Posted on January 16th, 2013 1 comment
As I was going to and fro on the Internet, and walking back and forth on it, I stumbled across a site that has made the content of every issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury available online. It’s a wonderful resource if you’re interested in the politics, history, literature, etc., of the 20′s and 30′s, or just want to read something entertaining. The Sage of Baltimore was a great editor, and he won’t disappoint. He was at the helm of the magazine from the first issue in January 1924 until December 1933. The site actually includes issues up to 1960, but the content went downhill after Mencken left, and the Mercury eventually became something entirely different from what he had intended. Many other interesting periodicals are available at the site, as well as books and videos. You can visit by clicking on the hyperlinks above or point your browser to:
Posted on December 1st, 2012 No comments
In his The Origin of War, Dutch behavioral scientist Johan van der Dennen describes how his “perspective changed dramatically” as a result of Jane Goodall’s revelations about the aggressive behavior of chimpanzees and his own study of the history of human warfare. In his words,
What gradually emerged was the constancy beneath the superficial differences, the communality beneath the variations; it dawned upon me that all these variations were indeed variations on a common theme, and that this common theme must be something like a universal psychology. There was only one theory which could accommodate this new insight: evolutionary theory.
In other words, he concluded that this “common theme” could only be explained by some innate behavioral trait or traits, e.g., human nature. He settled on the catch-all term “sociobiology” for this approach, noting that the term in the lay vernacular has undergone relatively rapid and sometimes confusing change over the years, from ethology in the 60′s and 70′s to sociobiology after E. O. Wilson published his eponymous book in 1975 to evolutionary psychology today. In a footnote that appeared in the first chapter of his book, van der Dennen notes that his study of the history of warfare had not been “hampered by any methodological constraints”:
It was also growing dissatisfaction with the rather static character of the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) and its virtual monopoly position as a universal data base (though it is incomplete and unreliable: cf. Fedigan, 1986; Knauft, 1991), and the increasing number of discrepancies I seemed to discover between several other inventories and the sources I had uncovered, which prompted the Ethnological Inventory Project. Not hampered by any methodological constraints, I could freely indulge in the fascinating accounts of ‘savages’ reported by missionaries, travelers and adventurers from about the 16th century onward.
One can only hope that the “methodological constraints” he refers to don’t have the effect of tainting any source material used by anthropologists that wasn’t developed in “studies” done by other anthropologists. That’s a scary thought! The integrity of the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences has not been irreproachable. They did, after all, collectively subscribe to the “Blank Slate” imbecility for several decades, stoutly insisting that the effect of human nature on human behavior was either insignificant or nonexistent. They punctuated this insistence on “scientific facts” that any reasonably intelligent ten year old might have informed them were palpable nonsense by vilifying anyone who disagreed as fascist or otherwise politically suspect. Anyone doubting the fact need only consult that invaluable little piece of historical source material, Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu. The “fascinating accounts of ‘savages’ reported by missionaries, travelers and adventurers” were often done by people who were not only well-informed about similar work, but took a highly professional approach to their own reporting. If their objectivity was also impaired by faith in ideological dogmas, at least they were not the same ideological dogmas that prevailed during much of the 20th century.
In addition to the “missionaries, travelers, and adventurers” cited by Professor van der Dennen, I would add another category; novelists. Take for example, Herman Melville. Much of his work is so saturated with accounts of the exotic people and places he visited that some literary critics dismissed him as “a mere traveler.” His publisher insisted that his first books, Typee and Omoo, be published as novels because he thought no one would believe them as non-fiction. In fact, they contain a wealth of material of anthropological interest.
Take his first novel, Typee, for instance. Some of the incidents Melville recorded are certainly fictionalized, but he actually did live among a tribe of that name in the South Pacific. I doubt that he had any reason to fabricate his account of them, or at least none more weighty than the ideological constraints on modern anthropologists.
As has been the case with most authors since the dawn of recorded history who have had occasion to comment on the subject, and who possess an ounce of common sense, Melville recognized the existence of “inherent” human traits. In Chapter 27, for example, he describes the “altruism” that has been such a hot topic in academic journals lately, as it existed within the Typee ingroup.
It may reasonably be inquired, how were these people governed? How were their passions controlled in their everyday transactions? It must have been by an inherent principle of honesty and charity towards each other. They seemed to be governed by that sort of tacit common-sense law which, say what they will of the inborn lawlessness of the human race, has its precepts graven on every breast. The grand principles of virtue and honor, however they may be distorted by arbitrary codes, are the same all the world over: and where these principles are concerned, the right and wrong of any action appears the same to the uncultivated as to the enlightened mind. It is to this indwelling, this universally diffused perception of what is just and noble, that the integrity of the Marquesans in their intercourse with each other is to be attributed.
They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane, than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence… I will frankly declare, that after passing a few weeks in this valley of the Marqauesas, I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had every before entertained.
