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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Savage Wit

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/12/06 at 04:14 PM

I am one hundred pages into H. L. Mencken’s The American Language, and I have as yet to get an explicit statement of what exactly constitutes American as opposed to English. But given his descriptions so far, it seems to be mostly a matter of vocabulary: Americans use different words or use words differently than the English. This idea disappoints me. As far as describing language goes, matters of reference are easy. Or at least easy compared to matters of syntax. While it is true, as Steve Martin said, that the French have a different word for everything, what seems really different is how they put the words together. Why do they say, “Ma mére, c’est toi,” instead of “Tu es ma mére”? This focus on vocabulary weakens Mencken’s book, which breaks down into word trivia. Not bad trivia (Thomas Jefferson provides the first written example of “to belittle”), but the word-a-day calendar form of the book might be more entertaining & not that much less informative.

By the way, this same break, vocabulary vs. syntax, is a major weakness of Saussurean linguistics, right? & thus of all theories derived from Saussurean linguistics. (End gratuitous flame-war baiting.)

So instead of starting right into a description of his subject, The American Language (or the abridged edition, at least) leads off with a history of evaluations of the subject, an account of the many detractors and the few defenders of American English. Most of the back-and-forth is between lexicographers, scholars, and critics. And most of it is stuffy Englishmen horrified at the Americans, spineless Americans horrified at themselves, with a handful of plucky iconoclasts sticking up for the vigorous newfangledness. The kind of story that appeals to Mencken. (Does it appeal to us? Is that fight done & over with? Who can resist our cultural juggernaut?)

Okay, I’ll lay off the nonsense. After talking about critics, Mencken has a shorter section on fiction and poetry writers. & here Mencken says a couple of interesting things.

The first examples in the section are Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, who, according to Mencken, “were properly regarded by their contemporaries as Anglomaniacs.” Cooper worked both sides of the game, but harder against than for the home team. Only lesser figures, such as Edward Everett, were resolutely pro-American. None of this remarkable: the U.S. was at the time culturally post-colonial, though quite idiosyncratically post-colonial, for so many reasons, such as the close ethnic affinity of the post-colonial elites with the former colonizers.

When moving onto Whitman, Mencken notices something remarkable, at least to those of us who sometimes fail to distinguish between what Whitman said he was doing & what he actually did. As Mencken says, “Whitman was very language-conscious, for it fitted in his romantic confidence in democracy to praise the iconoclastic and often uncouth speechways of his time.” (In case you are not overly familiar w/Mencken, attributing a “romantic confidence in democracy” to Whitman is a major diss.) Mencken goes on:

this interest found little realization in Whitman’s actual practice. His early prose was the dingy, cliché-laden journalese of the era, and after his discovery of Carlyle he indulged himself in a heavy imitation of the Scotsman’s gnarled and tortured style. Not many specimens of the popular speech ever got into his writings, either in prose or in verse. He is remembered for few besides yawp and gawk. His own inventions were mainly cacophonous miscegenations of roots and suffixes, e.g., scientism, presentiad, venerealee, to memorandize, diminute (adjective) and infidelistic, and not one of them has ever gained currency. Moreover, more than half his innovations were simply borrowings from finishing-school French, with a few examples of Spanish and Italian added for good measure. […] Like Poe, he would air foreign words that struck him as tony, but like Poe again, he wrote a stiff and artificial English, and seldom showed any command of the vernacular riches he professed to admire.

Mencken inspires me to the following hypothesis: Whitman is possessed by equal parts low-culture egalitarianism and high-culture pretentiousness. & I don’t think pretentiousness is the worst thing in the world. Sure, if it leads you to try things you can’t pull off, it’s embarrassing. But unless one is a natural genius, any achievement requires a first step of pretending you can do something you have as yet no proof that you can do. Besides, what is more American than such pretentiousness? (N.B. Whitman has been vindicated on at least one point: Word’s spellcheck likes “scientism” just fine.)

If not the critics nor the literary types (be they the pros or the rebels), who then first brought the vernacular into writing? Humorists. The development in the nineteenth-century of comic writers resulted in a “steady new infiltration of the new American words and ways of speech, and the laying of foundations for a genuinely colloquial and national style of writing,” The peak of this development is found in James Russell Lowell and Mark Twain. The mention of Lowell surprised me. Wasn’t he one of the Fireside poets? Mencken has a particular book in mind, The Biglow Papers, a series of satirical, anti-Southern poems written in Yankee dialect. For Lowell, it was a one-off project. So the distinction belongs most fully to Twain: “The business of introducing the American language to good literary society was reserved for Clemens—and Clemens had a long wait before any of the accepted authorities of his generation recognized that he was not a mere zany like Browne and Locke, but a first-rate artist.”

Mentioning Browne and Locke both connects Twain to and distinguishes him from a tradition of American humorists that Mencken claims begins with Seba Smith, whose “Letters of Major Jack Downing” appeared in 1830. Smith had an immediate imitator, Charles A. Davis, who also wrote in the Jack Downing character. Mencken then traces a line of writers from Smith & Smith to Browne & Locke. Curiously, almost each writer wrote through a pseudonym: “Charles Henry Smith (Bill Arp), George W. Harris (Sut Lovingood), Samuel G. Goodrich (Peter Parley), Benjamin P. Shillaber (Mrs. Partington), Thomas C. Haliburton (Sam Slick), Charles G. Leland (Hans Breitmann), Henry W. Shaw (Josh Billings), David R. Locke (Petroleum V. Nasby), and Charles Farrar Browne (Artemus Ward).” In addition, Lowell’s Biglow Papers were pseudonymous, & of course Mark Twain is a pseudonym.

