Marion Rodgers, author of Menken: The American Iconoclast, and Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting From Washington: A History of the Washington Press Corps discuss their books, journalist Henry Louis Mencken, and the state of journalism today. Read day two of the dialogue here.
I’ll be glad to start off by commenting how much I enjoyed reading your new biography of H.L. Mencken. It’s the liveliest life of a writer that I’ve encountered, and what a writer he was! You describe Mencken as being something of a Victorian in his home life as well as in his approach to technology—he undoubtedly would still be using a manual typewriter if he were around today. And yet his style of social and political invective, with its colorful exaggerations, would be right at home on the Internet. Once he got the hang of it, he’d be an unbeatable blogger, just as he was as a columnist and magazine writer.
In addition to regularly irritating many of the Baltimore Sun’s subscribers, Mencken employed a style similar to that used by today’s bloggers, including a lively mix of facts, opinion, nose-tweaking and name-calling (like Mencken’s dubbing Herbert Hoover a “fat Coolidge”). Mencken also shares with today’s bloggers a considerable contempt for the rest of the mainstream press. Probably no one made more colorful commentary about the media’s failings than did Mencken. President Franklin Roosevelt once delivered a scathing attack on the Washington press corps at a Gridiron dinner, and then impishly concluded by acknowledging that every word of his diatribe had been written by H.L. Mencken.
My question to you is if Mencken was blogging today, how do you think he would react to the red state-blue state division in American culture, especially the blending of religion and politics? There seem to be numerous contemporary parallels to the heyday of his writing in the 1920s.
Thank you, Don, for your nice words about Menken: The American Iconoclast. Very high praise indeed, from someone who has written about Mencken and other journalists in so many other books! Your own latest opus, Reporting From Washington: A History of the Washington Press Corps should be mandatory reading in journalism schools. It is solid and entertaining. Even your “Note on Sources” is instructive, and I hope will lead young people away from solely relying on “Google” and get them back into our nation’s libraries and archives, where the real treasures are buried. Perhaps, too, your vivid use of oral histories will inspire other young people to seek out more of those, and conduct some themselves.
Yes, it IS eerie to contemplate how, fifty years after Mencken’s death, his America does not seem that much different from our own. It was a world of evangelical Christians, hostile to science; a world where there was a split between rural areas and the cities; with a climate of censorship, prejudice, and attacks on dissenters; at a time when there were overreaches of executive power and when the practice of journalism came under scrutiny.
The blending of religion and politics would not have surprised Mencken — it was also force in his day, providing ample ammunition for his caustic commentary. As you know, one of my main chapters is about the Scopes Trial of 1925. In those days, it was called “the trial of the century” (we have had many since then). John Scopes, a science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. William Jennings Bryan, a former presidential candidate, secretary of state, and fundamentalist, who believed that an anti-evolution code must be written into the American constitution, joined the prosecution. The famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, elicited Mencken’s help for the defense. There were many celebrities at the trial, but it was Mencken’s commentary that garnered the most attention. At the end of it all, however, Mencken found the whole debate “a damnable obscenity.” He held to the Jeffersonian idea of the separation of church and state. It would have not surprised Mencken to know that the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin is again facing challenges in Kansas, Pennsylvania, California, and other states in the country. As Mencken said at the time, “Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.”
I question whether Mencken would have been a blogger. Yes, like Gore Vidal, he would have embraced the fierce and refreshing independence of bloggers. He would have congratulated those few that get a scoop ahead of the mainstream press, now in such decay. Mencken celebrated the independent, family newspapers, like his old paper, the Baltimore Sun; he would have felt bitter that so many are now owned by conglomerates. Nonetheless, Mencken always considered himself a newspaperman. Very few bloggers could be called journalists.
You said in your book that September 11 made many reporters discard some of their professional distance to rally around the flag and be uncritical of the President. David Broder, for instance, compared President Bush to President Lincoln. I think Hurricane Katrina, and the White House mismanagement of that natural disaster, shook the public awake and gave reporters a voice. The floodgates were opened: suddenly more news stories in the mainstream press were critical of the President, not only about how his administration had handled Katrina, but also the war in Iraq, and homeland security, to name a few. I wonder if you could comment on that, and reach into history to give us an example of reporters or news organizations that have dramatically shifted their point of view.
Want to read more by Rodgers and Ritchie? Check out some of their past posts on the OUP blog.
- Save the Mencken House!
- Mencken is an LATimes Book Prize Finalist
- Why is H.L. Mencken relevant today?