Of course, these innate foundations of human morality are dual in nature. As Sir Arthur Keith pointed out long ago, and Robert Ardrey reiterated in a chapter of his African Genesis, it is our nature to apply very different standards of morality depending on whether we are dealing with ingroups or outgroups. This rather important fact isn’t discussed nearly as often as altruism in the academic journals. It is generally passed over in silence, because it is not in accord with generally approved standards of human “niceness.” Melville, however, not being a “Man of Science,” was ignorant of such fine distinctions. Immediately following the above, he added,
The strict honesty which the inhabitants of nearly all the Polynesian Islands manifest towards each other, is in striking contrast with the thieving propensities some of them evince in their intercourse with foreigners. It would almost seem that, according to their peculiar code of morals, the pilfering of a hatchet or a wrought nail from a European is looked upon as a praiseworthy action.
Those familiar with the Margaret Mead/Derek Freeman kerfluffle may be interested in Melville’s comments on conjugal arrangements among the Typee:
The males considerably outnumber the females. This hold true of many of the islands of Polynesia, although the reverse of what is the case in most civilized countries. The girls are first wooed and won, at a very tender age, by some stripling in the household in which they reside. This, however, is a mere frolic of the affections, and no formal engagement is contracted. By the time this first love has a little subsided, a second suitor presents himself, of graver years, and carries both boy and girl away to his own habitation. This disinterested and generous-hearted fellow now weds the young couple – marrying damsel and lover at the same time – and all three thenceforth live together as harmoniously as so many turtles… Infidelity on either side is very rare. No man has more than one wife, and no wife of mature years has less than two husbands, – sometimes she has three, but such instances are not frequent.
Melville witnessed few arguments, and the degree of unanimity among the Typee on most topics would be familiar to anyone who has noticed the “carbon copy” nature of opinions on political matters among the modern denizens of the ideological ingroups of the left and right.
There was one admirable trait in the general character of the Typees which, more than anything else, secured my admiration: it was the unanimity of feeling they displayed on every occasion. With them there hardly appeared to be any difference of opinion upon any subject whatever. They all thought and acted alike. I do not conceive that they could support a debating society for a single night: there would be nothing to dispute about.
As for that ubiquitous feature of human existence, warfare, Professor van der Dennen would not have been surprised by Melville’s observations. Another tribe, the Happar, also occupied the island home of the Typee, who attributed to them all the usual hateful qualities commonly associated with the outgroup. For some time after his arrival, Melville had witnessed nothing of the “clamors of war,” and was beginning to think the fierce reputation of the Typee among the neighboring tribes was a myth. However,
…subsequent events proved that I had been a little too premature in coming to this conclusion. One day about noon, I had lain down on the mats with several of the chiefs, and had gradually sunk into a most luxurious siesta, when I was awakened by a tremendous outcry, and starting up beheld the natives seizing their spears and hurrying out, while the most puissant of the chiefs, grasping the six muskets which were ranged against the bamboos, followed after, and soon disappeared in the groves. These movements were accompanied by wild shouts, in which “Happar, Happar,” greatly predominated.
The mayhem done in this particular campaign was not great:
The total loss of the victors on this obstinately contested affair was, in killed wounded and missing – one forefinger and part of a thumbnail (which the late proprietor brought along with him in his hand), a severely contused arm, and a considerable effusion of blood flowing from the thigh of a chief, who had received an ugly thrust from a Happar spear.
In a later battle, the Typee brought back several Happar killed.
There are many other worthy contributions to the anthropological literature among the writings of “missionaries, travelers and adventurers,” not to mention novelists like Melville. Some of the best can be found in the two great British quarterlies of the first half of the 19th century, the Whig Edinburgh Review and the Tory Quarterly Review. The editors held their authors to very high standards of accuracy and detail. Occasionally one finds interesting differences between these accounts and the later descriptions of the “Men of Science.” In view of affairs such as the collusion of the American Anthropological Association in the smear and slandering of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and geneticist James Neel, whose findings in their study of the South American Yanomamö people were apparently deemed politically unsuitable in some quarters, not to mention the debacle of the Blank Slate, I would be disinclined to automatically favor the latter.
Posted on September 4th, 2012 No comments
H. L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, edited the American Mercury from its inception in January 1924 through the issue of December 1933. It was always a worthwhile read while he was at the helm, published without pictures except for the advertisements, two columns to a page. There were articles about politics, science, religion, the arts, and whatever happened to strike Mencken’s fancy, along with occasional poems and short stories. Mencken continued the fascinating monthly review of newly released books that he had begun in The Smart Set, which he had edited during its heyday with George Jean Nathan. Every issue of the Mercury included an “Americana” section, made up of unwittingly comical extracts from newspapers and magazines across the country, and usually including a slap or two at the Ku Klux Klan, at least until that organization’s power and influence began to wane. Indeed, while he never patronized them, few if any individuals did more to promote respect for African Americans than Mencken. He frequently published the work of W. E. B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Carl van Vechten, and many other black intellectuals. However, he did not alter the typically snide and sarcastic attitude he reserved for everyone else when speaking of them, and so was later condemned for “racism.” No good deed goes unpunished.
