H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
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.11
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,
Note 11. For further diatribes of the same sort, see As Others See Us, by John Graham Brooks; New York, 1908, ch. vii. Also, The Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. i, pp. 2058. [back]