Friday, July 07, 2006

H. L. Mencken: Saint and Sinner

Since we've been talking about Mencken, we ought to give a Comedist angle on the conversation. On the one hand, Mencken was a master of the quip:

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.

Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.

It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry.

Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.

A church is a place in which gentlemen who have never been to heaven brag about it to persons who will never get there.

A judge is a law student who marks his own examination papers.

A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married.

A prohibitionist is the sort of man one couldn't care to drink with, even if he drank.

Adultery is the application of democracy to love.

Alimony - the ransom that the happy pay to the devil.

Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.

Say what you will about the ten commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.

But then there was the dark side of Mencken. Especially once the diaries were made public, the racism and anti-semitism, not to mention the deep anti-democratic sentiment is undeniable. His lack of compassion for those in need, his lack of care and concern are morally deplorable. The world as he would have had it was not a very funny place. He was not a mere curmudgeon, but a hateful person and an arrogant one at that. That arrogance makes him a fit target.

My favorite Mencken story:

Franklin Roosevelt, whom Mencken hated with a deep passion, was giving a speech at the Gridiron club which at the time was full of journalists. And Mencken sat in the front row scowling. FDR was walking into Mencken's fraternity and he was the leader. Roosevelt's speech lit into newspaper writers of the day. He called them idiots. He said they were illiterate. He called them every horrible name in the book. At first, the reception was frosty, it was certainly uncouth to come to their gathering only to insult them to their faces. But as the scorn continued, the mood lightened and all eyes turned towards Mencken. It became apparent that instead of delivering his own remarks, FDR was reading from Mencken's own essay, "Journalism in America." Mencken's face got redder and redder. He had been outwitted, and not only by a Democrat, but by the Roosevelt himself.