Farewell, Philip Roth; Mencken on the language; how we got Sherlock, and more: newsletter, May 25, 2018

May 28, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was emailed to everyone on Jim’s email list (3,081) on May 25, 2018


Thanks to all who wrote or commented on Facebook about the dulcimer that I made and showed off in last week’s newsletter. I am going to start on another one before long.

Sadly, for the second week in a row, we have had to say farewell to a great and well-known American writer Philip Roth.  Last week it was Tom Wolfe. And speaking of writers, this week’s newsletter features a couple of greats: Henry Louis Mencken and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Have a great weekend. 

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Mencken and the American Language

H.L. Mencken, writer and journalist, comes to mind when the American public or American culture needs criticism and a bit of biting satire. He knew how to do that and did it better during this 40-plus-year as a newspaper columnist and magazine editor than anyone else.

He did it so well that we forget that there was more to the man than his cigar-chomping, beer-drinking, fiery typewriter wit. Much more.

Mencken took a scholar’s and a collector’s interest in the English language, especially as it was used by Americans. He was fascinated by the language, beginning with the way Americans differed from the English. He began to take note of these differences early in his writing and editing career, and this notice morphed into a study of the language itself — the American language.

Mencken wrote several newspaper columns about his interest in the language and the items he had noticed in his wide reading and in his discussions with people in Baltimore — a hotbed of innovative language use.  In the second decade of the 20th century, Mencken decided it was time for someone to become a modern-day Noah Webster. That someone would be him.

The American Language was published in 1919 by Alfred A. Knopf, one of its earliest titles.

It sold well and received excellent reviews. It was revised three times during Mencken’s lifetime and has been revised since his death.

Unlike Mencken’s acerbic views of American politics and the collective ignorance of the American electorate, Mencken celebrated the American language and came to its defense when it was attacked, particularly by English critics. There’s an excerpt below the signature of this email.

The American Language is pure Mencken and a delight to read. While you can purchase a copy from Amazon, it is available free through Google’s Project Gutenberg.


How the Impressionists got their name

The Impressionists didn’t start out trying to be impressionists.

They began in France in the 1870s as a group of painters who did not like the way that the French cultural czars controlled what the public saw. The French academics dictated that paintings should take on a certain look and that they should be executed in a certain way. Paintings that did not follow these rules were excluded from many exhibitions.

Some of the Paris-based artists of the day had a different vision. They believed in broad, free brush strokes in the manner J.M.W. Turner and Eugene Delacroix, and they believed that getting out of the studio and painting where the subjects were could enhance their work. They were the urban sketchers of their day.

They also had the temerity to organize their own exhibitions. The first one was in April 1874. Once they showed their work, the critics took aim and fired away. One of those critics was Luis Leroy, a journalist, critic, and humorist of the day. He took the opportunity to make fun of the exhibition, seizing on the title of one of Claude Monet’s works, Impression, Sunrise.

He wrote a fictional dialogue between viewers of the paintings that include this:

Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.

His article was derisively titled The Exhibition of the Impressionists.

Derisive or not, the name stuck, and a century and a half later we know — and honor — this group of painters for their vision, creativity, and courage.

Be careful what you make fun of.


Philip Roth, 1933-2018

The death of Philip Roth on Tuesday (May 22) removes one of the great names from the living giants of American letters. In fact, many consider him to be the last of those giants, and they may well be right.

Obituaries in the New York TimesWashington Post, and many other publications have praised and analyzed his work. Some have included Roth’s great critics, speaking their minds about the inadequacies of his work.

Roth had three great interlocking themes in his work: the sexual drive of males (some males, not all); Jews and Jewishness in America; and American and Americanism. His fourth theme — or maybe it was just a device — was himself. He loved taking part in his own novels, playing with his and the reader’s imagination about whom he was really writing about.

Roth didn’t mind making his readers uncomfortable, and he ran into some of the consequences of that early in his career. In 1962, at a Yeshiva University symposium where he was a guest author, he was denounced repeatedly by questioners for a story he included in Goodbye, Columbus. The confrontation almost became physical when Roth tried to leave at the end of the program and was surrounded by shouting students.

The confrontation — fully described here: Roths visit to YU changed career — was a seminal event in Roth’s development of a writer and led him to view his own Jewishness more critically than he had ever done.

If you were (or are) disturbed by Roth’s work, you should read Matthew Rosza‘s article in Salon.com (On hating and loving Philip Roth: How I learned to appreciate the book that repulsed me | Salon.com). Rosza doesn’t particularly like Roth either but understands the value of his work.

Roth’s clear, precise prose and his honesty about himself, his work, and his view of the world made him one of the era’s great writers.

RIP, Philip Roth.



The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery/

The Amazon gift card raffle that we included in the newsletter for the last couple of weeks has ended, but I haven’t been notified about the winners yet. When I have their names, I will publish them. We’ll likely be doing another raffle like this one next mon


How Sherlock Holmes came to be – a gap in the market

“It’s all so obvious,” Holmes said after a long draw from his pipe.

