The Columnist

Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work

A Memoir by H. L. Mencken

H. L. Mencken, I find, is one of the least well-known famous writers ever produced by the United States of America. Whenever I drop his name to fellow writers or journalists, or to antiquarian booksellers, there is often a long pause in which the other party hopes the subject will be changed of its own accord, because they simply haven't heard of him. The best I can hope for is, " Oh, isn't he that bloke Alistair Cooke is always going on about? ".

Well, yes, he is. He is also one of the funniest and most perceptive journalists of all time. He was the journalist who, in the Roaring Twenties, more than any other represented the spirit of insouciant rebellion and irreverence against accepted authority and beliefs. He was the young Bernard Levin, Rory Bremner and Stephen Fry rolled into one. He attacked ignorance, opera, prejudice, democracy, the Southern States, America, England, prohibition, Christianity, all with the same gay abandon. He also wrote the funniest single thing about music I have ever read - an account of how his Baltimore Music Club tried to be the first people in the world to play all nine of Beethoven's symphonies in one all-night sitting, and blew up in the attempt....

I first came upon him by accident in a second-hand bookshop in Wrexham in about 1958, when I was attracted to a tiny blue Jonathan Cape volume called " Selected Prejudices ". Reading it was like a bombshell. It blew away most of my biases (and replaced them with more free-wheeling ones ) and it gave courage to prejudices which I thought were peculiar to me. It also made me roar with laughter and want to write like him. That he still has the power to startle and amuse is borne out by the presence of his utterances in such anthologies as the recent one by Matthew Parris called " Scorn ". Mencken has more entries quoted in it than anyone except, I think, Oscar Wilde and Sydney Smith. Here are a couple of samples.

" Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that somebody might be looking."

" One of the things that make a Negro unpleasant to white folks is the fact that he suffers from their injustices. He is thus a standing rebuke to them."

But where did Parris get these quotes from? The fact is that there is still no good book, easily available, which gives a good flavour and a good ration of the best of Mencken. This book, "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work", is not it. It contains selections from a work written privately by Mencken during the Second World War, looking back over his life in Baltimore newspapers, and put in manuscript form in the splendidly named Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. Printed now for the first time, it contains clear and lucid accounts of the history and politics of the Baltimore Sun papers, but for someone like me who finds it hard to take an interest in the history even of the papers he works for (I once truthfully told Andreas Whittam-Smith that I had not perused any of the published accounts of the birth and struggles of the Independent, not even Stephen Glover's, and he plainly did not believe me) it is fiendishly difficult to get interested in Baltimore paper history, even though the Mencken account begins at a time when they were arguing whether to support the USA entry into World War One (Mencken was against it, on the grounds that you could never trust the British) and reaches a time when radio and TV were emerging as the big threat to papers.

But Mencken is too good a writer to keep to his narrow subject, and keeps wandering off into interesting paragraphs. When he voiced anti-British sentiments from 1914 onwards, for instance "what really incommoded me was the gratitude of the Baltimore Germans. Most of them were ignoramuses of the petty trading class, and, like my father and my grandfather before me, I had always kept away from them. But now, surrounded by hostile neighbours, they turned to me as one of them and insisted on regarding me as a German patriot. I was, of course, no more a German patriot that I was an American patriot, but it was impossible to make them understand and believe it ... †hey sent delegations to the office to suggest new and worse attacks upon England, they elected me an honorary member of all their singing societies, and they invited me to many of their parties. Not infrequently I received presents of chocolate cakes and other such delicacies from appreciative German housewives."

Mencken was actually in Berlin when America entered the Great War, as a visiting journalist, and had to skedaddle in a hurry. He did visit England in the 1920s and wasn't too impressed. He was made welcome by the writers on the Guardian, a paper he found much over-rated ("It was a very poor paper. There was very little spot news in it and most of its so-called correspondence was so obviously biased that it was of little value"), but he enjoyed a Guardian party at the Manchester Press Club which went on till 5 am.

"Some time after 3 o'clock I noticed that the bar was still open, and asked one of the Manchester city councilmen, who had been invited to help entertain us, how that had been managed, for the general closing hour in England was 11 pm ... The councillor, who was tight, confessed to me confidentially that the club really had no liquor licence at all. It simply bootlegged, trusting to the fact that the Manchester police would hardly raid a place frequented by city councilmen, who were their bosses. This was but one of the many evidences I picked up that the celebrated rigidity of the English law was largely imaginary."

Yes, it's hard to stop quoting once you start. But don't get this book unless you are a Mencken addict. If you haven't dipped into any of his three volumes of real autobiography (Happy Days, Newspaper Days, Heathen Days ), start there. If you're not hooked after that, God help you.

Miles Kington

John Hopkins University Press

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