The Year American Speech Became Art.

Ted Gioia has an Atlantic essay about an interesting topic, the transition from an Anglocentric world to one which imitated American usage and art. Gioia writes:

As late as 1919, when H.L. Mencken published his ambitious study The American Language, the very concept of a legitimate homegrown way of speaking was a radical notion, and brought with it, in the words of Jacques Barzun, an “air of defiance and heresy which some found provincial and even chauvinistic.”

Yet less than a decade after Mencken’s bold gesture, Yankee English was well on its way to conquering the world. In a peculiar role reversal, writers and artists in other countries would now feel compelled to learn from American role models.

What happened?

Changes of this sort usually take place gradually, over a period of decades. But in this case, an extraordinary confluence of circumstances—cultural, technological, and attitudinal—raised Yankee diction into an art during a brief and tumultuous 15-month period in the late 1920s. We are still living with the fallout of those events.

His claim is that the period from October 1926 through December 1927 was crucial, and he adduces everybody from Louis Armstrong to Ernest Hemingway to Dashiell Hammett to Ira Gershwin to make his case. Here’s a quote from Hammett’s Red Harvest:

“What’s the rumpus?” I asked him.

He looked at me carefully before he replied, as if he wanted to be sure the information was going into safe hands. His eyes were gray as his clothes, but not so soft.

“Don Willsson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.”

“Who shot him?” I asked.

The gray man scratched the back of his neck and said: “Somebody with a gun.”

I wanted information, not wit. I would have tried my luck with some other member of the crowd if the red tie hadn’t interested me. I said: “I’m a stranger in town. Hang the Punch and Judy on me. That’s what strangers are for.”

Gioia says “No one told stories in that crisp, uncluttered way before 1926. But soon, other ways of pushing a narrative forward would seem slow-paced and old-fashioned.” Obviously he’s overstating the importance of that brief period, even if the general point is inarguable; I’m curious to see what people have to say about it.


  1. Jim (another one) says

    In other words, America’s May Fourth Movement. The same thing was going on in Ireland at the same time.

  2. Winesburg, Ohio? Ring Lardner?

  3. marie-lucie says

    When I studied for “American Literature and Civilization”, one of the required readings was Winesburg, Ohio. I had forgotten the title, but I remember the book quite well, and the author, Sherwood Anderson.

  4. Doesn’t Mark Twain qualify as the originator of a distinctly American style?

  5. i would not call Hammett’s style “a legitimate homegrown way of speaking.” His characters, including his narrators (here, the Continental Op) use an underground argot, whose appeal to readers – even today – is that it is shocking and titillating. It’s not ordinary speech. What makes Hammett and Hemingway different from Twain and Dickens and many others, I think, is that the reader is not encouraged to condescend to the speakers of non-standard English. The main effect is that these people are violent. If anything, what’s distinctly new and American about this writing is the way humor is used to threaten violence.

    PS- I tried to read the Gioia piece but it won’t open up for me. So I’m responding only to the post, not to the article.

  6. Doesn’t Mark Twain qualify as the originator of a distinctly American style?

    But this isn’t about the origin of a distinctly American style, it’s about how and when American style became global style.

    I tried to read the Gioia piece but it won’t open up for me.

    Sorry about that — I don’t know what the problem might be.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Obviously the rise of “talkies” and recorded music was a massive change because the technology made it possible for audiences arbitrarily far away to have direct aural experience of American speaking/singing voices. Although one might note for example that for the first two decades or more lots of Hollywood actors/actresses spoke on screen in those weird “Mid-Atlantic” accents that were not particularly representative of ordinary American speech. Because those technologies were new there wasn’t really a prior tradition to be displaced or changed. Whether shifts in prose style around the same time can be plausibly viewed as part of the same larger phenomenon or are just a coincidence seems a bit less clear to me.

    OTOH, it’s not like Hemingway/Hammett were the *only* American writers of their day or even the only ones who can be taken as synecdoche for an era. Fitzgerald is very thematically America-in-the-Jazz-Age, but is his actual style quite so colloquial? And some writers who went deeper into a very vernacular style (um, whoever wrote Studs Lonegan, which is a name I’m afraid I’d have to consult wikipedia to recall) are not so well remembered these days as Hemingway.

  8. Oh, I wasn’t complaining about the link, I was apologizing for commenting without having read the thing you were writing about.

  9. Well, you should complain, dammit! That kind of thing is maddening.

  10. Mark Sandel says

    Thanks, an outstanding article!

  11. David Fried says

    Well, the Hammett quotation is really as artificial and stylized as can be. I doubt that anyone really spoke that way (“Hang the Punch and Judy on me”?) although undoubtedly once that sort of dialogue made its way into the talkies, many of the guys on the corner tried. And Hammett was writing for the pulps like Black Mask–he wasn’t aiming to be accepted by the literati.

    And it’s always important to remember that any period is made up of more than one tendency. “Death Comes for the “Archbishop” and “the Bridge of San Luis Rey” are equally great American novels of the Twenties, but far more decorous in their diction.

  12. Sure, both things are true, but irrelevant to the issue of the acceptance of American speech and style abroad; whether it’s echt American or artificial American is a separate matter, and whether it’s Hammett or Wilder makes no never-mind.

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