'My Plan Is to Let People Do Whatever They Please': The daily newspaper columns of H.L. Mencken.

Author:Kauffman, Bill
Position::BOOKS - A Saturnalia of Bunk - Book review
 
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OH, THAT H.L. Mencken were alive today!

You don't hear that wistful resurrectionary sentiment voiced much anymore. A modern newspaper columnist writing in Mencken's gleeful style, with its joyful savagery, its jocose sesquipedalianism, its sheer delight in the American language, would be met with astonished horror on the order of Henry James watching a Sam Kinison video or Robby Mook meeting a man who owns a pickup truck. (I should warn you that one cannot write about Mencken without aping him, however clumsily.)

The longtime Baltimore Evening Sun columnist, American Mercury editor, and rumbustiously splenetic critic, who graced this orb from 1880 to 1956, would not be published in any major newspaper today. The reasons he foresaw over a century ago, when he decried the "cheap bullying and cheaper moralizing" whose purpose was the extirpation, the annihilation, of anything resembling a robust exchange of ideas. Two beliefs puffed up the righteous censor, according to Mencken: first, "that any man who dissents from the prevailing platitudes is a hireling of the devil," and second, "that he should be silenced and destroyed forthwith. Down with free speech; up with the uplift!"

Plus ca change and all that.

ST. Joshi, who has chosen his primary scholarly interests--Mencken, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ambrose Bierce--with a fine eye for readability over reputation, has assembled a selection of Mencken's Evening Sun "Free Lance" columns of 1911-1915 into a book called A Saturnalia of Bunk and contributed an informative introduction to it.

Henry Louis Mencken churned out six of these 1,200-word meringues every week, a vertiginous pace that makes Joyce Carol Oates look like Harper Lee.

Logorrheic bloggers aside, does anyone really have that much to say about the controversies of the day? Mencken once nicked Bierce for reprinting his early work, which was "filled with epigrams against frauds long dead and forgotten, and echoes of old and puerile newspaper controversies." Is A Saturnalia of Bunk similarly irrelevant?

Happily, no. Although Mencken's fusillades against, say, blue laws have grown fusty, his rousing conclusions--"the militant moralist tries to steal liberty and self-respect, and the man who has lost both is a man who has lost everything that separates a civilized freeman from a convict in a chaingang"--have lost none of their punch.

These columns, composed while their author was on the shy side of middle age, afford, says Joshi, "a nearly complete view of...

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