Wednesday, August 17, 2005


If there's anything I've got to be grateful to my high school history teacher for, it's for her introducing me to not only the writings and ideas, but the man who went by the name of H(enry) L(ouis) Mencken. Now frankly, I really didn't get that much outta Miss Walko not because of any fault on her part (y'see, I am a stoop and while I' m at it I can also tell you some wild stories about her on request, though she was a nice enough dame since she used to paste up old newspaper stories about Alfalfa's murder and Bill Harris a.k.a. WYTV's Barney Bean getting arrested for attempted rape on the side of a closet that was near the entrance to her classroom) but at least she should be credited for planting the seed o' Menckenism (no matter how feeble it may be) into my cranium. Years before concepts such as libertarianism and thinking outsides the realm of the usual old-timey liberal birth/school/work/marriage/death (and don't ask any questions that may upset the applecart) kadiddle began infecting my beanie, here was a dad-blamed history teacher of mine telling me about a guy who was perhaps one of the more subversive entities for a young 'n impressionable bowl of polenta to get introduced to, and thinking about it from the haze o' many years later all I gotta say's that this epiphany was probably about as eye-opening an experience as being introduced to the Velvet Underground or the inner-workings of movies (seeing more into 'em whether they be old-timey silents or low-budget wonders), in all helping to form the well-developed entity that is known as memeME!!!! If I hadda do any ranking, H. L. Mencken would be up there with such other luminaries of the twentieth century as John Flynn, Wyndham Lewis, Westbrook Pegler and Father Coughlin, and if you can't see the IRONY in such a statement may I say that the doctor threw your own sense of irony out with the rest of the afterbirth???

Naturally, my teacher hadda get the entire gist behind this long-venerated (and loathed) newspaperman wrong. Here she was, telling us lumpen sons-of-proles (with a few sons-of-entrepreneurs thrown into the mix) about what a gosh-it-all swell guy Mencken was, coming out against the injustices and boobery of the 1920s and championing the poor and ignorant peasant immigrants all us dolt kids were descended from while demonizing all of the baddie kluxers and blue-bloods who stood against us (or our forefathers at least)! For a smart lady she couldn't've gotten it wronger. Oh true, Mencken did attack the stupider aspects of his times whether it be prohibition or the Bible-belt mindset that brought forth such idiocy, but his wrath was far-sweeping, like a machine gun that mowed down anything in its path. Maybe this is one reason I dig the guy so. True he had it in HUGE for the fundamentalist protestantism of the times (which is why every adaptation of INHERIT THE WIND seems to make the Mencken character look more like the radical village athiest when he more or less considred himself an agnostic who had the sneaking suspicion that maybe there was a God after all!), but Mencken didn't seem so hot on a lotta the other types who made up the Amerigan Scene during the earlier part of the previous century. He tended to think (or so one would get from a slew of writings) that blacks were violent thugs, Jews were arrogant leeches and the Euro/Irish Romanist population a buncha dumbos who just got off the boat and couldn't find their way around unless there was a priest to guide 'em! But then again he was saying very positive things about all these people when the mood struck him. He was published by a Jew (Alfred Knopf) and co-edited THE AMERICAN MERCURY with one, championed classic Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton at a time when most of his colleagues were cozying up to Chesterton's socialist rival George Bernard Shaw (and counted many of the priesthood in home town Baltimore amongst his friends), and believe-it-or-not but he probably was praying that the Catholic Church wouldn't go liberal like too many mainline protestant denominations have! Heck, this venerable newspaperman even earned an honest-to-kleagle fatwa from the Klan for some extremely caustic criticisms regarding their, er, attitude towards blacks as well as for some pointed insults aimed at the womanhood of the Confederacy that I'm sure rankled the entire region! (And although I'm one fellow who thinks that the South earned more ire than its deserved over the years maybe I can wallow in the joy I'm sure Mencken felt at being the recipient of such an honorable vendetta!) The thing is (a point which somehow missed all those pointy-headed limousine liberal types who consider Mencken a rabid anti-semite, or anti-black or whatever it is they're anti about these days) that true, Mencken said bad things about just about everybody, but if he didn't say anything good about you then you hadda worry!

The truth remains that Mencken was just "thee" perfect enigma for not only his times, but ours. And yeah, I know that such a phrase like that and in fact this entire post reads like a reject from some sophomore book report, but given the utter lack of truly hard "commentary" on the right (even from people who claim upfront allegiance to Mencken) and left (which either seeps into overly-emotional heartfelt comfiness or hate-filled attacks on the same mid-class values and the people they claim to speak for) someone like Mencken rings all the more truer. Which is why I hate it when I see a good portion of the columnists on the conservative side for wont of a better term seep into their stern admonitions of what they see as decadence, while I equally cringe upon seeing leftists quote Mencken either out of context (such as when they trot out one of his pat anti-Republican saying of the twenties not realizing just how much he rued such statements once FDR got hold of the reigns!) or in order to make a "point" in which they themselves are about as much the targets as their dreaded right-wing counterparts. Like, I remember this one time when some leftist type (I forget who he was offhand, but you can find out who if you want to scour the Ann Coulter columns of a few years back) actually quoted Mencken's relatively-famous comment regarding the scourge of puritanism, people out there on the American Scene who dread, even shudder at the fact that somewhere on this fruited planet there are folk out there actually enjoying themselves! Now I dunno if the person who made this statement knew that it was the enemy-of-the-left Mencken who made this rather on-target statement which was actually once championed by the great libertarian Murray Rothbard (a fellow Jay Hinman actually paid lip-service to in one of his emails to me regarding his own burning hatred of yours truly!), but doesn't such a quote as that apply more to all those people on his side of the aisle who are chomping at the bit to make sure life is about as exciting as it was for the people who landed on Plymouth Rock (rather than the other way around)??? I mean, it ain't exactly them mean ol' right-wingers who are trying to ban smoking altogether. And those libertarians speaking out against drug policies and anti-prostitution laws aren't exactly part of the freewheeling liberal cocktail party circuit these enlightened ones revel in! And while I'm at it, are the righties really trying to ban "sexually-oriented" reading material from firehouses? No, leave it to those guys who are more or less the New Puritans once again proving just how NEEDED Mencken is here at the dawn of a new millenium.

One thing that kills me is just how many people like to compare their favorite writers (on the left and right) to Mencken, when they're not trashing him for some infraction that is! Like, some people have had the unmitigated audacity to compare Molly Ivens to Mencken which kills me because she seems nothing more than some brash hussy who doesn't burn her bra anymore but is about as statist as Mencken wasn't, while some like to think the late Mike Royko (who was more or less a grouchier Erma Bombeck) was Menckenesque as well (and frankly, I never forgave Royko for his putdown of Handsome Dick Manitoba in some vintage '77 anti-punk column of his). It also kinda makes me laugh when others mention R. Emmett Tyrell as being a Mencken devotee because maybe he was at one time back when he had some Mencken paper mache dummy at typewriter stuck in the old AMERICAN SPECTATOR office, but the guy more or less has evolved into the same simpering neocon so in vogue on the right these days that I'm sure Mencken's spirit is puking in the afterlife! Saying that these people are the end result of the Menckenian spirit is like saying that Chuck Eddy is the logical end result of what Lester Bangs doth wrought.

If you wanna ask me who the logical successor to the whole Mencken phenomenon is, it would be "The Poor Little Greek Boy" Taki, who is neither poor nor little but is Greek, in fact the son of a shipping magnate who's not only notorious for his extravagent ways (even getting arrested with a bitta the powder on him) but has an eye for the ladyfolk despite being married to an actual titled woman who probably doesn't care one bit about her hubby's philandering ways. Taki is quite the figure of controversy saying things that most so-called truth-seekers are too afraid to even to the point of being branded "racist" (just because he castigated some British hoods who happened to be black and murdered some girl) and getting sued for saying some of the most uncomplimentary things regarding a certain femme fartelle (shades of John Schmitz's ATTACK OF THE BULLDYKES which earned the ire of none other than Gloria Allred). He even got kicked out of England (though he still appears regularly in the long-running SPECTATOR) for writing that while his ancestors were building parthenons and writing literature and generally helping to further the cause of civilization, the Brits were standing around scratching their scones and burrowing for roots. He's a good pal of Pat Buchanan and writes a column for his AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE magazine which is sometimes available on-line, but since the two don't agree on the subject of abortion it's one topic the duo carefully avoid. (Although Taki is firmly against stem cell research and has threatened to punch the lights outta Daniel Goldhagen for all the nasty stuff he said about Pope Pius XII!) I kinda get the idea that Taki is more or less the kinda guy that Mencken would come off like had ol' H. L. somehow miraculously been transported to the here and now...well, Taki is more of an extension of what Mencken was than Eddy is of Bangs, that's for sure!

A few people have even drawn comparisons between Mencken and Ayn Rand, and though I was one fellow doing just that a decade back I have the feeling that both would be at each other's throats had they appeared on one of those real-life desert island survival shows that are all the rage these days. Whereas Rand was strident and shrill most of the time and not that engaging a writer (though I do like the final chapter of her novelette ANTHEM) who repeated facts and points even more than I tend to do, she also didn't cut that much of a figure either. What was her 'cello-playing and chain-smoking next to Mencken's girly-show watching, oyster pie eating and general curmudgeonness anyway? If anything, the only thing worthy that Rand did was influence Steve Ditko and his personalist heroes such as MR. A. and THE QUESTION.

What I like best about Mencken is that both of us hated the same kinda people, mainly idiots! I mean, true Mencken might have had bad words to say about people of certain "protected" classes you just can't say bad things about anymore, but like I said he also had good things to say about these same folk, leaving his best ascerbic barbs for the same do-gooders and civilization-wreckers that continue to plague us even to this day. Yet still the misguided anti-Mencken screeds come, with articles carrying such wrong-headed titles as "The Anti-Semite of Baltimore" getting published day in and day out (or at least when some new Mencken-related book hits the stands) which attempt to paint the man (and people who ascribe to much of his philosophy) as the big blockade standing between today's on-the-go urban freethinker and total karmic gooshiness. And y'know, it's all nothing but misleading and downright unfair yet totally expected especially in these emotion-driven times which I don't even think a pundit like Mencken could've predicted. I mean, if anyone still has this image of Mencken as some elitist (in a modern sense) boor who was a raving Nazi racist (though he railed against Hitler and even urged arch-enemy FDR not to send Jewish refugees back to Europe, which the benevolent one did!) just take a look at the snapshot to the left taken in 1929 showing Mencken and a buncha black kids he was actually pals with! Y'see, these children had been playing in the alley behind Mencken's house and whaddya know but the ol' guy befriended the whole lot of 'em and used to take 'em out for ice cream and candy! Now, really, would you expect a racist to behave in such a manner? Oh yeah, there may be some who would do something like this in a totally condescending way to act out their airs of superiority sorta like the way Ian Paisley might give a Catholic kid a tuppence for his First Communion, but you don't see any of 'em writing these beautifully ascerbic and cutting articles on the evils of the klan or ending their careers railing against the segregation that was still in force in early-fifties Baltimore.

And really, could you see someone like Dave Lang posing with a buncha black street urchins for such a prized photograph as the one above? NOT ON YOUR NELLY, or if he did he'd probably rush home right afterwards and bathe in a tubfulla Pinesol 'r somethin'!


Anonymous said...

from Michael Snider

Wouldn't the late Hunter S. Thompson have been the obvious successor to Mencken? Both brilliant satirists who had no patience for idiots and who defied easy political categorization.

Christopher Stigliano said...

Yes, as would maybe P. J. O'Rourke although he's been very silent over the past decade or so, and I recall O'Rourke did apologize to gays for saying that he wished "the love that dares not speak its name would shut up" which might disqualify him from any Mencken-ness on his part.

Roberto Iza Valdés said...
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Christopher Stigliano said...