Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

The American Language was a surprise bestseller upon its publication in 1919 and is still respected as a classic work today. While some linguists dismiss the book as the work of a talented amateur, its admirers outnumber its detractors. Mencken's contemporaries praised the work as thorough, scientifically sound, intriguing, and entertaining. Praising the book for its scientific approach, W. H. A. Williams of Twayne's United States Authors Series Online describes it as "a work of solid, painstaking research.’’ Brander Matthews, a founding member and president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, comments in a 1919 review for the New York Times Book Review that Mencken is "armed at all points'' in this authoritative work. He describes the book as "interesting and useful; it is a book to be taken seriously; it is a book well planned, well proportioned, well documented, and well written,’’ adding that he read it ‘‘with both pleasure and profit.’’ Matthews goes on to note that while the differences between British English and American English are apparent, "nobody has ever marshaled this host [of divergences] as amply, as logically, or as impressively as Mr. Mencken has done.’’ The only flaw the critic finds in The American Language is that Mencken is at times overly disrespectful of some of his predecessors.

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Critics often comment on Mencken's ability to ease into the intellectual world after mastering popular writing. In the Virginia Quarterly Review, Willard Thorp reviews Mencken's various writing styles and observes, ‘‘Of Mencken's learned style little needs to be said. It has been praised, deservedly, since the first edition of The American Language appeared in 1919. Who would have supposed that a treatise on language could be so lively that the reader has to remind himself that he is being educated as well as entertained?’’ According to Williams, the book is important not just to the field of linguistics but also as a historical piece. He explains:

As a historian of language, Mencken was also a historian on an important aspect of American culture. That he produced such a brilliant and original work years before American cultural history had become a recognized and established field is merely one token of his achievement.

Edmund Wilson, Jr., a respected critic of literary and historical works, also applauds Mencken as a scholar and finds him to be a patriot in spite of himself. Wilson writes in a 1921 issue of New Republic:

The truth is that in the last few years Mencken has entered so far into the national intellectual life that it has become impossible for him to maintain his old opinions quite intact: he has begun to worry and hope with the American people in the throes of their democratic experiment.... This phenomenon seemed to make its appearance toward the last page of The American Language; and if it does not come to bulk yet larger we shall have one of our strongest men still fighting with one arm tied behind his back.

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Essays and Criticism