Mencken, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

September 22, 1995|By Russell Baker

BALTIMORE WAS a literate blue-collar town when The Evening Sun was in its glory, and now that there are no blue-collar towns left, illiterate has become the national style and The Evening Sun is finished. ''Kaput,'' as F. Millard Foard liked to say when forecasting the future of some wretched dilatory student in his high school German class.

''Kaput'' with last Friday's final edition.

Baltimore was the kind of town whose public high schools offered German in 1939, and many students took it. There was a strain of sober, old-fashioned German culture from long-ago immigrations, and there was an incoming tide of new German culture being brought by Jewish refugees from Hitler.

More important, German was still the language in which a lot of scientific research papers were published, and the public high schools were filled with students aiming for careers in science and medicine. High school was not too early to get a jump on the future. High school was where you practiced how to be an adult.

I don't want to overdo the violin music here, because Baltimore well into the 1960s was also a mean, segregated town which did not spend a lot of its resources to brighten the future for black children. White Baltimore and black Baltimore were alien planets, almost entirely ignorant of each other.

White Baltimore, at least, was content to leave it that way. In this it was encouraged by The Evening Sun, by William Randolph Hearst's News-Post (long since gone to glory), and by the Sunpapers' morning paper, The Sun, which still survives under the ownership of the Times Mirror Co.

All made a point of identifying as ''Negro'' any person of African bloodline who chanced into their columns. Few did so, except in crime stories, and even crime stories had to be faintly amusing or uniquely dreadful or involve a white person to qualify for publication.

The doom of The Evening Sun was no surprise. This is a bad age for afternoon papers. Television, which gets blamed for everything from dandruff to George Steinbrenner, takes the rap again here.

Blame it on the box

No American of the modern strain will sit in the parlor of an evening struggling in the coils of journalistic prose when he can lean back and treat his eyeballs to the 1,001 Nights available to channel surfers. So goes the explanation, but it omits the equally fatal role of the automobile.

Blue-collar Baltimore of The Evening Sun's glory days rode the streetcar. Ten cents each way carried it all the way to Bethlehem Steel's big plant at Sparrows Point. Two cents bought the rider an evening paper.

Those streetcars were full of newspaper readers who, in their modern manifestation, have become motorists inching their way through nerve-frazzling traffic while nerve-frazzling radio voices fill their wheeled boxes with a constant stream of alarms.

It is unfair that television should be so tirelessly abused while the evil automobile gets away scot free. Scholars interested in the decline of literacy ought to look at the destruction of American mass transit systems by the Eisenhower administration, General Motors and the auto lobby in the 1950s.

A nation sentenced to spend its nonworking life behind steering wheels is unlikely to read anything but traffic signs.

Whatever dooms afternoon newspapers, mourning their deaths is as silly as mourning the death of the Super Chief to Los Angeles or the Michelangelo to Naples. Change happens, as the bumper stickers crow. Good things lose it, and die. Way of the world, and so forth.

Before shuffling dry-eyed out of the chapel, however, we ought to note that The Evening Sun was H.L. Mencken's paper. What a monument Mencken was to American journalism. What a sad comment on the state of journalism today that it has produced no one in his league when it comes to exposing the frauds, quacks, clowns, mountebanks and imbeciles -- sorry, Henry, for stealing your lexicon -- who dominate American life today.

I cannot guess what the young Mencken would have said of his paper's end. But contemplating his own, he once wrote: ''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.''

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.