May 25, 2013
Mencken, a Curmudgeon for the Ages
Posted on Dec 10, 2010
A mere forty miles south of Baltimore, Washington, DC, inevitably earned Mencken’s finest scorn, and his remarks about its unsavoury denizens are worthy of his friend Ambrose Bierce (author of The Devil’s Dictionary, aka The Cynic’s Wordbook): “Since the days of the national Thors and Wotans, no politician who was not out for himself, and for himself alone, has ever drawn breath of life in the United States”; “All this took place in the United States, where the word honor, save when it is applied to the structural integrity of women, has only a comic significance”; “Ideas count for nothing in Washington, whether they be political, economic or moral. The question isn’t what a man thinks, but what he has to give away that is worth having”; “There are Congressmen, I have no doubt, who regret their lost honor, as women often do in the films. Tossing in their beds on hot, sticky Washington nights, their gizzards devoured by bad liquor, they may lament the ruin that the service of Demos has brought to their souls”.
Education is another favourite bugaboo in Prejudices and many of the newspaperman’s other essays. Mencken fulminated that our “schools reek with … puerile nonsense. Their programmes of study sound like the fantastic inventions of comedians gone insane”. Long before Michel Foucault, he understood that the aim of the educational system was “To make good citizens. And what is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender; therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber-stamps.”
Mencken was also adept at writing marginally quieter profiles and more lyrical essays. Consider his opening description of the charmingly louche Frank Harris:
“The first time I ever enjoyed the honor of witnessing him, there bobbed up in my mind (instantly put away as unworthy and unseemly) a memory of the handsome dogs who used to chain shrieking virgins to railway tracks in the innocent pre-Ibsenish dramas of my youth. … There was the same elegance of turn-out, the same black mustachios, the same erect figure and lordly air, the same agate glitter in the eyes, the same aloof and superior smile. A sightly fellow, by all the gods, and one who obviously knew how to sneer.”
In his brilliant “In Memoriam: W. J. B.”, Mencken evokes the humid, backwoods reverence granted to the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, who opposed Clarence Darrow during the celebrated Scopes Monkey trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, which Mencken attended. “But out where the grass grows high, and the horned cattle dream away the lazy afternoons, and men still fear the powers and principalities of the air – out there between the corn-rows he held his old puissance to the end.”
As any longtime reader of Mencken soon comes to recognize, the man could be honeyed as well as abrasive – and he possessed an astonishing vocabulary. On two successive pages he casually uses the words “fantoddish” and “peruna”. He regularly sprinkles in a bit of German or Latin. At the same time, Mencken – like all writers – repeats certain pet words, phrases and names: “the horned cattle”, “heirs and assigns”, “the art and the mystery”, “the Chautauqua”, “puissance”, “Dr. Frank Crane”, “the great rolling mills”, “Comstockery”. One keen benefit of this Library of America edition of Prejudices lies in its detailed index, identifying many of the now forgotten fads and personages. Marion Rodgers also corrects the original Knopf edition’s myriad typos.
Despite all his satirical bonhomie, Mencken can sound notes of sorrow, or even John Webster-like horror: “Women whom we place upon pedestals worthy of the holy saints come down at last with mastoid abscesses or die obscenely of hiccoughs”. (Mencken’s own beloved wife Sara died of meningitis in 1935 after only five years of marriage.) In the final volume of Prejudices the author confesses:
“Once I ventured the guess that men worked in response to a vague inner urge for self-expression. … An hypothesis with rather more plausibility in it now suggests itself. It is that men work simply in order to escape the depressing agony of contemplating life – that their work, like their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting them to escape from reality. … Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror. He works. He plays. He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property. He strives for the coy eye-wink called fame. He founds a family and spreads his curse over others. All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to forget himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself. Life, fundamentally, is not worth living.”
In 1948 Mencken suffered a debilitating stroke and thereafter never wrote again. By then, however, the old newspaperman’s reputation had long faded. Nonetheless, he had already published his high-spirited memoirs Happy Days and Newspaper Days – probably his best books – and brought out several editions of his scholarly The American Language. Since his death in 1956 Mencken’s reputation has been kept fitfully alive by a popular paperback, The Vintage Mencken, compiled by Alistair Cooke, and by the fat compendium – edited by the man himself – A Mencken Chrestomathy. This last includes numerous extracts from Prejudices, but hardly enough to give a sense of the range and sustained power of the original six volumes. Now, thanks to this splendid Library of America set, we can again enjoy H. L. Mencken at length and at full throttle.
Michael Dirda / The Times Literary Supplement / nisyndication.com
Michael Dirda, a book columnist for The Washington Post, received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir “An Open Book” and of four collections of essays: “Readings,” “Bound to Please,” “Book by Book” and, most recently, “Classics for Pleasure.” Besides writing regularly about books for various journals and newspapers, he is a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.
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