And I still miss Ann Lloyd Merriman of the Richmond News-Leader and later Times-Dispatch, our historian and keeper of the flame, who left a hole the size of a continent in this outfit's institutional memory when she died a few years ago. How describe her? She was a combination of Virginia gentility and invincibility, of Lee and Jackson, only wrapped in a cloud of cigarette smoke and sipping a bottomless libation. In short, a helluva newspaperwoman.
As you would imagine, given newspapermen's talent for organization, the National Conference of Editorial Writers is a kind of anarchists' convention, a mix of class reunion and debating society. And I can hardly wait for it to pick up steam and get really rolling.
How describe our membership? H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, and a man who could write a mean editorial in more than one sense of the word, attended one of the first of these editorial writers' conferences. His writings remain fruit for the mind-a mix of verbal razzmatazz and cold observation that still cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. For example, here's his summary description of the nation's editorial writers at that early conference of same:
"Copy readers promoted from the city room to get rid of them, alcoholic writers of local histories and forgotten novels, former managing editors who had come to grief on other papers, and a miscellany of decayed lawyers, college professors and clergymen with whispered pasts. Some of these botches of God were pleasant enough fellows, a few even showed a certain grasp of elementary English, but taking one with another they were held in disdain." Certainly they were by Mr. Mencken, who never mixed his talent with tact. In his case, that would have been a sad dilution. We've grown considerably more respectable since Mr. Mencken's time, more's the pity. The modern, contemporary editorial writer, alas, has an abundance of tact and all too little talent. Like any patron saint, Henry Louis Mencken is much honored amongst us, but too little followed. Literal-minded, imagination-short, terribly solemn, dutiful to a fault, we now might find eloquence in bad taste, or at least a violation of the stylebook.
Year after year, these conventions grow more like a wake for the great editorial writers we've lost, and for the old, Menckenesque editorials page that took no prisoners. This year we'll be told, again, that editorial writing is a dead art, and we just don't know it - and had better learn to blog. But as Truman Capote said of the works of another author, that's not writing, it's typing. So we write on, the happy few of us who are left, and still think of our newspapers as personas with a history, character and opinion of their own to express - through us.