The Prophet’s Birthday

September 14, 2007

It’s been an intense week, so I haven’t been able to give proper notice to the birthday of H.L. Mencken. Leave it to Baltimore blogger Geoff to give the old man his due, and find a particularly apt quotation for our times from the man who, more than anyone, would have appreciated seeing his most dire predictions come true in the first decade of the 21st century.

Richard Wright once traced the roots of his interest in writing to coming across an angry mention of H.L. Mencken in a local newspaper — “Mencken is a fool!” is how Wright remembered it — and wondering what sort of man could generated such a response with nothing more than the written word. He tracked down some of Mencken’s work and got his first inkling that words on a page could convey force and personality as directly as a face-to-face encounter.

So that’s one thing I have in common with Richard Wright, because Mencken (and, to a lesser degree, Harlan Ellison and the even darker Ambrose Bierce) showed me at an early age how someone could create an inimitable voice and worldview simply by making marks on paper. I’d always been an eager reader, and I was already typing out little vignettes and stories, but reading Mencken et al was like going to a big league ballgame after playing nothing but sandlot baseball. This was how the big guys did it, and that was the way I wanted to do it.

Mencken stayed in the newspaper game long after he should have put it behind him, with the result that he turned into an animatronic crank version of himself. But I think of him as the closest thing to Samuel Johnson that America has yet produced. Yes, they both produced towering works of lexicography — Johnson and his dictionary, Mencken and The American Language — but the comparison goes beyond that. Conservatives have been working for decades to paint Mencken as one of their own, but he — like Johnson — was too clear-sighted and individualistic to fit comfortably into the narrow boxes of contemporary political life, and he could make himself heard with such startling impact that nobody — left right or center — can forget their first encounter.    


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