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  • Mencken Trilogy Republished: Some New Words of Wisdom from the Sage of Baltimore

    Posted on September 27th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Readers who loath the modern joyless version of Puritanism, shorn of its religious impedimenta, that has become the dominant dogma of our time, and would like to escape for a while to a happier time in which ostentatious public piety was not yet de rigueur are in luck.  An expanded version of H. L. Mencken’s “Days” trilogy has just been published, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rogers.  It includes Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, and certainly ranks as one of the most entertaining autobiographies ever written.  The latest version actually contains a bonus for Mencken fans.  As noted in the book’s Amazon blurb,

    …unknown to the legions of Days books’ admirers, Mencken continued to add to them after publication, annotating and expanding each volume in typescripts sealed to the public for twenty-five years after his death. Until now, most of this material—often more frank and unvarnished than the original Days books—has never been published.  (This latest version contains) nearly 200 pages of previously unseen writing, and is illustrated with photographs from Mencken’s archives, many taken by Mencken himself.

    Infidel that he was, the Sage of Baltimore would have smiled to see the hardcover version.  It comes equipped with not one, but two of those little string bookmarks normally found in family Bibles.  I’ve read an earlier version of the trilogy, but that was many years ago.  I recalled many of Mencken’s anecdotes as I encountered them again, and perhaps with a bit more insight.  I know a great deal more about the author than I did the first time through, not to mention the times in which he lived.   There’ve been some changes made since then, to say the least.  For example, Mencken recalls that maids were paid $10 a month plus room and board in the 1880’s, but no less than $12 a month from about 1890 on.  Draught beer was a nickel, and a first class businessman’s lunch at a downtown hotel with soup, a meat dish, two side dishes, pie and coffee, was a quarter.  A room on the “American plan,” complete with three full meals a day, was $2.50.

    Mencken was already beginning to notice the transition to today’s “kinder, gentler” mode of raising children in his later days, but experienced few such ameliorations in his own childhood.  Children weren’t “spared the rod,” either by their parents or their teachers.  Mencken recalls that the headmaster of his first school, one Prof. Friedrich Knapp, had a separate ritual for administering corporal punishment to boys and girls, and wore out a good number of rattan switches in the process.  Even the policemen had strips of leather dangling from their clubs, with which they chastised juveniles who ran afoul of the law.  Parents took all this as a matter of course, and the sage never knew any of his acquaintance to complain.  When school started, the children were given one dry run on the local horse car accompanied by their parents, and were sent out on their own thereafter.  Of course, Mencken and his sister got lost on their first try, but were set on the right track by a policeman and some Baltimore stevedores.  No one thought of such a thing as supervising children at play. One encounters many similar changes in the social scene as one progresses through the trilogy, but the nature of the human beast hasn’t changed much.  All the foibles and weaknesses Mencken describes are still with us today.  He was, of course, one of the most prominent atheists in American history, and often singled out the more gaudy specimens of the faithful for special attention.  His description of the Scopes monkey trial in Heathen Days is a classic example.  I suspect he would have taken a dim view of the New Atheists.  In his words,

    No male of the Mencken family, within the period that my memory covers, ever took religion seriously enough to be indignant about it.  There were no converts from the faith among us, and hence no bigots or fanatics.  To this day I have a distrust of such fallen-aways, and when one of them writes in to say that some monograph of mine has aided him in throwing off the pox of Genesis my rejoicing over the news is very mild indeed.

    Of course, if one possesses the wit of a Mencken or a Voltaire, one has the luxury of fighting the bigotry and fanaticism coming from the other side very effectively without using the same weapons.

    I certainly encourage those who haven’t read Mencken to pick up a copy of this latest release of his work.  Those interested in more detail about the content may consult the work of professional reviewers that I’m sure will soon appear.  I will limit myself to one more observation.  It never fails that when some new bit of Menckeniana appears, the self-appointed guardians of the public virtue climb up on their soapboxes and condemn him as a racist.  Anyone who reads the Days will immediately see where this charge comes from.  Mencken makes free use of the N word and several other terms for African-Americans that have been banned from the lexicon over the ensuing years.  No matter that he didn’t use more flattering terms to describe other subgroups of the population, and certainly not of the white “boobeoisie,” of the cities, or the “hinds,” and “yokels” of the country.

    Nothing could be more untrue or unfair than this charge of “racism,” but, alas, to give the lie to it one must actually read Mencken’s work, and few of the preening moralists of our own day are willing to go to the trouble.  That’s sad, because none of them have contributed anywhere near as much as Mencken to the cause of racial equality.  He did that by ignoring the racist conventions of his own day and cultivating respect for black thinkers and intellectuals by actively seeking them out and publishing their work, most notably in the American Mercury, which he edited from its inception in 1924 until he turned over the reigns to Charles Angoff in 1933.  He didn’t publish them out of condescension or pity, or as their self-appointed savior, or out of an inordinate love of moralistic grandstanding of the sort that has become so familiar in our own day.  He paid them a much higher favor.  He published them because, unlike so many others in his own time, he was not blind to their intellectual gifts, and rightly concluded that their work was not only worthy of, but would enhance the value of the Mercury, one of the premier intellectual, political and literary journals of the time.  As a result, the work of a host of African-American intellectuals, professionals, and poets appeared in Mencken’s magazine, eclipsing the Nation, The New Republic, The Century, or any other comparable journal of the day in that regard.  All this can be easily fact-checked, because every issue of the Mercury published during Mencken’s tenure as editor can now be read online. For example, there are contributions by W. E. B. Dubois in the issue of October 1924, a young poet named Countee P. Cullen in November 1924, newspaper reporter and editor Eugene Gordon in June 1926, James Weldon Johnson, diplomat, author, lawyer, and former leader of the NAACP in April 1927, George Schuyler, author and social commentator in December 1927,  Langston Hughes, poet, author, and activist in November 1933, and many others.

    Most issues of the Mercury included an Americana section devoted to ridiculing absurdities discovered in various newspapers and other publications listed by state.  Mencken used it regularly to heap scorn on genuine racists.  For example, from the March 1925 issue:

    North Carolina

    Effects of the war for democracy among the Tar Heels, as reported in a dispatch from Goldsboro:

    Allen Moses and his wife, wealthy Negroes, left here in Pullman births tonight for Washington and New York.  This is the first time in the history of this city that Negroes have “had the nerve,” as one citizen expressed it, to buy sleeper tickets here.  White citizens are aroused, and it is said the Ku Klux Klan will be asked to give Moses a warm reception on his return.

    From the May 1926 issue:

    North Carolina

    The rise of an aristocracy among the defenders of 100% Americanism, as revealed by a dispatch from Durham:

    “According to reports being circulated here the Ku Klux Klan has added a new wrinkle to its activities and are now giving distinguished service crosses to member of the hooded order of the reconstruction days.  In keeping with this new custom, it is reported that two Durham citizens were recipients of this honor recently.  The medal, as explained by the honorable klansman making the award, is of no intrinsic value, ‘but the sentiment attached to it and the heart throbs that go with it are as measureless as the sands of the sea.'”

    From the August 1928 issue:

    District of Columbia

    The Hon. Cole L. Blease, of South Carolina, favors his colleagues in the Senate with a treatise on southern ethics:

    “There are not enough marines in or outside of the United States Army or Navy, in Nicaragua, and all combined, to make us associate with niggers.  We never expect to.  We never have; but we treat them fairly.  If you promise one of the $5 for a days work, if he does the days work, I believe you should pay him.”

    So much for the alleged “racism” of H. L. Mencken.  It reminds me of a poster that was prominently displayed in an office I once worked in.  It bore the motto, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

     

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