The final issue of the Mercury with Mencken as editor was as irreverent as the rest. There was an article entitled “Musical Slaughter House,” by one Edward Robinson, identified as “a piano teacher from New York, who condemned attempts to nurse The Metropolitan Opera through the Great Depression by appeals for charitable donations, noting, for example, that,
The list of the company’s productions would alone earn complete damnation in the eyes of even moderately civilized music-lovers, for the essential artistic contribution of the Metropolitan has been to preserve operas like “Aida” and “Pagliacci” from an oblivion that should have been theirs on the night they first appeared.
There was a piece on the radical socialist paper, The Masses, by journalist Bob Brown, with the less than complimentary take-off on its name, “Them Asses.” Brown occasionally wrote for The Masses, and his article is actually quite complimentary, at least by the standards of the Mercury. There were some fascinating vignettes on the workings of a radical sheet during the heyday of socialism, and biographical sketches of editor Max Eastman, a confidante of Trotsky, and other contributors.
Mencken was one of the foremost unbelievers of his day, so it was only fitting that his final edition of the Mercury should include an article about atheism. Entitled “Atheism Succumbs to Doubt,” its theme was that atheist activism was on the decline for lack of opposition. Noting that,
Not one believer in a thousand appears to know the difference between the Nicene and the Athanasian creeds. To the overwhelming majority Christianity is simply a ritual associated with sacred concerts on Sunday and chicken dinners at irregular intervals, the whole sustaining a variety of more or less useful funds and institutions.
The author concludes,
The faithful of romantic inclination dabble in theosophy or Bahaism. Are they excommunicated? Nay, even the village atheist would be welcomed into the fold if he’d be willing to subscribe to the Y.M.C.A. and hold his tongue. So the God-Killers marching forth to battle nowadays find the enemy’s camp deserted, Daniel’s lions dead of old age, and the Shekinah departed unto the Ozarks.
He makes the intriguing claim that American infidels had been vastly more robust and influential 50 years before, in the heyday of the great atheist speaker and writer, Robert G. Ingersoll.
It was not always thus. The God-Killers of half a century ago were taken seriously and took themselves seriously… In those days hundreds of atheistic pamphlets were published and sold in the United States. They bore such titles as “Why Don’t God Kill the Devil?” “The Myth of the Great Deluge,” “Where Is Hell?” “Death-Beds of Infidels,” “Faith or Fact,” “The Devil’s Catechism,” and “When Did Jehoshaphat Die?” John E. Remsburg, author of the last-named, proved by the Bible and arithmetic that this King of Israel died on sixteen different dates. Today nobody knows or cares that Jehoshaphat ever lived.
Fast forward another 75 years, and another crop of “God-Killers” has appeared on the scene, commonly referred to as the New Atheists. As readers of The God Delusion, penned by Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous of the lot, will have noted, he cannot turn his gaze our way without imagining an “American Taliban” behind every bush, and is as innocent of any knowledge of this flowering of American atheism as a child. Perhaps some nascent Ph.D. in history should take the matter in hand and document the doings of the “God-Killers” of the 1880′s, not to mention their rise and fall and rise again since the days of such famous infidels as Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.
Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany at the end of January, 1933, and Mencken, who was known as a Germanophile, took up the phenomenon of Nazism in the “Library” section of his last issue. Noting five titles on the subject as “a few of the first comers among what promises to be a long procession of Hitler books,” he proceeded to outline the implications of the rise of Hitler a great deal more soberly and presciently that most of the journals of the day. Typical of the stuff appearing at the time was a piece that appeared in the Century some months earlier whose author, rich in the wisdom of journalists, assured his readers that there was not the slightest reason to be concerned about Hitler or the hijinks of his followers. Mencken was not so sanguine. Echoing what John Maynard Keynes and many others had foreseen immediately in 1919, he wrote,
The most surprising thing about him (Hitler) it seems to me, is that his emergence should have been surprising. He was, in fact, implicit in the Treaty of Versailles.
He goes on to note some inconvenient truths about Hitler’s anti-Semitism that are as true now as they were then:
His anti-Semitism, which has shocked so many Americans, is certainly nothing to marvel over. Anti-Semitism is latent all over Western Europe, as it is in the United States… (The Jew) is an easy mark for demagogues when the common people are uneasy, and it is useful to find a goat. He has served as such a goat a hundred times in the past, and he will probably continue in the role, off and on, until his racial differentiation disappears or he actually goes back to his fatherland. In Germany, as in Poland, Austria and France, he has been made use of by demagogues for many years, precisely as the colored brother has been made use of in our own South.
Germanophile or no, Mencken has no illusions about what the rise of Hitler may portend, and doesn’t mince words in explaining it to his readers:
In such matters what is done cannot be undone; the main question, as I write, is how long the orgy will last, and whether it will wear itself out or have to be put down by external force. If the latter is resorted to, and it takes the form of military pressure, we are probably in for another World War.
