For an American embarking upon a literary career in the early 19th century, Henry Cabot Lodge once noted in The Atlantic Monthly, the first step “was to pretend to be an Englishman.” This was necessary, Lodge wrote, “in order that he might win the approval, not of Englishmen, but of his own countrymen.”
The fetishization of “English” English extended beyond the written word to the spoken. Almost every British travel book about America from the 19th century ridiculed Yankee ways of talking, and the elites of U.S. society scrupulously imitated English upper-class speech patterns. Students at Harvard were taught to embrace the purity of the King’s English, and if a president’s version existed in the former colonies, no one in Cambridge would admit to speaking it. 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.
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.