Mencken's 'outlaw perspective' makes him still relevant today

November 03, 1998|By Les Payne

I WAS introduced to H. L. Mencken during an assignment as an army captain in Vietnam. I was based in Saigon as an information officer -- the Army's version of a journalist. This military specialty, I might add, resembles journalism to about the same degree that Army food resembles food.

After work each night, three of us journalists, so-called, would repair to the officers' club on the roof of our hotel. While the other officers watched a movie, the three of us took turns in breaking the monotony by leading a discussion about our favorite writers.

The Navy lieutenant in our trio was from a prominent Tidewater family and actually played squash every day in the war zone. He would regale Lt. Bill Nack and me about Edwardian history. My own discussions centered around James Baldwin, Zen Buddhism and Richard Wright.

It was Bill Nack, however, who stole the show with his slightly inebriated monologues on H. L. Mencken.

It has been well-documented how Mencken's style can turn a college sophomore on to the joys of writing. It can also bring a sweet, wild sense of the reckless joy of writing to a black Ranger captain.

There were no Mencken books in the Saigon library, so I puzzled my wife with several requests to rush me one.

Convinced that I was hopelessly shell-shocked, Violet finally mailed a Mencken book to the Vietnam War zone.

Introduction to the sage

Thumbing through it, I didn't at first catch the heavy flavor of Mencken's wit that sounded so exuberant in Nack's recitations.

I was on the verge of abandoning his books altogether when I ran across a passage that fetched me. The piece was Mencken's attack on Thorstein Veblen. I had found this economist impossible to read back at the University of Connecticut. Suddenly, Mencken's comic image of Professor Veblen hit me as a revelation about how not to write prose:

Words were flung upon words until all recollection that there must be a meaning in them, a ground and excuse for them, was lost. One wandered in a Labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable to walk.

To the extent that I got through the Vietnam War intact emotionally, it was due mainly to Aretha Franklin, I. F. Stone, the Holy Scriptures and H.L. Mencken.

What attracted me to Mencken has nothing whatsoever to do with race. It was instead the thrill of reading the most vigorous critique of bad writing that I had ever encountered.

The question most asked about Mencken these days is whether he's relevant to journalists today. The recent release of those 445 pages on President Clinton's White House sexcapades cries out for the Mencken touch.

Within the broader context of Mencken's relevance, I would also like to consider whether he's now or ever has been relevant to African Americans. This seems a proper line of inquiry, especially given the revisionism that has taken place since the release of his diary in 1989.

The diary caused a major stir among alleged devotees who proclaimed ignorance about some of the fresh disclosures about race.

The first alleged revelation from the diary was that, although all of Mencken's best friends were Jews, he held a deep-seated fear and distrust of them individually and as a group. One needed only to have read Charles Angoff's "Portrait of Mencken" to have known this fact at least as early as 1956.

The second disclosure was that Mencken used anti-black slurs more creative than the N-word, which he also used rather heavily. To have known this about Mencken, one needed to have read only lightly into his social commentary in the American Mercury and his "Prejudices" series.

Throughout the tempest of his postmortem fame, Mencken is no doubt winking back guffaws from whatever chambers the archangels reserve for second-generation agnostics.

To the question of Mencken's relevance, I maintain that he is very much relevant to journalists, black and white. One needs only contemplate the delicious manner in which he would have tackled in recent years such right reverend targets as Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggert, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, and such political targets as Dan Quayle, Richard Nixon, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the newly contrite Mr. Clinton.

Not only is Mencken's influence very much relevant, but I also submit that it is indeed alive in writers, black and white, who have attacked these targets in a style somewhat reminiscent of the "sage of Baltimore."

This is not to say that Mencken was all-knowing or exercised keen political judgment. I agree with Ray Jenkins, Walter Lippmann, Alistair Cooke and others who have made the critical points that Mencken was not a great thinker or a well-grounded intellectual.

Critics have also observed that Mencken was wrong about Franklin D. Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Also, Mencken was wrong about Adolf Hitler. (He said in the 1930s, that the retired paperhanger was but a fancy the Germans would soon get past.)

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