The use of pseudonyms shouldn’t be surprising. One would want to put some distance between one’s social self & such frivolity. Though the Clemens case is an outlier: the Twain persona was always nearly interchangeable with Clemens—a photo of Mark Twain is also a photo of Samuel Clemens. With the other writers, the pseudonymous narrators are more cartoonish personae. Often they work as costume-party disguises, enabling loutish behavior, excusing its excesses.

Nor should it be surprising that the vernacular comes into literature through comedy. Shakespeare’s mechanicals and all that. But that’s not all that comes in. Along with the American language, the writers brought American antagonisms into literature. According to Mencken, the narrator-personae worked both as “spokesmen” for their writers, but also as representatives for national types, such as “the Southern cracker, the Western frontiersman, the Negro, the Irishman, the German, as well as the New Englander.” And most often these types are set against other types. Bill Arp is a Southern rustic mocking the North, Petroleum V. Nasby a Southern rustic mocking the South.

Sut Lovingood would be the extreme example here. The writer of the UVA page calls him “one of the cruelest characters encountered in Southwest humor.” The generic limitation is unnecessary. He is one of the cruelest characters in American writing. Though there’s racism in the Lovingood tales, and some Confederate propaganda, there is more than anything misanthropy, like in Maupassant’s tales of Norman peasants, only w/out the fine-grained prose. This stuff has splinters, and they bite.

Nothing’s as cruel as comedy. Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson works this into the anecdote that introduces the novel’s eponymous character. David Wilson, a newly minted lawyer from upstate New York, comes to Dawson’s Landing, Missouri to start his practice, but makes an unfortunate joke his first day in town:

He had just made the acquaintance of a group of citizens when an invisible dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is think aloud—
“I wish I owned half of that dog.”
“Why?” somebody asked.
“Because I would kill my half.”

So deadpan is Wilson’s delivery, the gathered townspeople are unable to tell if he’s joking or not. After discussing the various absurdities—why wouldn’t he want to own the whole dog?—in his comment, they decide that he’s a “Perfect jackass — yes, and it ain’t going to far to say he is a pudd’nhead.”

The joke works as a fable for the story, with its two pairs of twins, neither of which are actually twins. One pair are Italian circus performers who pass as twins. New arrivals in town, they become popular figures as well as friends with the unpopular Wilson. The other pair are only figuratively twins: two infants, one freeborn, one slaveborn, who were so nearly identical they can be switched in their cribs and raised to opposite fates.

It’s the tension between the figurative twins that drives the story. The slave raised free becomes an inveterate gambler, thief, sells his actual mother down the river (with her consent) to pay his debts, and ends up murdering his supposed uncle. The Italian brothers are first accused of the murder, but their friend Wilson discovers the culprit, who is returned to slavery. His “twin,” the freeborn who has been raised as a slave in the household of his actual father, is restored, but because he cannot act white, he never fits in. Wilson is finally recognized for his talents and made mayor, but the Italians, his only friends, leave town, leaving him lonely as well.

Wilson’s disquieting joke prefigures the story’s disquieting conclusion. The joke is not only absurd, it’s mean. In the end, Wilson works to restore an order whose thorough viciousness is shown in the main characters’ thorough unhappiness at the end of the story. This order finds its mirror opposite in the thoroughly vicious chaos of the Lovingood stories. The dividable dog would seem to work as a figure for an irremediably divided nation, out of whose divisions pours fresh violence.

And somehow it can be funny.

Closing note: there was discussion of intrinsic beauty recently. Is there also intrinsic funny? Does the perception of humor raise similar problems to the perception of beauty?


The half dog story is nicely explicated by Twain’s own “How to tell a story”. And he builds in the whole American vs. English vs. French thing, too.

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind--the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is strictly a work of art--high and delicate art-- and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story--understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print--was created in America, and has remained at home.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.

Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub.”

I like this very much because - well, this thing that originates in America is very ancient Athenian in its origins. Socrates is the original humorous story-teller. Playing dumb and not letting on about the nub. I think there is a certain droll socratism to a lot of 19th Century American writings I like - Melville, most notably. Of course, he’s being very unfair to the English and the French. But that’s just part of the schtick.

As to the dog: it’s all down to the fact that, since the dawn of time, man has yearned to cut off his own nose to spite someone else’s face.

By John Holbo on 04/13/06 at 03:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, interesting that Jefferson originated “belittle”. Very Jebediah Springfield of him, but in reverse, as it were:

“Hitch that team up Jebediah Springfield,
whip them horses, let them wagons roll.
That a people might embiggen America,
that a man might embiggen his soul.”

By John Holbo on 04/13/06 at 04:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Thanks a lot for these extras. They improve nicely on the post.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/13/06 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Great post, Lawrence. What might be most “American” about Mencken’s American Language is Mencken’s wisenheimer tone. American humorists are outrageously understudied by the academy. And on top of that, Pudd’nhead Wilson is my favorite novel (though not my favorite book) by Twain, and you do it justice in a very tight space.

Considering the value placed on sharp (often masked) wit across American subcultures, I wonder how many American artists first found their calling as a class clown, verbal sniper, or caricaturist?

By Ray Davis on 04/15/06 at 10:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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