A Choice of Days

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2304

Henry Louis Mencken was one of the foremost men of letters of the United States and certainly the most memorable. His witty, precise style penetrated to the heart of the American character, exposing its eccentricities and pretenses, revealing its dignity. Through the perceptive pen of this Baltimorean, the nation could...

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Henry Louis Mencken was one of the foremost men of letters of the United States and certainly the most memorable. His witty, precise style penetrated to the heart of the American character, exposing its eccentricities and pretenses, revealing its dignity. Through the perceptive pen of this Baltimorean, the nation could behold itself in a spirit of humor. Mencken portrayed the humanity, frail yet powerful, of congressmen and saloonkeepers, policemen and livery stable attendants alike. No one was immune from this master of irony—not even himself. He discerned and portrayed the preposterousness of humanity as could only a person who took himself no more seriously than he deserved. In the Preface to Happy Days, Mencken described himself asa larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie, though I was quite unaware of the fact until I was along in my teens, and had begun to read indignant books. To belong to that great order of mankind is vaguely discreditable today, but I still maintain my dues-paying membership in it, and continue to believe that it was and is authentically human. . . .

H. L. Mencken was, at the very least, a prodigy. He was reading the works of Mark Twain by the age of eight and he tackled Charles Dickens before he was ten. He was also very determined to enter the world of letters. He appeared at the Baltimore Herald, asking for employment, on the day after his father died. (His father had wanted him to pursue the family cigar business.) For more than a month, the young Henry returned patiently each night until the editor allowed him a chance. The boy was eighteen at the time of his first two-sentence report of the theft of a horse and buggy. It would be only two years before Mencken was an editor of that same paper. After the demise of the Herald in 1906, he moved on to the Sunpapers of Baltimore, once again in the role of reporter and columnist, which he preferred. He also became associated with the magazines The Smart Set and The American Mercury as editor and literary critic. Mencken was astonishingly prolific during those years. He wrote news, editorials, reviews, poetry, prose, and even a play. He was submitting pieces to publications across the country. His first full book, George Bernard Shaw: His Plays, was published when Mencken was twenty-five years old. At twenty-eight, he also wrote the first work on Friedrich Nietzsche to be published in English, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

It was Mencken’s reading, during his early twenties, of Shaw and Nietzsche which crystallized his tendency toward a thorough iconoclasm. He took upon himself the Nietzschean task of questioning, and often shattering, the unexamined conventions of the times. This role as a critic of ideas found an outlet in the column which Mencken wrote for the Sunpapers. He cast doubt upon beliefs which were indisputable—social services, democracy, religion, and the prevailing moral rigidity. He once characterized democracy as the form of government whereby the masses hold back the culturally gifted and thus allow the wealthy, rather than the able, to rule the country. According to his own admission, this literary giant was an infidel from his earliest years. Religious matters drew most often his humor, sometimes his scorn, but very rarely his seriousness. He castigated Puritanism, moralism, and especially prohibitionism as the fruits of sour people who could not stand to see anyone else having a good time. This was expressed in his famous definition of Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” His distaste for the moral reforms prevalent during the early 1900’s led him to declare that “all persons who devote themselves to forcing virtue on their fellow men deserve nothing better than kicks in the pants.”

If there was very little which was sacred to Mencken, his own profession was no exception. He claimed that his choice of career was determined at the age of eight by a Christmas gift from his father of a Baltimore No. 10 Self-Inker Printing Press. (It also determined his subsequent adoption of the initials H. L. since all of the lowercase r’s were smashed in the first day’s experimental press runs.) From then on he had printer’s ink in his blood and could go no other direction. Mencken’s phenomenal rise in his field was occasioned by skill coupled with great perseverance and audacity. It was not unheard of in those times for a journalist to exaggerate and even to fabricate news. Mencken made it an art. One slow Sunday evening at the Herald, he created an imaginary wild man loose in the woods of Baltimore. With the help of a police lieutenant, this creature was resurrected each Sunday for a month and many poor bums were arrested and interrogated during that time. Finally an innocent, feebleminded character was sentenced to jail. Most of Mancken’s occasional hoaxes, however, were totally benign and sometimes merely anticipated the facts. A Choice of Days contains an essay, “The Synthesis of News,” which wittily details the finer points of this art. While covering the area of South Baltimore, Mencken and two rival reporters formed a pact to synthesize the details of their more troublesome stories. When a name was unknown, they created one. If a story was needed, they got together over a beer and worked one out.This labor-saving device was in use the whole time I covered South Baltimore for the Herald, and I never heard any complaint against it. Every one of the three city editors, comparing his paper to the other two, was surprised and pleased to discover that his reporter always got names and addresses right, and all three of us were sometimes commended for our unusual accuracy.

For the most part, however, Mencken was diligent as a reporter. Stories such as “Fire Alarm” show that, in times of crisis, he would stretch his endurance to the limit for the sake of the news. When the great Baltimore fire of 1904 created havoc among the city’s papers, Mencken stayed awake for sixty-four hours straight. After a few hours of sleep, he then resumed the frantic schedule which would see the staff of the Herald publishing their paper each night in Philadelphia, one hundred miles away, and shipping the copies back by train every morning to the burned and burning city.

