The Style of Woodrow
by H.L. Mencken (pictured)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review, originally written in 1920, is highly relevant today. The type represented by Woodrow Wilson is all too common in academia, politics, journalism, and religion. Combining mental autointoxication with corrupt ambition, and largely ignorant of for whom and for what they are really working, they industriously peddle crack-brained ideas to a credulous audience. Wilson’s pompous, adjective-laden speech indicates a mind filled with clichés and fairy tales.
Mencken condemned Wilson’s rhetorical style for “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.” The style lives on, although a few of the catchwords have been changed. Barack Hussein Fetchit embodies it. — Kevin Alfred Strom.
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 naïve 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.
But reading his speeches in cold blood offers a curious experience. It is difficult to believe that even idiots ever succumbed to such transparent contradictions, to such gaudy processions of mere counter-words, to so vast and obvious a nonsensicality. Hale produces sentence after sentence that has no apparent meaning at all—stuff quite as bad as the worst bosh of the Hon. Gamaliel Harding. When Wilson got upon his legs in those days he seems to have gone into a sort of trance, with all the peculiar illusions and delusions that belong to a frenzied pedagogue. He heard words giving three cheers; he saw them race across a blackboard like Socialists pursued by the Polizei; he felt them rush up and kiss him. The result was the grand series of moral, political, sociological and theological maxims which now lodges imperishably in the cultural heritage of the American people, along with Lincoln’s “government for the people, by the people,” etc., Perry’s “We have met the enemy, and they are ours,” and Vanderbilt’s “The public be damned.” The important thing is not that a popular orator should have uttered such grand and glittering phrases, but that they should have been gravely received, for many weary months, by a whole race of men, some of them intelligent. Here is a matter that deserves the sober inquiry of competent psychologists. The boobs took fire first, but after a while even college presidents—who certainly ought to be cynical men, if ladies of joy are cynical women—were sending up sparks, and for a long while anyone who laughed was in danger of the calaboose. Hale does not go into the question; he confines himself to the concrete procession of words. His book represents tedious and vexatious labor; it is, despite some obvious defects, very well managed; it opens the way for future works of the same sort. Imagine Harding on the Hale operating table!
Transcribed by Matthew Peters
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EDITOR’S NOTE: In his 1968 speech “What We Owe Our Parasites,” Revilo P. Oliver said of Wilson:
“I am not one of those who regard Wilson as entirely a villain. I think he was primarily a man who could intoxicate himself with his own words. And I think that he went through most of his life mistaking his hallucinations for reality, as surely as he did on that day in 1919 when he was driven in the early morning through the deserted streets of Washington, mechanically raising his hat and bowing to the applauding crowds that existed only in his feverish brain. I am therefore willing to believe that he believed a good deal of what he said. And although in his political life he was merely a marionette that danced and pranced on the stage as its strings were pulled by Jacob Schiff, Bernard Baruch, the Warburgs, and their agent Colonel House, the fact remains that Wilson ranted to the American people about ‘making the world safe for democracy’ and ‘a war to end wars,’ and they believed him.”
Oliver clearly viewed Wilson’s presidency as a turning point in the history of the United States. Discussing Wilson’s presidency in America’s Decline: The Education of a Conservative, Oliver wrote that “It would be no irrelevant digression to remind ourselves summarily of the essentials of a political fatuity that must be taken into consideration of any estimate of the prospects of our people and race.” During this period the United States entered World War One, enslaved itself with the income tax and the Federal Reserve, and enacted the Seventeenth Amendment “to avert the danger that legislatures might send honest men to the Senate.” Oliver, like Mencken, also viewed Wilson’s presidency as significant for what it revealed about the psychology of boobus Americanus. — Kevin Alfred Strom.