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December 10, 2017

H. L. Mencken & the "Booboisie"

In 1888, when H. L. Mencken was eight years old, he wandered into his local newspaper, entranced by the workings of the hand press. The following Christmas he asked for his own small press with a font of type, and he was soon publishing a neighborhood newspaper. A decade later, after six months of working for free, Mencken got his first job at the Baltimore Herald, and he was a real newspaperman for the next fifty years.

Even at nineteen Mencken showed signs of the style and stance that would make him the most famous and feared journalist of his day: "For the $16.43 that he received as a salary yesterday, Mayor Hayes performed duties of such surpassing ease that the average citizen would be willing to discharge them -- with the mayoralty worries excluded -- for 50 cents."

Mencken's heyday was the 20s. When every other writer seemed headed for Paris and despair, Mencken found his muse in "the stupendous farce of human existence" that he found in America. He was, wrote a fellow journalist, both "the war cry of the younger generation ... [and] a national institution, like the Follies, or Toasted Corn Flakes." Few topics escaped him, but the many faces of Yankee puritanism -- the Rotary Clubs, the Societies for the Suppression of Vice, The Saturday Evening Post -- were lampooned with special exuberance. Mencken was, as he put it, "ombibulous," and the "professional sinhounds" of Prohibition were tirelessly pursued in print by Menken's Law: "Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel."

One of the most popular departments in his American Mercury magazine was a monthly collection of quotes from the "booboisie," arranged by state, and commented upon accordingly. Mencken's own quotations and epigrams were even more popular, and many movie theatres ran them as trailers:
    Democracy is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
    Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.
    Misogynist: A Man who hates women as much as women hate women.
    Conscience: the inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking.
    He marries best who puts it off until it is too late.
    A man's women folk, whatever their outward show of respect for his merit and authority, always regard him secretly as an ass, and with something akin to pity.
Image: photograph of H. L. Mencken (also H.L. Mencken, HL Mencken)
Many of Mencken's books expand on such ideas, but his most important literary role was to publish and champion some of the best new writers in America: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Eugene O'Neill, and especially Theodore Dreiser, whose novels were favourite targets of the moral majority. Lewis dedicated Elmer Gantry to Mencken; Fitzgerald attributed his Tales of the Jazz Age to Mencken's "apostolic blessing", and later thanked him for his praise of The Great Gatsby, saying "I'd rather have you like a book of mine than anyone in America."

Mencken's most famous literary battle was fought in 1926, over a forgettable short story he published by Herbert Asbury, entitled "Hatrack." Hatrack was a small-town prostitute whose efforts to reform were indignantly rebuffed. It became her habit to take her Catholic clients to the Protestant cemetery, and vice-versa. The punch line of the story occurs when one of the local gentlemen tenders Hatrack a dollar, to which she responds, "You know damned well I haven't got any change."

Reverend Chase of The New England Watch and Ward Society was not amused. He managed to get Mencken's magazine pulled from newsstands in the Boston area, and he threatened legal action if there were further attempts to sell it. This was a line that Mencken managed to cross in dramatic fashion. He contrived to meet with Chase on Brimstone Corner of Boston Common, with the vice squad and a clutch of photographers in attendance. Mencken sold Chase the magazine and got carted away, but not before getting his picture taken biting Chase's half-dollar to test it, as Hatrack would have done. The next day the judge ruled in Mencken's favour, and the case became a small landmark in the campaign for literary freedom, and in Mencken's headline-grabbing career.

Perhaps having had enough attention while alive, Mencken wanted little fanfare at his funeral. When he died, on January 29th, 1956, the only eulogy was his own: "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

Some decades earlier, after Mencken had called their state "the apex of moronia," the Arkansas legislature had passed a motion to pray for Mencken's soul. Whether or not the prayers of Arkansas did him any good is about the only subject upon which H. L. Mencken has not declared himself.

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