Holmes’ eyes pierced through my sideways glances. He was expecting an answer. I didn’t have one.

“Really, my dear friend, you must see it,” he said, his voice mixed with delight and exasperation. “Look closely at the market. Tell me what’s not there.”

Now, I was completely flustered. All of Holmes’ attempts to educate me — all his efforts to increase my powers of discernment — had come to nothing in this moment. Once again, I had to admit to defeat by his intellect.

Okay, so Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t write that, but I’m not the first to try my hand at a bit of Holmes-like dialogue.

The question of the moment is: How did Sherlock Holmes come into existence?

The answer: Look at the market and tell me what’s not there.

That’s what Doyle did in 1886. Doyle was a practicing physician and on his way to becoming successful, but he was determined to become a writer. He had been selling his stories for a number of years, and his reputation as a writer was growing. Doyle also read widely, both the newspapers of the day and the fiction that was being published. His reading included detective stories.

But, according to his biographer Martin Booth (The Doctor and the Detective: A Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), most of the stories did not make much sense to him. The plots were thin, and they relied on coincidence or hidden clues for their resolution. What wasn’t there was a clever character who could solve a crime with the evidence at hand — evidence that would also be given to the reader. Doyle was determined to create a “scientific detective” who could reason his way through a situation and come to a logical conclusion.

“In short,” Booth writes, “Conan Doyle shrewdly spotted a gap in the market . . . .” (p. 104)

Sherlock Holmes was thus born, and his first appearance occurred in the novella A Study in Scarlet, which was published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.

True crime podcast, in a different direction

If you are looking for a true-crime podcast without all the blood and guts of much that’s in the genre, try The Grift. The Grift is 

. . .  a show about con artists and the lives they ruin. Best-selling author and New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova takes us to the darker side of human nature and deceit. Ten stories about card sharks, cult leaders, art forgers, impostors and more. Why do we fall for them time and time again?

Con artists figure out what we want and give it to us — as well of fleecing us at the same time. Listen to Episode 2 about the art forgeries. This is a good one. (And the episodes run about 30-40 minutes, which is another draw.)


Kathy R: 
I love reading your letters each week and always take the time to savor them. Your dulcimer looks beautiful.  I have been playing a mountain dulcimer since 2002.  We have a group that meets weekly – as much playing as support for each other. I hope you are able to belong to a group that meets on a regular basis.  Dulcimer festivals are also fun. Check out the Gateway Dulcimer Festival in Belleville, IL. Thanks again for your posting each week.


Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Henry Louis Mencken


Best quote of the week:

“I have learned, by some experience, that virtue and patriotism, vice and selfishness, are found in all parties, and that they differ less in their motives than in the policies they pursue.”

William H. Seward, U.S. Secretary of State, governor, senator (1801-1872) 


Helping those in need

This is my weekly reminder to all of us (especially me) that there are many people who need our help. It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here). When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org)is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 


You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The man who wanted every book; the quintessential English detective; and the first American crime novel; and more: newsletter May 18, 2018



Here’s an excerpt from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language. It’s from the section on the Characters of American:

The Characters of American

American thus shows its character in a constant experimentation, a wide hospitality to novelty, a steady reaching out for new and vivid forms. No other tongue of modern times admits foreign words and phrases more readily; none is more careless of precedents; none shows a greater fecundity and originality of fancy. It is producing new words every day, by trope, by agglutination, by the shedding of inflections, by the merging of parts of speech, and by sheerbrilliance of imagination. It is full of what Bret Harte called the “sabre-cuts of Saxon”; it meets Montaigne’s ideal of “a succulent and nervous speech, short and compact, not as much delicated and combed out as vehement and brusque, rather arbitrary than monotonous, not pedantic but soldierly, as Suetonius called Caesar’s Latin.” One pictures the common materials of English dumped into a pot, exotic flavorings added, and the bubblings assiduously and expectantly skimmed. What is old and respected is already in decay the moment it comes into contact with what is new and vivid. Let American confront a novel problem alongside [Pg027] English, and immediately its superior imaginativeness and resourcefulness become obvious. Movie is better than cinema; it is not only better American, it is better English. Bill-board is better than hoarding. Office-holder is more honest, more picturesque, more thoroughly Anglo-Saxon that public-servant. Stem-winder somehow has more life in it, more fancy and vividness, than the literal keyless-watch. Turn to the terminology of railroading (itself, by the way, an Americanism): its creation fell upon the two peoples equally, but they tackled the job independently. The English, seeking a figure to denominate the wedge-shaped fender in front of a locomotive, called it a plough; the Americans, characteristically, gave it the far more pungent name of cow-catcher. So with the casting where two rails join. The English called it a crossing-plate. The Americans, more responsive to the suggestion in its shape, called it a frog.

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