The theme of this week’s entries, it has emerged, has been my re-acquaintance with H.L. Mencken after many years. Somewhere in the deeper recesses of my personal archive there lies a copy of my “A Vast Field of Greased Poles: America and Americans in H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy,” which was published in the Mencken Society‘s Menckeniana back in the fall of 1996 (at the time Mencken was experiencing one of his periodic renaissances with the issuance of memoirs and diaries until then unavailable for publication), and for about 20 years before that I had been dragging around an increasingly dog-eared copy of A Mencken Chrestomathy, the writer’s own self-selected anthology of the best of his writing. The re-appearance of Mencken’s books on my bedside table was sparked by the recent release of The Collected Drama of H.L. Mencken as well as the Library of America’s issuance of Mencken’s collected Prejudices in two volumes, carefully edited by his biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers.
As the title of the LOA volumes suggest, Mencken as a literary and cultural critic offered his opinions with the full and unapologetic admission that they were subjective and personal. Now, having read Mencken for a shocking 35 years by my count, I can offer my own observation that in reading him today his lesson is not to imitate him, but to find one’s own individual voice and to stick to it. His tastes do not run parallel to mine, or to anybody else’s — he seems to have been fairly blind to the values of high Modernism (though he published selections from Joyce’s Dubliners in the Smart Set before its US book publication), and his political opinions were very much informed by the controversies of his time and don’t translate well to the 21st century.
But his satiric perspective does, and there’s still much to muse upon. One of the few writers who have a legitimate claim to being a spiritual descendant of Mencken, Paul Fussell accurately described the target of much of Mencken’s satire in the opening pages of his 1991 Bad or, The Dumbing of America:
What’s the difference between bad and BAD? Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever — something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating. Lawrence Welk is a low example, George Bush a high. For a thing to be really BAD, it must exhibit elements of the pretentious, the overwrought, or the fraudulent. Bathroom faucet handles that cut your fingers are bad. If gold-plated, they are BAD. Dismal food is bad. Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word gourmet is BAD. Being alert to this distinction is a large part of the fun of being alive today, in a moment teeming with raucously overvalued emptiness and trash. (13)
And Mencken, by this definition, had a lot of fun — in fact, it’s the central element of his happiness, of his ebullience, for he could translate his fun into a prose style that remains uniquely idiosyncratic. Since his day and Fussell’s, there have been other writers similarly inspired to heights of raucous ridicule and amused fury, like P.J. O’Rourke (on his best days), Christopher Hitchens, and Gore Vidal. But these are rare talents, and among the younger generation, they seem to be absent.
There is little film and only a few recordings of Mencken extant, but on 30 June 1948, just before suffering a career-ending stroke, he recorded an hour-long interview for the Library of Congress, and over the next few weeks I’ll be offering a few excerpts of that here, letting the man speak for himself. The first of these excerpts is below.