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MENCKEN: THE AMERICAN ICONOCLAST by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers OUP, £19.99, pp. 672, ISBN 0195072383 ✆ £15.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Ionce received a note from a man who, finding himself between planes at Heathrow, had chanced on, and appeared to have liked, something I had written. He signed it ‘Managing Editor of the Baltimore Sun in Mencken’s time’, as though no other qualification or introduction were necessary, for as far as he was concerned he was a survivor from a time of legend. Mencken to his American contemporaries was, quite simply, the greatest newspaperman who had ever lived.
When he came off a liner or alighted from a train, other newspapermen crowded round him, and there were impromptu press conferences at dockside and station, for this was a man more famous, and a more guaranteed source of good copy, than any film star. There has never been anything like him before or since. Why, he even made it into cartoons. In a 1930 New Yorker two young women are shown leaning on a ship’s rail, with the caption, ‘Something is stifling me — I think it’s Mencken.’ Four years later Thurber drew a disconsolate family with the rain lashing their windows. ‘This is like that awful afternoon we telephoned Mencken.’ What is meant by these I haven’t a clue, for who or what was Mencken?
I have never read anything by him. I have never met anyone who has. Even though Alistair Cooke included him in his personal portrait gallery Six Men (the others being Chaplin, the Duke of Windsor, Bogart, Adlai Stevenson and Bertrand Russell), he felt obliged to add, ‘Mencken’s victims were unknown in England and his targets too exotic to mean much.’ When he first read a book by him, Cooke acknowledged, ‘It seemed to me, as I have since discovered it seemed to most English readers, noisy and verbose, and his invective style was that of a blunderbuss cracking nuts.’ To him Mencken seemed an American mystery, but that of course was before Cooke, too, became an American.
So I had looked forward to this book, if only because I wanted to know what all the fuss has been about this political columnist, reporter, magazine editor, and national card who lived his life in one town, dying in the house where he was born. Marion Elizabeth Rodgers subtitles her biography ‘The American Iconoclast’ and even then is not done; she has a further subtitle, ‘The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore.’ The trouble is that Miss Rodgers, from the endpapers one of the most beautiful of all biographers, finds it hard to be done with anything. Her book, 662 pages long, ends, or nearly ends, with acknowledgments to ‘My parents, Maria Arce [sic] Fernandez and William Livingston Rodgers, whose love sustains me, my siblings Linda and Bill Rodgers, who read several chapters’, and so on, down to her editor (‘rightly called ‘Editor Nonpareil’), and her uncle, whose ‘steady hand helped me over many a rough passage’. It could be the film star Gwyneth Paltrow at the rostrum, Oscar in one hand, tears flowing. This is Miss Rodgers in full earlier flow:
Baltimore’s weather throughout February 1899 had been colder than previous years. At first, the light snowfall brought high-stepping trotters. Throughout Union Square and outlying areas the tinkling of bells could be heard as laughing couples, dripping with furs, skimmed over the powdery roads in sleighs. In a matter of days, however, the snow was accompanied by a biting wind that whirled ice from the roofs into the faces of pedestrians.
How the hell does she know? And how can you drip with furs? More to the point, what are all those furs and bells to do with H. L. Mencken? The paragraph ends, ‘Outside the Herald offices, the drifts would have been up to Henry’s knees.’ Ah, apparently it is to show his determination to get a job on the paper, turning up night after cold night. But all he himself seems to have said was, ‘I hoofed it ever hopefully to the Herald office, and then hoofed it sadly home.’ And then there is summer. ‘The hot summer months dragged on. Street lamps were littered with the shiny corpses of June bugs; at Union Square, dead moths floated in the fountain.’ Again, how does she know? Yet again, who gives a...? Clearly the Editor Nonpareil did not feel his duties involved taking a red pencil to this tosh, for here even the fact that it was hot has absolutely no relevance.
My friend Geraint Morgan, a university lecturer, once set his students an essay on the causes of the first world war. One began, ‘It was hot that summer in the Old Kent Road. The doors of the public houses stood open, the sound of tinkling pianos drifted out, past the small children clustered round the door...’ Geraint was not sure what to say, for the writer was a mature student and easily embarrassed. In the end he came up with ‘Do you think, might it be possible, for you to get down to the ... er, boom boom boom a bit earlier?’ Unfortunately Rodgers never gets down to the boom boom boom at all. A single example. In 1942 Mencken published A New Dictionary of Quotations, based on a card index of sayings he had been collecting since 1918, none of which had ever appeared in any dictionary of quotations. It was, she says, the least banal or solemn dictionary of quotations yet published. But you have to take that on trust, for the woman does not quote a single entry.
But then she is loth to quote anything. H. L. Mencken was a writer, which was why she wrote the book in the first place, and why I was reading it. And it doesn’t much matter whether he had dazzling blue eyes or siblings, and was a laugh in bars. It doesn’t even matter that he married tragically, his wife dying five years after the wedding, when all a reader wants to know is what he was like as a writer. He published hundreds of thousands of words. Did his style change, his approach, his subject-matter? Why does she not publish a single complete column? She had enough space, and, God knows, I would have traded in all the June bugs and the furs for that.
As it is I still don’t know what the fuss was about. It has given me no pleasure writing this.