with success came a vast increase in the national egoism. The hordes of pioneers rolled down the western valleys and on to the great plains. American began to stand for something quite new in the world—in government, in law, in public and private morals, in customs and habits of mind, in the minutiæ of social intercourse. And simultaneously the voice of America began to take on its characteristic twang, and the speech of America began to differentiate itself boldly and unmistakably from the speech of England. The average Philadelphian or Bostonian of 1790 had not the slightest difficulty in making himself understood by a visiting Englishman. But the average Ohio boatman of 1810 or plainsman of 1815 was already speaking a dialect that the Englishman would have shrunk from as barbarous and unintelligible, and before long it began to leave its mark upon and to get direction and support from a distinctively national literature.
That literature, however, was very slow in coming to a dignified, confident and autonomous estate. Down to Jefferson’s day it was almost wholly polemical, and hence lacking in the finer values; he himself, an insatiable propagandist and controversialist, was one of its chief ornaments. “The novelists and the historians, the essayists and the poets, whose names come to mind when American literature is mentioned,” says a recent literary historian, “have all flourished since 1800.” Pickering, so late as 1816, said that “in this country we can hardly be said to have any authors by profession,” and Justice Story, three years later, repeated the saying and sought to account for the fact. “So great,” said Story, “is the call for talents of all sorts in the active use of professional and other business in America that few of our ablest men have leisure to devote exclusively to literature or the fine arts.… This obvious reason will explain why we have so few professional authors, and those not among our ablest men.” All this was true, but a new day was dawning; Irving, in fact, had already published “Knickerbocker” and Bryant had printed “Thanatopsis.” Difficulties of communication hampered the circulation of the few native books that were written. “It is much to be regretted,” wrote Dr. David Ramsay, of Charleston, S. C., to Noah Webster in 1806, “that there is so little intercourse in a literary way between the states. As soon as a book of general utility comes out in any state it should be for sale in all of them.” Ramsay asked for little; the most he could imagine was a sale of 2,000 copies for an American work in America. But even that was far beyond the possibilities of the time. Nor was there, indeed, much reading of English books; the Americans, as in colonial days, were faithful to a few sober works, and cared little for belles lettres. “There is at this moment,” said an English observer in 1833, “nothing in the United States worthy of the name of library. Not only is there an entire absence of learning, in the higher sense of the term, but an absolute want of the material from which alone learning can be extracted. At present an American might study every book within the limits of the Union, and still be regarded in many parts of Europe—especially in Germany—as a man comparatively ignorant. Why does a great nation thus voluntarily continue in a state of intellectual destitution so anomalous and humiliating?” According to this critic, the value of the books imported from Europe during the fiscal year 1829–30 for public institutions came to but $10,829.
But nevertheless English periodical literature seems to have been read, at least by the nascent intelligentsia, and its influence undoubtedly helped to keep the national literature imitative and timorous in those early and perilous days. “Before the Revolution,” says Cairns, “colonists of literary tastes prided themselves on reading the Gentlemen’s Magazine or the London Magazine, and it is probable that the old tradition retained for these and similar publications many subscribers.… Letters from American readers appear occasionally in British magazines [of the period], and others imply the existence of a considerable American constituency.… It is certain, at all events, that the chief American [obviously a misprint for British] critical journals were received by American editors, and important criticisms of American writings were often reprinted in this country.” The extraordinary animosity of the English and Scottish reviewers, then at the height of their pontifical authority, to all locutions that had an American smack was described in the last chapter; as everyone knows, that animosity extended to the content of American works as well as to the style. All things American, indeed, were under the ban in England after the War of 1812, and Sydney Smith’s famous sneer—“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?”—was echoed and re-echoed in other planes. The Yankee, flushed with victory, became the pet abomination of the English, and the chief butt of the incomparable English talent for moral indignation. There was scarcely an issue of the Quarterly Review, the Edinburgh, the Foreign Quarterly, the British Review or Blackwood’s, for a generation following 1812, in which he was not stupendously assaulted. Gifford, Sydney Smith and the poet Southey became specialists in this business; it almost took on the character of a holy war; even such mild men as Wordsworth had a hand in it. It was argued that the Americans were rogues and swindlers, that they lived in filth and squalor, that they were boors in social intercourse, that they were poltroons and savages in war, that they were depraved and criminal, that they were wholly devoid of the remotest notion of decency or honor. “See what it is,” said Southey in 1812, “to have a nation to take its place among civilized states before it has either gentlemen or scholars! They [the Americans] have in the course of twenty years acquired a distinct national character for low and lying knavery; and so well do they deserve it that no man ever had any dealings with them without having proofs of its truth.” The Quarterly, summing up in January, 1814, accused them of a multitude of strange and hair-raising offenses: employing naked colored women to wait upon their tables; kidnapping Scotchmen, Irishmen, Welshmen and Hollanders and selling them into slavery; fighting one another incessantly under rules which made it “allowable to peel the skull, tear out the eyes, and smooth away the nose”; and so on, and so on. Various Americans, after a decade of this snorting, went to the defense of their countrymen, among them Irving, Cooper, Timothy Dwight, J. K. Paulding, John Neal, Edward Everett and Robert Walsh. Paulding, in “John Bull in America, or, the New Munchausen,” published in 1825, attempted satire. Even a Briton, James Sterling, warned his fellow-Britons that, if they continued their intolerant abuse, they would “turn into bitterness the last drops of good-will toward England that exist in the United States.” But the denunciation kept up year after year, and there was, indeed, no genuine relief until 1914, when the sudden prospect of disaster caused the English to change their tune, and even to find all their own great virtues in the degraded and disgusting Yankee, now so useful as a rescuer. This new enthusiasm for him was tried very severely by his slowness to come into the war, but in the main there was politeness for him so long as the emergency lasted, and all the British talent for horror and invective was concentrated, down to 1919 or thereabout, upon the Prussian.
How American-English appeared to an educated English visitor of Jackson’s time is well indicated in the anonymous “Men and Manners in America” that I have already quoted. “The amount of bad grammar in circulation,” said the author, “is very great; that of barbarisms [i. e., Americanisms] enormous.” Worse, these “barbarisms” were not confined to the ignorant, but came almost as copiously from the lips of the learned. “I do not now speak,” explained the critic, “of the operative class, whose massacre of their mother-tongue, however inhuman, could excite no astonishment; but I allude to the great body of lawyers and traders; the men who crowd the exchange and the hotels; who are to be heard speaking in the courts, and are selected by their fellow-citizens to fill high and responsible offices. Even by this educated and respectable class, the commonest words are often so transmogrified as to be placed beyond recognition of an Englishman.” He then went on to describe some of the prevalent “barbarisms”:
This Briton, as usual, was as full of moral horror as of grammatical disgust, and put his denunciation upon the loftiest of grounds. “I will not go on with this unpleasant subject,” he concluded, “nor should I have alluded to it, but I feel it something of a duty to express the natural feeling of an Englishman at finding the language of Shakespeare and Milton thus gratuitously degraded. Unless the present progress of change be arrested, by an increase of taste and judgment in the more educated classes, there can be no doubt that, in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman, and that the nation will be cut off from the advantages arising from their participation in British literature. If they contemplate such an event with complacency, let them go on and prosper; they have only to progress in their present course, and their grandchildren bid fair to speak a jargon as novel and peculiar as the most patriotic American linguist can desire.”
Such extravagant denunciations, in the long run, were bound to make Americans defiant, but while they were at their worst they produced a contrary effect. That is to say, they made all the American writers of a more delicate aspiration extremely self-conscious and diffident. The educated classes, even against their will, were daunted by the torrent of abuse; they could not help finding in it an occasional reasonableness, an accidental true hit. The result, despite the efforts of Channing, Knapp and other such valiant defenders of the native author, was uncertainty and skepticism in native criticism. “The first step of an American entering upon a literary career,” says Lodge, writing of the first quarter of the century, “was to pretend to be an Englishman in order that he might win the approval, not of Englishmen, but of his own countrymen.” Cooper, in his first novel, “Precaution,” chose an English scene, imitated English models, and obviously hoped to placate the critics thereby. Irving, too, in his earliest work, showed a considerable discretion, and his “History of New York,” as everyone knows, was first published anonymously. But this puerile spirit did not last long. The English onslaughts were altogether too vicious to be received lying down; their very fury demanded that they be met with a united and courageous front. Cooper, in his second novel, “The Spy,” boldly chose an American setting and American characters, and though the influence of his wife, who came of a Loyalist family, caused him to avoid any direct attack upon the English, he attacked them indirectly, and with great effect, by opposing an immediate and honorable success to their derisions. “The Spy” ran through three editions in four months; it was followed by his long line of thoroughly American novels; in 1834 he formally apologized to his countrymen for his early truancy in “Precaution.” Irving, too, soon adopted a bolder tone, and despite his English predilections, he refused an offer of a hundred guineas for an article for the Quarterly Review, made by Gifford in 1828, on the ground that “the Review has been so persistently hostile to our country that I cannot draw a pen in its service.”
The same year saw the publication of the first edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, and a year later followed Samuel L. Knapp’s “Lectures on American Literature,” the first history of the national letters ever attempted. Knapp, in his preface, thought it necessary to prove, first of all, that an American literature actually existed, and Webster, in his introduction, was properly apologetic, but there was no real need for timorousness in either case, for the American attitude toward the attack of the English was now definitely changing from uneasiness to defiance. The English critics, in fact, had overdone the thing, and though their clatter was to keep up for many years more, they no longer spread their old terror or had as much influence as of yore. Of a sudden, as if in answer to them, doubts turned to confidence, and then into the wildest sort of optimism, not only in politics and business, but also in what passed for the arts. Knapp boldly defied the English to produce a “tuneful sister” surpassing Mrs. Sigourney; more, he argued that the New World, if only by reason of its superior scenic grandeur, would eventually hatch a poetry surpassing even that of Greece and Rome. “What are the Tibers and Scamanders,” he demanded, “measured by the Missouri and the Amazon? Or what the loveliness of Illysus or Avon by the Connecticut or the Potomack?”
In brief, the national feeling, long delayed at birth, finally leaped into being in amazing vigor. “One can get an idea of the strength of that feeling,” says R. O. Williams, “by glancing at almost any book taken at random from the American publications of the period. Belief in the grand future of the United States is the keynote of everything said and done. All things American are to be grand—our territory, population, products, wealth, science, art—but especially our political institutions and literature. The unbounded confidence in the material development of the country which now characterizes the extreme northwest of the United States prevailed as strongly throughout the eastern part of the Union during the first thirty years of the century; and over and above a belief in, and concern for, materialistic progress, there were enthusiastic anticipations of achievements in all the moral and intellectual fields of national greatness.” Nor was that vast optimism wholly without warrant. An American literature was actually coming into being, and with a wall of hatred and contempt shutting in England, the new American writers were beginning to turn to the Continent for inspiration and encouragement. Irving had already drunk at Spanish springs; Emerson and Bayard Taylor were to receive powerful impulses from Germany, following Ticknor, Bancroft and Everett before them; Bryant was destined to go back to the classics. Moreover, Cooper and John P. Kennedy had shown the way to native sources of literary material, and Longfellow was making ready to follow them; novels in imitation of English models were no longer heard of, the ground was preparing for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Finally, Webster himself, as Williams demonstrated, worked better than he knew. His American Dictionary was not only thoroughly American: it was superior to any of the current dictionaries of the English, so much so that for a good many years it remained “a sort of mine for British lexicography to exploit.”
Thus all hesitations disappeared, and there arose a national consciousness so soaring and so blatant that it began to dismiss all British usage and opinion as puerile and idiotic. William L. Marcy, when Secretary of State under Pierce (1853–57), issued a circular to all American diplomatic and consular officers, loftily bidding them employ only “the American language” in communicating with him. The legislature of Indiana, in an act approved February 15, 1838, establishing the state university at Bloomington, provided that it should instruct the youth of the new commonwealth (it had been admitted to the Union in 1816) “in the American, learned and foreign languages … and literature.” Such grandiose pronunciamentos well indicate and explain the temper of the era. It was a time of expansion and braggadocio. The new republic would not only produce a civilization and a literature of its own; it would show the way for all other civilizations and literatures. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the enemy of Poe, rose from his decorous Baptist pew to protest that so much patriotism amounted to insularity and absurdity, but there seems to have been no one to second the motion. The debate upon the Oregon question gave a gaudy chance to the new breed of super-patriots, and they raged unchecked until the time of the Civil War. Thornton, in his Glossary, quotes a typical speech in Congress, the subject being the American eagle and the orator being the Hon. Samuel C. Pomeroy, of Kansas. I give a few strophes:
The vast shock of the Civil War, with its harsh disillusions, unhorsed the optimists for a space, and little was heard from them for some time thereafter. But while the Jackson influence survived and the West was being conquered, it was the unanimous conviction of all good Americans that “he who dallies is a dastard, and he who doubts is damned.”