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Saving a Whale

A Choice of Days: Essays from “Happy Days,” “Newspaper Days,” and “Heathen Days,”

by H.L. Mencken, selected and introduced by Edward L. Galligan
Knopf, 337 pp., $12.95

On Mencken

edited by John Dorsey
Arlington House, 206 pp., $8.95

The Young Mencken: The Best of His Work

collected by Carl Bode
Dial, 576 pp., $15.00

The American Scene: A Reader

by H.L. Mencken, edited by Huntington Cairns
Knopf, 542 pp., $15.00

H.L. Mencken on Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe

edited by Malcolm Moos
Vintage (out of print), 365 pp., $1.85 (paper)

Letters of H.L. Mencken

edited by Guy J. Forgue
Knopf (out of print), 506 pp., $12.50

A Mencken Chrestomathy

edited and annotated by H.L. Mencken
Knopf, 627 pp., $15.95

A Choice of Days and On Mencken make up Knopf’s testament to Henry L. Mencken on the hundredth year since his birth. We should, of course, be grateful to have any memorial less degrading than those essays of R. Emmett Tyrrell through which Mencken’s ghost now and then flickers like some damned soul in hell. All the same these garlands, though altogether worthier and more scrupulously worked, seem somehow not quite up to their subjects.

But then there are subjects that fairly prohibit adequacy. Whales are the only mammals that the museums have never managed to stuff and mount in their original skins. The great whale in New York’s Museum of Natural History is a styrofoam reproduction; and the museum’s orca, despite its more modest proportions, is only a compound of burlap and plaster. These counterfeits are the best the taxidermists can do, because, they have found, something in the very nature of the whale’s original skin makes its preservation impractical.

Mencken is a very great whale and can stove all boats that sail too close too soon. The careful sailor begins at a respectful distance and looks for what the creature is not before grappling with what it might be.

The first sight is the spouting, and who cannot be forgiven for coming upon such a spectacle and henceforth and forever deciding that this sportive play in the warm waters is most of what whales are about? Alistair Cooke, who knew him well and read him keenly, settles for defining Mencken as “a humorist in the classic American tradition, about halfway between Mark Twain and Woody Allen.”1

Even those of us least satisfied with the notion that his spout is all there is to the whale have to concede that any geyser is a joyous sight indeed. Here, as an instance, is the thirty-six-year-old Mencken on Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:

In this grand complex of tunes, indeed, Tschaikowsky tells all his troubles—how he was forced into marriage against his will; how he lost three thousand roubles on Russian government bonds; how his pet dog Wolfgang was run over by the Moscow-Petersburg D-Zug and lost an ear; how the concert-master was in liquor at Dresden and spoiled his Romeo and Juliet; how ill he was after eating that gekochter Schellfisch at Prague; how the wine merchant, Oroshatovich, swindled him with synthetic Burgundy; how he lost his baggage between Leipzig and Berlin, and had to conduct in borrowed cuffs; how the summer boarders at Maidanovo played “Monastery Bells” on their tin-pan pianos; how that Schuft of a critic at Köln accused him of borrowing his Capriccio in G sharp minor from Offenbach; how his friend Kashkin won a hundred roubles from him at yeralash; how he cut his hand opening a can of asparagus; how melancholy it was to come to fifty-year.

This is, of course, pure sport with no destination except the disposable tissue that is any day’s newspaper, and we would not even know this flight existed if it were not for Carl Bode’s exemplary efforts at retrieval in The Young Mencken. Such stuff goes about as far as Woody Allen has ever contrived to go. But, after the mockeries of all self-seriousness, there comes the note of appreciation of the serious that lifts the man of true sensibility above the one who merely jests for the ostentation of the cap and the bells:

And yet, for all that maudlin confidence, a great work of art. A work to torture and delight the sentimentalist, but at the same time a work to interest and edify the musician. In the midst of all its mawkishness it is written superbly.2

The point of Mencken is not just the ear for those elements of the ridiculous that are pretension’s close companions but the eye for those elements of genuine feeling that can redeem the worst pretension. He knew that what deserves to be esteemed lives very often with what deserves to be laughed at. It is this ability to render justice and what he would have scoffed to hear called his capacity to love that separate him from so many of those who mistake him for their model.

Cooke’s judgment that Mencken’s claim upon posterity resides mainly in his place among classic American humorists is, I am afraid, one more example of the trouble we have accepting ungainly, outsized, and troublesome articles of our cultural furniture unless we trim and trivialize them into domestic comforts.

The special service of Bode’s anthology is the help it gives us in understanding that Mencken’s mind took its mold very early on. Just because he so recognized the difference between himself and the run of his countrymen, the brands preserved in The Young Mencken glow especially with anticipations of the mistaken identity his shade now threatens to carry through the eternal snows.

