Woodworking column: A difficult fellow to figure out
Strange coincidence. My literary almanac tells me that journalist / historian H.L. Mencken and publisher Alfred Knopf were born on this day, Mencken in 1880, Knopf in 1892.
The coincidence reminded me that Mencken, the star writer of the Baltimore Sun and Knopf, the dean of American publishing, were best of friends, but never celebrated their same birthdays because, according to Knopf, it was the high tide of the hayfever season and a sneezing Mencken was ugly during those times and not into such celebrations.
It's just one more nail in the Bard of Baltimore's coffin of reputation. I've read a good deal about the man and it seems no one agrees with anyone else's memory of knowing him.
One of his chief biographers, who acted as his secretary, claimed Mencken was a virulent anti-Semite. If so, what was he doing as the best friend of Knopf, a Jew?
Memories of Mencken and even his writings paint a picture of a fellow who's difficult to figure out. Some folks, like novelist Sinclair Lewis, applauded Mencken's humanity, even though the cantankerous scribe once applauded the idea of public hangings as a force for law and order. He said Baltimore should sponsor a public hanging every week. But what if we ran out of criminals to hang?
"Then," said Mencken, "we can start on the nation's politicians."
Mencken also editorialized about his opposition to the City of Baltimore's fancy plan to provide low cost public transport for folks without autos.
But how then would workers get to their places of employment?
"The city," said Mencken, "could haul them in dump trucks."
This attitude contradicts the fact that Mencken lived in Baltimore's only integrated neighborhood back in the 20s, when the Ku Klux Klan was in flower, and he was unceasing in his condemnation of the culture of the South and what he called its "Booboisie" populations. Like Arkansas which he called "The Apex of Moronia."
There just seems there's no pinning him down. One of the last recorders of experiencing life with Mencken was the British journalist Alistair Cooke, who covered the 1948 Democratic Convention with a group of journalists including Mencken, who died soon after. Cooke recalls that most American journalists were so perverse they insisted on typing with their two index fingers. But Mencken one-upped them, typing with only two LITTLE fingers.
On top of that, Mencken delivered a speech on "How to Catch a Husband" then married a woman in the audience, Sarah Hardt, with whom by all reports he was devoted to.
People who should know better can't seem to get Mencken right.
One of the most egregious portraits of Mencken occurred in the movie about the Scopes Monkey Trial, "Inherit the Wind," when the brilliant director Stanley Kramer cast none other than the oleaginous Gene Kelley as a character that's supposed to resemble Mencken. It was a flop . I saw the movie when it came out and the audience gasped when they realized the smarmy wiseguy Kelley was supposed to resemble Mencken, who was a lot of things, but never oily, handsome or slick. For shame, Kramer, for shame.
I guess we shouldn't be surprised. Mencken was the fellow who wrote "Conscience is the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking." Or "Puritanism—The haunting feeling that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
But he also told the Chicago Tribune "No one in this world, so far as I know ... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the masses."
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