Mencken's favorite state

H.L. Mencken

October 23, 1992|By H.L. Mencken

In their third presidential debate Monday, George Bush and Bill Clinton clashed mightily over Arkansas and Mr. Clinton's stewardship of the state in his terms as governor.

H.L. Mencken, who had traveled extensively in Arkansas, had much to say about it in three Evening Sun columns early in 1931. Following are excerpts. THE situation in Arkansas is a shade worse than elsewhere because Arkansas is perhaps the most shiftless and backward state in the whole galaxy. Only Mississippi offers it serious rivalry for last place in all American tables of statistics. It has some good soil, but in the main it is poor and worked out, and two-thirds of its people are benighted and miserable. Two gangs of grafters prey upon them, the one made up of professional politicians of a peculiarly vicious and unconscion able type, and the other composed of cross-roads ** ecclesiastics even worse.

No state offers better picking for evangelists. It has a full outfit of anti-evolution laws and other such products of the camp-meeting, and, though moonshining is widespread, there is heavy majority for Prohibition. The enlightened minority is a minority indeed, and it is confined to a few towns. . .

Naturally enough, every youngster of any human value who grows up in such a wallow clears out as soon as possible. Arkansas thus grows progressively poorer intellectually, and large areas of it are already sunk to the level of Haiti or Albania. Of the 141 persons who represent it in "Who's Who in America" -- the smallest representation, and by far, of any state of its size, save only Mississippi -- no less than 59 are either pedagogues or public officials, two classes that get in ex officio. Save for seven doctors in practice at Hot Springs, not one of them a native, it hasn't a single medical man worthy of inclusion. As for its lawyers and ecclesiastics, they are all only neighborhood worthies, and of its so-called authors and editors, 10 in number, no more than two have ever been heard of outside the state.

The backwardness of such underprivileged commonwealths is little appreciated by persons who have not visited them. Because they occasionally produce a politician who makes a noise at Washington, and are thus regarded with tender respect by other politicians, it is commonly assumed that they are substantially like the other states. One frequently hears, indeed, that all of the American states are virtually alike. But this is certainly not true. There is as much difference between the more civilized states of the East and upper Middle West and the stagnant states of the South and Southwest as there is between England and Portugal. . .

Several years ago I enjoyed the somewhat depressing pleasure of making a tour of the country lying along the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. I can only say that I came out of it feeling like a man emerging from a region devastated by war. Such shabby and flea-bitten villages I had never seen before, or such dreadful people. Some of the former were so barbaric that they didn't even have regular streets; the houses, such as they were, were plumped down anywhere, and at any angle. As for the inhabitants, it is a sober fact that I saw women by the roadside with their children between their knees, picking lice like mother monkeys in the zoo.

The fields were bare and the woods were half burned. There were few fences. When one appeared, usually far gone in decay, there was always a sign on it, painted crudely with the e's backward: "Prepare To Meet Thy God." . . .

It is a Christian act, of course, to save Americans from starvation. But it would be an even better Christian act, I believe, to try to civilize them. You may be sure, however, that no American statesman will propose it. It would cost too many votes in 1932.

Among those protesting Mencken's views was Charles H. Brough, former governor of Arkansas, whose lengthy rejoinder was published about a month later. This fueled two more Mencken columns on Arkansas -- 65 inches of type in the pre-television era when newspapers devoted such space to lengthy articles and columns.

Mencken did not retreat a single step. "Let Dr. Brough," he wrote, "give over his vain talk of Masonic poet laureates, high-salaried auditors and other such wonders of the Arkansas sideshow and apply his great learning to the relief of his suffering state. Let him, as a sociologist, find out why so many of its farmers are miserable, exploited, chronically half-starved share-croppers, without reserves and without hope. . . And let him prepare himself for this labor by pasting in his hat the following . . . from the Little Rock Democrat of Feb. 8:

"'So long as the Arkansas of today remains the Arkansas of 40 years ago, the Menckens are going to make it the butt of ridicule, and millions are going to agree with them.'"

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