Saturday, May 03, 2014

`A World That Was Two-Thirds Letterpress'

As a cub reporter who had never studied journalism, though I was well into my twenties, I was always looking for journalistic lessons from the writers I was reading, even Conrad and James. By journalistic I mean writerly, how to craft sentences, making them tighter, cutting the fat, deploying the vivid but not too vivid verb, learning why we always come back to “said” and eschew “laughed” and “snorted.” I read little journalism, almost nothing contemporary, not much that had first appeared in a newspaper, so I learned from the masters – Liebling, Mitchell and Kempton. Best of all, and most encouraging for a young reporter, was Mencken’s three-volume autobiography, a work I hope the Library of America will get around to publishing in a single volume, as they have collected the Prejudices series: Happy Days, 1880–1892 (1940), Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941) and Heathen Days, 1890–1936 (1943). Besides Mencken’s description in the second volume of the Great Fire of Baltimore in 1904, what I remembered best is  suggested by the title of the first volume – Mencken’s natural gift for happiness, for finding pleasure in whatever he is doing, a capacity abetted by his ferocious work ethic. 

I’m rereading the series and enjoying it even more than I did the first time, though I no longer work for a newspaper. Here’s a taste of Mencken’s enlightened hedonism. The tenth chapter of Happy Days is titled “Larval Stage of a Bookworm,” and is devoted to his boyhood reading. In a summer of 1888, when he was almost eight years old, he read “The Moose Hunters,” a long story about four boys in the woods of Maine who fight “savage Canucks on the Little Magalloway river.” You can hear the author of The American Language savoring every syllable. It was from this story, he says, that he learned “the word moose had no plural, but remained unchanged ad infinitum.” He continues: 

“Such discoveries give a boy a considerable thrill, and augment his sense of dignity. It is no light matter, at eight, to penetrate suddenly to the difference between to, two and too, or to that between run in baseball and run in topographical science, or cats and Katz. The effect is massive and profound, and at least comparable to that which flows, in later life, out of filling a royal flush or debauching the wife of a major-general of cavalry.” 

Mencken recounts the joys of leap-frog, tobacco chewing, “top-spinning, catty and one-two-three,” but concedes that “soon I was again feeling the powerful suction of beautiful letters—so strange, so thrilling, and so curiously suggestive of the later suction of amour.” Next he reads Grimms’ Fairy Tales, “put into lame, almost pathological English,” a translation he says that “awoke in me the first faint gutterings of the critical faculty.” The experience also teaches him that he was “born, in truth, without any natural taste for fairy tales, or, indeed, for any other writing of a fanciful and unearthly character.” I thought at once of my own distaste for science fiction, fantasy and all related forms of adolescent sub-literature. Mencken also rejected the immensely popular works of “Oliver Optic, Horatio Alger, Harry Castlemon and so on,” as well as dime novels. His explanation: “I can account for my aversion even now on the theory that I appear to have come into the world with a highly literal mind, geared well enough to take in overt (and usually unpleasant) facts, but very ill adapted to engulfing the pearls of the imagination.” This dovetails with my own implacable indifference to the works of Garcia Marquez and his fellow practitioners of lo real maravilloso (not to mention their obscene politics). 

In contrast to so much junk, Mencken contrasts his discovery of Huckleberry Finn, “probably the most stupendous event of my whole life.” Mencken happened upon the book early in 1889, just four years after its first publication. His father, “whose taste for literature in its purer states was of a generally low order of visibility,” owned eight or ten volumes of Twain’s works. The effect of Huckleberry Finn on the young Mencken was revelatory: 

“Its impact was genuinely terrific. I had not gone further than the first incomparable chapter before I realized, child though I was, that I had entered a domain of new and gorgeous wonders, and thereafter I pressed on steadily to the last word.” 

When his father noticed Henry engrossed in the volume and asked what he was reading, the old man says, “Well, I’ll be durned!” Not a bookish man, his father had been acquiring first editions of Twain’s books since publication of The Innocents Abroad in 1869. Mencken read them all, and nothing else compared, mostly because of Twain’s mastery of the American language: 

“I managed to get through most of Dickens, but only by dint of hard labor, and it was not until I discovered Thackeray, at fourteen, that the English novel really began to lift me. George Eliot floored me as effectively as a text in Hittite, and to the present day I have never read Adam Bede or Daniel Deronda or The Mill on the Floss, or developed any desire to do so. So far as I am concerned, they will remain mere name to the end of the chapter, and as hollow and insignificant as the names of Gog and Magog.” 

Mencken got his library card at age nine and recalls his “almost daily harrying of the virgins at the delivery desk [in the days before open stacks].” Like any book-minded boy, he writes: 

“I began to inhabit a world that was two-thirds letterpress and only one-third trees, fields, streets and people. I acquired round shoulders, spindly shanks, and a despondent view of humanity.”


marly youmans said...

Love that close!

My husband was reminding me last night about a passage from Louis D. Rubin, Jr., telling about how his generation learned how to write fiction through writing for newspapers. Interesting, since he moved on to a stellar university and publishing career in which he (among many other things) founded a very early college graduate writing program and so helped to forward the current mode...

marly youmans said...

Hot link, I hope! Some more thoughts in response...

Pete said...

LoA is publishing Mencken's THE DAYS TRILOGY in September. I share both a birth date and curmudgeonly personality with Mencken.