That fate had, after all, been Mark Twain’s:

While he lived he was several times labeled and relabeled, and always inaccurately and vainly. At the start the national guardians of letters sought to dismiss him loftily as a hollow buffoon, a brother to Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby. This enterprise failing, they made him a comic moralist, a sort of chatauquan in motley, a William Jennings Bryan armed with a slapstick. Foiled again, they promoted him to the rank of Thomas Bailey Aldrich and William Dean Howells, and issued an impertinent amnesty for the sins of his youth. Thus he passed from these scenes—ratified at last but somewhat heavily patronized.3

And then, after Mark Twain was buried and his habitual alarms about being a cause of scandal were no longer relevant, those black posthumous works What Is Man? and The Mysterious Stranger were at last published, and in Mencken’s words,

The parlor entertainer… completely disappears; in his place there arises a satirist, with something of Rabelais’s vast resourcefulness and dexterity in him, and all of Dean Swift’s devastating ferocity…. No wonder the pious critic of the New York Times, horrified by [What Is Man‘s] doctrine, was forced to take refuge behind the theory that Mark intended it as a joke.4

Mencken had barely passed his apprenticeship before he resigned himself to the same destiny of misunderstanding. While still young, he demonstrated a knack for clarifying and compacting the ideas of alien and distant prophets. His first appearances between boards were vade mecums to Nietzsche and Shaw; and his formidable learning owed itself in considerable part to the force-feeding such drudgeries extort. He was only twenty-seven when he was at work on George Bernard Shaw: His Plays, and gave voice to his doubts that

…Shaw will ever become a popular dramatist, in the sense that Sardou and Pinero are popular….

One cannot expect a man, however keen his sense of humor, to laugh at the things he considers eminently proper and honorable. Shaw’s demand that he do so has greatly restricted the size of the Shaw audience.5

This early insight may best explain why the Mencken manner, to the extent that it survives at all, has its awkward existence in the language of disciples who reserve their scorn for whatever the respectable conceive as improper and dishonorable, and who confine their nonconformity to mock-heroic gestures of refusing to crook the knee to anyone who declines to conform. Thus we have R. Emmett Tyrrell, who walks so lamely among us as Mencken’s bitterest enemy, the enforcer of loyalty oaths, born again in the disguise of Mencken revivivus.

Would he be ashamed to have progeny no seemlier than this one? We can by no means be sure that he would. There sits, by no means uncherished, some Aunt Polly at the back of all our minds, and as the years go by, her voice grows ever more compelling. What we rejected we now embrace; suddenly we are ashamed to be a trial and long to be accepted as a comfort.

Mencken was forty when he caught the pathos and arraigned the betrayal of Mark Twain’s later years,

…returning to the native mob as its premier clown—monkey-shining at banquets, cavorting in the newspapers, shrinking poltroonishly from his own ideas, obscenely eager to give no offense.6

And yet, if they are free of pathos and innocent of betrayal, what are those yarns that Knopf now abridges and reissues as A Choice of Days except the effort simply to please that overcomes all of us in an old age anxious to be amnestied for the sins of our youth?

Both A Choice of Days and On Mencken are almost all allegro, youth as sunrise in Baltimore as Eden. They are delightful, but they are far from the whole symphony. On Mencken beguiles us with a full chapter of tributes to the city of Baltimore collated by Huntington Cairns. We are in Cairns’s debt for The American Scene, the most acute and discriminating of all selections of Mencken’s work. But in this case the employment assigned him is the mining and exhalation of roseate memories of Mencken’s native place. His Baltimore was certainly charming and easy enough, but there were cruel limits to the tolerance Mencken celebrates.

It was, after all, Baltimore whose citizens grew so abraded by his enthusiasm for the German cause in the First World War that by the autumn of 1916 their Sun papers were driven to put him on forced leave. The city he loved was also the city that exiled him from its journalism for three years and the city whose public librarian declined to stock the novels of Theodore Dreiser while they sat untrammeled on the shelves of Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Indianapolis. There was darkness as well as sunshine in this life; and the swimmer swam against the current, gaily to be sure, but all the same strenuously.

His community with Dreiser, you finally decide, was the expression of Mencken’s nature that brings us nearest to an accurate perception of him:

All the latter-day American novelists of consideration are vastly more facile than Dreiser in their philosophy, as they are in their style. In the fact, perhaps, lies the measure of their difference. What they lack, great and small, is the gesture of pity, the note of awe, the profound sense of wonder—in a phrase, that “soberness of mind” which William Lyon Phelps sees as the hallmark of Conrad and Hardy, and which even the most stupid cannot escape in Dreiser…. In the arts, as in the concerns of everyday, the American seeks escape from the insoluble by pretending that it is solved. A comfortable phrase is what he craves beyond all things—and comfortable phrases are surely not to be found in Dreiser’s stock.7

One swiftly forgets his intolerable writing, his mirthless, sedulous, repellent manner, in the face of the Athenian tragedy he instils into his seduced and soul-sick servant girls, his barbaric pirates of finances, his conquered and hamstrung supermen, his wives who sit and wait…. Such a novel as “Sister Carrie” stands quite outside the brief traffic of the customary stage…. It is not a mere story, not a novel in the customary American meaning of the word; it is at once a psalm of life and a criticism of life—and that criticism loses nothing by the fact that its burden is despair…. The thing he seeks to do is to stir, to awaken, to move. One does not arise from such a book as “Sister Carrie” with a smirk of satisfaction; one leaves it infinitely touched.8

  1. 1

    Mencken and the English Language,” in On Mencken, p. 112.

  2. 2

    Bode, The Young Mencken, page 541.

  3. 3

    Bode, page 566.

  4. 4

    Bode, page 564.

  5. 5

    Bode, pp. 73 and 75.

  6. 6

    H.L. Mencken, The American Scene, p. 108.

  7. 7

    The American Scene, page 112.

  8. 8

    The American Scene, page 128.

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