Editor, journalist, and literary critic, Henry Louis Mencken has been praised as "an industrious scholar" and dismissed as "a night-school scandalizer." All agree that in the early decades of the 20th century Mencken's witty and combative prose style helped him succeed in his goal to "stir up the animals." In this book review from 1921, he attacks the empty oratory of the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.
The Style of Woodrow
by H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)
A truly devastating piece of criticism is to be found in The Story of a Style, by Dr. William Bayard Hale. The style is that of poor Woodrow, and Dr. Hale operates upon it with machetes, hand grenades and lengths of gas-pipe. He is one peculiarly equipped for the business, for he was at one time high in the literary and philosophical confidence of the late Messiah, and learned to imitate the gaudy jargon of the master with great skill--so perfectly, indeed, that he was delegated to write one of the Woodrovian books, to wit, The New Freedom, once a favorite text of New Republic Liberals, deserving Democrats, and the tender-minded public in general. But in the end he revolted against both the new Euphuism and its eminent pa, and now he tackles both with considerable ferocity, and, it must be added, vast effect. His analysis of the whole Wilsonian buncombe, in fact, is downright cruel; when he finishes with it, not even a Georgia postmaster or a Palmer agent provocateur could possibly believe in it. He shows its ideational hollowness, its ludicrous strutting and bombast, its heavy dependence upon greasy and meaningless words, its frequent descent to mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. In particular, he devotes himself to a merciless study of what, after all, must remain the fallen Moses’s chief contribution to both history and beautiful letters, viz., his biography of George Washington. I have often, in the past, called attention to the incredible imbecility of this work. It is an almost inexhaustible mine of bad writing, faulty generalizing, childish pussy-footing, ludicrous posturing, and naive stupidity. To find a match for it one must try to imagine a biography of the Duke of Wellington by his barber. Well, Hale spreads it out on his operating table, sharpens his snickersnee upon his boot-leg, and proceeds to so harsh an anatomizing that it nearly makes me sympathize with the author. Not many of us--writers, and hence vain and artificial fellows--could undergo so relentless an examination without damage. But not many of us, I believe, would suffer quite so horribly as Woodrow. The book is a mass of puerile affectations, and as Hale unveils one after the other he performs a sound service for American scholarship and American letters.
I say that this book is cruel, but I must add that his laparotomies are carried on with every decorum--that he by no means rants and rages against his victim. On the contrary, he keeps his temper even when there is strong temptation to lose it, and his inquiry maintains itself upon the literary level as much as possible, without needless descents to political and personal matters. More than once, in fact, he says very kind things about Woodrow--a man probably quite as mellow and likable within as the next man, despite his strange incapacity for keeping his friends. The curiosities of his character I hope to investigate at length on some future occasion, probably in Prejudices: Third Series. At the moment, I can only give thanks to God that Hale has saved me the trouble of exposing the extreme badness of the Woodrovian style--a style until lately much praised by cornfed connoisseurs. Two or three years ago, at the height of his illustriousness, it was spoken of in whispers, as if there were something almost supernatural about its merits. I read articles, in those days, comparing it to the style of the Biblical prophets, and arguing that it vastly exceeded the manner of any living literatus. Looking backward, it is not difficult to see how that doctrine arose. Its chief sponsors, first and last, were not men who actually knew anything about the writing of English, but simply editorial writers on party newspapers, i.e., men who related themselves to literary artists in much the same way that Dr. Billy Sunday relates himself to the late Paul of Tarsus. What intrigued such gentlemen in the compositions of Dr. Wilson was the plain fact that he was their superior in their own special field—that he accomplished with a great deal more skill than they did themselves the great task of reducing all the difficulties of the hour to a few sonorous and unintelligible phrases, often with theological overtones--that he knew better than they did how to arrest and enchant the boobery with words that were simply words, and nothing else. The vulgar like and respect that sort of balderdash. A discourse packed with valid ideas, accurately expressed, is quite incomprehensible to them. What they want is the sough of vague and comforting words--words cast into phrases made familiar to them by the whooping of their customary political and ecclesiastical rabble-rousers, and by the highfalutin style of the newspapers that they read. Woodrow knew how to conjure up such words. He knew how to make them glow, and weep. He wasted no time upon the heads of his dupes, but aimed directly at their ears, diaphragms and hearts.
Concluded on page two