During the entire decade he was editor, the Mercury reflected Mencken’s own cynical attitude, sometimes insightful and sometimes shallow as it was. Then, as now, authors craved seeing their work in print, and adjusted the style of the stuff they submitted to suite his taste accordingly. As a result, the paper always had a distinctly Menckenian flavor during his reign. In his final editorial, we find Mencken at his most optimistic, assuring his readers that nothing would change:
In case there be any among those readers who fear that the change of editorial administration will convert the magazine into something that it is not they may put their minds at ease. In its basic aims and principles there will be little change. Hereafter, as in the past, it will try to play a bright light over the national scene, revealing whatever is amusing and instructive, but avoiding mere moral indignation as much as possible.
The Mercury was to be taken over by Henry Hazlitt, who “was my first and only choice for the post he takes, and I am completely convinced that he will make a first-rate magazine.” Alas, it was not to be. Hazlitt didn’t see eye to eye with the publisher, and resigned within four months. The Mercury was taken over by Mencken’s former assistant, Charles Angoff, and took a sharp turn to the left. After the fashion of the political and intellectual journals of the time, it became a forum for authors who were cocksure that the demise of capitalism was just around the corner, and differed mainly in the degree of mayhem they deemed necessary for the inevitable transition to socialism. There were several similar jarring changes before the final demise of the paper in 1980.
No matter, the Mercury of Mencken’s day is as fascinating as ever for those seeking relief from the unrelenting political correctness and overbearing piety one often finds in its modern equivalents. There are usually a few copies available on eBay for interested readers at any given time, although prices have been trending upwards lately.
Posted on June 25th, 2012 No comments
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
Shakespeare was incredible. Somehow, almost 300 years before Darwin, he grasped that there was something ageless and potentially immortal in human beings, and that it, and not our conscious, mortal selves is what is essential about us. My favorite sonnet is #13:
O! that you were your self; but, love, you are
No longer yours, than you your self here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give:
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
Yourself again, after yourself’s decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold,
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?
O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know,
You had a father: let your son say so.
“Love, you are no longer yours, than you your self here live?” “Then you were yourself again, after yourself’s decease?” Incredible!! The man was pure magic.
It’s interesting that Tolstoy had a terrible aversion to Shakespeare. Orwell refuted him in an essay that you can find in the fourth volume of his published collected works, “In Front of Your Nose,” which I highly recommend, as well as the other three volumes. You can probably pick it up at Amazon or on eBay. I think Tolstoy’s visceral hatred of Shakespeare resulted from the fact that he was a pathologically pious Puritan, and he recognized in Shakespeare his polar opposite. As Shakespeare put it in Midsummer Night’s Dream, he would prefer any species of human being to “a devil of a Puritan!”
Posted on June 20th, 2012 2 comments
To give you an idea of how up to speed I am on science fiction, I had never heard of We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, or at least not until I ran across an old review of the book among George Orwell’s essays. In the review, which appeared in early 1946, he writes,
Several years after hearing of its existence, I have a last got my hands on a copy of Zamyatin’s We, which is one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age… So far as I can judge it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one, and it is astonishing that no English publisher has been enterprising enough to reissue it.
The book was obviously rare and difficult to find at the time Orwell wrote. Here’s how he describes the plot:
In the twenty-sixth century… the inhabitants of Utopia have so completely lost their individuality as to be known only by numbers. They live in glass houses (this was written before television was invented), which enables the political police, known as the “Guardians”, to supervise them more easily. They all wear identical uniforms, and a human being is commonly referred to either as “a number” or “a unif” (uniform)… The Single State is ruled over by a personage known as The Benefactor, who is annually re-elected by the entire population, the vote being always unanimous.
Orwell was sure the book had inspired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, although Huxley denied it. Be that as it may, it certainly inspired Orwell’s own 1984. For example, the glass houses (telescreens), Guardians (though police), and Benefactor (Big Brother) are all there, and there are many similarities in the plot, including the ending. That’s not to imply that 1984 wasn’t original. Far from it. The central theme of 1984 was the nature of totalitarianism, and what Orwell believed was a very credible totalitarian future, not in centuries, but in a few decades. In We, on the other hand, as Orwell put it,
There is no power hunger, no sadism, no hardness of any kind. Those at the top have no strong motive for staying at the top, and though everyone is happy in a vacuous way, life has become so pointless that it is difficult to believe that such a society could endure.
I would also agree with Orwell that We isn’t first rate as a novel, although it may just be because I’m put off by the abrupt, expressionist style.
Still, there are an astounding number of themes in the book that have appeared and continue to appear in later works of science fiction to this day. For example, the loss of individuality in future dystopia’s,
You see, even in our thoughts. No one is ever ‘one,’ but always ‘one of.’ We are so identical…
to be original means to somehow stand out from others. Consequently, being original is to violate equality.
