In all the tributes offered to the late H. L. Mencken on the occasion of his 100th birthday this Friday, did anyone manage to thank his parents? August and Anna showed remarkable prescience, after all, in conceiving their little monster at the start of an election year. A hundred years later Henry's hymnists have an easy time of it.
He bounded into the world just a few weeks before Mr. Garfield received his anointment at the ballot box. The presidential career of that eminente was unhappily interrupted by an assassin's bullet, but young Henry carried on. Eventually he would come to comment on the career of Garfield's successor, a man of slight significance, as Mencken suggested by writing, "The stuff written by nine authors our of 10, it must be plain at a glance, has as little to do with spreading the enlightenment as the state papers of the late Chester A. Arthur." End of discussions. End of two discussions.
Mencken when to work as a Baltimore newspaperman at the age of 19. His first appearance in print had nothing to do with politics. From the Baltimore Morning Herald of February 24, 1877: "A horse, a buggy, and several sets of harness, valued in all at about $250, were stolen last night from the stable of Howard Quinlan, near Kingsville. The county police are at work on the case, but so far no trace of either thieves or booty has been found."
It was a modest enough start. Before he was finished, though, Mencken would courteously offer his opinion of every man who presumed to hold the highest office in the Republic. Theodore Roosevelt: "blatant, crude, overly confidential, devious, vainglorious, sometimes quite childish." Taft: a man of "native laziness and shiftlessness." Wilson: "the perfect model of a Christian cad." Coolidge: "a cheap trashy fellow, deficient in sense and almost totally devoid of any sense of humor." Hoover had "a natural inclination for the low, disingenuous, fraudulent manipulations that constitute the art and mystery of politics under democracy." Franklin Roosevelt's "constant appeals to class envy and hatred and his frequent repudiation of his own categorical pledges have stripped him of every plausible claim to the name of statesman." Truman: "the embattled gents' furnisher." Mencken never said a kind thing about any president of the United States, and he was proud of it.
"Has the art and mystery of politics no apparent utility?" he wrote. "Does it appear to be unqualifiedly ratty, raffish, sordid, obscene and low down, and its salient virtuosi a gang of unmitigated scoundrels? Then let us not forget its high capacity to sooth and tickle the midriff, its incomparable services as a maker of entertainment." He was the greatest connoisseur of American political conventions who ever lived.
The Henry Wallace orgy of 1948 proved to be his last outing at these quadrennial circuses, and in at least one respect this convention was the scene of one of his greatest tirumphs. The assembled delegates considered a resolution declaring that "whereas H. l. tMencken is guilty of Hitlerite references to the people of this convention," that he "Red-baits, Jew-baits, and Negro-baits" and engages in "un-American slander of the people of this convention . . . therefore be it resolved by the delegates here assembled. That this convention severely censures H. L. Mencken and his contemptible rantings which pass for newspaper reporting."
His friend Alistair Cooke recalled, "Mencken goggled with unaccustomed pride. It was the first time in all his reporting years that a national convention had officially deigned to regret his existence, although the Arkansas state legislature had once petitioned for his deportation. He took a small bow to acknowledge the passing tribute of a boo, but the resolution got no further."
A few months later a stroke laid him permanently low. He lingered until 1956, unable to read or write, and then he died. That Grand Poobah, History, has not decided which of his legacies is the most valuable: literary critic (his years as book reviewer for The Smart Set engineered the revolution of realism in American literature); philologist (his book, The American Language, is still the greatest thing of its kind ever done); social commentator (the six volumes of Prejudices wear as well as the novels of Sinclair Lewis as documents of the 1920s); social thinker (the Treatise books continue to provide stimulation) and as autobiographer (excepting Life on the Mississippi , nothing in American literature quite rates comparison with Mencken's Days trilogy).
But in this year, in this city, it is as well to advertise the qualities of Mencken the political reporter, in order that the uninitiated might discover him for what above all he remains -- one of the funniest and most original men ever to hit the keys of a typewriter and grace our language in the process.