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Opinionists ponder H.L. Mencken's lasting relevance.

* The sage of Baltimore survives some wrong-headed criticism with his reputation intact.

What a great title for a forum at the National Conference of Editorial Writers in H.L. Mencken's home town:

"Is Mencken still relevant?"

It turned out to be the second most provocative discussion I've ever attended. (The first was a joust in Little Rock, Ark., over the Southerner's eternal question, "Is there still a South?")

Leading off the proceedings and slugfest was Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, a Mencken biographer, who did a comprehensive and persuasive job in the affirmative. Naturally. For those of us whose language is Menckenesque, "Is Mencken still relevant?" can only be a rhetorical question.

Not only did the Sage of Baltimore write The American Language, but he shaped and invented much of it. If the language has a lot of pizzazz left, that is greatly attributable to Mencken's mix of verbal razzmatazz and terrible truths.

Menckenisms are fruit for the mind, a lot of fleshy, sweet, and wild stuff with a hard little core that'll set your teeth on edge. Some nervous laughter could be heard when Rodgers quoted Mencken's summary description of editorial writers:

"Copy readers promoted from the city room to get rid of them, alcoholic writers of local histories and forgotten novels, former managing editors who had come to grief on other papers, and a miscellany of decayed lawyers, college professors, and clergymen with whispered pasts. Some of these botches of God were pleasant enough fellows, a few even showed a grasp of elementary English, but taking one with another they were held in disdain. . . ."

Heads around the room shook in sad self-recognition, for the old boy had summed us up all too accurately for comfort. And that was one of the kinder things he had to say about editorial writers.

"I read editorials every day," Mencken wrote, convincing himself of one thing: "The man writing them didn't like his job, and was hurrying to get home or get out." Ouch.

Rodgers also noted Mencken's general charge to editorial writers: "Mencken stressed a respect for . . . the language you are writing in. He said the editorial page has one aim: to appeal to the more intelligent reader in his more intelligent mood."

Would you ever guess as much from the contents of the typical American page?

The thoroughly negative in this debate over Mencken was taken by Ray Jenkins, a retired editorial page editor of H.L. Mencken's old paper. Jenkins actually seemed to believe his assorted animadversions, more's the pity, for there are some judgments so mistaken that sincerity only aggravates them.

Even the estimable Jenkins had to admit that The American Language remains a masterwork, but other than that, in the true spirit of the age, Brother Jenkins betrayed not a glimmer of judgment, aesthetic discrimination, or charity. His motto seemed to be: Speak nothing but ill of the dead.

Unintimidated by any rudiment of sportsmanship, Jenkins used the ethnic jibes in Mencken's private writings to build a capital case of political incorrectness in Mencken's public writings, including the writer's vigorous and consistent utterances against lynching, racial discrimination, and bigotry in its manifold forms. Mencken's parlor prejudices were about as deep as that of the Southerner who may mutter vaguely about damyankees but nevertheless judges people by their actions, not their accents.

It was left to Theo Lippmann Jr., another member of the panel, to point out that Mencken bad-mouthed Jews and Negroes as a class; he bad-mouthed everybody as a class, not excepting Americans as a whole. He was an equal opportunity despiser.

Arkansas's legislature, with the general grace and respect for freedom of speech that Arkansas legislators may exhibit even now, demanded at one point that Herr Mencken be deported because of his writings about the South, also known as the Sahara of the Bozart to connoisseurs of Mencken's essay on Southern culture - or rather its absence.

In defense of Mencken, Lippmann (white Southerner that he is) argued that somebody who bad-mouthed white Southerners couldn't be all bad. But one would have to have some minimal appreciation for irony to appreciate Lippmann's remark. Or to appreciate H.L. Mencken.

Unfortunately, Newsday's Les Payne, a columnist and editor who has long battled racism, didn't make the panel because a storm delayed his flight out of New York.

Like all powerful writers, Payne is an avid fan of Mencken's. I've never met a natural writer in this business who wasn't, or just a good one who was left uncharmed or uneducated by Mencken's prose; it's the pettifoggers and pedestrians whom the Sage of Baltimore irritates to this day.

For example, Jenkins was not above parlaying a couple of mistakes or typos in Mencken's voluminous works into a general charge of inaccuracy. Yet at this forum, Jenkins got the date of George Orwell's death wrong. It was January 21, 1950, not some time in 1948. Jenkins also seemed uncertain about whether Orwell had fought in the Spanish Civil War, although Orwell's memoir of the war Homage to Catalonia may be the finest thing to come out of that conflict.

Jenkins even accused Mencken of not having really noticed Faulkner, when of course Mencken had, in the course of generally promoting the risorgimento of Southern literature that took place in his time. Only by Jenkins' standards for Mencken would these correctable slips of his own damn him as a journalist.

My old friend Ray seemed perfectly deaf to what Mencken himself had once called "any genuine distinction of style, any actual feeling for words, any sense of the superb plasticity and resilience of the English language [or] any noticeable originality of thought." You would have thought Jenkins was writing one of his old editorials for The Baltimore Evening Sun.

But of course Mencken started this fight, as he did so many, when he went after the Ray Jenkinses of journalism, the boundary-jumpers who leave it for politics. (Jenkins served as a press aide in the Carter White House at some point.) And as Rodgers pointed out, Mencken was convinced that anyone who left newspaper work to go into politics or press-agentry (but I repeat myself) should never be allowed to return.

"In Mencken's memoirs," Rodgers noted, he "said that such creatures should be locked up in the office doghouse. Imagine, then, what Mencken would have said about former White House speech writers who now promote themselves as journalists. David Gergen or William Safire would have made Mencken gag." Let it be promptly noted in Jenkins' defense that at least he was never Jimmy Carter's chief press spokesperson.

One needn't agree with Mencken's politics, whatever they were, to applaud his ability to puncture pomp and eviscerate the lumpen-intelligentsia of his time. Mencken was neither Republican nor Democrat, liberal nor conservative. He was an individual, an "aginner," an iconoclast congenitally opposed to whatever the reigning pieties were at the time he was writing his next column.

Should anyone do a piece on Mencken and His Discontents, its thesis might well be an all-too-familiar one in a society that acclaims mediocrity: Excellence makes enemies, of course. Excellence is a deviation from the ordinary, and the ordinary responds by (a) trying to make the style of the excellent ordinary, which is what a Menckenesque style has become in American journalism; or (b) debunking excellence, which the less talented of us are always tempted to do.

I'm not sure which is the greater compliment to the continuing verve, delight, and yes, relevance of Henry Louis Mencken.

NCEW member Paul Greenberg is editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Author:Greenberg, Paul
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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