Mencken, as you know, sounds like a shellfish of some outlandish North Sea sort that you eat on the half-shell with chopped cabbage.
But I have seen none here at the wonderful Lexington Market, whither I have repaired as first stop on a pilgrimage to Henry L. Mencken's beloved Baltimore, a port town on a saline outlet 45 minutes from Washington.
It is a charming city with the cleanest front steps and frowziest 19th century row houses on the East Coast, and in one of them Mencken himself lived for 70-odd years, 70 distinctly odd years.
Mencken was a newspaper reporter, for 42 years with The Baltimore Sun, much given to extravagance, and a trifle negative in outlook, you might say. But then you could always tell what he was writing about and he did not believe (as his betters sometimes did) in putting folk to sleep.
Moreover, he assumed his readers had the intelligence of a bright lad of 10 and did not require, therefore, to be told what a cow is or how to open a car door. He did not condescend to his readers and they rather liked that.
Many of his views, uttered decades ago (today is the centennial of his birth and he only made it to 75) are a sound now as they were then:
"It is my firm conviction, reached after long experience, profound pondering and incessant prayer, that no man who is worth a hoot will ever be president of the United Staes hereafter. We are doomed to suffer an endless procession of quacks."
But then again his shrewd analysis would desert him and he would fall into the wombling trots, so to speak, and come up with such despicable and dangerous follies as this:
"All men named Henry should be put to death."
Ha, ha, indeed.
Dr. Samuel Johnson once said of a play that "it has not wit enough to keep it sweet," and Mencken tried hard to keep his invective sweet through the liberal employment of wit. If he sometimes failed, well, you usually fail if you seize the chariot of the sun. But as Ovid said of Phaethon, you might say of Mencken:
"If he did not succeed, at least he dared greatly before he fell."
And when all is done, there are worse things to be said of a man.
He adored Baltimore. He was, as I say, wired up to a different drum, and from time to time he wrote paeans in her praise:
"We slept under mosquito canapies but they were flimsy netting and there were always holes in them so that when a mosquito or fly once got in he had us all to himself and made the most of it. It was not uncommon in summer for a bat to follow the procession."
He loved the old city with a passion and tenderness difficult to understand, but he never soared loftily about his love, keeping to the humble track of what you could eat in Baltimore or how you could sweat -- you would never confuse his hymns to Baltimore with a song for Zion.
His whole career he feared bombast, inflated language, false nobility, empty limitations of loveliness. You could make him retch up his terrapin soup by being beautiful in print.
On the other hand, he held the King James Bible in awe, unsurpassed in his day (as in all others) for good solid gorgeousness of tongue. But he knew that sort of beauty was not for him, not within his range, and he was careful not to make a jackass of himself attempting either a depth or a music he had no resources for.
With Mencken, you were generally amused, sometimes edified, but rarely if ever moved to large emotions -- as you were with, say, Walter Lippmann, the prince of Mencken's contemporaties.
Sometimes Mencken has been compared -- recklessly -- with George Bernard Shaw, who had a more piercing wit, a greater technical skill and a finer mind, and who furthermore could get close enough to you to make you cry, an intimacy Mencken never dared.
Even Mark Twain, an idol of Mencken's used to blurt out things like this:
"God bless Memphis, the noblest city on the face of the earth."
For sheer extravagance, it equals anything in Mencken, but you could not imagine Mencken saying anything like that about Baltimore with its sweet flies and beetles and bats. It was simply not his style to risk seeming to be an ass when he was in love, even if the love were as innocent as the love of Baltimore.
After a few years with Mencken's words you come to the conclusion his rhetoric did not so much reveal his heart as conceal it, and he used invective beautifully, not only as his favored art form, but also to avoid any risk of seeming soft or not quite manly.
Today his beloved city makes a great thing of his centennial. Alistair Cooke -- he who comes on after the trumpets in Masterpiece Theatre -- presides both tonight and tomorrow at sold-out-banquets honoring Mencken's memory. The Enoch Pratt Free Library opens a major Mencken show -- documents and memorabillia -- that will run for months, and there will be receptions and films and reminiscences today at a number of events in old Crabtown.
Seven years after a brain thrombosis left him helpless to read or write he died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 75. Once he had been all the rage, both as a wit and an intellectual. He had edited the American Mercury. He had written five million words of opinion about everything. He was admired for his continuing assault on what remained of Victorian "gentility" and everyone (even Southerners) admired his fertility and invention in raking the South over the coals year after year. The Sahara of the beaux-arts.
