- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

MENCKEN’S AMERICA

Edited by S.T. Joshi

Ohio University Press, $49.95 ($22.95 paper), 244 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN C. CHALBERG.

Where, oh, where are the H.L. Menckens of today? The lament is a common one, and it issues from all corners of the political landscape. No doubt that’s because Mencken himself defied easy categorization. If conservatives appreciate his call for limited government, liberals treasure his anti-puritanical, strictly secular, civil-libertarian self. Everyone, it seems, can find something to love about a writer who is not exactly remembered for his lovability.

Everyone certainly includes S.T. Joshi, who, with “Mencken’s America,” has given Mencken aficionados multiple reasons to remember why he remains worth reading; and Mencken neophytes a ready excuse to advance beyond that primitive level. The absence of Mencken imitators matters little so long as there are S.T. Joshis on hand to do the collecting and re-collecting, thereby keeping the original around to be discovered and rediscovered.

Mr. Joshi is to be especially commended for bringing together not just another “best of Mencken,” but for offering us a “wide sampling” of what Mencken did best, namely, compose lengthy and yet always sparkling essays on the ever-passing, but also ever-eternal, American scene.

The bard of Baltimore (and third-generation American) may have claimed immigrant status for the whole of his American life. He may even have actually believed as much. But H.L. Mencken was an American through and through.

More than that, he was a bourgeois American. As such, he was a member in good standing of the very “booboosie” that he so delightfully skewered.

To be sure, he was neither a Rotarian nor a man with the soul of a Rotarian (to borrow slightly from Eugene McCarthy on Walter Mondale as vice president). But Mencken was a man of regular habits and haunts, a man who kept careful tabs on the state of his health and bank account, a man who took care of his family and paid his bills, and a man of ambition and craftsmanship who did not let a day go by without working hard at his chosen occupation.

He was, in sum, a responsible adult. It just so happened that he was also a genius.

H.L. Mencken was an outsider, not an immigrant outsider, but an outsider nonetheless. Such is the lot of the critic, which Mencken was, and the lot of the elitist, which Mencken was, and the lot of the genius, which Mencken surely was.

Few Americans understood their country better than this fellow American. Few, if any, wrote about it better. And no American writer, save Mark Twain, could be at once funnier and more insightful, not just in the same piece, but often in the same sentence.

Prove it, you say. Why spoil your fun, I respond. Besides, what follows is a sporting attempt at the seemingly impossible — that is, writing a review about Mencken without borrowing a line from the genius himself. Impossible, you say. Why spoil my fun, I respond.

Mr. Joshi understandably succumbs to the temptation this reviewer is resisting. He is, after all, out to sell books and make a case. Teasers, therefore, are in order — and provided below. So is the case.

In brief, Mencken was at odds with his fellow Americans, countrymen uniquely “impervious to criticism” (that’s Mr. Joshi, not Mencken), because those same Americans were invariably Puritans at heart. Proving that point has governed nearly all of Mr. Joshi’s selections, few of which had previously been collected. While it is safe to say that most of these essays are drawn from Mencken’s heyday, the 1920s, Mr. Joshi neglects to date any of them.

That quibble aside, he has provided a useful set of notes and an extensive name glossary. In between, he simply steps aside and lets Mencken rip away.

And rip away he does. This Mencken aficionado found much that was familiar and not a little that was new. But familiar or otherwise, Mencken remains forever fresh (as in novel), as opposed to fresh (as in sophomoric).

What binds it all together is H.L. Mencken on American culture, broadly defined. Specifically, there are pieces on American politics, religion, morals, literature, race relations, ideas, language, and cities.

Had cities not made the editor’s final cut it would be difficult to find much of anything that Mencken liked (beyond the American language, which he loved). Not that this Baltimorean was a fan of all American cities, because he wasn’t. But two stand out: Baltimore, because this American was sufficiently un-American to root himself in one place; and San Francisco, because this American was un-American enough to prefer places that smacked of what he thought America wasn’t, namely civilization, especially non-puritanical European civilization, as he defined it.

Mr. Joshi inevitably asks and answers two inevitable questions. Why did Mencken stay here? The show was too good to miss. Secondly, what would Mencken say today? This time Mr. Joshi offers a waffling version of “it depends on the topic at hand.”

What, for example, might Mencken say about San Francisco (to pick a topic not exactly at random)? He visited the city in 1920 and again in 1926, but this was clearly a case of love at first sight.

San Francisco was a place where … (okay, I surrender, but only because what follows sounds so terribly un-Menckenian and so downright Whitmanesque), “one rises in the morning with a gigantic sense of fitness — a feeling of superb well-being … It is a land of magnificent mornings.”

Who knows what Mencken would say about life in San Francisco today? It can’t be too much to suggest that he would be amused and, yes, even appalled by the early 21st-century version of in-your-face American Puritanism suddenly on the loose there.

Whether he was Mencken the citizen, or Mencken the libertarian, or Mencken the anti-politician and anti-reformer, H.L. Mencken always had a special fondness for those Americans who had the good sense and common decency to let their fellow citizens, not to mention well enough, alone.

All three Menckens would have been quite content to let gay San Francisco be gay San Francisco. But today’s homosexual San Franciscans, which is to say formerly anti-Puritan San Franciscans, masquerading as born-again Puritans by demanding to be married? My oh my, would H.L. Mencken have had a field day with that.

Where is he when we need him? After all, isn’t he the fellow who once told us that Puritanism was the haunting hope that someone, somewhere might be homosexual?

Not quite right, you aficionados say. What would be right, the neophytes ask? This aficionado would love to answer, but breaking a no-quote pledge twice would be pretty unsporting, now, wouldn’t it?

When not teaching American history in Minnesota, John C. “Chuck” Chalberg performs a one-man show as H.L. Mencken.

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