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Mencken and Me

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

Since the death of Murray Kempton, and the premature loss of Christopher Hitchens, it's hard to think of an opinionator who so consistently offered the intricate satisfactions that Mencken did in the '20s and '30s. That was before his apoplectic self-got the better of him and, stricken, he entered his long, dark Westbrook Pegler period.

Even then, the light would break through on isolated occasions, as when he covered the Progressive Party's national convention in 1948, which would nominate Henry Wallace, that poor dupe, for president. That convention would run the narrow gamut from mild pink to flaming Red.

Any year that had a Mencken, and any state that had him to dissect it, as Arkansas did in 1931, would seem fortunate indeed, however poor its people. By using Arkansas as the very symbol of miasmic backwardness, Baltimore's sage did us more than a literary service; he sought to awaken this state from its customary slumber. Unfortunately, he succeeded only in arousing our inferiority complex, which is still around, though in much vitiated form nowadays, thank goodness.

Back in 1931, our state legislature responded to H.L. Mencken's stringencies much as one would expect -- by passing an official resolution denouncing him. Instead of learning from his diagnosis, it condemned the diagnostician. It's called shooting the messenger.

The result was that here in darkest Arkansas, the Baltimore Sun's resident genius was generally dismissed as a damn Yankee know-it-all. Even if, at the end of his most vitriolic attack on what remained of Southern culture in his time, "The Sahara of the Bozart," Mencken had to concede that the "Southerner at his worst is never quite the surly cad the Yankee is." Yet he was still labeled a South-hater by his critics below Mason-Dixon's Line.

Never mind that Herr Mencken was a Confederate from Maryland, My Maryland, and about as Yankee as any other beer-drinking, cigar-loving, gem-tlich Wagnerian -- and someone who was a lot closer to Jefferson Davis in his political sympathies than to Mr. Lincoln, a much too democratic figure for his Teutonic taste. Or as he himself put it, "For all I care the United States may be jolly well damned: I am its subject by historical necessity, not its citizen by choice." Could any unreconstructed Rep have put it more forcefully?

A similar anti-American jaundice runs through much of the world today, but, alas, without Brother Mencken's wit. Yes, an occasional Hollywood star may threaten to move out of the country after some presidential election turns out not to his taste, but that sort never does, more's the pity.

Ever since I learned that our legislators here in Arkansas had once passed a formal resolution denouncing H.L. Mencken, my not-so-secret ambition has been to win an official, certified, duly passed and recorded resolution of censure from the legislature. Instead, I get only a denunciation from a former justice of the state Supreme Court. Ah, well, a man has to settle for what he can get in this life.

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