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American Journalism Review
Broadsides From "A Baltimore Babbitt"  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   December 1991

Broadsides From "A Baltimore Babbitt"   

The Impossible H.L. Mencken
Edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

Book review by Richard Krolik
Richard Krolik, retired from promotions and productions stints at Time-Life and NBC, is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     

The Impossible H.L. Mencken
Edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
707 pages; $15

Does a young reporter read H.L. Mencken today, or even know who he is? One can only hope, because this was a man who carved his initials in newspaper and magazine history. This fat volume of selections from 40 years of Mencken's daily dispatches can give any writer an appreciation of how to use the English language. And how to be a curmudgeon.

A crusty misanthrope with fiercely held, mostly negative opinions of all he surveyed, Mencken was called by various critics "a Baltimore Babbitt," "a damphool," "the buzzard of American literature," "a mischievous bladder-banger," "an 18-karat, 22-jewelled, 33rd degree bred-in-the-bone and dyed-in-the-wool skunk" and "a plain ass." He was also referred to as the best newspaperman of this century.

"This Holy Terror from Baltimore is splendidly and contagiously alive," said Walter Lippmann. "He calls you a swine, and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live." Gore Vidal, whose own scathing style owes a debt to Mencken, begins his 19-page foreword to this book, "After politics, journalism has always been the preferred career of the ambitious but lazy second-rater. American exceptions to mediocrity's leaden mean: From column A, there was Franklin D. Roosevelt. From column B, H.L. Mencken."

Mencken edited influential magazines now long dead the Smart Set, the American Mercury and wrote almost as many books as have been written about him. "In his own eyes," biographer Carl Bode writes, "he was above all a newspaperman." He was Sunday editor of the Baltimore Herald at age 21, city editor at 23, managing editor at 24, editor in chief at 25. His personalized reporting for Baltimore's Sunpapers from 1906 until 1948 refused to accommodate such piddling nuisances as objectivity or impartiality. "Since 1906," he later wrote, "save as an occasional sentimental luxury, I have never written a news story or a headline."

Mencken brought the news to life. Political news junkies will revel in his reports on the national political conventions from 1904 to 1948. During the early years, when the candidates were Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, there was of course no TV and only primitive radio.

Mencken transported readers of the Baltimore Sun to the scene: "Then former Governor [Frank] Black arose from his seat...and unlimbering his long legs crawled through the crowd to the platform. He is a man of almost freakish height and of well nigh unbelievable ungainliness, and as he lumbered out to the end of the jutting speakers' stand, and threw back his long-tailed black cutaway, he looked exactly like the affable undertaker immortalized in 'Huckleberry Finn.' "

Who needs television? And where but on the printed page can you get such insightful analysis: "Governor Black's [weapon] was the keen-edged, razor-tipped arrow of satire and sarcasm. He gripped a handkerchief in his right hand and held it behind him all the while he was on the platform, and his gestures with his other hand were few and awkward. So, too, he indulged in no vocal eccentricities or pyrotechnics, and his speech might just as well have been read. But his telling points went home and aroused tremendous enthusiasm."

On the presidential nominating process: "A stupid business, indeed. Nevertheless, not without its charms to connoisseurs of the obscene. What, in truth, could more beautifully display the essential dishonesty and imbecility of the entire democratic process?"

Mencken pulled no political punches. On candidates for the Democratic nomination in 1920: "General Wood is a simple-minded old dodo with a delusion of persecution; Palmer is a political mountebank of the first water; Harding is a second-rate provincial; Johnson is allowing himself to be lost in the shuffle; Borah is steadily diminishing in size as he gets closer to the fight; Gerard and the rest are simply bad jokes."

He was particularly unimpressed with Calvin Coolidge and with the 1924 convention that nominated him: "More than any other convention that I have ever known or heard of, this one is marked by vulgarity and imbecility. There is absolutely no relief from the steady stream of depressing slush...Here democracy is making its lowest recorded dip. If it ever gets any lower it will cease to be human." And: "The man who could be a Coolidge fanatic could also be a fanatic for double-entry bookkeeping."

On politicians in general: "The first and last aim of the politician is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind."

Mencken was suspicious of Franklin D. Roosevelt and favored Alf Landon, though he was anything but kind to his candidate: "[Landon] turned out, indeed, to be one of the worst public speakers recorded in the archives of faunal zoology...In all my life I have never encountered anything more depressing than his elocution."

FDR was "a super-boss, semi-celestial in character and obliterating all others. Take away Roosevelt, and there will be little left of [the Democratic party] save a mob of crackpots and frauds, mendicants and dupes."

There is so much free-swinging wonderful stuff on politics in this superb collection that one is likely to overlook the breadth of Mencken's interests. Gems include a memorable essay on literature, or the lack of it, in the South, called "The Sahara of the Bozart," and a totally convincing, scholarly piece on the 75th anniversary of the invention of the bathtub. Completely a figment of Mencken's puckish imagination, it was revealed as a fraud only after it made its way into serious reference books.

The recent flap over Mencken's alleged anti-Semitism seems undeserved, at least based on the 200 pieces selected here. What does come clear is that Mencken was a snob in every sense of the word. He attacked FDR savagely for bemoaning the plight of European Jews but having "no intention of proposing a relaxation of the immigration laws." Mencken is all for letting in Jewish refugees from Hitler but adds "I am here speaking, of course, of German Jews, and of German Jews only. They constitute an undoubtedly superior group." As for East European Jews, Mencken calls them generally "troublesome wherever they settle" and suggests they be sent to Russia. He takes on the Japanese in 1939: "They have taken such a lead in trade and industry that the only way left to beat them is to murder them."

Nothing added more to the luster of Mencken's reputation than his coverage of the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925. This high-drama confrontation between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan became a morality play with universal implications for Mencken and the fortunate readers of the Baltimore Evening Sun.

He set the tone in his first dispatch: "The great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history...Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man's possession has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-teller who got into their hands."

Mencken wrote his own credo on his 45th birthday in 1925: "I have known what hard work is. At the time of the Baltimore fire I worked continuously from 11 o'clock Sunday morning until the dawn of Wednesday. Another time, for six months running, I ran an average of 5,000 words of news copy a day, getting the news myself and writing it myself.

"The reporters of today lead lordly, voluptuous lives. There were no taxicabs in my day, and the telephone was a toy...

"What keeps me going at my trade, I suppose, is my continuous curiosity, my endless interest in the stupendous farce of human conscience. It is the principal and perhaps the only stock of a journalist; when it begins to slip from him he is fit only for the knacker's yard.

"To be short of ideas is an experience that I have yet to suffer; it is, indeed, almost incomprehensible."



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