Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mencken and the End of the World

I could not help thinking about H.L. Mencken this past weekend while listening to the boobs and dunces on cable news proclaiming the end of the world. No doubt that is what he would have called them: boobs and dunces. Mencken was a journalist and cultural critic from Baltimore, and he never tired of finding innovative ways to denigrate the idiocy displayed by Americans. This weekend, I dipped into the middle volume of his three book autobiography, Newspaper Days 1899-1906, and came out the other side adding him to my list of influential writers I feel I know but have never met.

My first encounter with Mencken’s voice was through the character of Hornbeck, the cynical reporter in the play, Inherit The Wind, who was modeled after the distinguished newspaper man. From that moment on, I have been a dedicated reader of his work. However, this was my first foray into his autobiography. I found his writing here infinitely readable, although the times and people of which he writes are long gone. His were the days when America learned of itself solely through news print, and Mencken’s prose could both lacerate and eviscerate America’s sacred cows. Journalism also dictated the story, and Mencken tells us insider tales of rival reporters colluding on the narrative, sometimes resorting to minor fictions over absolute truths to advance the telling.

Journalism must be an objective art, as the academics tell us. A good reporter presents the facts and lets the reader decide. But any journalist worth his salt knows this is dogma and that the reality of the situation may call for a subtle influence on the part of the writer. Facts can be manipulated, especially when a writer chooses which ones to tell his readers, and how to place them in the story. Mencken was a master of this art. His work was not anonymous or interchangeable with other writers. As his reputation grew, he did not undergo as much editorial vetting nor suffer the homogenization of his prose by the rewrite desk. No sir, early 20th century newspaper readers knew Mencken’s prose when they encountered it. His writing was acerbic and sharp, and he was not afraid to call out the miscreants and hold their feet to the fire especially if they were politicians or other blowhards, all of whom were the same horny beast to Mencken.

So I did not have to think too hard to know what he would say about the end of the world charlatans of May 21, 2011. And of course, they were wrong, unless one lived in the path of those tornadoes in Missouri. For those poor souls, some of whom lost their lives and others their homes, it was the end of the world, but the world is always ending for someone somewhere, which renders those predictions meaningless.

In all the punditry and flailing on cable news, I hear no voices like Mencken’s. Newspapers have lost the war for relevancy as hard copies or first drafts of history. What news these former paper giants publish now is digitized and one might argue, superficial at best. Few aspire to say anything of depth or insight. Statements of the obvious are the rule, and we face a wall of sound hurled at us by those boobs and dunces pretending to offer analysis for the consumption by other boobs and dunces lounging in their recliners screaming their amens. We need someone like Mencken to cut through the crap. Yes, he had his prejudices and blemishes, but they were his own and not bought and paid for by corporate rapists and spin-meisters. He was smarter than that, and so were his readers. He could irritate and annoy, but his work challenged readers to consider their beliefs. These days we are beset with people who tell us what to think and then the message is repeated over and over again. We suffer from our own misidentified cleverness which in reality, is superficiality bordering on stupidity. Some of us have even crossed that border.

What I mourn for here are the days when good journalism challenged us to be better citizens, not offer us targets to blame for our own inadequacies. Writers like Mencken used to come along and report world events and help us make sense of the world where those events occurred. They were professionals, voices that came with a body of knowledge. Journalists were smart people who had a broad range of knowledge and experience. They lived their stories, and functioned as voices of reason in the wilderness of daily life. Nowadays, with all the noise and compromised pabulum disguised as reporting, it is difficult to hear the true voice over the cacophony of celebrity news readers, aka the pretty people who scream simple words devoid of substance on our televisions twenty-four hours a day. The only good thing about the end of the world is that hopefully, it will bring some much needed peace and quiet.


  1. Another nice essay, Paul. I got a used book of Mencken essays at the friends of library bookstore for 35cents -- another great benefit of libraries.

  2. I have purchased more than a few of my books at library castoff sales, but I always have problems walking out the door with my books. Somehow, even though I've paid for them, I feel like I'm stealing. 35 cents for Mencken sounds criminal. You are lucky. The up side is that whatever we buy at the library sale usually supports future acquisitions, so I feel less guilty. Thanks for commenting.


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