Short Takes

Mencken, My Father, and Me

After my father died, and before my mother did, when the house I had grown up in was being emptied for sale, I took some books off the shelf that my father had loved. I say “loved” because he read and re-read them—even making his way twice though Rebecca West’s gargantuan Black Lamb and Gray Falcon. My father was not someone who announced enthusiasms much, so I took his readiness to re-read—something I almost never do, unless I’m teaching the book—as a rare declaration of love. And because one thing I shared with my father was the solitary pleasure of reading, the fact that he loved these books made me want to love them too. In this way, I hoped, a filament of love—declared, now shared—would vibrate between us.

I took the West volume, of course, though it is still unread. (My son, seeing the book’s importance to me, knowing Glenn loved it, and being challenged as males often are by its sheer audacious length, secured his own copy: he hasn’t read it either, though he’s farther along than I am). I took my father’s collected M.F. K. Fisher, an odd enthusiasm of his, since he took very little pleasure in food, having famously been seen with a cold hotdog in one hand and a hunk of cheese in the other and calling it a sandwich. And I took his two volumes of H. L. Mencken’s The American Language.

I recently used some of the Mencken for an essay about cocktails, namely the amusing names of various drinks excavated by his philological labors: the vox populi, the phlegm-cutter, the stagger-juice, the fiscal agent, the stinkibus. I have cited Mencken elsewhere in my writing: he’s quotable, and often funny, and usually a bit cruel, but he tends to make judgments—about writers at least—with which I agree. But the Mencken my father loved most were the three autobiographical volumes—Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days—and these he did not own but borrowed from the library when he wanted to reread them. When I learned that the Library of America had gathered them in one volume, I got it.

I just finished Happy Days, about Mencken’s childhood in West Baltimore during the 1880’s. Mencken like to use preposterously grandiose language to cut people down to size (including himself). The book’s first words: “At the first instant I became aware of the cosmos we all infest, I was sitting in my mother’s lap blinking at a great burst of lights.” He goes on to recount several other early memories that he says he does not remember. “But not all the psychologists on earth, working in shifts like coal-miners, will ever convince me that I don’t remember those lights, and wholly under my own steam.” Inflation—deflation: that is the basic Mencken recipe.

My father respected understanding and education, enjoyed words for their own sake, disliked pretentiousness, and had a low opinion of humankind. Mencken spoke to him on all these points. So far, so shared:  what my father found funny in Mencken I usually find funny as well.

But as I read on in Happy Days, Mencken’s tart zingers seemed more often to turn vinegary and sometimes just sour. And this discovery had as much to do with the world Mencken described as with his descriptions of it, as if the world itself was structured by jeering, by the violence of laughter.

And it’s often racial laughter, racist laughter, accents from the minstrel show. Towards the end of the book, Mencken turns away from his own life and that of his family to describe some of the notable figures he remembers from the “alley” behind his house, the black neighborhood with no running water or gas. These are set-pieces, and the characters “types.” He describes “Old Jim,” a “carriage-washer”: “He was coal-black and built like a battle-ship and when he got into his hip-high rubber boots and put on his long rubber apron he looked like an emperor in Hell” (173-74). The man’s son is “blown up by an explosion,” but the father takes it philosophically, considering his son “is safe from the hangman forever. He had even escaped, by the unusual manner of his death, the body-snatchers.”

Body-snatching was real enough—disinterring black bodies to supply the medical schools with cadavers. “Aunt Sophie,” the subject of another character sketch, is a widely-respected elderly black lady in bombazine who attends all the funerals, but fears the body-snatchers. Finding herself followed by a white man on the street one night she wheels on him when a cop comes into view. Accused of being a body-snatcher, the young man laughs, and is joined in the merriment by the cop. Is he joined by Mencken? By my father? It’s not easy to say. The third sketch is of Wesley, “a metaphysician” whose life takes a sharp downward turn once the woman who supports him dies, and he is reduced to petty crime: “Jailed for stealing two hams and a sack of flour from a grocer’s delivery wagon, he came down with pneumonia in his damp dungeon. With the unhappy alacrity of his race, he was dead in five days, and a week later the medical students had him. I have never known a more gifted metaphysician, or one who came to a sadder end.” If the first clause in this last sentence is tongue in cheek, is the second?

Twain’s Huck Finn came out when Mencken was five and already dipping into and out of the lives of his black neighbors. His memoir has some of the same queasy combination of pathos and cruel humor as that novel. I found Happy Days hard to take in the end. Reading it did not bring me closer to my father. It made me think a lot about him, though, about what he could stomach and what he would not. And the truth is, I do not know. Instead of communion with him, reading Mencken made me feel lonely, sent me back to the realization that reading is a solitary pleasure and the loves one encounters there are ghosts and figments.