Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Vintage Mencken

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, August 27, 2014

“The illusion that swathes and bedizens journalism, bringing in its endless squads of recruits, was still full upon me, and I had yet to taste the sharp teeth of responsibility. Life was arduous, but it was gay and carefree. The days chased one another like kittens chasing their tails.”

There is no need to write an introduction to my latest satire. Alistair Cooke has already written it, albeit about H.L. Mencken instead of my own Stephen Price Blair. It is written in exactly the same pretentious style, both praising and insulting the subject, that is required of a Musketeers parody.

RecommendationBorrow
Year1983
Length248 pages
Book Rating4

In The Vintage Mencken, Alistair Cooke gathered “mainly to introduce to a generation that never read him a writer who more and more strikes me as the master craftsman of daily journalism in the twentieth century.” On the other hand, this could well be an “I compiled this not to praise Mencken but to bury him” sort of deal, only this time honestly. “Mencken’s thunder,” after all, “issued from an unmaterial mind, but also from a full stomach.”

This collection stresses “the newspaper pieces that had outlived more pretentious stuff”, and I’m not sure but I think Cooke means Mencken’s more pretentious stuff. For Mencken “was overrated in his day as a thinker” but “underrated as a humorist”.

Here are a few of the quotes I’ve added to my quotes database from The Vintage Mencken:

If I had my way no man guilty of golf would be eligible to any office of trust or profit under the United States…

In the whole realm of human learning there is no faculty more fantastically incompetent than that of pedagogy.

The great combat is ending this afternoon in the classical Democratic manner. That is to say, the victors are full of uneasiness and the vanquished are full of bile.

If revenge is really sweet he was sucking a colossal sugar teat, but all the same there was a beery flavor about it that must have disquieted him.

He sailed through American history like a steel ship loaded with monoliths of granite.

We suffer most, not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory, but when it is a jitney Mars Hill, with a tin-pot Paul bawling from the roof.

Frankness and courage are luxuries confined to the more comic varieties of runners-up at national conventions.

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.

Many of these are out of context; Mencken is at his best when taken out of context. Cooke recognizes this, and many of the articles are abridged. Reading this, I can’t but get the feeling that Cooke’s ambivalence about Mencken carried over into his choices; Mencken is a legend, but these articles seem to qualify Mencken for the Order of Cantankerous Emilies, Litella Class. The strangest is a nearly incomprehensible diatribe sarcastically proposing civilian awards for overzealousness (honest and cynical) in wartime, riffing off of the proliferation of fraternal orders at the time, the Elks and such. It almost makes more sense as if Mencken were making fun of opinion pieces rather than any topic therein. The ideas are only thinly connected and Mencken has, at least, a better reputation than not to realize that in satire and sarcasm the links must be strong to hold.

Some of it is so over-the-top, not in its sarcasm but in its seriousness, that it is best read in a fake voice. I happen to be watching Frasier with my girlfriend on Netflix now; The Libido for the Ugly is best read in the voice of radio psychologist Frasier Crane.

Like Crane, he also despises physical sports. As does the famous journalist in Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism, he considers liking sports to be the antonym to logic.

…as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.

It is very likely that I’m missing some important ingredient; the hard thing here is seeing through his archaic prose to what he writes seriously and what he writes in opposition. For example, praising Coolidge’s presidency:

We suffer most, not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory, but when it is a jitney Mars Hill, with a tin-pot Paul bawling from the roof. Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.

I think it’s serious because he uses “American” rather than “Americano”, a term he seems to use to signal disdain. But that last line makes me unsure. And I think part of the problem is that I’m really not sure I can trust his sarcasm at this point. Whether it’s archaic or just sophomoric, it doesn’t hold well. Ultimately, I think if you’re looking for some vintage Mencken, The Vintage Mencken is not the place to start; or at least, I hope not. I’m hoping Mencken has better writing available, and collected.

The Vintage Mencken

Recommendation: Borrow