Glowing Cadavers


H.L. Mencken“In my early days, I confess, some of the quacks enchanted me, for the romance of journalism–and to a youngster, in that era (1906 – 1915), it surely was romantic–had me by the ear, and the quacks themselves, in many cases, were picturesque characters, and not without a certain cadaverous glow.”  H. L. Mencken


Jay Dee Archer recently  asked a group of authors whether a writer should abide by the recommendation to write only short sentences. The answers were overwhelmingly “No!” The authors all agreed that both long and short sentences are necessary, depending on the topic, the audience, and the format.

There was a time, before pervasive instant gratification reduced people’s attention spans, that authors used a great many long sentences. For some authors, like Virginia Woolf, the ratio of long to short sentences was one hundred to one. Another author of long sentences is H. L. Mencken, whose glorious sentence of 173 words is quoted above. Without all of the 171 words that preceded it, how fully could we appreciate the phrase “cadaverous glow”?

How fitting a description it is of the quacks to which Mencken was referring! How interesting the questions it inspires! What is a cadaverous glow? Why do quacks have it? Is it contagious? Are cheats, liars, fakes, charlatans, frauds, and con artists also glowing cadavers? Is the aura of charisma that draws voters to this or that politician merely a cadaverous glow in disguise?

I find these and other questions amusing to think about, but I would not be engaged in this diverting activity had not H. L. Mencken written about quacks and their cadaverous glow. And had he listened to experts saying he should not write long sentences, then he would not have spent the time preparing his readers for that wonderful phrase. His cadavers would have glowed less brightly.

So thank you, Mr. Archer, for posing your question and thank you, gentle authors, for your responses. Some of your sentences were quite long, you know, and very sensible.


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