At the outset, let's make one thing perfectly clear: Calling this column "Prejudices" is an act of homage, not of imitation.
If what you're asking is, "Homage to whom? Imitation of what?" well, you're missing something. "Prejudices" was the calling card of the greatest and most widely imitated prose stylist ever to grace the pages of an American newspaper.
Between 1919 and 1927, Henry Louis Mencken published six volumes of "Prejudices." They were collections of essays, ranging in tone from the reflective to the bilious, but consistent in their ferocious bite. In them he railed, and occasionally ranted, against the manifold transgressions of what he called the "booboisie," or "boobus Americanus," or "homo neandertalensis" -- the ordinary American, rich in ignorance and ripe in animus.
The effect these slender volumes had on the nascent American intelligentsia was incalculable. Though we remember the '20s as an age of bathtub gin and sexual revolution, the fact is that they were years of Babbittry, conformity and repression. To the young men and women who sought to rebel against the sterility of the day, Mencken was a hero, a raucous voice booming forth from Baltimore -- of all places! -- and stripping away the nation's facade of humbug and buncombe.
It seemed that he was everywhere: not merely in the "Prejudices" volumes, but also in nine (!) other books published during the decade; in Baltimore's Evening Sun; in the Smart Set and the American Mercury; in the newspaper reports about his flamboyant battles against censorship and hypocrisy. And everywhere that Mencken went, a flock of imitators was sure to go. As Alistair Cooke has wisely observed:
"Like all originals, he was a bad master. By which I mean that he is a dangerous model for authors of lesser talent. During the 1920s, American newspapers and magazines, even the Smart Set and the American Mercury themselves, were full of Mencken imitators, who imitated only the windy rhetoric, the facetious polysyllables, the verbosity. There must have been some awful undergraduate essays spawned by Mencken's fame. This, however, is the price the public has to pay for the appearance of any genuine original."
He was imitated then, and he is imitated today. As evidence that the ghost of Mencken still stalks the corridors of our magazines and newspapers, contemplate Bryan F. Griffin's recent two-part attack in Harper's on the American literary establishment. Griffin is the most blatant of the crypto-Menckens, but he is not alone. William F. Buckley, Nicholas von Hoffman, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., Murray Kempton, James J. Kilpatrick -- they are fine writers all, but all are in thrall to some degree or another to the influence of the master.
To be sure, for anyone in possession of a moderately lively wit and a reasonably sesquipedalian vocabulary, the temptation to imitate is considerable. In case you have forgotten the stately cadence of Mencken's prose -- or, far worse, in case you have never encountered it -- here is a quick refresher course. Mencken on the writing style of Warren Gamaliel Harding:
"Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abcess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash . . . "
Obviously, anyone who found such a passage staring up at him from his typewriter would be convinced he'd died and gone to heaven. But only one man wrote it, and only one man could. It happens that he has been dead for a quarter-century; to attempt to occupy his territory violates his memory more than it honors it. I decline the opportunity.
Yet the temptation certainly is there. For one thing, I am a resident of Baltimore, where the name of Mencken is honored to a degree that frequently lapses from veneration into farce. For another, by mere coincidence these articles, like Mencken's for the Evening Sun, will appear on Mondays. For yet another, I am at work -- or, as my editor doubtless would say, allegedly at work -- on a biography of Mencken; since biographers have a tendency to identify with their subjects as their researches intensify, I have no idea what the future holds for me. I can only promise to resist whatever siren songs I may hear.
But I am also of the view that Mencken is now too widely neglected outside the business of journalism, and that a small tribute to his legacy is in order. Hence "Prejudices." The name, I hope, is assumed modestly; I hope it will serve as a useful reminder, to me as much as to you, that what will be expressed herein will often be prejudice masquerading as opinion. But for better or worse, what you will get here is me, not Mencken; there will never be another Sage of Baltimore.