The Christians of the ancient world (our only predecessors, as imperfect as they were) also understood this: humility is a virtue and pride is a vice, “WE” is divine, and “I” is satanic… Isn’t it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?
The totalitarian ruler and his enforcers,
And to expel the offending cog, we have the skillful, severe hand of the Benefactor and we have the experienced eye of the Guardians…
They (the ancients) however, worshipped their absurd, unknown God whereas we worship a non-absurd one – one with a very precise visual appearance.
…and so on. And what became of this prescient but scarce book? As science fiction aficionados are surely aware, it is scarce no longer. It has been reprinted many times since Orwell’s time, and I had a much easier time acquiring a copy than he. I was intrigued to find that Zamyatin was an old Bolshevik. Obviously, after the Russian Revolution, he quickly discovered he was a “cog” who didn’t quite fit. We had the honor of becoming the first book banned by the Soviet censorship board in 1921. According to Wiki,
In 1931, Zamyatin appealed directly to Joseph Stalin, requesting permission to leave the Soviet Union. In his letter, Zamyatin wrote, “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics”. With the encouragement of Maxim Gorky, Stalin decided to grant Zamyatin’s request.
By this time, Zamyatin had managed to smuggle We out of the Soviet Union and have it published abroad. He was very lucky, after having pushed his luck so far, to escape the clutches of the worst mass murderer the world has ever known. Fortunately, Gorky was still around to help him. That great man, although a convinced socialist himself, probably saved hundreds from the executioner with similar appeals. Zamyatin died in poverty in Paris in 1937.
Posted on November 20th, 2010 No commentsYou might want to have a look at the novel Stoner by John Williams. It’s the real article. It’s not really a well known work. I found it somehow by clicking around on Amazon. Someone had written an interesting review, and aroused my curiosity. A lot of great literature is preserved that way. Someone reads it, understands, and spreads the word. Investigate a little and you’ll find that’s been happening with Stoner since it appeared in 1965. A recent (2007) example is Morris Dickfield’s review in the New York Times.
What’s great about Stoner? The same thing that’s great about any great novel. It gives you an intimate glimpse into the mind of another human being, telling you what they experienced, and how they reacted to it. In the process, you always recognize yourself; your own thoughts and feelings.
Works like this are written with a simple clarity that’s often missing from the works of philosophy and psychology with which they have much in common. There’s nothing obscure about them, because the author is unconcerned about impressing you with how smart he is. Rather, he has an intense desire to make you understand. Stoner is not only clear, but beautiful. Many passages in the book read like poetry.
Look and spread the word.
Posted on September 25th, 2010 No comments
The Sage of Baltimore has been honored with a new edition of the complete set of his “Prejudices.” The best review I’ve found so far is by Damon Root at Reason. He must have looked beyond the pages of Prejudices, because he knows of Mencken the editor as well as Mencken the writer. It was in that role, primarily for his “American Mercury,” that he did the country a service he is little honored or remembered for today. As Root puts it,
Similarly, at a time when most leading Progressives (including Wilson) supported racial segregation and turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Jim Crow South, Mencken attacked the lawlessness of “Klu Kluxry” and routinely praised (and published) the work of black writers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and George Schuyler. Indeed, White later said that Mencken pushed him to write his first novel, The Fire in the Flint, and then helped him secure a publisher. Zora Neale Hurston was a major Mencken fan. And according to the Harlem Renaissance giant James Weldon Johnson, “Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any other American then writing.”
Indeed, Mencken did more for social justice at that crucial time than any of his contemporaries, not because he pitied African Americans or because he loved to imagine himself as their noble savior, but because he admired the work of black writers and considered it worthy of being published. He gave them a much greater gift than condescending patronage. He gave them respect. The Mercury set the tone for many of the intellectuals of the day, and they, too, learned to recognize and respect the talent Mencken set before them. As Root points out, he hated the Klan and everything it stood for, and fought it with scorn and ridicule in every issue of his journal. In spite of all this, he has actually been called a “racist” because he spoke of blacks as he spoke of everyone else in his world, without the fine sense of political correctness expected of writers in the 21st century. No good deed goes unpunished.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is not so complimentary as Root in the review he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. For example,
But the vast majority of the pieces in “Prejudices” are tedious and ephemeral, even terrible at times.
Anyone seeking the reasons for Mencken’s high reputation would do better by turning to Huntington Cairns’s “The American Scene” (1965), an anthology that judiciously selects from Mencken’s autobiographical works, his writings on the American language and his various superb efforts at reportage, including his famous account of the 1925 Scopes Trail, in which fundamentalist religion famously butted heads with evolutionary theory.
There are no dates included in the Library of America volumes and no contextual introductions to the pieces offered. Much of the time we have no idea what Mencken is shouting about. He comes off as a gasbag.
Mencken continued such rewrites and regurgitations for an additional four “Prejudices.” He is at his worst when he writes on what he considers important topics: the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character.
