Prose So Bad “A Sort of Grandeur Creeps Into It”

Like the Missouri River in flood, the vast outpouring of media coverage leading up to the inauguration of Barack Obama on Tuesday has room for almost everything, including the inaugural address of Warren G. Harding, widely regarded as the worst example of this singularly American speech genre. Harding’s oratorical style inspired one of H.L. Mencken’s nastiest barbs:

“I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and a half dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and “doodle. It is balder and dash.”

Everyone and his brother quotes this quote and none of them seem to document its source. Mencken wrote it in “Gamalielese” published originally in The Baltimore Sun on March 7, 1921 and available now in On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe. When time permits, I’ll search Project Gutenberg’s Mencken holdings to see if it’s published in the public domain there.

The Warren G. Harding Wikipedia page explains that Mencken coined the term “Gamalielese” to refer to Harding’s distinctive style, “a mocking reference to Harding’s middle name rather than a reference to any of the Biblical characters named Gamaliel.” See for more on this rarifiedargot.

I frittered away a morning digging for Harding and Mencken texts after hearing Jill Lepore discuss her recent New Yorker essay on inaugural addresses on OTM:

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2 Responses to Prose So Bad “A Sort of Grandeur Creeps Into It”

  1. tomrobertstennessee says:

    Every record for confounding, meandering, adolescent, narcissistic, narrow-minded, conceited, barbarous, grandiose, cute prose has been broken over the past 8 years. The bar has never been set low enough so that Bush cannot go beneath it. His speeches deserve showers of shoes.

  2. Mark Willis says:

    Yes, Mencken would have thrown a shoe at the news conference.

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