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· Conservative Soul Substance: H. L. Mencken on Style ·

The so-called "Sage of Baltimore" prompts my post today. As I've been busy teaching — attending here, as he would say, fruitlessly to "natural" ignorance — this late-inning post (my term ends June 20th) defends my liberal do-goodism against Mencken's sadly conservative take on it. For I've in mind, from his well-named Prejudices, Fifth Series (1926), Mencken's essay "Literature and the Schoolma'm" — a brisk but sadly benighted attack on the utter uselessness of one's teaching style. What can I say?

I do love the way Mencken begins, though:

 · H. L. Mencken · With precious few exceptions, all the books on style in English are by writers quite unable to write. The subject, indeed, seems to exercise a special and dreadful fascination over schoolma'ms, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudo-literates. One never hears of treatises on it by George Moore or James Branch Cabell, but the pedagogues, male and female, are at it all the time. In a thousand texts they set forth their depressing ideas about it, and millions of suffering high-school pupils have to study what they say. Their central aim, of course, is to reduce the whole thing to a series of simple rules — the overmastering passion of their melancholy order, at all times and everywhere.

Mencken has, I admit, a flair for words, and we must agree: we are all in his debt for his truly impressive work, The American Language (1921). But when Mencken takes on my students — "They write badly simply because they cannot think clearly" and "They cannot think clearly because they lack the brains" — forgive me, but I detect the passing of a noxious fascist gas on my favored topic. And not surprisingly, Mencken links it here to taxes:

Trying to teach it to persons who cannot think, especially when the business is attempted by persons who also cannot think, is a great waste of time, and an immoral imposition upon the taxpayers of the nation. It would be far more logical to devote all the energy to teaching not writing, but logic — and probably just as useless. For I doubt that the art of thinking can be taught at all — at any rate by school teachers. It is not acquired, but congenital. Some persons are born with it. . . . They constitute, I should say, about one-eighth of one percent of the human race.

There you have it. Nowadays we often hear Menken-like echoes in the thought of Rush ("Always to Judgment") Limbaugh and of Bill ("No Spin") O'Reilly. Like him such wanna-be thinkers also claim: "there is nothing mysterious about the written language; it is precisely the same, in essence, as the spoken language. If a man can think in English at all, he can find words enough to express his ideas."  H. L. Mencken, 'Literature and the School Ma'm,' Stoddard Malarkey ed., Style: Diagnoses and Prescriptions, New York: Harcourt, 1972, 147-149.

As if manly "expression" were style's essence.

"Please someone, pass me a gas mask."


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