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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

Page 86

2. The Language in the Making
  All this jingoistic bombast, however, was directed toward defending, not so much the national vernacular as the national belles lettres. True enough, an English attack upon a definite American locution always brought out certain critical minute-men, but in the main they were anything but hospitable to the racy neologisms that kept crowding up from below, and most of them were eager to be accepted as masters of orthodox English and very sensitive to the charge that their writing was bestrewn with Americanisms. A glance through the native criticism of the time will show how ardently even the most uncompromising patriots imitated the Johnsonian jargon then fashionable in England. Fowler and Griswold followed pantingly in the footsteps of Macaulay; their prose is extraordinarily self-conscious, and one searches it in vain for any concession to colloquialism. Poe, the master of them all, achieved a style so ornate that many an English leader-writer must have studied it with envy. A few bolder spirits, as we have seen, spoke out for national freedom in language as well as in letters—among them, Channing—but in the main the Brahmins of the time were conservatives in this department and it is difficult to imagine Emerson or Irving or Bryant sanctioning the innovations later adopted so easily by Howells. Lowell and Walt Whitman, in fact, were the first men of letters, properly so called, to give specific assent to the great changes that were firmly fixed in the national speech during the half century between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Lowell did so in his preface to the second series of “The Biglow Papers.” Whitman made his declaration in “An American Primer.” In discussing “Leaves of Grass,” he said: “I sometimes think that the entire book is only a language experiment—that it is an attempt to give the spirit, the body and the man, new words, new potentialities of speech—an American, a cosmopolitan (for the best of America is the best cosmopolitanism) range of self-expression.” And then: “The Americans are going to be the most fluent and melodious-voiced people in the world—and the most perfect users of words. The new world, the new times, the new