I understand what Tyrrell is talking about. Mencken was scornful of his enemies, and he wrote about them in a style that was repetitive to the point that it could become tiresome. Perhaps he does come off as a gasbag in some of the worst of the Prejudices. However, if you’re interested in learning something about the human condition, the Prejudices are not ephemeral, nor is it difficult to gather what he is shouting about if you take the time to learn a little of the history of the time. I suspect the reviewer’s blanket judgment that the sage is “at his worst” when writing about the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character,” is more a reflection of his own opinions than of Mencken. He occasionally had strong praise for southerners and southern letters, and as far as the national letters are concerned, I owe the discovery of several authors I greatly admire to his reviews. He had a fine eye for literary talent, and put it to good use in the Mercury. His first encounter with Sinclair Lewis is a case in point. He was put off by Lewis typical antics, wonderfully described in Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River.” However, when he got around to reading Lewis’ work, it didn’t matter. He knew he had found a first rate talent. He did not dislike farmers because they farmed, but because they were the source of political power for his bete noires such as William Jennings Bryan and “dry boss” Wayne B. Wheeler. Tyrrell comes closer to the truth when he writes,
He flourished in the first quarter of the century, but I doubt there would be room in America for him now. His prose style aside, he was an independent mind. There are only two camps today, and he would be in neither.
That’s exactly what I admire about him, and why it’s well worth the effort to read his Prejudices, in spite of their blemishes. There have never been many like him in any age, and in our own, they are almost non-existent. Most of the stuff one reads today is so predictable, so orthodox in its conformity to some ideological dogma, so processed like the food we eat, so often regurgitated in blogs and the “news,” that one despairs of finding anything original enough to be worth thinking about. Mencken is constantly holding little baubles of insights in front of your nose, turning them this way and that, shoving your imagination out of familiar ruts, even if they are sometimes in the rough, just as he dug them up.
Katherine Powers wrote another review for Barnes and Noble. She bowdlerizes Mencken as an original “east coast intellectual:”
H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices is an extended Bronx cheer from the smarty-boots side of the culture war and the first full-bore expression of the animus of East coast intellectuals toward the South and fly-over country.
If you prefer feeding your confirmation bias about east coast intellectuals over according Mencken the respect he deserves as an individual, you will certainly find many tidbits that will serve the purpose before reaching the end of Prejudices. However, the main problem with this pigeon-hole version of Mencken is that it isn’t true. Anyone who takes the time to read his work will notice that he found a great deal to admire and respect in “the South and fly-over country.” The rest of Powers’ review is more of the same wooden caricature. For example,
In “The Cult of Hope” (Second Series) he calls the idea that criticism should be constructive a “messianic delusion”; on the contrary, its object is destruction.
If Powers’ object here is to give the reader an example of one of Mencken’s bombastic phrases, well and good. If, on the other hand, she sets any value on informing her readers who and what Mencken was as a critic, its a complete distortion. Mencken had a fine eye for separating the wheat from the chaff, and while he may not have been charitable to the chaff, he often had enthusiastic (and constructive) praise for authors he liked, many times before their reputation had already been established elsewhere. Other than that, Powers can’t resist the urge to draw our attention to the fact that her personal piety meets the most up-to-date standards by means of the politically correct peck-sniffery familiar to modern readers. This sort of thing may be forgivable as an inherited weakness in her case, as we learn that her “great-grandfather was an ardent supporter of William Jennings Bryan.”
It’s hard to capture a writer as original and thought-provoking as Mencken by trying to mount him on a pin in a review limited to a couple of webpages. The most you can hope to do is pique the readers interest enough to get them to look for themselves. Mencken is worth the effort.
Posted on September 4th, 2010 10 comments
In wandering here and there on the Internet I ran across mention of a new novel by David H. Spielberg entitled “On Deception Watch.” According to the Amazon blurb about it,
This is an epic drama about unlimited energy, the realignment of international power in a truly new world order unlike anything envisioned before, and deadly conflict between political and military centers of power. Controlled fusion energy ignites a firestorm of competing interests from within the top levels of government to the “oil patch” to the United Nations and ultimately to the world. How is it that a visionary physicist/entrepreneur was able to achieve the technological breakthrough of the century?
The author himself adds some detail to the picture;
I wrote a novel, “On Deception Watch,” that was triggered by my visit to KMS Fusion,” a real company that in 1975 really accomplished laser fusion ignition of a deuterium/tritium target and was then harassed to death by the federal government and its assets essentially looted by the feds. My novel is about the premise of a company that does what KMS Fusion did and then what. Check out KMS Fusion, Keeve Siegel, the president of the company, and my novel. One exploration in it is about what replaces the United Nations. The story takes place about 25 years in the future.