Mencken was a man who enjoyed life to the fullest. He relished good food and drink and jovial companions. His earlier days as a theater reporter inclined him toward all performing arts and he was also a member of an informal orchestral group. Above all, this journalist found joy in people and observing them was his truest recreation. From his youth, Mencken believed that he could glean more from the experience of other humans than he ever could from books or schools. While these fellow creatures often earned sharp jabs from his pen, they were not treated with malice. The writer created disturbances with his unexpected opinions but did so with a humor which softened the blows. He was never one to form idealized pictures of the world but rather took pleasure in the diverse reality of the human situation.

The Days books are clear expressions of this love for daily reality. In retrospect, the journalist wished he had entitled them Happy Days I, II, and III. Whether Mencken was writing of his childhood in Happy Days, his career at the Herald in Newspaper Days, or his wider ranging memories in Heathen Days, the reader is presented with perceptive glimpses of Americana. There is an immediate resonance with such characters as Bill, the champion beer drinker or old Wesley, the alley metaphysician. In his “Recollections of Notable Cops,” the reader encounters a fine description of an average Baltimore policeman’s duties.An ordinary flatfoot in a quiet residential section had his hands full. In a single day he might have to put out a couple of kitchen fires, arrange for the removal of a dead mule, guard a poor epileptic having a fit on the sidewalk, catch a runaway horse, settle a combat with table knives between husband and wife, shoot a cat for killing pigeons, rescue a dog or a baby from a sewer, bawl out a white-wings for spilling garbage, keep order on the sidewalk at two or three funerals, and flog half a dozen bad boys for throwing horse-apples at a blind man.

Throughout these three marvelous works, the reader experiences Mencken’s immense experience and vocabulary. The inconvenience of deciphering the more obscure or dated turns of phrase is well rewarded. (For example, it is helpful to discover that “horse-apples” are found not on trees but on the cobblestones of streets with carriage traffic.) Mencken never used a word merely to show it off. He chose it because it was the right one to express the finer meaning or tone desired. His usage was not only vast but also highly American. The fullest flavors of Americanese come through in each of his essays. None of this is at all surprising for the author of The American Language who had so thoroughly studied English as spoken in the United States. In “Larval Stage of a Bookworm,” he reflected upon the vast impression made by his initial discovery that the plural of “moose” remained “moose” rather than “meese.”Such discoveries give a boy a considerable thrill, and augment his sense of dignity. It is no light matter, at eight, to penetrate suddenly to the difference between to, two, and too, or to that between run in baseball and run in topographical science. . . . The effect is massive and profound, and at least comparable to that which flows, in later life, out of filling a royal flush or debauching the wife of a major-general of cavalry.

Here was a man who loved words as well as people; and that made for a superb harmony in his essays.

These three autobiographical books are excellent introductions to the man Mencken. Each inevitably leads one to thirst for more. They capture much of his own style in the process of capturing America. The essays are interwoven neatly, flowing into and out of one another. The problem posed for any selection from these works, then, is whether it can be possible to preserve their artistry.

The impossibility of conveying the fullness of this writer makes it an immense task to synthesize even three of his works into a single volume. Of necessity, two-thirds must be abandoned in the attempt. Since each of his essays possesses its own unique charm, much of Mencken himself is left behind. It will always be debatable whether a certain essay ought to have been retained or another excluded. Beyond a few obviously classic pieces, such as “Introduction to the Universe” and “The Noble Experiment,” complaints about inclusions or omissions are bound to be subject to the charges of personal bias. The question to be addressed, then, is not the choice of individual items but the general impact of the collection.

In his Introduction, the compiler, Edward L. Galligan, recognized the remarkable coherence within Mencken’s three Days books. Each is arranged in chronological order but unified by gradations of tone. The essays work together to keep the reader engaged. All are permeated with Mencken’s easy revelry in the American tongue. As a whole, the essays glisten with humorous glimpses into the nature of the man, the people around him, and the American scene. Justifiably, Galligan and others compare this writer to the American master, Mark Twain.

The compiler hoped to do the least damage to this wonderful solidity by retaining the original order of the essays. This is a sound principle but, unfortunately, it is not sufficient to preserve the unity of the work. No matter how judiciously Galligan tried to choose the contents, the fragile connections have been broken. Each essay seems separated, in this new context, from the others. The reader is left with the impression of incompleteness. Mencken’s reminiscences, when taken as a whole, give the flavor of this freewheeling critic’s caustic wit. In this collection, he appears strangely tamed. Rather than the autobiography of a man who delighted in disturbing conventionality, the reader has been given entertaining but disconnected pieces of his memory.

Perhaps, however, this is not totally bad. Mencken’s insightful, bold rollick through America remains. Also, two of his most central roles are revealed in any of the essays chosen—Mencken the master of language and Mencken the reporter on humanity. The incompleteness may dissatisfy some readers but it may also impel them to desire more Mencken. One wants to discover what occurred between the moments pictured so well in the collection. An insatiable hunger for the truly Menckenian barbs at Prohibition, politicians, and journalism is whetted.

If A Choice of Days only urges the uninitiated to search out the Days books in libraries and then go on to read from others of Mencken’s extensive writings, then Galligan has performed a worthy service. This man who was so widely read, admired, and imitated during the 1920’s fell into disregard in the troubled times of the 1930’s, when the American public no longer desired to see itself so clearly. It is hoped that this selection will be able to convince those unfamiliar with this writer that he is still worth reading. Anyone who is interested in the America of the early twentieth century, or in American people in their idiosyncrasies, will discover in this book the introduction to a treasure. A reader who simply enjoys a good yarn will find it equally delightful. It is to good purpose that Galligan and the Alfred A. Knopf publishers have offered this collection as a tribute to the centenary of this magnificent wordster.

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