EYE ON EUROPE
Where's our demolition man when we need him?
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Maureen Dowd comes close. Frank Rich is a good imitation. But no journalist today quite equals the great H.L. Mencken when it comes to sheer attitude. Imagine his delight at the campaign blunders of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain. Give him a half hour at the typewriter on Mike Huckabee and we would have a minor masterpiece.
He saved his most inventive language for men and women of public office. Politicians roam the land looking for chance to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succour the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to delphilogisticate the undelphilogisticable.
The aim of politics, he wrote, is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
Mencken was known by some as a demolition expert for his vitriolic essays on American culture. At his peak, Time magazine wrote, Many a U.S. citizen devoutly wished that Henry Louis Mencken would shut up.
His brain was permanently damaged in a stroke exactly 60 years ago and he finally did shut up--after a prolific career in newspapers, magazines and books. He had just completed a 600-page manuscript of his favorite out-of-print pieces, A Mencken Chrestomathy.
It is hard to imagine a more cruel fate for a man with such a restless mind. The stroke left him unable to read or write; he could converse but his attention wandered and he substituted random words as he spoke. He could remember faces but not names; he was aware of his failing health and he hated it.
Mencken told novelist James T. Farrell at the end of a visit after the stroke: Remember me to my friends. Tell them Im in a hell of a mess.
His detractors thought they saw divine retribution. He died in 1956, never having recovered from his stroke. Farrell said he bore his last eight years of increasing senility with courage.
Mencken the man of letters wielded a commanding influence over American opinion for much of his long and productive life. His mind ranged across politics, history, music, food and anything else that struck his fancy. His specialty was shocking readers, or stirring up the animals as the put it. But he could also write with bemused tenderness. His description of Chopin: His music is best on rainy afternoons in winter, with the fire burning, the shaker full, and the girl somewhat silly.
His mocking style and his streak of impish humor attracted readers attention but often concealed what were common-sense views of the world. In the 1920s and 1930s his magazine American Mercury gloried in his iconoclasm and became the bible of undergraduates. He championed new writing and welcomed contributions from unknowns--although he was not an easy editor. He concluded that many first-time contributors had only one publishable manuscript in them.
He was no fan of the theatre. I have often wondered, he wrote in his often collected profile of his collaborator George Jean Nathan, what keeps such a man in the theatre, breathing bad air nightly, gaping at prancing imbeciles, sitting cheek by jowl with cads.
And he retained a romantic attachment to his early years as a reporter in Baltimore. In his essay on the decline of the press, he wrote, American journalism suffers from too many golf players.
In his final years of lucidity, he arranged for copies of his unpublished papers to be stored at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, the Baker Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover and the New York Public Library. Four volumes have now been published as "My Life as Author and Editor" and three additional volumes, "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work." Mencken saw these papers as his testament and sealed them in wooden boxes with metal bands, then stored them in different locations to avoid having them lost in some future war or revolution." His aim was to tell the truth regardless of tender feelings.
Mencken today is undergoing reassessment by scholars, critics and admirers. Books by and about him appear regularly, the latest of which is Mencken: The American Iconoclast from Oxford University Press. Google can connect you to 1,890,000 references to him.
In his beloved Baltimore, he remains a bigger than life figure, says a friend and retired reporter who lives there. The Sun holds him up as a model and the local book fair has a special booth dedicated to him and his writings every year. People still quote him on the quality of beer and local Baltimore food. He remains the literary standard.
The reassessment has included a book of praise, The Skeptic, by Terry Teachout, but others have not been so indulgent. His outlook, wrote one critic, was formulaic and virtually indistinguishable from that of a small businessman who felt beleaguered by malingering workers and welfare frauds--and a cold-hearted one at that. He remained indifferent to the suffering caused by the Great Depression, convinced that the only original idea in the New Deal was the notion that whatever A earns really belongs to B. A is any honest and industrious man or woman. B is any drone or jackass."
He liked to quote Nietzsche to support his contempt for democracy as the great leveler. He hovers in the fantasy life of many a William F. Buckley wanna-be, wrote another critic, legitimating that sense of innate superiority that one can only call sophomoric.
Charles Fecher, a Mencken scholar, revealed the essence of Menckens mind in Mencken: A Study of His Thought, and details of his anti-Semitism surfaced soon afterwards. His view of World War I forced him into temporary silence and led to his being followed and harassed by government agents. It is easy to see why: I believe the true interests of the United States were on the side of Germany, he wrote. If we had joined Germany in hamstringing England and destroying France, we might have divided the trade and wealth of the world and been secure for a century.
However Menckens journalism is batted about by fans and critics, his weighty works are sure to survive as classics. I own and often consult his 1,345-page A New Dictionary of Quotations, which outdoes Bartletts by far. And his masterwork, The American Language, will forever stand as the first serious study of how American speech and writing diverged from the British source.
I have been a Mencken fan for most of my life. I have a shelf of books by and about him, and an old LP record of a interview that William Manchester conducted (among the gems: I am ombibulous. I will drink anything.) I still find him a bracing read. He can be dated, he can be predictable, he can be wrong, but he is guaranteed never to be dull.
©2008 by Michael Johnson. This column first posted May 26, 2008.
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