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Mencken undiluted

R. Emmett Tyrell Jr, writing in The Wall Street Journal, is not impressed with the work of H.L. Mencken’s collected Prejudices series, which the Library of America has republished in two volumes and to which i have been devoting a little time every evening.

That the work is uneven, as Mr. Tyrrell, complains, cannot be denied. But even some of the articles casually tossed off contain glimmers of the echt Mencken.

Consider “Star-Spangled Men,” an essay on Americans’ fondness for the titles and gaudy vestments of the “Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows, Red Men. Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Knights Templar, Patriarchs Militant, Elks, Moose, Woodmen of the World, Foresters, Hoo-Hoos, Ku Kluxers”:

“There is an undertaker in Hagerstown, Md., who has been initiated eighteen times. When he robes himself to plant a fellow joiner he weighs three hundred pounds and sparkles and flashes like the mouth of hell itself.”

A man who fails to relish a sentence like that is just insensible.

Moreover, Mencken moves on in that essay to imagine the sashes, ribbons, and medallions that might be awarded to the patriots who, during the First World War, purged the curriculum of German language and literature, forced people out of their jobs, and informed on their neighbors during Attorney General Palmer’s Red Scare. Let the reader translate the sentiment to the present.

I have also admired “The Husbandman” since I encountered it at the callow age of eighteen. Mr. Tyrrell disparages it as a mere attack on farmers, but it is, of course, more than that. It is an attack on the militant fundamentalism that manifested itself in the Scopes Monkey Trial and William Jennings Bryan’s attempt to harness evangelical resentment for political ends:

“The mountebank, Bryan, after years of preying upon the rustics on the promise that he would show them how to loot the cities by wholesale and a outrance, now reverses his collar proposes to lead them in a jehad against what remains of American intelligence, already beleaguered in a few walled towns.”

Perhaps Mr. Tyrrell is more in sympathy with Mencken’s targets than with Mencken himself. At any event, he has my sympathy for having trudged through a thousand pages of prose of which he appears to have little or no appreciation.

If you would like to read a more sensitive review, I commend to you the article by Katherine A. Powers at Ms. Powers acknowledges that a few of the essays are “dull and stupid.” But, she says, “Mencken's flair for contumely and comic rancor are intoxicating, even to one who disagrees with him more than half of the time.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:00 PM | | Comments (9)


Loot the cities, perhaps?

By the way, I should like to enter a complaint about this software you are forced to use, just in case you can pass it along to someone. In order to comment, I must:

1) type in the comment,

2) fill out the ReCAPTCHA,

3) click "Preview",

4) read the preview and enter the single-letter CAPTCHA on that page,

5) get a failure page saying the CAPTCHA is blank and telling me to use the back button and to click here to retry,

6) click the back button (clicking on the link gets me a fresh copy of your post without my comment),

7) fill out the new ReCAPTCHA, and

8) click "Post".

Any deviation from this process will cause my comment to be eaten.

Oops, sorry. Step 6 should say "click the back button twice".

Oops, sorry. Step 6 should say "click the back button twice".

Arrgh. Also, "remember personal info" doesn't remember anything.

Mr. Cowan, thank you for pointing out that typo, which I have fixed. I'm always grateful to readers who identify my errors.

As to the blogging software, you can be confident that all of us who use it loathe it.

Some time ago at a rummage sale in a church basement I found a paperback copy of "The Vintage Mencken" gathered by Alistair Cooke. Taking my find to the lady behind the table to pay I was told I could just take it. I found it amusing that the church valued the works of Mencken about as much as Mencken valued the works of the church.

Prof. McIntyre, in this particular case I think "loathe" is not quite strong enough a word.

John, my method is to write my comment, and then copy it so that I can easily plug it back into the little box if my decoder ring fails to decipher the Captcha. (Captcha is making a rude noise at me: mid- burprish)

Any and all discussions of Mencken are welcomed by me. The ignorant and ill-informed I can easily discard, the worthwhile, savor.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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