Tuesday, August 16, 2016

H. L. Mencken's Prejudices

My son who is taking responsibility for moving me to Idaho next April has been on me about getting rid of books.  He hates moving boxes of books, and in truth I have had a great number that in all honesty I'll either never read again or never read in the first place.  In addition I have copies of the New York Review of Books almost all the way back to the beginning.  I've also been saving copies of the London Review of Books for several years.  So for the better part of a week I've been going through old copies of the NYROB the LROB and as it turns out getting rid of few copies but finding a great number of books that may be just the thing to read on Sandpoint's cold winter nights or days when we're snowed in.  Just this morning I ordered the two volume (1,200 page) Library of America edition of Prejudices by H. L. Mencken.  Mencken for any one two young to have read him, lived from September 12, 1880 to January 29, 1956.

The reviewer (from the 11-11-10 issue of the NYROB), Russell Baker, at one point touches on something (at least that is what it seems to me) we discussed not so long ago about thinking (or not thinking) in words. "He had always written, he said, simply to find out what he was thinking.  Those who assumed that he had 'some deep-lying reformatory purpose' were wrong:  'My one purpose in writing I have explained over and over again: it is simply to provide a kind of katharsis for my own thoughts.  They worry me until they are set forth in words.  This may be a kind of insanity, but at all events it is free of moral purpose.  I am never much interested in the effects of what I write."

Russell like most in the aforementioned discussion) finds it "hard to believe that the young Mencken who seemed capable of doing anything he wanted to, and exulted in the fun and mischief of it, wrote that carefully phrased and painstakingly self-edited prose merely to discover what he had in mind."

I on the other hand find no difficulty in Mencken's process.  While he doesn't admit to 'thinking in words,' his process is very like my own process for writing poetry. I don't have a full-blown poem in mind, just the inkling of one and need to begin writing both to get the worrying (which is as good a description as any) resolved and to write the poem itself, if there is one.   Now as to the editing, I don't see why that troubles Russell.  The writing isn't there complete in Mencken's mind.  He has to think in words (I believe) as he writes and some revision may (will) be in order before he's done.  In my own case I "usually" go back over a poem and think about the individual words.  In a recent poem "The In and the Out of it" Mike Geary discovered a word that didn't ring true.  I read his objection late at night and admitted the word made no sense to me, but the next morning it did.  It did describe what I wanted to write but it wasn't the best word for the job, and it wasn't just the word.  I rephrased the area of the poem a bit.  Something like that would have gone on with Mencken's writing and wouldn't have all contradicted what he wrote about his worrying.

Not to leave this note on that issue, and though the original volumes sold in 2010 for $35, one can buy them used for much less than that on Amazon, here is Russell's inkling of what to expect in Prejudices:  "Of the presidents who held office int he early 1900s, only Theodore Roosevelt seems to have puzzled him.  He obviously viewed Harding and Coolidge as small-bore political hacks not worth full-force assaults.  Woodrow Wilson, however, was special.  Wilson he simply hated.

"'Wilson: the self-bamboozled Presbyterian, the right-thinker, the great moral statesman, the perfect model of a Christian cad,' he called him.  To Mencken, Wilson was a cold and treacherous moralizer, a sponsor of laws under which people were imprisoned for dissenting against American participation in World War I.  Wilson had won reelection in 1916 with a boast that he had kept the country out of war and, once the election was won, expeditiously took it into the war in alliance with England and France.  Mencken, a grandson of German immigrants, detested England and detested Wilson for taking the country into the war on England's side.   Why the United states was in the war on any side is not entirely clear even now; indeed, historians often have trouble explaining what the war itself was about.

"Mencken's interest in Theodore Roosevelt may have been rooted in aspects of the Roosevelt character that suggested a minor-league Kaiser.  The America of Roosevelt's dreams 'was always a sort of swollen Prussia, truculent without regimented within.'  Even his manner betrayed a touch of Kaiser-envy  'There was always the clank of the saber in his discourse; he could not discuss the tamest matter without swaggering in the best dragoon fashion,' Mencken wrote.

"He cited several other characteristics that Roosevelt and the Kaiser had in common: 'both dreamed of gigantic navies,' believed in keeping potential enemies intimidated by heavy armament, and constantly preached the citizen's duty to the state but soft-pedaled the state's duty to the citizen."  [One wonders what Mencken would have thought of John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech which included "ask not what you country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."]

"'Both delighted in the armed pursuit of the lower fauna.  Both heavily patronized the fine arts.  Both were intimates of God and announced His desires with authority.'  The Kaiser was probably the milder and more modest of the two, Mencken said.  In his training for exalted position he had cultivated 'a certain ingratiating suavity,' and so could be 'extremely polite to an opponent,' whereas Roosevelt, Mencken wrote, 'was never polite.'  'One always thinks of him as a glorified longshoreman engaged eternally in cleaning out bar-rooms -- and not too proud to gouge when the inspiration came to him, or to bite in the clinches, or to oppose the relatively fragile brass knuckles of the code with chair-legs, bung-starters, cuspidors, demijohns, and ice picks.'"

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