- The View from Mencken's Tomb
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Forgive me if I date myself by exhuming H. L. Mencken. He was the patron saint of a certain kind of journalist, and soon the kind of journalism he and I practiced and understood will be consigned to the History department. Or Archaeology. But you're an ancient mariner if you actually read Mencken hot off the presses—the hottest thing available in its day, now a neglected chapter in American studies. The Sage of Baltimore, as both admirers and sarcastic detractors called him, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1948 and died in 1956, so I can't even claim that I read Mencken while he was alive. I discovered him when he was barely cold, though, when Eisenhower was president and I was an adolescent contrarian looking for heroes and role models and finding slim pickings among the adults and celebrities on general display. My grandfather gave me that yellow paperback edition of the 1955 Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, and it became, for a season, my bedside bible. I published an essay claiming that I was fourteen when I began to channel H. L. Mencken, which coincidentally made me sound passably precocious, but my mother shook her head when she read it and told me I was closer to sixteen. You can't exaggerate as much while your mother's still there to pull the wings off certain flights of fancy, and it's my mixed fortune, at this advanced age, to have a mother still available to edit my memory.
Why Mencken—why then, why now? What is it that brings a boy, or a man—or, more rarely, a woman—to find common cause with the verbal extravagance and exuberant prejudice of Henry Louis Mencken? None of us over forty accurately remember the way we thought and felt as teenagers—though most memoirists pretend to—but the America of Ed Sullivan, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and John Foster Dulles was very safe and boring, I thought, and Mencken was not. And I immediately recognized that Mencken's family, German-American burghers with a certain cultural over-confidence and a ferocious streak of independence—"my ancestors for 300 years back were all bad citizens," he said—was very much like my own, though the Crowthers preferred to call themselves skeptics and nonconformists. The Fifties, at least for America's white middle class, were a time of smugness and political and cultural constipation not unlike the Twenties, when Mencken in his boisterous prime rained contempt on everything prim and stuffy and genteel. For a rebellious boy in a very small town, torn between juvenile delinquency and the kind of obsessive, sex-sublimating reading that made medieval monks go blind, Mencken was a voice of sophistication and freedom, and a career in his tradition was an appealing alternative to armed revolution.
I never consciously emulated Mencken, but there's no doubt that the heroes we acquire from our earliest adult reading shape the way we think and the way we express ourselves. Unquestionably I was pleased to win the Baltimore Sun's H. L. Mencken Writing Award. I used to like to say that it honored the meanest son of a bitch in American journalism, though in recent years it's been given to several [End Page 6] lackluster right-wingers, and I don't go to any Mencken Prize reunions. I was honored to be asked to deliver the annual Mencken Lecture a few years ago, although it turned out to be the most intimidating assignment I ever accepted. The audience is the Mencken Society, every Mencken scholar and biographer, every Mencken zealot...