When the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in August 1925, H. L. Mencken was stationed at the Treasury Building, taking notes with the rest of the press.
Before them unfolded a remarkable sight: thousands of Klan members and their families, many from the North, filling the most important street in Washington from the Capitol to the White House. It was a defiant and chilling exhibition of power; this was, after all, a time when hundreds of public officials on the local, state and even national levels were elected with known Klan sympathies -- or even, in some cases, were unabashed members.
The implications of the Klan's swaggering about the nation's capital were not lost on Mencken, a long-time and outspoken opponent of the organization. Yet this is what he wrote in his story for The Evening Sun:
"Pennsylvania led the van, and, in fact, dominated the whole parade. After two hours its host were still passing. They marched proudly, and showed a lurid fancy in their investiture. The men of Sam D. Rich, of Pittsburgh, were clothed in robes faced with scarlet, and wore mitres of the sort affected by patriarchs of the Greek rite. They had their wives with them -- fat, amiable gals mainly, with their make-ups dripping from the ends of their noses. The men of Johnstown wore trench hats; those of Holidaysburg bore muskets. Altoona was led by a Klan intellectual in horn-rimmed spectacles. . . .
"So they marched past, rank after rank -- the beauty and chivalry of Kutztown, Kunkletown, Kratzerville, Kleinfeltersville, Schwenkville, Houtzdale and Hamburg. The Klan gown was only the beginning of their attire. Over it some wore the cloaks of Spanish grandees of the sixteenth century and some the robes of Shinto high priests. One platoon was in green baldrics emblazoned with vermilion crosses; another wore huge special shakers bespattered with gilt stars. The example of the Moose has not gone for naught in the mining towns. There is a rising taste for elegance there, and it showed itself brilliantly in today's parade."
On and on Mencken wrote in like manner, disemboweling the Klan with controlled derision and sharp detail. Perhaps some journalists presented their distaste for the parade in a straightforward and outraged tone (and understandably so), but not Mencken, who saw the Klan members for what they were: petty and cowardly and abysmally ignorant. One of the parade's leaders was an "imperial profligate" whose uniform "was a mass of glittering gems, the love-offering, no doubt, of his lieges sweating on foot behind him. He acknowledged the huzzahs of the rabble with graceful sweeps of the left hand. A regal fellow, and much happier in patriotic work, you may be sure, than he ever was in the lime and cement business."
This excerpt, from the recently published "The Impossible Mencken: a Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories" (edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers; Doubleday, 707 pages, $27.50), shows Mencken at the top of his game: incisive, brave, capturing even the tiniest nuance, exposing sham and hypocrisy as only he could do. One recalls the observation of Joseph Conrad: "Mencken's vigor is astonishing. It is like an electric current. In all he writes there is a crack of blue sparks . . . that give you a sense of enormous power."
Taken from the approximately 3,000 newspaper stories that Mencken wrote -- primarily for The Evening Sun and The Sun, but also the New York Evening Mail and the Chicago Sunday Tribune -- the 200 or so that make up "The Impossible Mencken" remind us again of the extraordinary vitality of his writing.
Though some pieces focus on the arts, or such matters on the best way to prepare crabs and oysters, most show Mencken centering in on the biggest issues of the day. Be it political conventions (a favorite subject), Prohibition, the Scopes trial, lynchings on the Eastern Shore or overzealous traffic policing in Baltimore, Mencken boldly strode into the fray. In her introduction, Ms. Rodgers cites an appropriate comment from Mencken: "The two main ideas that run through all my writing, whether it be literary criticism or political polemic, are these: I am strongly in favor of liberty and I hate fraud."
Upon reading the opening pages of "The Impossible Mencken," one reaction quickly sprang to mind: what a contrast to, and welcome relief from, the last book we saw about the Sage of Baltimore, "The Diary of H. L. Mencken."
That gloomy, frequently bitter book came out two years ago and, in the eyes of even some fans of the Sage of Baltimore, put some tarnish on his reputation. Here was Mencken railing against Jews, blacks and poor white workers who came to Baltimore during World War II ("lintheads," he called them); some colleagues and supposed old friends got rough treatment as well. Mencken even allowed, in an especially saddening entry, ,, that it probably was a mistake that his ancestors had immigrated from Germany, and that he had never really felt at home in the United States.
In "The Impossible Mencken," though, we sense not an embittered old man who feels life has passed him by, but one who is taking in the show, however ludicrous it may be, and is enjoying it immensely. As he wrote in The Evening Sun in 1925, "What keeps me going at my trade, I suppose, is my continuous curiosity, my endless interest in the stupendous farce of human existence."
Even after enduring the dreadfully long Democratic convention of 1924, he was moved to write at the end: "For there is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging. It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell -- and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour."
Mencken reworked many of these newspaper pieces for magazine articles in The Smart Set and The American Mercury, and for his books. Thus, veteran Mencken readers may recall seeing different versions of the stories in such volumes as "Prejudices," "In Defense of Women," "Happy Days," "Newspaper Days" and "The American Language." Often he was able to polish them further, filling in more detail while adding the benefit of detachment gained over time.
Yet one could scarcely argue that the stories in "The Impossible Mencken" are thus devalued. If anything, they often border on the extraordinary: Written under the duress of constant deadlines, with distractions aplenty and little chance for reflection, they nonetheless are beautifully written and bursting with energy.
Anyone who has ever stared at a typewriter (or, more recently, a laptop computer) and agonized over writing a few paragraphs while a deadline hangs ominously can only marvel at Mencken's productivity and elegant writing under pressure.
But "The Impossible Mencken" brings another welcome reminder: the power, and the possibilities, of newspapers. Though he relished his role as a quotidian observer and commentator, Mencken had no illusions about journalism. The average newspaperman, he wrote in 1927, "tends to be a dispirited drudge toting the mimeographed pronunciamentos of press agents," and Washington correspondents "are too stupid to penetrate the fraudulencies by which they are surrounded." In the late 1930s and '40s he contended bitterly that many newspapers, including this one, were shamefully hoodwinked by Franklin Roosevelt, whom Mencken grew to hate in almost legendary proportions.
Though one could not expect newspaper reporters to match Mencken's writing, one could consider his courage. Above all, Mencken showed that newspapers could (and must) be brave. He took on targets that many commentators of his time would not: the Klan, the Palmer raids of 1919, the Eastern Shore lynchings. And disparaging as he could be of the American populace, at heart he felt it deserved intelligent and brave work from its newspapers.
That is evident despite his observation in 1926 that a newspaper aimed at the "vast class of illiterates" and "even larger class of near-illiterates" could be enormously successful -- provided it would "avoid every idea that is beyond the understanding of a boy of 10" and would "print no news about anything that morons are not interested in." The cynic would say you could throw in a colorful weather map, a total absence of any grace in writing and morally bankrupt leadership and you would have USA Today; one only slightly more cynical would contend that with a little stretching, Mencken's strictures could apply to many more papers that have determined it is better to avoid offending -- or even challenging -- their readers.
As for Mencken? I suspect that if he were around in a newsroom today, after some I-told-you-so chest-thumping about the sorry state of journalism, he would be found deep in the bayous and parishes of Louisiana. There's a gubernatorial race to cover, and we could only imagine what he'd think of David Duke.