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· Twain, James, Mencken, and the Colloquial Style ·

I've been reading Terry Teachout's biography of H. L. Mencken, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken. Noting his achievement in crafting a colloquial style, Teachout claims Mencken's primary model was Mark Twain, "the perfect model — perhaps the only possible one — for the racy prose with which he would make his name":

How he stood above and apart from the world [Teachout recalls Mencken saying in Happy Days, his memoir], like Rabelais come to life again, observing the human comedy, chuckling over the eternal fraudulence of man! What a sharp eye he had for the bogus, in religion, politics, art, literature, patriotism, virtue! What contempt he emptied upon shams of all sorts — and what pity! In Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, New York: Harper-Collins, 2002, 35.

Since I have abused Mencken's prose — in Conservative Soul Substance: H. L. Mencken on Style — I've thought to modify my claim by noting here (quite plainly in the interest of fairness) that Mencken might also have chosen as his secondary model Henry James.

Now don't get me wrong; I understand that Mencken once sneered at James's writing:

Isn't it wobbly with qualifying clauses and subassistant phrases [he asked]? Doesn't it wriggle and stumble and stagger and flounder? Isn't it 'crude, untidy, careless,' bedraggled, loose, frowsy, disorderly, unkempt, uncombed, uncurried, unbrushed, unscrubbed? Doesn't it begin in the middle and work away from both ends? Doesn't it often bounce along for a while and then, of a sudden, roll up its eyes and go out of business entirely? In Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, New York: Harper-Collins, 2002, 89.

Of course, since I too have scoffed at Jamesian style — in Indirection in the King's Road: Edith Wharton on Henry James — I thought maybe to split the difference by also claiming that James's work no less than Twain's was indeed itself "colloquial" — an odd claim, but defensible.

My clue comes from chapter three of Richard Bridgman's book, The Colloquial Style in America (1966), "Henry James and Mark Twain." Bridgman rightly defends the view that, in its dialogue at least, James's prose shines with stresses, repetitions, and fragmentations commonly characteristic of American colloquial speech. The difference between Twain and James, of course, remains Twain's substantive reference to things, and Henry James's to consciousness, but stylistically, as Bridgman himself notes,

despite such persistently opposing views, we can justifiably assert in the formal characteristics of repetition, interrupted phrasing, isolation of the word, accentuated peculiarities, and patterns of sound Henry James and Mark Twain corroborated and re-enforced one another's efforts. Each arrived at his stylistic peak through the faithful management of dialogue, followed by partial or wholesale importation of colloquial features into the narrative prose. Each dramatically advanced the movement toward an American prose by his efforts to purify the language of the tribe. Richard Bridgman, The Colloquial Style in America, New York: Oxford, 1966, 130.

 · Reflections · It is perhaps interesting to claim that H. L. Mencken, author of The American Language (1921), might himself have been merely half-inspired. For as Teachout himself admits (p. 75), "Mencken's inability to find anything but hot air in Henry James indicates the limits of his education as exactly as it does the breadth of his ambition."

But again, as hinted above, Mencken didn't really care for the cool, airy reflections of "bucolic college professors."


Happily, some of us do care for such comments. An interesting post! Would you care to enlarge upon this theme? The subject and thesis merit further consideration in a lengthy paper for formal publication.

Posted by loretta markle on March 17, 2004 10:13 AM

No, alas, though I could happily consider some serious scholar for the job. Length and formality, I'm afraid, just aren't my style.

Posted by
Styles on March 22, 2004 02:11 PM

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