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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXX. The English Language in America

§ 12. Modern American Tendencies

No such drastic Americanization of the language as was prophesied has come to pass, or is likely to come to pass. The old dream of an America penitùs divisa was grievously troubled at Manila Bay and ended for ever at Château Thierry. A literary America apart was never even a possibility. Henceforward there is less excuse—if there ever was any—for emphasizing differences merely as differences. The burden of this chapter has been to crave a certain intelligent respect for what exists. And it is directed mainly, perhaps, at the theorizings of men of letters, of all amateur critics of language, and at the practice of most school teachers, who so peculiarly hold the destinies of American speech in their hands. American writers have generally been bold enough. Emerson, Whitman, Mark Twain—but that is the subject of this whole work and needs no recapitulation in a final chapter. The wish to see things afresh and for himself is indeed so characteristic of the American that neither in his speech nor his most considered writing does he need any urging to seek out ways of his own. He refuses to carry on his verbal traffic with the well-worn counters; he will always be new-minting them. He is on the lookout for words that say something; he has “a sort of remorseless and scientific efficiency in the choice of epithets,” which the hypercritical authors of the “King’s English” ascribe to Kipling, who is “americanizing us.” The American’s slang is not made up of words that look like words, as is the case with much British slang, but words that are things, images; grotesque, preposterous, perhaps, but born of a quick fancy. He has an Elizabethan love of exuberant language. The highfalutin’ spread-eagleism of the old-fashioned Fourth of July oration, the epistolary style of Lorenzo Altisonant in his Letters of Squire Pedant, who “merged his plumous implement of chirography into the atramented fluid,” the sort of polysyllabic eloquence of which Holmes and Lowell made such excellent fun, now linger perhaps only in the columns of the rural weekly newspaper and in a Congressional speech which is delivered to be heard a long way off.

There is in this view of the American speech a good deal of carefully cherished tradition. No American writer has perhaps played with words as daringly as Meredith or expressed himself as whimsically as Carlyle. There is in American speech and writing a good deal of timidity, as well as audacity, quite as much colourlessness as picturesqueness. A British critic wrote somewhere the other day of the “whitey-brown” style of American college professors. Such a charge is not directed against too great linguistic daring. A lack of pith, of raciness, an insecure hold on idiom in some of its more slippery turns might very properly be remarked in not a little American writing; in short, an anxiety to play safe in a dangerous game. There is nothing unnatural in an association of boldness and timidity. Both, however, represent excess. The discovery of the mean is the problem, and that will move toward a solution as the standards which express it are more zealously and intelligently sought within the history and present practice of American English itself.