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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Review: The Diary of H. L. Mencken (Edmonton Journal, March 10, 1990)

Herewith, the clippings-flagship, not my first published book review--that was a whimsical buffoonery upon a self-published paperback Seventeen Days in Tehran (which viewed the Iranian revolution optimistically circa 1980--one wonders if its rosy-visioned author is still as exultantly hopeful about Khomeini's legacy today. Nor was this Mencken autopsy the first judgement to rake in dollars; that was a review of Andrew Malcolm's The Canadians, done for the late, great, sanctified (or is that just sanctimonious?) Alberta Report...yeah, an amusing and instructive story behind THAT, which I'm saving for a projected volume of memoirs .

But the Mencken Diary review was my first Important Book dissected for a Major Publication, so I really sweated to give it some magisterial style and substance.The anti-climax came as I repeatedly tucked my precious baby into job-applications, and just as repeatedly had HR people neglecting to get back to me.

Cause and effect, perhaps? Who knows.

The review was printed under the headline "Was Mencken an objectionable bigot or simply a wit misunderstood by boobs?" The venue being sort of high-profile, I hoped my contribution might help kill the lingering accusation of racism against Mencken (via the mock-theory of Mencken's "hexaphenic personality"--ho ho--since I knew from long experience that any direct disproof of racism is ipso facto futile. A racism charge always sticks like napalm).

And sure enough, it continues to stick to H. L. Mencken, despite a thorough refutation of his "anti-semitism" in the American Scholar about the same time -- which I didn't uncover until years later, or I would have added to my below citation of Lawrence Spivak the additional fact that Spivak was still alive (and over 90) when the Diary was published, and when consulted he called the anti-semitism charge nonsense. Despite this and other vindications, the racism smear persists, e.g. in the Globe and Mail...

EUREKA! I actually found the Mop and Pail quote in the office mess!!! -- Jan. 25, 2003, pD7, in "America's skeptical sage" [review of Terry Teachout's biography, The Skeptic] which states, "Certainly, Mencken was an anti-Semite."

Horseshit. Read the American Scholar article. Or my, um, masterpiece below. For what it's worth. From the Edmonton Journal, March 10, 1990:

The Diary of H. L. Mencken
Edited by Charles Fecher
Alfred Knopf Inc.
477pp., $41

During his lifetime H. L. Mencken had a genius for scandalizing the boobs with his satire and criticism, and even now, 36 years after his death, he still inspires controversy.

The latest kerfuffle arose with the release of this diary, whose contents revived the charges of anti-semitism and anti-black bigotry which had occasionally dogged him before, though never too seriously.

Opinions differ as to whether the Diary validates the charges. Jonathan Alter recently went off the deep end in Newsweek, calling Mencken a "conventional bigot" -- which is rather absurd, since conventional bigots don't usually stay on amiable terms with dozens of Jews, as Mencken did, most notably with his publisher and close friend Alfred Knopf, who in 1980 described their relationship as "perfect" -- an astounding enough fact in any writer-publisher relationship, let alone one with a bigoted goy.

Furthermore, conventional bigots don't usually play a key role in.sparking and nurturing a black literary movement, as Mencken did with the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

Douglas Fetherling, writing in Saturday Night, is inclined to deflate the whole controversy, saying that while Mencken had a penchant for ethnic characterizations typical of his time, his only real hatred was of the British. Curiously, in 1946 the British ambassador asks Mencken if he is anti-English. According to his diary, Mencken replies, "This was a gross calumny, circulated by Japs.".

Diary editor Fecher merely tut-tuts what he sees as Mencken's paternalistic attitude towards blacks, but he does a dramatic flip-flop on anti-semitism. Where he once defended Mencken on the charge, he now believes it is true, mostly due to Mencken's copious use of the word "Jew."

The word, of course, usually has nasty overtones, but this isn't generally true here. For instance, Mencken calls Lawrence Spivak a "young Harvard Jew," but his assessment of him is completely favorable.

Clearly a more sophisticated explanation is needed. Maybe Mencken wasn't entirely a bigot, but merely had a hexaphenic multiple personality. In Phase One he was a raving anti-semite, labeling two businessmen as "dreadful kikes." In Phase Two he was a sweet liberal, frowning on the anti-semitism of Theodore Dreiser and Gerald K. Smith. In Phase Three he waffled, giving mixed reviews to Jews such as Morris Fishbein and Charles Angoff.

In Phase Four Mencken suggested that blacks are superstitious. In Phase Five he championed black journalist George Schuyler over the "dunderheads" (i.e. whites) at the Baltimore Sun. In Phase Six he described a negro chauffeur as uneducated but smarter than any New Deal economist.

This explanation should satisfy all factions in the bigotry feud, leaving us to the remaining 95 per cent of the Diary, which is far more interesting. It is a rich hodge-podge, the random gossip of a wide-ranging and very well-connected writer, editor and journalist.

Some of it is ancient news, like the drinking habits of Sinclair Lewis, some of it is mundane, like the details of his personal health,, but mostly it is alive and sublime. It covers everything from Mencken's bad luck in cultivating women writers, to jokes about William Randolph Hearst and physicist Robert Millikan, to the medical details of Al Capone's syphilis.

One of the best anecdotes comes from Dr. Frances Townsend, the old-age pension crusader, who confesses to Mencken that he once committed euthanasia on an unfortunate newborn. Mencken knows a good story when he he hears it, and he is wise enough to repeat this poignant tale without comment.

It's a pity that some critics of this book didn't exercise the same judiciousness.

# # # #

Since there is a new book just out, saying nice things about William Randolph Hearst, at least in his earlier life, perhaps the joke Mencken passed along about him should be made explicit -- some contemporary wiseacre quipped that "William Randolph Hearst married a prostitute, and dragged her down to his level."

That was pretty strong stuff in those prim, puritan days, and reminds us that Citizen Kane didn't happen by accident.

PS: If you are wondering who the hell Lawrence Spivak might be, he was one of the people Mencken gladly approved as his successor to the editorship of the American Mercury. A curious act, coming from an "anti-semite" eh?

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