What do H. L. Mencken, Kahlil Gibran, and Thomas Jefferson have in common? Many can ape a starred quote from all three, but few bother to read them extensively. In Mencken’s case, that means an unmeasured adulation for his incisive, provocative, oft-cited epigrams. Mencken plied his chief trade – newspaper opinion pieces – during the beginnings of yellow journalism and working class exposés, so it’s ironic that he succeeded in an era that alternately pandered to, and sympathized with, the semi-literate. (More on that in a bit.) He knew, or wrote at the same time as, Hemingway, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair. Nathanael West also clicked keys in a newspaper office (and readers are grateful – the excellent Miss Lonelyhearts resulted). Great writing, bold opinion, larger than life personalities. Mencken, like the notables listed above, also applied himself to the creative arts, as they’re more widely pegged, though he shelved stories and poems as inferior testings. That’s an important segue into the review at hand.
I didn’t like Mencken’s A Choice of Words, the abridged book of his three-volume autobiography-in-essays. I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the man. In a creative work, that kind of identification of quality with the person who penned it is inexcusable. In a journalistic piece, much less so. Non-fiction reportage – dispassion, wide-focus assertion, external issues, definition by negative reaction – often runs counter to creative endeavour, so it’s doubly impressive the aforementioned novelists transcended those strictures. I picked up this book to see if Mencken would rip off his starched collar, ply himself with a whiskey or three (a semi-teetotaler, he prided himself on working sober), and get personal. Be personable. Vulnerable. Endearing. Investigative, in the deepest sense of the word. No such luck. Mencken’s views are weightless because I didn’t know what animated them, other than aristocratic derision. Southerners or rednecks (or as Mencken liked to call them, “lintheads”) are despised above all other targets, even politicians and religious figures, because the former created the cynical crusading of the latter two groups. Stupidity is Mencken’s constant subject, either in direct attack or underlying core. Many or most of us remember his awesome epigram, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”, but Mencken’s good times are frequently spurred on by mockery, by reactive self-regard.