He made up wonderful images, figures of speech, that people remembered forever. Of Calvin Coolidge he once said that his election by Americans reminded him of a fellow who turned down a feast to sate his belly with catching flies.
He dreamed up insults for Catholics, Protestants, Holly Rollers. He endeared himself to the English and the Scotch by observing that for centuries English blood had been polluted by Scotch (and Irish and Welsh) infusions which you gathered, was rather like hooking up a trout stream to municipal cesspools.
Still, it was hard to convince yourself he held any real malice, though he did love to say Anglo-Saxons in general were cowardly, inefficient, and demonstrably inferior to everybody else.
He did have some good things to say about Germans. Teutons. He even noticed some points in favor of Hitler (his New Deal seemed to be working better than Roosevelt's) though he was not quite able to see in Hitler the yellow-haired, god-muscled, azure-eyed dream that the Germans saw in Der Fuehrer. On the contrary, Mencken thought Hilter was another jackass, like politicians in general.
Jews, Mencken observed, in America were sometimes rather brassy and pushy.
So were some writers of the Baltimore Sun. He was widely scolded for what was seen as his anti-Semitism. And blacks, very possibly, were suspicious of such Mencken phrases as "prehensile minorities."
He despised Franklin Roosevelt or at least was not an admirer of the president, partly for reasons of general chemistry and partly because he distrusted an omnipotent government that he saw Roosevelt ushering in.
Once Mencken attended a newspaper dinner at which Roosevelt spoke. FDR enchanted his audience by quoting Mencken to them, on the topic of press competence. Mencken had written:
"Most of the evils that continue to beset American journalism today, in truth, are not due to the rascality of owners nor even to the Kiwanian bombast of business managers (Hear! Hear!) but simply and solely to the stupidity, cowardice and philistinism of working newspapermen. The majority of them are still ignoramuses and proud of it."
Mencken loved to beat dead horses, rarely contending himself with a single gibe or a single column on the topic. He added, in case anybody didn't get it the first time, a few more thoughts in a book review:
"The average American newspaper [man] even of the so-called better sort is not only quite as bad as Upton Sinclair says it is, but 10 times as ignorant, 10 times as unfair and tyrannical, 10 times as complaisant and pusillanimous, 10 times as devious, hypocritical, disingenuous, deceitful, pharisaical, pecksniffian, fraudulent, slippery, unscrupulous, perfidious, lewd and dishonest."
Mencken was rarely able to resist adjectives. Rarely able to say of some shady character like a newspaper reporter that you wouldn't want to buy a used car from him. He laid it on thick.
He went on -- it gives you something of the flavor of Mencken's virtues and faults as a writer to continue a bit farther in his adjectival whipping of ordinary working stiffs on newspapers:
"The average newspaper (man), especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high-school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines and the honor of a police-station lawyer."
When Roosevelt addressed the press with such quotations from Mencken, most people were enchanted, but Mencken was not amused. It was all right for him to say it (true, obviously) but not all right for some goddam politician to say it.
You might ask why Mencken was not faster on his feet -- you can think of at least 217 reporters who could have answered the president with great humility and (if God did not desert them) stiletto.
Well, now it's over, and here we are in Baltimore, for Mencken is worth a pilgrimage, though flawed. Even King David was a very bad boy but God loved him anyway, and beyond doubt it's the same with Mencken.
We wend our way, then, to the Lexington Market, where we eat many things purely out of respect to the Mencken memory. Otherwise we would never have eaten the second fried hard crab or the extra whiting sandwich or the compote of melons or (with due questioning whether it was right) some umpyteagues or something on the half-shell, discovered a bit late.
And let's go then, you and I, to the ancient Fish Market, which is to Baltimore what the sepulchers of Winchester are to the English, what the tombs of St. Deis are to the French; that is, the place where the noblest are at rest. The flounders looked superb, and the rockfish examined with the suspicious eye of your typical Baltimore hausfrau gave back as good as they got.
Nor would we miss the new institution of the City of Baltimore Flea Market, an important event at which more plastic kitchen chairs can be examined than at any other site in Christendom. And the Harbor, inner and outer, and the great glass skyscrapers with golden sculpture hanging from the ceilings. It is a living city with a reasonable living throb to it, and you can almost imagine someone's falling in love with it, especially if the highways to Washington are closed.
