The pig-tracks of the Sage


AS A 15-YEAR resident of this relaxed and affectionate old city, I am continually bemused by the thriving cultism inspired by H.L. Mencken in Baltimore. In this 40th anniversary year of his death, a standing-room-only throng gathered last Saturday at a local book emporium for yet another veneration of the Sage of Baltimore.

Sagacious or not, Mencken was a resolute practitioner and defender of heresy, so I trust that he would salute my blasphemy in assaulting -- well, the Sage himself.

First a concession: Mencken's "The American Language" merits due recognition as a magisterial work of scholarship. But that said, the great body of his work remains fraught with error and contains little of lasting value other than, as he might put it, bile, bombast and buncombe.

A harsh judgment, to be sure, but one reached after having perused not just the customary collected essays but a great deal of his workaday prattle as my predecessor as an editor and columnist of The Evening Sun. As daily journalism, his work was as common as pig-tracks.

Incantation of pornography

At Saturday's event, four distinguished Mencken scholars speculated on what the Sage, were he alive today, might write about major political figures of our time, from Pat Buchanan to Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was a thoroughly entertaining exercise, but the longer I listened to the passages from Mencken's work, the more it seemed as if I were hearing an incantation of pornography -- epigrams which you find, with secret guilt, amusing the first time you hear them, but pretty soon, you find just drearily repetitious.

Take any passage of Mencken's polemical poison from any essay on any person, and move it to any other, and it would fit quite nicely, thank you. The perfervid rhetoric -- rancorous words such as grotesque, knavish, bogus, bilge, boobs, Beelzebubs, yokels, etc. etc. etc. -- recurs with such frequency that Mencken could have sued himself for plagiarism.

I should add, these scholars didn't give Mencken a free ride entirely. They agreed that Mencken was an equal-opportunity vilifier of politicians. But that illustrates a point precisely: A writer who can't discern a difference between, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge should be asked to leave the room when serious political discussion begins.

When I got home I pulled down a Mencken book and chose at random an essay to reread. It happened to be a critique of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. at the end of his long career. How did Mencken perceive a man who is now universally regarded as one of the pre-eminent figures in American law? To Mencken, Holmes was a second-rater, merely a writer of "reactionary opinions" which showed "no evidence . . . that he ever gave any really profound thought to the great battle of ideas which raged in his time."

A C student at Poly

In this essay Mencken refers to "the prohibition of double jeopardy in Article I of the Bill of Rights." Well, if I may be indulged a moment of Menckenian scorn, I say that even a C student at Baltimore Poly knows that the double-jeopardy prohibition lies in the Fifth Amendment, not the First. Further, Mencken quotes one of Holmes' celebrated opinions thus: "Three generations of morons are enough." Now, as it happens, the precise quote is: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

I don't mean to engage in idle pettifoggery, but rather to demonstrate a penchant for sloppy journalism. And he can't even claim the reporter's defense of deadline-induced mistakes, because the Holmes essay appeared in Mencken's magazine, The American Mercury.

Another Baltimore conceit that I often hear is that Mencken was "the most influential journalist of the century." Nonsense. The title clearly goes to Lincoln Steffens. He, not Mencken, is the patron saint of every investigative reporter who daily scours the darker corridors of power, from City Hall to Congress.

The last smirk

Few men of letters can be shown, by history's record, to have been more demonstrably wrong in his contemporary judgments. his scathing essay, "The Sahara of the Bozart," Mencken blithely flays the South for its cultural barrenness. It seems to have escaped his notice almost entirely that at that very moment, a lonely man in benighted Mississippi was already at work "to create, out of the materials of the human spirit, something which did not exist before." And a region which produced William Faulkner is entitled to the last smirk at Mencken.

At one time I thought Mencken was merely a public provocateur, that he couldn't possibly believe all the claptrap he spewed out. Alas, his newly released diaries expose him as an unalloyed misanthrope, and a posthumous betrayer of friends to boot.

For my part, I'd prefer to see scholars of journalism devote more attention to Mencken's betters -- like his British contemporary journalist-critic, George Orwell, whose work can still be read for its profound insight as well as its wit, or his American contemporary, Walter Lippmann, who dismissed Mencken as a man who attained, "in ridiculing stupidities, an imitation of wisdom."

And therein lies a great pity -- that a man who knew the language so well would use it for such low purpose.

After 40 years, it is time to bury Mencken, not to praise him.

Ray Jenkins is a former editor of The Evening Sun editorial page.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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