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Monday, October 28, 2013

Reading List: The Vintage Mencken

Mencken, H. L. The Vintage Mencken. New York: Vintage, [1955] 1990. ISBN 978-0-679-72895-5.
Perhaps only once in a generation is born a person with the gift of seeing things precisely as they are, without any prejudice or filter of ideology, doctrine, or preconceived notions, who also has the talent to rise to a position from which this “fair witness” viewpoint can be effectively communicated to a wide audience. In this category, one thinks immediately of George Orwell and, more recently and not yet as celebrated as he deserves to be, Karl Hess, but without doubt one of the greatest exemplars of these observers of their world to have lived in the 20th century was H[enry] L[ouis] Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore” and one of the greatest libertarian, sceptic, and satirical writers of his time, as well as a scholar of the English language as used in the United States.

This book, originally published during Mencken's life (although he lived until 1956, he ceased writing after suffering a stroke in 1948 which, despite his recovering substantially, left him unable to compose text), collects his work, mostly drawn from essays and newspaper columns across his writing career. We get reminiscences of the Baltimore of his youth, reportage of the convention that nominated Franklin Roosevelt, a celebration of Grover Cleveland, an obituary of Coolidge, a taking down of Lincoln the dictator, a report from the Progressive convention which nominated Henry Wallace for president in 1948, and his final column defending those who defied a segregation law to stage an interracial tennis tournament in Baltimore in 1948.

Many of the articles are abridged, perhaps in the interest of eliding contemporary references which modern readers may find obscure. This collection provides an excellent taste of Mencken across his career and will probably leave you hungry for more. Fortunately, most of his œuvre remains in print. In the contemporary media cornucopia and endless blogosphere we have, every day, many times the number of words available to read as Mencken wrote in his career. But who is the heir to Mencken in seeing the folly behind the noise of ephemeral headlines and stands the test of time when read almost a century later?

Posted at October 28, 2013 23:05