Thursday, June 23, 2016

`Endlessly Wrapping Up Bottles of Peruna'

Out of innate rambunctiousness and professional necessity, H.L. Mencken was an enormously prolific writer. Unexpectedly for one so industrious and wedded to the deadline, a high proportion of his published work is worthy of at least one reading, and some deserves periodic therapeutic rereadings across a lifetime. Foremost among the latter is The Days Trilogy. The single work I read most often, dozens of times since I first encountered it more than thirty years ago, is “Suite Américaine,” first published in Prejudices: Third Series (1922), and available in the first volume of the Library of America’s two Prejudices collections.

The French title is tartly ironic as the material in Mencken’s three-page suite is homely and utterly American, though he may have been echoing the title of Dvorak’s 1895 composition. The suite consists of three sections (“Aspiration,” “Virtue,” “Eminence”) of sentence fragments, each a snapshot from American life, connected by ellipses. Here are the opening passages from “Aspiration”:

“Police sergeants praying humbly to God that Jews will start poker-rooms on their posts, and so enable them to educate their eldest sons for holy orders. . . . Newspaper reporters resolving firmly to work hard, keep sober and be polite to the city editor, and so be rewarded with jobs as copy-readers. . . . College professors in one-building universities on the prairie, still hoping, at the age of sixty, to get their whimsical essays into the Atlantic Monthly. . . . Car-conductors on lonely suburban lines, trying desperately to save up $500 and start a Ford garage. . . . Pastors of one-horse little churches in decadent villages, who, whenever they drink two cups of coffee at supper, dream all night that they have been elected bishops. . . .”

The writing is a marvel of tone. Mencken balances his customary satire with something like empathy. His theme is the vanity of human wishes. One thinks: How paltry are the things we desire. Even the clergy gets less than a thrashing. Only a lover of American life, however critical, could get the details so right. This is from “Virtue”:

“Pale druggists in remote towns of the Epworth League and flannel nightgown belts, endlessly wrapping up bottles of Peruna. . . . Women hidden away in the damp kitchens of unpainted houses along railroad tracks, frying tough beefsteaks. . . . Lime and cement dealers being initiated into the Knights of Pythias, the Red Men or the Woodmen of the World. . . . Watchmen at lonely railroad crossings in Iowa, hoping that they’ll be able to get off to hear the United Brethren evangelist preach. . . . Ticket-choppers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form. . . . Family doctors in poor neighborhoods, faithfully relying upon the therapeutics taught in their Eclectic Medical College in 1884. . . . . Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of  insects. . . .”

The details of Americana here are fascinating. Take “Peruna.” This was a well-known Prohibition-era “tonic” manufactured in Texas, which contained eighteen percent grain alcohol. “Eminence” is another gently savage look at the vanity of ordinary Americans:

“The first child named after the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding. . . . The old lady in Wahoo, Neb., who has read the Bible 38 times. . . . The boss who controls the Italian, Czecho-Slovak and Polish votes in Youngstown, O. . . . The professor of chemistry, Greek, rhetoric and piano at the Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Tex. . . . The boy who sells 225 copies of the Saturday Evening Post every week in Cheyenne, Wyo. . . . The youngest murderer awaiting hanging in Chicago. . . . The leading dramatic critic of Pittsburgh. . . . The night watchman in Penn Yan, N.Y., who once shook hands with Chester A. Arthur. . . . The Lithuanian woman in Bluefield, W.Va., who has had five sets of triplets. . . .”

Some of this is very funny and very sad. The particulars recall Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and even a pulpier writer like James M. Cain. Mencken’s attitude should not be confused with Thoreau’s, who was utterly contemptuous of his neighbors. And please note the grand time Mencken is having. He revels in all this vulgarity and tawdry human striving after respectability and prestige. Without it, he would be out of a job. In another piece collected in Prejudices: Third Series, “On Being an American,” Mencken gives away the game:

“It is my contention that . . . there is no country on the face of the earth wherein a man roughly constituted as I am – a man of my general weaknesses, vanities, appetites, prejudices, and aversions – can be so happy, or even one-half so happy, as he can be in these free and independent states. Going further, I lay down the proposition that it is a sheer physical impossibility for such a man to live in These States and not be happy – that it is as impossible to him as it would be to a schoolboy to weep over the burning down of his school-house.”

[A reader writes of Peruna: "Manufactured in Ohio, I believe. Its Texas connection is the mascot of SMU. And it pre-dated prohibition. Unless you were German and manufactured your own hooch during Prohibition. It was a remedy for this affliction."]

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