W-e-e-e-l-l-l. It wasn’t quite like that, and I doubt the author believes it himself. According to Xlibris, he has a Ph.D. in physics and, if so, I’m sure he doesn’t really believe KMS accomplished ignition back in 1975. Still, the above account isn’t going to mislead anyone whose tastes don’t already run to yarns about the Da Vinci Code, the Celestine Prophecy, and the Maya calendar, because the original papers about what happened then are still available, and many of the people who did the experiments are still around. We’ll cut Spielberg some slack and call it “poetic license,” forgivable from an author who’s just published his first novel. Regardless, the story of KMS is certainly fascinating even without such embellishments.
In fact, there was a guy named Keeve (or “Kip” as he was better known) Siegel, his initials were KMS, and he was a brilliant entrepreneur who, back in the 60′s, became convinced that inertial confinement fusion (ICF) was within reach using the laser technology then available. Gathering a crew of talented scientists, he founded KMS Fusion and built the “Chroma” laser in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and, without government funding, actually succeeded (in 1974, not 1975) in demonstrating fusion from a laser-driven implosion in the laboratory for the first time, beating embarrassed teams at Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories to the punch. It was a remarkable achievement, but was still orders of magnitude away from “ignition,” usually defined as equivalent to “scientific breakeven,” which occurs when the energy released from fusion equals the energy carried by the laser beams driving the reaction. Siegel, a very heavy man, died dramatically less than a year later, suffering a stroke while appealing for government funding before the Joint Congressional Committee on nuclear power. According to the Wikipedia article about him linked above,
At this time, KMS Fusion was indisputably the most advanced laser-fusion laboratory in the world. Unfortunately, outright harassment from the AEC only increased after the announcement of these results. According to one source in the faculty of the University of Michigan, the campaign against KMS Fusion culminated with a massive incursion into the KMS Fusion facilities by federal agents, who effectively put an end to its operations by confiscating essential materials on the grounds that, inter alia, all information concerning the production of nuclear energy is classified information which belongs exclusively to the federal government.
As usual, caution is due in taking Wiki at face value, and this account is pure mythology. The AEC was abolished in 1974, so was in no position to “harass” KMS. If the government continued to “harass” KMS after that, it chose an odd way of doing it, because KMS actually succeeded in securing a multi-million dollar government contract to continue its research after Siegel’s death. This was renewed several times, and KMS became a major player in the government ICF program, eventually becoming the lead laboratory for target development and production. The company eventually ran afoul of its sponsors at the Department of Energy in the early 90′s for reasons that had nothing to do with suppressing its research results, and lost its government contract to General Atomics, which continues as the “lead lab” for inertial fusion targets to this day. KMS continued a shadow existence for many years, but that effectively ended its role as a player in ICF.
That said, it’s quite true that there was friction between KMS and the inertial fusion guys at the national laboratories, just as there has always been friction between the national laboratories themselves. The teams at Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia all coveted the research dollars that were going to KMS, whose management didn’t endear itself by a bad habit of lobbying for earmarks over and above the funding DOE wanted it to have with the aid of Michigan representatives in Congress. The lab guys all seemed to believe that this money came out of their hide. They argued that the Chroma laser in Ann Arbor was obsolete, and that KMS should end experiments there and concentrate on target fabrication. Well, after KMS’ collapse, Chroma was cannibalized, the lion’s share of its optical innards going to Los Alamos. There, after being rechristened “Trident,” this “obsolete” laser continues in operation to this day!
As for ignition, it turned out that the slogan of “online by ’79″ was a tad optimistic. Mother Nature had other ideas. The computer power available when KMS was founded was very limited, and the computer programs that had predicted the possibility of ignition with relatively small lasers like Chroma were limited to looking at the problem in one dimension. It turns out that multi-dimensional effects, such as the Rayleigh-Taylor instability, make ignition much harder to achieve than the first generation of computer codes predicted. It’s probably a good thing, too, because otherwise we may have succeeded in blowing ourselves up by now with pure fusion weapons. In any case, we kept building bigger laser facilities, eventually culminating in the recent completion of the National Ignition Facility at Livermore, a massive, 192 beam system capable of delivering a nominal 1.8 megajoules of blue (frequency-tripled) light. As its name implies, its goal is to achieve ignition, and the critical experiments designed to achieve that goal will take place in the next couple of years. I am not optimistic that they will succeed, but am keeping my fingers crossed that they do.
Meanwhile, I wish Dr. Spielberg every success with his novel. It sounds like a great yarn, and should bring a smile to the faces of ICF old timers.
Posted on August 11th, 2010 No comments
The Epic of Gilgamesh was first written down by an unknown Babylonian scribe around 2000 B.C. It relates the heroic adventures of the semi-legendary ruler of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk about 2700 B.C. At one point, Gilgamesh seeks out an ancient sage by the name of Utnapishtim in order to discover how to avoid death. It happens that the gods awarded immortality to Utnapishtim after he survived a great flood that wiped out all the rest of humanity by building a large boat at the behest of the god Ea. In the manner of Noah, he collected his family and all manner of living things and took them along for the ride. As the waters subside, his boat comes to rest on top of a mountain. Quoting from the epic,
On Mount Nisis the ship stood still,
Mount Nisis held the ship so that it could not move,
One day, two days, Mount Nisis held the ship fast…
When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth a dove, letting it free.
