An unlikely friendship between intellectuals


Alistair Cooke and H.L. Mencken met in Baltimore over crabs and beer

April 03, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It was perhaps the most unlikely of friendships, wrote Alistair Cooke, of his relationship with H.L. Mencken, the Baltimore author and critic.

Cooke, 95, an author and broadcaster, died this week at his home in New York City.

A native of Manchester, England, Cooke came to the United States in the early 1930s to study at Yale and Harvard universities. At Harvard, he began seriously studying the origins of American English, which naturally brought him in contact with Mencken, who had written The American Language.

The two corresponded and finally, Mencken issued an invitation to Cooke to come to Baltimore for some "crabs and beer," Cooke recalled.

He remembered their first meeting on a warm summer Saturday afternoon at Schellhase's Restaurant on Howard Street.

Mencken's old-fashioned style of dress, complete with high collar, struck Cooke as somewhat odd.

"A little man, a stocky man with a bull neck, eyes as blue as gas jets, white hair parted exactly down the middle in the fashion of the early years of the century, and tiny hands and feet that added four surprising grace notes to the solid theme of his body, which was that of an undersized German pork butcher," Cooke recalled in his weekly Letter From America radio broadcast after Mencken's death in 1956.

Despite Mencken's numerous prejudices, their friendship flourished, and Cooke looked forward to his Baltimore visits.

"I was astonished that he liked me. I was the embodiment of everything he disliked. He distrusted Englishmen and I am one. He didn't like Methodists; and I was brought up a Methodist," said Cooke in a 1972 interview with The Sun. "He hated radio broadcasters, and that was to become my profession. At any rate, there was something there that overcame whatever difficulties there may have been."

He recalled Mencken's invaluable advice to him as a young newspaperman.

`"Never accept a free ticket from a theater manager, a free ride from the chamber of commerce, or a favor from a politician,'" wrote Cooke. "He lived absolutely by this rule. He wanted to have his say, and he knew that a very gifted man who isn't interested in money is very hard to tame."

He praised Mencken both as humorist and for his pungent yet piercing style. "Nobody ever wrote the English language in Britain or America like Mencken," he observed.

"He was, in fact, a humorist by instinct and a superb craftsman by temperament. So that when all his private admirations were aped and exhausted, there emerged the style of H.L. Mencken, purified and mellowed in later years, a style flexible, fancy-free, ribald, and always beautifully lucid: a native product unlike any in the language," wrote Cooke in his book, The Vintage Mencken.

Four months after Mencken's death, Cooke was invited to speak at the dedication of the Mencken Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. He called his talk, "A Funeral Oration for H.L. Mencken."

"We are about to commemorate the professional gifts of a man who held all commemorations nauseous," Cooke said. "We are ... going through the solemn motions of trying to arrange a little immortality for a man who constantly reminded his pious friends that the human body is no more than an unstable congeries of compounds of carbon, that a man's talent, no matter how fiery, would be reduced in the end to ashes, and that the dust he kicked up as rebel and bad boy would return to dust."

Cooke returned to Baltimore in 1980 for the celebration of the centennial of Mencken's birth.

He was, once again, the keynote speaker at the black-tie banquets - two were held because of the demand - at the Belvedere Hotel.

In his remarks, Cooke observed that Mencken, as a humorist, shared a bond with Mark Twain, whose Huckleberry Finn had made a profound influence on him in his youth.

"I think he's a direct descendant of Mark Twain, not only by conscious parody, but because he recognized in Twain not only a kindred spirit, but a man with the same instincts, the same deadly, sensible eye to distinguish the discrepancy between the way human beings really thought and acted and the way they pretended they acted, their beliefs.

"And as in all great humor, there is a cutting element of almost semi-tragedy in this, because I think Mencken's humor, like that of Twain, is that of a disappointed idealist."

Cooke, in raising a toast to his friend, reminded his audience that Mencken was a lifelong atheist.

"And now," said Cooke, "it is my pleasure and pride to offer you a toast - to wish him, wherever he is, a happy and obstreperous birthday. Henry Mencken."

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