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Half a Century After Mencken's Death, Opinion Is What is Riding High

Posted: 02/18/11 07:54 AM ET

Are you Beatles or Beethoven? Chelsea or Arsenal? Mencken or Montaigne? You can supposedly tell people by their taste in fads and gurus. In the case of columnists there is a clear choice. Sensitive, cerebral, me-me writers go for Montaigne, the 16th-century sage of Bordeaux. Rat fink reporter types go for the scourge of Baltimore, HL Mencken, whose collected Prejudices have just been published.

Montaigne was a skeptic and bon viveur. He detested religious violence and was suspicious of what romantic love did to the power of reason. He also opposed colonizing the new world as cruel to the natives. From his French manor he poured out homespun wisdom, earning encomiums from the late Bernard Levin. "Nothing is so firmly believed as that which is least known," he declared. He intrigued himself with, "When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not more of a pastime to her than she is to me?" His classic epigram was: "We may walk on stilts but we are still walking on our own legs: on the highest throne in the world, we sit only on our own bottom."

I am sure Montaigne grows with age, but I am for Mencken. He was in the macho American literary tradition of Perelman, Frost, Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. He was raucous, bibulous, lecherous and with a genius for showing an equal contempt for the common man and those in power. In the echoing pantheon of his mind, there were few heroes. Of the hated President Coolidge he wrote, "at least Nero fiddled, Coolidge snored". Woodrow Wilson, was not just bad, he was "the self-bamboozling Presbyterian ... the perfect model of the Christian cad, a cold and treacherous moraliser". Wilson had involved America in the first world war on the side of the dastardly British who, by fighting the war, Mencken held responsible for the rise of Hitler.

Mencken's other hates were respectability, poetry that "only Christian Scientists can understand" and Washington DC and its "umbilicari, the booboisie", on whose lips the word honor, "save for the structural integrity of women, has only comic significance". He was once upset by some farmer getting a subsidy. He did not just disagree. "Let the farmer be damned forevermore! To hell with him and bad luck to him! He is a tedious fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite, the eternal Jack of the human pack ... indeed no more grasping, selfish, dishonest mammal is known to students of the Anthropoidea." Oh, and he forgot to mention, the farmer was also a "prehensile moron".

There were few loves in Mencken's life, apart from women -- "we squeeze what we can from this strange mess called life" -- but they were passionate. They included the city of Baltimore, the writer Willa Cather, and classical music, especially German composers. He adored any music except jazz, equating the bashing out of column on the typewriter with playing the piano, "apart from the flats". He was said to have filed his typewriter keys into stilettos.

Mencken did not write, but rather hacked words from the cliff of the English language and set them on a column in his beloved paper, the Baltimore Sun. Each one was unveiled with the blast of an ecstatic trumpet and a puff from an enormous cigar. His political maxims became bywords: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." "The worst government is the most moral ... when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression." Most famous of all was: "No one has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the masses."

Mencken was a product of the old American high school uncorrupted - unlethargized, he would say -- by college. He learned his prose from that finest of literary academies, a newspaper news desk. He would take a great bleeding hunk of fact and bash it, salt it, pepper it and roast it within an inch of its life. He then doused it with a sauce of verbal invention, with great splashes of color. Sometimes a Mencken column went on for pages, and woe betide the subeditor who cut him. Sometimes he said what was needed in five paragraphs, and left the sub with acres of white space to fill.

Many of Mencken's words, like Shakespeare's, were fashioned afresh for the sheer sound of them. There was hunkerous, punctilio, oedematous, Mariolatry, usufruct. He wrote so many epigrams it was hard not to invent them for him. Google records that I myself added to the Mencken lexicon by wrongly attributing to him the maxim that, at elections, we should always "Chuck the rapscallions out."

As he grew older the maestro was dogged by the question that afflicts all columnists: Why on earth am I doing this? What conceivable use are my views to anyone else? I should shut up and mind the garden. Mencken's excuse was that he wanted "simply to find out what I was thinking... to provide a kind of catharsis for my thoughts. They worry me until they are set forth in words". He concluded it was probably "a sign of insanity", though he comforted himself that it was free of moral purpose. He hated both prohibition and puritanism, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy".

When the age of Mencken passed, many felt that the column would be followed by nothing but news. I remember predictions in the early 80s that all readers would one day want from the media would be football gossip, racing results and stock market prices, with perhaps some blood and thunder from the Old Bailey. Why should anyone wallow in someone else's mental bathwater?

The answer today is given in millions of words of columns, billions of blogs and tweets, and newscasts that are closer to editorials than to stories. The reason cannot just be the perversion of CP Scott's maxim, that comment is free and facts expensive. There is clearly something in argument and debate that deepens understanding. As Mencken would have said, free opinion directs the boot of truth at the crotch of power, and the more it hurts the better. Half a century after his death, news is the endangered species. Opinion -- raw, cruel, unguarded, outrageous, euphonious, cacophonous opinion -- is what is riding high.

This post originally appeared in the Guardian.