Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Bastard of Baltimore

'H. L. Mencken', Morgan Meis reminds us in the opening of his essay at The Smart Set, 'was a bastard'. Nevertheless, he points out, if he hadn't been one, the English language (at least in its American guise) would be a great deal more impoverished.

I've long been a great admirer of Mencken's writing (if not necessarily of all his opinions), though I'm sure that having spent a few fondly remembered years in the city most associated with the 'Sage of Baltimore' has helped make me feel more closely attached to him.

Jesse Smith's article on the commemoration of Mencken's birthday on 12 September (via Arts & Letters Daily and something I'd have written about earlier had we not been en vacances) certainly took me back to those years, recounting, as it does, a series of talks and events in the Enoch Pratt library and Peabody Conservatory: I used to live just around the corner from both of them (a bit more literally in the case of the Pratt library).

And they are both lovely buildings.

Furthermore, the atmosphere, as Smith points out, is pure Baltimore, as I recall it:

The Pratt is the perfect setting for such a celebration. There are parts that feel as if they haven’t changed since Mencken wandered its halls. The first day of the celebration, the library’s main elevator was broken. Visitors who didn’t want to climb the stairs to the third floor auditorium — and there were many, Mencken fans being on average quite advanced in age — had to instead take an elevator operated by an attendant. An actual elevator attendant, who had to open the door by hand, and raise and lower the elevator with a handle. The bathroom just outside the auditorium had a shower, and its mirror was a medicine cabinet that actually opened — features for a library that seem like they could only have been logical a century ago.

Nonetheless, reading about the lectures given on his behalf and the people who came to celebrate his memory makes me think, adapting Groucho Marx's famous comment (via Woody Allen), that I would rather not be a member of a club that would have them as members.

Read the article and you might understand what I mean.

Inspired by the Smart Set articles, I pulled out one of the Mencken collections on my shelf (A Mencken Chrestomathy) and I, lo and behold, with only the briefest of skimming glances, ran across the following bits of wisdom:

The old anthropomorphic notion that the life of the whole universe centers in the life of man -- that human existence is the supreme expression of the cosmic process -- this notion seems to be happily on its way toward the Sheol of exploded delusions. The fact is that the life of man, as it is more and more studied in the light of general biology, appears to be more and more empty of significance. Once apparently the chief concern and masterpiece of the gods, the human race now begins to bear the aspect of an accidental by-product of their vast, inscrutable and probably nonsensical operations. A blacksmith making a horse-shoe produces something almost as brilliant and mysterious -- the shower of sparks. But his eye and thought, as we know, are not on the sparks, but on the horse-shoe; their existence depends upon a wasting of its tissue. In the same way, perhaps, man is a local disease of the cosmos -- a kind of pestiferous eczema or urethritis. There are, of course, different grades of eczema, and so are there different grades of men. No doubt a cosmos afflicted with nothing worse than an infection of Beethovens would not think it worth while to send for the doctor. But a cosmos infested by Socialists, Scotsmen and stockbrokers must suffer damnably. No wonder the sun is so hot and the moon so diabetically green (p. 1).


Man is the yokel par excellence, the booby unmatchable, the king dupe of the cosmos. He is chronically and inescapably deceived, not only by the other animals and by the delusive face of nature herself, but also and more particularly by himself -- by his incomparable talent for searching out and embracing what is false, and for overlooking and denying what is true (p. 8).


To sum up:
1. The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute.
2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it.
3. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride (p. 9).


Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable. There is thus a flavor of the pathological in it; it goes beyond the normal intellectual process and passes into the murky domain of transcendental metaphysics. A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought. He is not a mere ass: he is actually ill. Worse, he is incurable, for disappointment, being essentially an objective phenomenon, cannot permanently affect his subjective infirmity. His faith takes on the virulence of a chronic infection. What he says, in substance, is this: 'Let us trust in God, Who has always fooled us in the past.' (p.11)

And on it goes, for more than 600 pages.


Mencken saw his main adversary as the American middle-class, and he invented the term 'booboisie' to describe them. His vision was a useful corrective to the unbounded optimism that has tended to accompany the American cultural soul (which is something different than saying there are not many very excellent things that have -- and continue to -- emerge from the US of A).

In a striking passage from his article, Meis points to a key aspect of Mencken's world-view, in the context of an essay on writer Theodore Dreiser:

Summing Dreiser up one last time, Mencken writes: “His moving impulse is no flabby yearning to teach, to expound, to make simple; it is that ‘obscure inner necessity’ of which Conrad tells us, the irrepressible creative passion of a genuine artist, standing spell-bound before the impenetrable enigma that is life, enamored by the strange beauty that plays over its sordidness, challenged to a wondering and half-terrified sort of representation of what passes understanding.” Ironically, with that one sentence, Mencken redeemed American literature (at least for a minute or two) and realized something of the promise that Emerson and Whitman had gestured to with such profound, irrational hope. But with Mencken, there is no glorious tale to tell, just the desire that someone express the crappy truth as the only glory we’re likely to grasp.


America had grown up in the decades between Emerson and The Smart Set. In growing up, it gave birth to a brilliant little beast named H.L. Mencken who had the stomach to stare into the odd abyss, to look hard at the “strange beauty that plays over its sordidness.” In rejecting Emerson’s and Whitman’s hope he had to leave behind the vestiges of American Exceptionalism that still linger in Emerson’s rhapsodizing and in Whitman’s singing. He had to show us in our dumbness, engaged in the same fruitless struggle that lays low every beast in time. Funnily, and in spite of all his maddening missteps of judgment, Mencken — in being such a relentless bastard year after year — gave the American voice back a little of its humanity. For that reason alone his birthday, last week, ought to mean something now and for a long time to come.

Yes it should.

Thus, a somewhat belated Obscene Desserts birthday greeting goes out to H. L. Mencken.

I am honoured, for three exciting years, to have walked the same streets as that gloomy, grouchy, misanthropic bastard.

1 comment:

Geoff Coupe said...

Clearly a misanthrope after my own lemon-drop of a heart... I must start reading Mr. Mencken...