american brevity -- 12/3/20

Today's encore selection -- from Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States by Bill Bryson. A description of the Gettysburg Address and the development of a unique American style of prose, a style that was born in the mid-nineteenth century. This style was simple, plain, powerful, and stemmed from the simple prose of the hard frontiersmen. Lincoln, being the most wonderful example and the sobering realities of the Civil War, which some trace to Walt Whitman's poem 'The Wound Dresser', a stark portrait of the suffering in a Civil War hospital. The elaborate prose of England and the United States East Coast seemed increasingly inappropriate and inadequate to new realities:

"At 2 PM, two long, cold hours after starting, (Edward) Everett concluded his speech ... and turned the dais over to President Lincoln ...

"Though Lincoln was never expected to provide anything other than some concluding remarks, this was breathtakingly brief. The Gettysburg Address contained just 268 words, two-thirds of them of only one syllable, in ten mostly short , direct, and memorably crystalline sentences. It took only a fraction over two minutes to deliver ...

"... this was an age of ludicrously inflated diction ... no nineteenth-century journalist with any self-respect would write that a house had burned down, but must instead say that 'a great conflagration consumed the edifice.' Nor would he be content with a sentiment as unexpressive as 'a crowd came to see' but instead would write 'a vast concourse was assembled to witness' ...

"American English had at last found a voice to go with its flag and anthem and national symbol ..."



Bill Bryson


Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States


First Avon Books


Copyright 1994 by Bill Bryson


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