Meet Henry Mencken. He thought Arkansas was...

GEORGE BUSH,

October 22, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

GEORGE BUSH, meet Henry Mencken. He thought Arkansas was the pits, too. Bill Clinton would have hated him.

H. L. Mencken, The Sunpapers' best known writer, had several run-ins with Arkansas. After a 1917 HLM article denouncing Southern literature, a group he referred to as "the Arkansas literati" tried to have him expelled from the country.

Perhaps his best-known appraisal of Arkansas came in 1931. He and Charles Angoff undertook to rate all the American states for The American Mercury magazine. In a three-part series entitled "The Worst American State," they used a variety of indices to measure civilization state by state.

Using such data as "tangible property per capita" and "bank clearings" and "life insurance," the authors came with a ranking for "wealth." Using such criteria as "natives in Who's Who," "passport applications," "families per radio," they came up with a ranking for "education and general culture."

On the first chart, Arkansas was 48th out of 49 (the District of Columbia was treated as a state.) On the second chart, Arkansas was 47th.

Then they did charts of relative merits of the states in terms of "health" and "public order." The first included such things as deaths from various diseases, and hospital beds per capita. The second dealt with such things as homicides and "percentage of Methodists and Baptists in total church membership." Why that? Because there was a correlation between what Mencken called "Ku Klux Protestants" and lynchings. On the health chart, Arkansas was 38th. On the public order chart it was 42nd.

Combining all four charts, Mencken and Angoff came up with an "average rank" of the states. Arkansas ranked 45th.

Not content to let it stand at that, the two statisticians then studied populations in terms of race and ethnicity, religious investment ("value of church edifices") and such odds and ends as "stills seized," "number of hotel rooms," "improved state roads per 1,000 square miles," "population per square mile" and "rainfall."

Abruptly tiring of the game after 106 tables, the writers concluded, "Many more tables might be added, but they would not give us much additional light."

"What do our figures show?" they ask, and answer that the Cotton Belt is the worst section of the country and lower New England the best.

The six worst states were in bottom-up order: Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas. The three best in top-down order: Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

How did Maryland fare? So-so. We came in 19th in wealth, 25th in education and culture, 30th in health, 27th in public order -- 28th in overall average rank. Our best showing was second, in each of the following categories: "residents listed in 'American Men of Science'," "days of school sessions," "hospital internships," and "wet [anti-Prohibition] daily newspaper circulation."

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