American Inspirational Literature: Proverb/Platitude

From HL Mencken, The American Language (1919). (See below for the copyright information.)

IX

Miscellanea

Proverb and Platitude

No people, save perhaps the Spaniards, have a richer store of proverbial wisdom than the Americans, and surely none other make more diligent and deliberate efforts to augment its riches. The American literature of ”inspirational” platitude is enormous and almost unique. There are half a dozen authors, e. g., Dr. Orison Swett Harden and Dr. Frank Crane, who devote themselves exclusively, and to vast profit, to the composition of arresting and uplifting apothegms, and the fruits of their fancy are not only sold in books but also displayed upon an infinite variety of calendars, banners and wall-cards. It is rarely that one enters the office of an American business man without encountering at least one of these wall-cards.

It may, on the one hand, show nothing save a succinct caution that time is money, say, “Do It Now,” or “This Is My Busy Day ” ; on the other hand, it may embody a long and complex sentiment, ornately set forth. The taste for such canned sagacity seems to have arisen in America at a very early day. Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” begun in 1732, remained a great success for twenty-five years, and the annual sales reached 10,000. It had many imitators, and founded an aphoristic style of writing which culminated in the essays of Emerson, often mere strings of sonorous certainties, defectively articulated. The “Proverbial Philosophy” of Martin Farquhar Tupper, dawning upon the American public in the early 40 ‘s, was welcomed with enthusiasm as Saintsbury says; its success this side of the Atlantic even exceeded its success on the other.

But that was the last and perhaps the only importation of the sage and mellifluous in bulk. In late years the American production of such merchandise has grown so large that the balance of trade now flows in the other direction. Visiting Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, France and Spain in the spring of 1917, I found translations of the chief works of Dr. Marden on sale in all those countries, and with them the masterpieces of such other apostles of the New Thought as Ralph Waldo Trine and Elizabeth Towne. No other American books were half so well displayed.

The note of all such literature, and of the maxims that precipitate themselves from it, is optimism. They “inspire” by voicing and revoicing the New Thought doctrine that all things are possible to the man who thinks the right sort of thoughts in the national phrase, to the right-thinker. This right-thinker is indistinguishable from the forward-looker, whose belief in the continuity and benignity of the evolutionary process takes on the virulence of a religious faith. Out of his confidence come the innumerable saws, axioms and gefliigelte Worte in the national arsenal, ranging from the “It won’t hurt none to try” of the great masses of the plain people to such exhilarating confections of the wall-card virtuosi as “The elevator to success is not running; take the stairs.” Naturally enough, a grotesque humor plays about this literature of hope; the folk, though it moves them, prefer it with a dash of salt. ‘ ‘ Smile, damn you, smile ! ‘ ‘ is a typical specimen of this seasoned optimism.

Many examples of it go back to the early part of the last century, for instance, “Don’t monkey with the buzz-saw” and “It will never get well if you pick it.” Others are patently modern, e. g.,

“The Lord is my shepherd; I should worry” and “Roll over; you ‘re on your back. ‘ ‘

The national talent for extravagant and pungent humor is well displayed in many of these maxims. It would be difficult to match, in any other folk-literature, such examples as “I’d rather have them say ‘There he goes’ than ‘Here he lies,’ ” or “Don’t spit: remember the Johnstown flood,” or “Shoot it in the arm; your leg’s full,” or “Cheer up; there ain’t no hell,” or “If you want to cure homesickness, go back home.”

Many very popular phrases and proverbs are borrowings from above. “Few die and none resign” originated with Thomas Jefferson; Bret Harte, I believe, was the author of “No check-ee, no shirt-ee,” General W. T. Sherman is commonly credited with “War is hell,” and Mark Twain with “Life is one damn thing after another.”  An elaborate and highly characteristic proverb of the uplifting variety “So live that you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell” was first given currency by one of the engineers of the Panama Canal, a gentleman later retired, it would seem, for attempting to execute his own counsel.

From humor the transition to cynicism is easy, and so many of the current sayings are at war with the optimism of the majority. ‘ ‘ Kick him again ; he ‘sdown” is a depressing example. “What’s the use?” a rough translation of the Latin “Cui bono?” is another.

 

THE

AMERICAN LANGUAGE

OF THE FIRST EDITION OF

THIS BOOK FIFTEEN HUNDRED

COPIES HAVE BEEN PRINTED

AND THE TYPE DISTRIBUTED

THIS IS NUMBER I

THE

AMERICAN LANGUAGE

A Preliminary Inquiry into the Develop-

ment of English in the United States

BY

  1. L. MENCKEN

NEW YORK

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ALFRED A KNOPF

MCMXIX

COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY

ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC.