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H. L. Mencken

Journalist Of The Century

by Shelton Hull

The recent controversy over creationism in Kansas prompted a trip to the video store, where I rented Inherit The Wind , a 1960s film based on the Scopes Monkey Trial. All the principal figures were fictionalized, I suppose in order to facilitate greater creative license. It stars Spencer Tracy, that lovable lush, as "Henry Drummond," based on famed attorney Clarence Darrow, who represented the teacher who taught his pupils Darwin's theory of evolution. (The teacher is played by Dick York, pre- Bewitched .) On the other side of the aisle sits Fredric Marsh, who plays "Matthew Harrison Bailey," based on William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential loser and professional polemicist, who sought to argue (with the glittering loquaciousness so sorely lacking in modern discourse) that any curriculum that contradicts the history of man as laid out in the Book of Genesis is an affront to the name of God and a danger to the soul of man. The judge is played by Harry Morgan (later known as Col. Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H ), who always finds his way into good productions, which is why you don't see him on network television anymore. But my favorite character, "E. M. Hornbeck," is played by Gene Kelly -- you may have seen his legendary duet with Paula Abdul in a Diet Coke commercial a few years ago. Hornbeck is my favorite character because he is based on the greatest newspaperman of all time, Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), whose book Minority Report is the namesake for the online column I write for Ink 19 (www.ink19.com/columns/). September 12 marked the 119th anniversary of his birth, so I thought I'd take a moment to define his place in the history of American journalism.

   H. L. Mencken wasn't just good, he was outlandishly good in an era when the general quality of prose emanating from the pages of newspapers and magazines was significantly better than it is now. Our modern eyes sometimes confuse style with substance when it comes to journalism. Television has lowered the bar for content to the point that practically anyone who can conjugate a verb looks like a genius in contrast. Very few of the men and women who draw a salary in the industry today could cut it in Mencken's time, which was the first half of this century, back when the daily paper was the primary source of information for all Americans. The competition was fierce; most major cities had at least two dailies, who fought like bastards to push circulation levels above the other. In the meritocracy that mainstream journalism used to be, the only way to win was to be a better paper, and so there were no arbitrary standards of qualification that ruled out candidates a priori based on superficial criteria.

   For example, I think I'm a fairly decent writer, and certainly better than those at my local paper, but I will never be allowed to write for the local paper -- or even to interview for the lowliest position on staff -- because I don't have a college degree. (I'm not being self-serving; I merely use anecdotal evidence to support my thesis. Plenty of others have similar problems.) As much as this fact sucks for me, it's worse for them, because the daily paper is slowly marching to the graveyard of antiquated ideas. Dailies have been dying off steadily over the past decade, and the most immediate result (which in turn becomes a cause) is that the survivors find themselves without any competition. A media monopoly is great for the bottom line, unless your idea of a bottom line is having a paper you can be proud of.

   Mencken was 19 when he first applied for work at the Baltimore Morning Herald ; he was rejected, but later hired after returning to the office every day for a month. You won't find any 19 year-olds on the staff of any "serious" publication today, even if the publication's target audience is 19 year-olds, unless their presence is some sort of gimmick meant to appeal to the demographic that advertisers cherish. ( Ink 19 ran my first concert review when I was 17, bless their forward-thinking little hearts. Who knows where I'd be now without that early bit of validation.) Many of my favorite journalists began their careers as unschooled novices, men like Hunter S. Thompson and Jimmy Breslin. They came up in an era when editors were willing to gamble with a few column inches if it meant nurturing young talent that could make their publication better than the next one. Within five years, Mencken was managing editor of the Morning Herald , which folded (through no fault of his own) in 1906.

   "Precocious" soon gives way to "prodigious" when assessing HLM's work, which continued unabated until a cerebral thrombosis in 1948 left him virtually paralyzed for the last eight years of his life. (I'm not sure whether the stroke was brought on by Truman's reelection, but it's possible.) Following the demise of the Morning Herald , Mencken moved to the Evening Sun, where in 1911 he began a column called the Free Lance that lasted through '15. He also posted weekly editorials from 1919-41. In 1908 he became a literary critic for Robert Jean Nathan's The Smart Set , often reading as many as 30 books per month before becoming co-editor in 1914. He founded his own magazine, American Mercury , in 1924, which lasted until 1933. In his editorial capacity Mencken helped to establish and legitimize numerous writers, including Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Fante and Ernest Hemingway. And he contributed reviews, articles, etc. to over 20 other publications than those listed above. He was a man who lived to work and worked to live, who wrote in 1942 that "I edited both newspapers and magazines, some of them successes and some of them not, and got a close, confidential view of the manner in which opinion is formulated and merchanted on this earth." Unlike most of those who call the shots in today's journalism industry, who seem to exist in fat, contented, blissful ignorance of duty and obeisance to advertisers, Mencken understood and relished in his responsibility to the American people.

   All you writers out there, especially journalists, consider this: you are going to die, hopefully no time soon, but eventually. And at that moment you shall cease to be Modern. The appeal of modernity is the implication of a future; the modern writer will be modern tomorrow, and will thus be able to maintain or increase his or her position in the industry through words yet to be written. But when you die, you immediately become part of history, one more name in a long list of dead writers. Your legacy will depend on the choices of people who haven't been born yet, whose parents haven't even been born yet. You see, there are only two reasons to read journalism, the writer and the subject. One may be a fan of a writer and seek out his work, or one may be interested in a particular subject and seek out articles relevant to the topic. In the latter case, say you're looking for information on, I don't know, the Scopes Monkey Trial? That was big news at the time, with far-reaching implications for the future, and a lot of different writers were either on hand to cover it or at home writing op-ed pieces. We may safely assume that at least 100 different writers wrote something about the trial, but how many can we name other than H. L. Mencken? How many others' commentaries are even in print anymore? Now, we alt. journalists are lucky in that we gravitate toward stories that have been ignored or de-emphasized by the mainstream press, but still you can be certain that you are not alone in covering anything that is truly important. And that's good. Most of your peers will be forgotten within a generation of their death, because history filters out mediocrity in quite systematic fashion.

   Mencken and his contemporaries understood this, so each worked hard to forge his own unique style, and the stories that passed through their typewriters bore an unmistakable imprimatur. To read any of Mencken's 30 books is to step through a portal into the past, a past recorded with vivid language and impeccable logic and precision. Events that have long since ceased to have any real importance to modern life become, by virtue of HLM's interest, essential documents. Just yesterday I was reading "The Land of the Free," a piece about the collusion between the police and post office to censor a newspaper critical of the Fascist government in Italy. (You canread it yourself) Seems the Italian Ambassador to the US pulled some strings and, lo and behold, the paper's publisher gets a year in prison for running an ad for a book on birth control. This story would have never passed my eyes if not for my Mencken fetish, but it is now the oldest case of state-sponsored press suppression that I know of. "What becomes of the old notion that the United States is a free country, that it is the refuge for the oppressed of other lands, that here they may voice their grievances and call for help?" asks Mencken, and the question is just as important today as it was when he wrote it, in 1925. In the hands of a master, the past is history, history is historical.

   On its face, writing is a very simple act. 26 letters and some punctuation marks, arranged in a specific order intended to transfer a thought from writer to reader. But because the act is simple doesn't mean one must strive for simplification. The print media has sought to simplify its prose in an effort to reach a larger portion of an audience that has been splintered by the more immediate medium of television, which presents a direct visual image to the viewer, freeing him of the burden of creative visualization that is necessary in reading. This "low-brow" approach is anything but altruistic, for the result is watered-down content and a narrower range of debate. Certain concepts that Americans need to consider in order to fully access the world around them are not presented to them because the nut of interpretation cannot fit within the format of choice. For example, the "unrest" in East Timor is just another case of foreigners going crazy, in the minds of mainstream media victims. Any cursory glance at Z (www.zmag.org) or other alternative media reveals enough information to really understand what is going on. The entire situation can be explained to anyone in under five minutes, providing that one can dig phrases like "client state," "unworthy victims," and "plausible deniability." If one cannot, the five minutes bloats to twenty or more. It seems to me that the media would prefer to keep the collective intellect below what is needed to generate true mass lucidity, and this allows them to slack, to devote a whole day or week of coverage to other stories that are of negligible importance.

   What Mencken brought to the table was a mastery of the technical and stylistic aspects of writing that I have not seen before or since in the journalism business. It's been noted that Mencken never cut corners when it came to the work. He saw America as being a permanent battleground between Aristocrats and the Booboisie. His Aristocrat was an enlightened man, and the Booboisie were not. Many have taken his vernacular as proof that HLM was some kind of snob who thought himself better than others, and that's untrue; he merely realized that he was luckier than most because his job put him in a position where he had to look at things from multiple angles. What separated the Aristocrat and Booboisie was access to information and their willingness to embrace it. His early work predates women's suffrage (which was granted in 1920), and he died just as Martin Luther King was beginning the civil rights campaign, but I think he would have approved of and endorsed this stuff, for the central thesis of his work was that man should push ever harder to take control of his life by making informed decisions. His writing was ammo for Aristocrats.

   "Booboisie" is my favorite example of HLM's invented vernacular. I find it interesting that a man as well-read as he (who wrote a book on Nietzsche in 1905, only five years after he died) needed to make up a word in order to express himself with optimum clarity. For his purpose was not to glorify his own intelligence; that would be a gratuitous waste of space. What he meant, I believe, was that these people were neglecting their potential. A lot of people like to have the truth handed to them, which works well for politicians and unsavory media types who happily exploit their trust for personal gain. To rest on the truth as imparted by some politician was to rest on a bed of broken glass: laying down is much easier than trying to get back up. "A creative artist always comes to ruin when he begins to defend the reigning demagogues," he said, thus implicating many of his colleagues, who were (and still are) only too eager to attach themselves to the reigning ideology of the time. So the Booboisie were those who would not or could not think beyond the pre-set boundaries of two-dimensional debate. Among them, those restricted by lack of education or other mitigating circumstances were deemed merely unfortunate; his most seething contempt was saved for the well-educated, well-fed, upper-class dogmatists who chose self-perpetuation over raising the consciousness of those they'd rather bleed for money and votes.

   H. L. Mencken is often cited as an original Libertarian thinker, and that makes sense to me. But Libertarianism has been so misrepresented by the two-party mentality that we might want to revisit the idea. We commonly think of Libertarians as the "legalize everything" party. By that standard, it's no wonder that nobody votes for them. Libertarian theory assumes that all citizens are capable of making informed decisions about their bodies and bankroll. But we have bred a culture where this is not the case; if told one day "Everything's legal! Do what the hell you want!" lots of people would be hopelessly confused. We're lucky. If we want to know something, we look for the answers, and eventually find them. Others don't know where to look. The Internet, as important as it has been in balancing the news, is not the waterfall of opportunity it is alleged to be, because most of those who most need information have neither access nor the inclination. Of course, the best thing is the library, but who goes to the library? I am constantly amazed when I see people who don't read. I always wish I had some Mencken in my bag to give them. He had ample reserves of both style and substance, neither of which pops up often today.