The dove went hither and thither;
Not finding a resting place, it came back.
I sent forth a swallow, letting it free.
The swallow went hither and thither.
Not finding a resting place, it came back.
I sent forth a raven, letting it free.
The raven went and saw the decrease of the waters.
It ate, croaked, but did not turn back.
Sound familiar? And yet people still stumble around on Mt. Ararat looking for the remains of Noah’s ark. Every few decades or so, they even find them, although they do tend to move around a bit. Go figure.
Posted on June 16th, 2010 No comments
The easy availability of a vast library of books is not the least of the Internet’s many gifts. If you find a reference to some interesting volume published before 1922, you are more than likely to find it among the online collection at Google books. Recently, for example, I happened to see a reference to an account of the Earl of Elgin’s mission to China and Japan in the years 1857-59 by one Laurence Oliphant. It was mentioned in one of the great British literary reviews of the 19th century, and described in such favorable terms as to pique my interest. In searching the author’s name at Google Books, I found not only the work in question, but any number of others attributed to the same author, including descriptions of travel in the southern regions of Russia, describing conditions there in 1852, just before the onset of the Crimean War, Palestine, and of no small interest to myself, as I grew up in Wisconsin, an account of an expedition through Canada to our neighbor state of Minnesota by way of Lake Superior in 1854.
I was pleased to find the book as entertaining and skillfully written as the earlier work about the Far East described in the British review, and highly recommend it to the attention of the interested reader. There are many insightful comments about social, economic, and political conditions in the U.S. at the time. Midwesterners will enjoy the many details and anecdotes about the rough and ready life in Wisconsin and Minnesota at a time when the region was still considered the “far west.”
For example, when Oliphant and his three companions climbed off their steamer at Superior, Wisconsin, they discovered that the only hotel in town was a large barn, which doubled as a carpenter shop and land office. Guests were expected to bring their own shavings to sleep on, should they be lucky enough to find an unoccupied spot. The author gives an interesting account of an expedition with a local realtor to have a look at some promising building lots in the growing metropolis:
…we commenced cutting our way with billhooks through the dense forest, which he called Third Avenue, or the fashionable quarter, until we got to the bed of a rivulet, down which we turned through tangled underwood (by name West Street), until it lost itself in a bog, which was the principal square, upon the other side of which, covered with almost impenetrable bush, was the site of our lots.
Oliphant goes on to describe a harrowing journey with two Canadian voyageurs in a birch bark canoe through swamps and over rapids to the headwaters of the Mississippi, from which they descended to St. Paul, the up and coming capital of the Minnesota territory. They were pleased to find it a great deal more civilized than Superior, with a hotel that was passable, even by European standards. Oliphant recounts that the guests would rush through their evening meal in typical American fashion. The process of digestion, however, was another matter. The men would retire to the front porch, where they would lean back in chairs, criticize the passers-by, and pontificate on the politics of the day at their leisure.
Among the topics of conversation was the issue of slavery, and while latter day Marxists and sentimental writers about “southern heritage” have “proved” that the Civil War was not really about slavery using any number of facile and unconvincing arguments, there was no confusion about the matter at the time, whether among opponents or proponents of slavery or European observers. Oliphant described an exchange on the subject between an eastern Yankee and a scowling Texan, and observed,
Whatever may be the views of Americans upon the great question of slavery, which seems destined, before long, to split the Union, they do not scruple to avow themselves annexationists.
The great question of slavery will lead to an explosion which it is to be hoped will not terminate in a Kilkenny-cat process.
The author and his friends took a river steamboat to Galena, Illinois, a point which was already connected to the rest of the country by rail. Apropos railroads, he notes in passing,
…we have no business to question the engineering performances in a country in which there are already 21,310 miles of railway laid down, or about 2500 miles more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.
The story of Oliphant doesn’t end with travel stories. Strangely enough, this obviously intelligent and articulate writer later went completely off the deep end as an adherent of the then-fashionable “spiritualist” craze. Among the collection of his works available at Google Books, one will also find a remarkable production entitled, “Scientific Religion, or Higher Possibilities of Life and Practice through the Operation of Natural Forces.” Published in 1888, it is full of revelations about “dynaspheric forces, the vital atomic interactions between the living and the dead, the transmutation of material forces by conversion of moral particles, Magnetic Conditions in the Holy Land,” and any number of similar ravings, all of which have so far failed in their author’s evident intent of enlightening future generations.
Those who pique themselves on the supposedly high intelligence of humankind would do well to read such stuff occasionally. Oliphant was a man of no mean intellect, possessed of remarkable insight and powers of analysis in his description of life in the United States of his time, and the political affairs then current. He also published ravings about “spiritual forces” that even a child would laugh at today. Those who consider themselves infallible would do well to recall that they belong to the same species (starting, of course, with me).