Saturday, May 24, 2014

`Ethical Platitudinarian'

Like W.C. Fields and a few others, H.L. Mencken is a guaranteed laugh-giver. If I’m not otherwise literarily committed, but hope to amuse myself while killing time – at the Department of Motor Vehicles, in the bathroom, et al. – I’ll grab a Mencken volume, perhaps one of the Prejudices compilations, originally published in six volumes between 1919 and 1927, and republished in two by the Library of America a few years ago. The contents are readably brief and satisfyingly sane and funny, even when you don't agree with them. In the “First Series” (1919), in a three-part sequence titled “Three American Immortals” (you can see where this is going), the first part is headed “Aristotelean Obsequies.” Mencken begins with a lengthy excerpt from the Boston Herald dated May 1, 1882, describing a memorial book at a funeral: “A beautiful floral book stood at the left of the pulpit…Its last page was composed of white carnations, white daisies and light-colored immortelles…a large harp composed of yellow jonquils,” and so on for another eight lines. Then Mencken takes over: 

“Well, what have we here? The funeral of a Grand Exalted Pishposh of the Odd Fellows, of an East Side Tammany leader, of an aged and much-respected brothel-keeper? Nay. What we have here is the funeral of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was thus that New England lavished the loveliest fruits of the Puritan aesthetic upon the bier of her greatest son. It was thus that Puritan Kultur mourned a philosopher.” 

Lately, in my heart and mind if not always in print, Emerson has been my favorite punching bag, the convenient cause of all our ills. I use him as the scapegoat for whatever outrage the new day brings, just as John Derbyshire once characterized him as “a key progenitor of modern smiley-face liberalism.” Seasoned readers of Mencken will recognize familiar targets, including fraternal organizations, politicians and Puritans. Elsewhere, Mencken describes Emerson as “little more than an importer and popularizer of German and French ideas [sound familiar?],” “a theological prophet and ethical platitudinarian,”a writer who “was turned off into mazes of contradiction and unintelligibility by his ethical obsession –the unescapable burden of his Puritan heritage.” 

The other two panels in Mencken’s American triptych are devoted to Edgar Allan Poe and James Harlan (1820-1899), the latter a U.S. senator and Secretary of the Interior under Andrew Johnson (Mencken mistakenly says Lincoln). Poe gives Mencken the pleasure of writing: “And so he rests: thrust among Presbyterians by a Methodist and formally damned by a Baptist.” Harlan, he reminds us, was responsible for firing Walt Whitman from his job as clerk in the Interior Department because he was scandalized by Leaves of Grass. Mencken writes: 

“Let us repair, once a year, to our accustomed houses of worship and there give thanks to God that one day in 1865 brought together the greatest poet that America has ever produced and the damndest ass.” 

Joseph Epstein once wrote that he relies on three writers to “lift one out of gloom, and away from the valley of small and large woes” – Montaigne, Justice Holmes (in his letters) and Mencken. Good company, all. Mencken, I find, is the most reliable and the fastest-acting.

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

Read Montaigne; that’s the voice
of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips
raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?
-- C.S. Lewis