Lifelines%3a+Mencken%27s+Newspaper+Days


By John Augustine

I'm in mourning for America's newspapers, and they're not even dead yet. They seem to be dying a slow, strangling death, and the day we lose the Plain Dealer, the Blade, the Bee and the Times-Picayune, America will be impoverished. I know I can read the news on my computer screen, but that is cold comfort. Consider this review a valedictory. 

We're commemorating one of the legendary American journalists, who went on to become an author, a magazine publisher, and a hero to generations of young progressives. But before he became the Sage of Baltimore, he began as a teenage cub reporter on the Baltimore Herald. Forty years later, he reminisced about that glorious era in a book title Newspaper Days. His name was H. L. Mencken.

He stakes his claim in the preface. "I was young, goatish, and full of innocent delight in the world.... A newspaper reporter in those days had a grand and gaudy time of it, and no call to envy any man.... I believe it was the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth."

At the start, he was properly awed: 

I began to understand the curious equipment required of a city editor. He had to be an incredible amalgam of army officer and literary critic, diplomat and jail warden, psychologist and fortune-teller. If he could not see around corners and through four or five feet of brick, he was virtually blind, and if he could not hear overtones audible normally only to dogs and children, he was almost deaf. His knowledge of his town, as he gathered experience, combined that of a police captain, an all-night hackman, and a priest in a rowdy parish.

And the day after Mencken submitted his first two articles? "I was up with the milkman the next morning to search the paper, and when I found both of my pieces, there ran such thrills through my system as a barrel of brandy and 100,00 volts of electricity could not have matched.

You can't enjoy Mencken if you're afraid of vocabulary. He know thousands of obscure words and delighted to slip them in. He's not just showing off; he's having fun. He and W.C. Fields know there was a carload of humor in big words. He remembers one crack political reporter of the time: More than once, Baltimoreans of public spirit proposed that he be elected mayor, and in perpetuity, but like nearly every other good newspaperman, he looked on political office as ignominious and preferred to remain a reporter. Now how many writers would risk the humor of "ignominious," or even come up with it?

Actually, Mencken's original newspaper editorials feel strained, bombastic, as if he's trying too hard. But in his three autobiographical books, he's much more relaxed and jovial, and his writing moves beautifully.

His charming irreverence is on display.  When he was assigned to the notorious neighborhood of South Baltimore, he was elated. He says, "There was always something doing in that territory, especially for a young reporter to whom all the major catastrophes and imbecilities of mankind were still novel, and hence delightful."

One of his early editors, he complains, was "reported to be a Methodist, and what is worse, one of the so-called Methodist Protestant sub-sect, which even in 1903 was already whooping up Prohibition. When his membership in this infamous outfit was confirmed, there was something close to moral indignation in the office. One of the staff artists announced that he would resign in protest."  When Mencken became an editor himself, he had no respect for the hallowed fraternal organizations of his city. "One of the worst relics in the Sunday paper was a full page of fraternal order news, supplied free by the secretaries of the various lodges. The theory in the office was that this balderdash made for circulation, that all the joiners in town searched it every Sunday morning for their own names. One Sunday, I quietly dropped the page forever, and not a single protest came in." Balderdash indeed. And he's not above spicing u p his memories with accounts of friendly prostitutes, crafty cops, drunken politicians, and numbers of eccentric newspapermen. Not to mention the time he invented a report of a wild man on the loose, with every dog barking for miles around and all women and children locked up. He rode that story for a month.

His history culminates with his coverage of the great Baltimore fire of 1904 which, he says, burned a square mile out of the heart of the town, and went howling and spluttering for ten days. It delights me to dwell upon it, for it reminds me of how full of steam and animal magnetism I was when I was young. It was grand beyond compare, and adventure of the first chop, a razzle-dazzle superb and elegant, a circus in forty rings."

© John Augustine, 2011