Reinventing Vox Americana
This chapter presents the major work of the most prominent literary critic and editor of the 1920s—Mencken's The American Language—in the context of the shift from juridical attempts to control language to cultural efforts to define it. It suggests that Mencken's polemical philology was symptomatic both of the national turn toward linguistic concerns and modernist fascination with new forms of linguistic and symbolic expression. In synthesizing and distilling academic research and political foment, Mencken sought to recoup his own standing in the eyes of Americans, which had been badly damaged during World War I as a result of his rhetorical misfires. The American Language showed Mencken attempting to become the philologist in chief by championing a reinvented, innately modern “American language.” His intense engagement with this project, revising it or other writings on language almost continually from 1919 until 1948, showed Mencken to be a brilliant popularizer and prescient observer of the importance of language to U.S. nationalism. Ultimately, the arguments that Mencken advanced in The American Language helped secure the symbolic capital of English as the singular language of national culture during one of the most polyglot periods of U.S. history.
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