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An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H. L. Mencken (Muse Books) Paperback – October 1, 2014
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On the other hand and having just completed Hal Crowther's protracted essay in the form of a small book by the University of Iowa Press on HLM, I think Mr. Crowther provided readers with two noteworthy sentences which, and working backwards, appear on pages 74 and 64 respectively which I believe can be easily defended and leave one with a conjectured but otherwise favorable nod of one's head in the absence of further discussion to either add or subtract from Crowther's cut-to-the-chase comment on Mencken, to wit: "If his stupid words damn him, his glorious words save him, and enough of that" [page 74] followed on page 64 by "There is no comfortable, defensible way to defend Mencken." As HLM himself may muse with a broad smile to those twin comments [or "rattle in his urn" as I once wrote], "Amen!"
The book or protracted essay as I would term it takes on a tough job in its 77 pages but even if it had been 777 pages or indeed 7,777 pages, still, the "why" of H.L. Mencken would be a formidable challenge. In HLM's long term written legacy, you could quote him and make the statement [or indictment depending on your POV!] "Ahhhh! THERE it is in black and white and for all to see!" only to have yet another Mencken source or quote appear and seemingly be a direct refutation or at least an "inconsistency" witrh what he said somewhere else and which is then debated ad infinitum. A sort of "A' exclaiming, "What's the debate here? LOOK for yourself! This is what the man said or wrote! How can such comment be denied ... or defended!" while "B" comes up with what he/she believes to be refutation of what "A" is showing or, as I say, a comment in other of HLM's writings that is at least inconsistent with the cited comment! And so it goes. On the other hand, could the often seen and Zola-like J'accuse of "But clearly, Mencken could be downright cruel!" be defended? Difficult! Mr. Crowther cites HLM's rather crude and in fact cruel dinner party comment about the son of James Branch Cabell, Brandon Cabell. To me, HLM's comment(s) were in fact cruel [some suggest that HLM was rebelling more as a matter of "a breach in etiquette" by Cabell in allowing his son to freely mix with his guests where unfortunately Cabell's son took the brunt of HLM's displeasure] but then one is immediately reminded of "In Memoriam: WJB"  where the old Latin ditty of "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" [** roughly -- "Of the dead, speak only good"] took a back seat to Mencken's blusterings [some would suggest "ravings"] against William Jennings Bryan. Yet even in that published piece, one remembers the unmistakable Mencken "grabber prose" [as I would term it] as he sets up his victim for the printed word slaughter, to wit: "There was no need of beaters to drive in his game. The news that he was coming was enough. For miles the flivver dust would choke the roads. And when he rose at the end of the day to discharge his Message [sic -- as capitalized by HLM] there would be such breathless attention, such a rapt and enchanted ecstasy, such a sweet rustle of amens as the world had not known since Johann fell to Herod's ax." In just those carefully crafted four set-up sentences alone within the lengthy piece, HLM already signals his reader(s) that both Bryan ==AND== those who hark to Bryan's "Message" were ==both== in for it! The trial itself taking place in Dayton, in the South, notwithstanding and in itself, the South, no doubt playing on HLM's mind in terms of a double or indeed triple "go to it" easy and for HLM, well familiar targets: Bryan, the South and fundamentalist religion.
Still others will say, "Is it fair to judge Mencken [born in 1880, just 15 years after the American Civil War ended!] by today's 21st century standards or, indeed, the media watch-words of "don't offend!" less the labels begin to fly of one being "obviously" [!] "racist" or "sexist" or assorted filled in "ist" and "ism" suffix labels currently in vogue? The answer being that it depends on who you ask! In any event, I enjoyed the small book by Hal Crowther and I'm secretly hoping that he'll do further research and comment on Mencken. As for HLM's body of writing of some 10 million words, well, I'm reminded of the Hugh Downs interview years ago with Jackie Gleason where Downs asks, at least in substance, "What do you attribute to the continued interest and success of "The Honeymooners" in syndication long after its initial appearance on B&W television screens of the 1950's" and Gleason responds with just 4 words, "Because it was funny!" So too HLM! Say what you wish but in various of those 10 millions words, there was great laughter and great prose and while his diaries and related initially sealed and then later released writings well after his death and to some writer's who now paint Mencken with all sorts of blow-off negatives and what they feel are gross PC assaults and violations of the first chop , well, as Crowther duly says, and which bears repeating, "If his stupid words damn him, his glorious words save him ... ." Amen.
... When I read that Mencken scoffed at Melville and Joyce, and belittled Eliot, my natural response is to dismiss him as a tin-eared philistine. But Mencken would contend-or just sneer-that I contracted my respect for these "classics" in a classroom, from scholars who had studied them with older scholars, in a long conga line of scholars. He would be right, and force me to reconsider what I thought and who taught me to think that way. We are all-including Mencken-the products of a certain set of connections and circumstances, and how much original thinking has gone into our aesthetic responses is always a matter for debate. If we're honest we're vulnerable, and Mencken's certainty will unsettle and impress us. "He calls you a swine, and an imbecile," marveled Walter Lippmann, "and he increases your will to live."
This book, though brief, covers a lot of ground. Rather than summarize the argument, or stuff the review with fine excerpts (which I could easily do), I want to focus on one passage which struck me in particular:
[Mencken] embodied to the highest degree what Ford Madox Ford ... memorably described as "the passionate Tory sense of freedom." Everyone who has it, who feels it, knows immediately what Ford is expressing. The emotion is "Tory" in Ford's purview because as recently as the nineteenth century only the landed gentry had ever enjoyed enough freedom to develop a libertarian philosophy. But what it captures is the horror experienced by any person of independent mind and spirit when he finds his life controlled, or even substantially altered, by the whims of his inferiors-kings, dictators, or, perhaps worst of all for the Tory, the random, roiling mob.
Now, except for this reverse-snobbish crack about 'the landed gentry'- I think I could compile a fairly long list of Tories, from John Dryden to Samuel Johnson, who were NOT landed gentry- this is exactly right. In fact, it may be freedom which justifies the landed gentry, and not the reverse. The more strident the imprecations to get in line, the deeper some at least should dig in their heels.
Thanks to Pfred for treating me to this book.