In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Marketing Manager Erin Rolfs writes about Mencken on Mencken.
I think the vast majority of people immediately go to Edgar Allen Poe when you string the words “writer” and “Baltimore” together. Then a few of us with a tighter grip on contemporary pop culture might point to The Wire’s David Simon or the newly released memoir Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In fact, many notable authors—Edna St. Vincent Millay to John Waters spring to mind—have called Baltimore home at some point in their lives. But with all due respect to this fine company of crab cake–eating wordsmiths, the Baltimorean writer I re-read the most is H. L. Mencken.
My first introduction to him was in high school—back when I was sure I was going to be a journalist—and the teacher who oversaw the student newspaper passed out Mencken’s editorial on the Scopes Monkey Trial, published in the Baltimore Sun in 1923. His summary contained the following:
The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti-evolution law and the simian imbecility under it. There hasn’t been the slightest pretense to decorum. The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions.
Once I found my way around Mencken’s penchant for swift verbal jibes and the parlance of the 1920s—this alone required a dictionary and an encyclopedia (it was 1997 after all, and I still had to crack a spine to “search” for something)—I was shocked. I didn’t know you could be so brutal in print, especially when treading the thin topical ice of religion and science, and I certainly didn’t think anyone in the entire era of the typewriter ever published anything so scathing in a mainstream newspaper.
Later, as I pursued a journalism minor in college, Mencken popped up again in a lecture on op-eds. I was captivated by both his grumpy, unforgiving attitude and his sharp observations. He seemed enlightened and despondent, empathetic and critical, progressive and bigoted. For instance, in his 1918 book, In the Defense of Women, he writes:
The truth is that neither sex, without some fertilization by the complementary characters of the other, is capable of the highest reaches of human endeavor. Man, without a saving touch of woman in him, is too doltish, too naive and romantic, too easily deluded and lulled to sleep by his imagination to be anything above a cavalryman, a theologian or a stock-broker. And woman, without some trace of that divine innocence which is masculine, is too harshly the realist for those vast projections of the fancy which lie at the heart of what we call genius. Here, as elsewhere in the universe, the best effects are obtained by a mingling of elements.
That’s a really bold stance to take even today—let alone prior to women winning the right to vote—as we grapple with the meaning of gender. Point Mencken. One is tempted to keep reading his work, lured in by his frank embrace of equality. “I believe in complete freedom of thought and speech,” he pronounced, “alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.” But, low and behold, eventually you will get snagged on the gratuitous use (which could be anything above zero, but for him ranks in the dozens) of the word “darkie,” a pretty strong tinge of anti-Semitic language, and numerous disparaging remarks regarding the tastes of the poor, the rural, and the undereducated. Demerit Mencken. I continue to struggle with my affinity and disgust for him. I don’t know that I’ll ever make up my mind to love or loathe him.
In LSU Press’s book Mencken on Mencken, edited by S. T. Joshi, we can delve into the writer’s life in Baltimore, his work as a journalist and author, and his world travels. In the process, we gain a lot of insight into the man and the humanity that surrounded him in his own words. Throughout, you can neither avoid his direct, witty, and socialist take nor his capacity for both perception and pitilessness. But you do have to wrestle with the fact that he has trouble perceiving his own privilege. At times he allows his talent for “calling it like it is” to interfere with a deeper introspection that could have produced a more meaningful story. But a book like Mencken on Mencken allows us to explore the mind of a controversial figure without applying the bias he was so fond of espousing.
What we gain as a result is, if not unconditional admiration, an appreciation for the tradition of debate in America over sexism, religion, nationalism, modernization, and politics. Without the beautifully outspoken and albeit irritating lot like Mencken, these topics would remain taboo discussions in the mainstream and, all thoughts on Creationism aside, decidedly less evolved.
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