Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Mencken in the morning

"Prejudices"/K.Powers reviews HL Mencken:

""""To a degree, the nation Mencken claims to delight in as an "Eden of clowns" is a mischievous creation unified by his own powerful sense of the ridiculous. Throughout Prejudices, he drives the diverse "bosh mongers," spewers of buncombe and "geysers of pishposh" into the same corral through sheer brawny eloquence and fistic wit. Thus his menagerie of scoundrels brings together such strange bedfellows as "the Ku Klux Klan and all other clownish fraternal orders," Chambers of Commerce, Methodists, Chautauquans, prohibitionists, sex hygienists, Freudian "necromancers," the "snouting and preposterous Puritan," and the "fantoddish old suffragette." Indeed, his prose style is an assertion of masculine puissance (to use one of his favorite words); and it strikes one that what gives such galvanic force to his writing is not only his "unashamed taste for the bizarre and indelicate," but his outraged feeling that America is being emasculated by purveyors of genteel literature, wowsers, teetotalers, and "vassarized" women. "Here," he says, "is a land in which women rule and men are slaves. Train your women to get your slippers for you, and your ill fame will match Galileo's or Darwin's."

As a physical presence Mencken seems to have achieved what he describes as the male ideal: a figure whose "only touch of genuine color" is "the florid blob of the face." As an intellectual presence there's nothing blobby about him. He's a festive brawler, here to bust up the joint. In "The Cult of Hope" (Second Series) he calls the idea that criticism should be constructive a "messianic delusion"; on the contrary, its object is destruction. Mencken's flair for contumely and comic rancor are intoxicating, even to one who disagrees with him more than half of the time. To be sure, in the pages of Prejudices he's sometimes dull and stupid, as when he issues decrees on women's clothing and makeup or on the relations between the sexes; sometimes he's just dull, though unavoidably so, as when he lays into middle-brow writers lost to history; and sometimes he's brilliantly hard-hitting as when he takes on American journalism and other forms of timeserving. There are many reasons to read Prejudices, but for me one trumps them all: that combative, beautifully sprung, ingeniously funny style, as irresistible as a laughing baby.""""

To reiterate: "Mencken's flair for contumely and comic rancor are intoxicating, even to one who disagrees with him more than half of the time." Yes.


jh said...

k a powers is the daughter of the greatest neglectorino of the 20th century
story writer JF Powers

some say he was superior in his ability to flannery o'connor

generally given the status of
the writers' writer
a consummate stylist

lazy as all get out

he spent his last years here
were i am
i sat at his feet for awhile
subjected myself to the most severe redink i had ever known
he'd despise my freeform punctuationless style these days

but ah well

mencken was a brawler
but since he'd read more than anyone else
he could get away with it

he admired the catholic rituals
in baltimore
and thought the protestant weak imitations were the stuff of circus rings
but a cigar and a drink were his sacrament
and delightfully viscious writing
the sort we don't see much of in our time

cheers dude


jh said...

whats with the blog owner approval stuff??

J said...

Head honchos at
Google put on some new spam warez.

Sort of tweaked the moderation. However I've taken down moderation now, and will leave it down, unless I start getting death threats again--from mormons, baptists, the occasional klansman.

generally given the status of
the writers' writer
a consummate stylist

Yes. That's Mencken's power--not merely the content of his writing per se, but the style, the black humor and wit. Sort of german jazz (HL supposedly played piano pretty well--not jass, but Beethoven and Brahms, etc). I think he was a lapsed catholic--he definitely detested puritans of any form (especially calvinist).

Flannery O'Connor's a slightly different issue. She was a very gifted but ...peculiar writer. I don't really read her stories much any more--only so many Boschean visions of the Last Judgement one can take.

Craig said...

I've read critics of Miss Lonelyhearts who interpret the character of Shrike as West's take on Mencken.

J said...

Interesting. It's been a few years since I last read Miss L.,or that other West klassic, Day of the Locust.

The old flick on the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind, featured Gene Kelly as a Mencken-ish like ueber-cynical city-reporter---sort of negative portrayal most thought. Mencken detested Bryan--not to say the townspeople-- and supported the biology teacher Scopes. Mencken, the supposed lapsed catholic, did not approve of creationism.

J said...


Kramer's "Inherit the Wind" portrayed WJ Bryan as a fire and brimstone type but he was a more complex character, really. He was a devout presbyterian and prohibitionist, yet still a democrat. He took on the monopolies and robber barons. He did not care for the Klan (tho like his boss Woodrow Wilson he might have been a bit more vocal about it).

Mencken often sounded a bit Toryish-- somewhat like a Hitchens (tho a rather more savage one)-- in his attacks on Bryan. It should be recalled that many of the early Darwinists were conservatives, and at times supporters of eugenics (including Bryan's nemesis Roosevelt). Bryan thus may have been quite rightly objecting to Social Darwinism (not really arguing for creationism). He made a few speeches along those lines, and also attacked Nietzsche (one of Mencken's heroes).

For that matter Mencken did not care for Wilson either. Mencken errored in his estimation of Wilson, I believe. Wilson had flaws but was a rather brilliant politician in ways, and quite progressive economically speaking. Wilson made sure the robber barons would not be involved in the creation of the Fed--when the libertarian hicks and laissez faire frat-boy types start ranting about the Fed, they are generally upset at the few regs that Wilson and his admin. established.

FDR admired Bryan: "I think that we would choose the word 'sincerity' as fitting him [Bryan] most of all...it was that sincerity that served him so well in his life-long fight against sham and privilege and wrong. It was that sincerity which made him a force for good in his own generation and kept alive many of the ancient faiths on which we are building today. We...can well agree that he fought the good fight; that he finished the course; and that he kept the faith."

Bryan won the case as well (tho it was reversed on appeal), and died a few days later, to Mencken's glee. Perhaps Gene Kelly's depiction of Mencken as eloquent, yet diabolical misanthrope was not far from the mark.

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