Nothing is more damaging to literary reputation -- bad writing and cogenital obtuseness possibly apart -- than a seeming tendency to attempt too much. The reason is that much literary criticism comes from people for whom extreme specialization is a cover either for grave cerebral inadequacy or terminal laziness, the latter being a much-cherished aspect of academic freedom. This supposition -- that width is always at the expense of depth -- was for a long time very damaging for Mencken. He was a journalist, political and social commentator, essayist, editor, philologist, literary critic, self-taught philosopher and, thoug mostly by his own later account, a committed Bierstube raconteur. No one surely could be all of these things; a man, at a minimum, should show some respect for trade union rules. With all else Mencken, even when editing The Smart Set and The American Mercury , insisted on living in Baltimore. For literary gloss only Wilmington and Memphis could be worse.
Yet the Mencken reputation survived, and in recent times it has expanded, and these two books, thoughtfully scheduled for the hundredth anniversary of his birth, will do it more good than harm. The fist, On Mencken , combines items from his recklessly diverse efforts with comments by William Manchester (who knew and wrote of Mencken in his last years), Huntington Cairns, Alistair Cooke, Charles A. Fecher, Malcolm Moos, Alfred A. Knopf and others. Each of the authors was assigned, if somewhat informally, a different side of Mencken's life or work -- that specialization again. In what is by some margin the most charming of the essays, Alfred Knopf tells, along with items from the correspondence, of relations between publisher and author. There is one enchanting letter in which Mencken asks Knopf if the costs of proof alterations, payable by the author, have not been understated. On no matter whatever could Mencken resist the impulse to be different.
For some of the authors the danger in having their prose side by side with Mencken's adept, exuberant and on occasion outrageous expression should have been foreseen. One or two were impelled in odd paragraphs to try to write like Mencken. A bad mistake. Alistair Cooke, called in to comment on Mencken, on the American language (and other things), wisely warned against such efort but then did worse: "I am saying I think, that Mencken was only a second-rate philosopher when he came to do a set piece, but that he was a wiser and a better writer as a journalist, and as such an original. Like all originals, he was a bad master. By which I mean that he is a dangerous model for authors of lesser talent." Mencken would have given Cooke a bad time on that effort.
Charles Fecher is much better on Mencken's political and social thought and makes a persuasive case for its substance and consistency. One ends up disagreeing but with a residual respect not only for the language but the ideas as well. Malcolm Moos is good on Mencken's political writing. Mencken had an unabashed predilection for political misjudgment which was heightened by the extreme certainty of his statement. He did not give either Franklin D. Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler any chance in politics In 1924, minutes before John W. Davis was nominated, he sent a dispatch to Baltimore saying the only thing certain was that Davis had no chance. But political error or excess commanded some of his very best writing as in the case of his obituary for William Jennings Bryan. It was written straight-up when word came to the Sunpapers, a few days after the Scopes trial, that the fairly great commoner was dead. (For the reprinting of this classis, Cooke, not Moos, must be thanked.)
"Wherever the flambeaux of Chautauqua smoked and guttered, and the bilge of idealism ran in the veins, and Baptist pastors dammed the brooks with the sanctified, and men gathered who were weary and heavy laden, and their wives who were full of Peruna and fecund as the shad (Alosa sapidissima ), there the indefatigable Jennings set up his traps and spread his bait. He knew every coutry town in the South and West, and he could crowd the most remote of them to suffocation by simply winding his horn. The city proletariat, transiently flustered by him in 1896, quickly penetrated his buncombe and would have no more of him; the cockney gallery jeered him at every Democratic national convention for twenty-five years. But out where the grass grows high, and the horned cattle dream away the lazy afternoons, and men still fear the powers and principalities of the air -- out there between the corn-rows he held his old puissance to the end. There was no need of beaters to drive in his game. The news that he was coming was enough. For miles the flivver dust would choke the roads. And when he rose at the end of the day to discharge his Message there would be such breathless attention, such a rapt and enchanted ectasy, such a sweet rustle of amens as the world had not known since Johann fell to Hero's ax."
Malcolm Moos was an aid to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mencken had his disabling stroke in 1948, four years before Eisenhower launched his massive assault on entrenched syntax. This is too bad; Ike would have given Mencken (and Moos) a lot of choice material.
Mencken's political specialty, as Moos tells (and many others have noticed), was the national conventions, occasions which accorded him not only. the greatest scope for his talent but much personal pleasure as well. And here he was ahead of his time; before anyone, he saw them as a triumph of banality over content. One weeps that Mencken was not back to report on the folk rites of the summer past. What pleasure he would have found in the way statesmen assailed the teleprompters; in the inspired indifference of the audiences; and, above all, in the solemn efforts of the great television artists, singly or in interviews with each other, to pretend that something was happening. Mencken, a full 40 years ago, learned what all but the television people now know: the convention is our greatest non-event.
I would judge Mencken to have been more reliable on literary than on political judgments (conventions apart), but here too he was fallible. With others who are better qualified to judge, I have always though Babbitt a brilliantly original but deeply flawed novel. Babbitt's detour into the social, political and sexual subculture of the city is contrived and unconvincing. Mencken's enthusiasms were transcendent and unqualified; he could not have said more for War and Peace . More often, however, his literary assessment was balanced, scrupulous and, in contrast with his political comment, showing an almost ostentatious effort to be kindly as well as fair.
From the depression years on, Mencken was out of favor; he could not take Roosevelt seriously, and he could not believe that the depression was real. Accepting that he was unfashionable he turned back to his own history. The three books that resulted -- Happy Days, Newspaper Days and Heathen Days -- came out either as the war was approaching or in its midst. They did not receive the attention they deserved, for they are informative, wonderfully amusing and also more than moderately inventive. It was Mencken's view that in anything so important as autobiography, one should not be confined by fact. Art had its higher claims. The second of the two Mencken volumes listed above is a selection from the three autobiographical volumes. The selections are also excellent. If anyone has doubts, here, from Newspaper Days , is. Mencken on the Baltimore police force in his early years as a reporter.
"They were badly paid, buy they carried on their dismal work with unflagging diligence, and loved a long, hard chase almost as much as they loved a quick, brisk clubbing. Their one salient failing, taking them as a class, was their belief that any person who had been arrested, even on mere suspicion, was unquestionably and ipso facto guilty.
"In those days that pestilence of Service which torments the American people today was just getting under way, and many of the multifarious duties now carried out by social workers, statisticians, truant officers, visiting nurses, psychologists, and the vast rabble of inspectors, smellers, spies and bogus experts of a hundred different faculties either fell to the police or were not discharged at all. An ordinary flatfoot in a quiet residential section had his hands full. In a single day he might have to put out a couple of kitchen fires, arrange for the removal of a dead mule, guard a poor epileptic having a fit on the sidewald, catch a runaway horse, settle a combat with table knives between husband and wife, shoot a cat for killing pigeons, rescue a dog or a baby from a sewer, bawl out a white-wings for spilling garbage, keep order on the sidewalk at two or three funerals, and flog half a dozen bad boys for throwing horse-apples at a blind man. The cops downtown, especially along the wharves and in the red-light districts, had even more curious and complicated jobs, and some of them attained a high degree of virtuosity."