Mencken dreamed up an eptaph Not so good as Nero's of course ("i fancy I am turning into a god") but charming all the same:
"Forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."
To Baltimore the world has come today to fulfill these requests. More easily, some say, than in any other city of Christendom.
There is no avoiding the racial gibes, breathtaking even in Mencken's day, invariably redundant flow of naughty adjectives, as illustrated in his comments on the press.
But if that were all there were to him, or if that were the great thing about him, not even Baltimore would celebrate his centennial. It might be Agnew or Mandel Day instead of Mencken Day, except for some great things about Mencken:
He did his damnedest to see we did not all perish of lace poisoning. That we did not go to our graves from a surfeit of butterfly pudding. He cleaned the house a bit, for all his faults, and made the air more breathable, less stuffy.
He was sometimes so funny you blessed the iron keys of his thomping typewriter. And then of course he was so utterly right about so many things -- not the press, of course -- like the religioso types who have forgotten their true calling to wash dishes at the Acme Cafe and have assumed the world. Or the vicious injustice he found here, there and yonder.
His article following the death of William Jennings Bryan was not conventional, of course, since its main point was thank God the bastard's finally dead at last, and yet it is a balanced, well-reasoned bit of work that no right-thinking steady citizien can help applauding.
His very last article lit into the powers that be, that arrested folk for taking part in an integrated sports event. He was too easily seduced by his he was on the side of angels. Sometimes.
Marquis Childs, a respected reporter, once said that Mencken's pigheaded prejudices (not that he used those words) made it impossible to take Mencken seriously as a political reporter.
And some say now that Mecken will be remembered not for his brisk, ornery and delicious columns, but for his scholarly work on English in the United States, our vocabularies and usages.
Mencken was physically more homely -- his utter lack of looks preclude the dazzling adjective "ugly" -- than any reporter ever baptized into American ink. At no time in his life was his body a pride or a glory, even a press standards, and this may have colored his outlook.
Mencken did not have a reputation as a great ladies' man. He married, once, but Sara Haardt died five years later. Like many men of the better sort, Mencken was somewhat clumsy, not to say gauche, in matters of the heart. He had a friend, Gretchen Hood of Washington. It was she who took the initiative by suggesting he run for president. Mecken replied, and Miss Hood replied and before you could say Jack Robinson Miss Hood had a accumulated 243 letters from him.
Gossips said romance was in the air. Mecken used to come to town to visit her. Once when she had been his hostess at one of his own dinner parties, he wrote her that she was completely incomparable and should be ranked with Martha Washington. Whether this was what a maiden's heart longs to hear is not known.
In any case, there had been some reason to think things were getting serious, when Mencken wrote her our of the blue that he was getting married. It was the first Miss Hood had ever heard Sara Haardt's name. Miss Hood was by all accounts a splendid lass, a former opera singer who lived down near 13th and Clifton in an amazing house jammed with gilded frames and big mirrors and lots of small Oriental rugs (in the fashion of 1920) and a piano the size of a truck and plenty of Victorian chairs you could easily slide off of.
After his wife's death, Mencken tried to resume the friendship and the correspondence, but Miss Hood cooled it. Possibly Mencken never understood the shock of his letter, "I suppose you have heard of my approaching marriage . . ."
She said, "He wasn't a romatic man, in the sense that you'd jump in bed with him. I couldn't imagine him as a lover."
(Maybe Mencken had a few injured feelings, too.)
And if it may be said, plainly, without seeming to undercut his reputation, types who remember him well.
Nobody admired 18th-century dwellings more than Mencken. He saw -- he was no fool -- they were ideal to live in modest and gracious and roomy and solid and right. But should any iconoclast let it be known the ideal house is an 18th-century English one?
He worshiped Bach.Should a smasher of gentility and all its pretensions admit to a passion for the music of Bach, of Mozart, of Beethoven? Once he decided to sum up the music of Bach and he did it this way:
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . . and God said let there be light. And there was light."
Not his own words, acutally, as scholars will recognize. One of the touching things about Mencken is that one keeps suspecting his own words were never quite lucid enough for his central love, never quite dazzling enough to say what he meant, not all the way.
But of course, compared with the colums we have stuffed in our faces today in newspapers, Mencken was the cat's meow to be sure. His town, like his memory, is not quite the holy city, not quite Jerusalem the golden, no, but surely worth a little pilgrimage?