A friend and critic here in Little Rock -- well, definitely a critic and I hope he's still a friend -- submitted a guest column not long ago reciting my many sins. (Whose sins are few?) And we were happy to run it on the op-ed page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which we like to think of Arkansas' Newspaper. It says so right on the front page. To cap off his encyclopedic review of my faults as an editor, columnist, gadfly and sorry excuse for a human being in general, our guest writer ended his philippic by comparing me to…H. L Mencken.
For that alone I am much indebted to my friend/critic, The Hon. Robert L. Brown, a now-retired justice of the state's Supreme Court. Modesty should forbid, but I can't help quoting from his climactic peroration:
"It will come as no surprise to anyone that Greenberg wants to stir the pot and sell newspapers. But in this fashion, he becomes a major purveyor of the rancor that afflicts this country, from Washington, D.C., to Little Rock. . . . In short, it is Paul Greenberg who is a major part of the problem, just as his mentor, H.L. Mencken, was when he reveled in describing Arkansas as a hillbilly backwater and did what he could to make Arkansas a laughingstock. He, too, sold newspapers."
My first impulse on reading that comparison was to clip it out, have it framed, and hang it on my office wall next to my Mencken Award from the Baltimore Sun back in the long-ago year 1987.
Imagine the likelihood of any contemporary columnist being ranked with the Sage of Baltimore himself. Henry Louis Mencken was a legend in his own time, even if he could no longer live up to it in his stroke-ridden old age.
But in his time, when he was writing about the Scopes Trial or Warren G. Harding's (awful) way with words, or almost anything else, Editor Mencken was the very personification of curmudgeonly journalism -- a national version of Arkansas' own still-lamented John Robert Starr. Even today, Mencken's best work, and so much of it was his best, never fails to inform, delight, provoke and cut to the quick. His prose might wound, but justifiably so.
What a contrast with today's limited choice of journalistic styles -- bland or hysterical, with precious little in between. It's enough to make you fear for the language, specifically The American Language, a subject to which Herr Dr. Mencken dedicated three volumes of his fascinated scrutiny. That brooding set of black-bound books now sits quiet as a coffin on my shelf, as if in mourning for the dismal state of the once-vibrant American lingo.