From The Front Page to All the President’s Men, I never bought the Hollywood version of journalistic glamor. Good thing, too, because I would have been destined for almost a quarter-century of disappointment. I and most of my colleagues were not wise-cracking, rakish men about town, nor were we moral crusaders. We were poorly paid clerks. The first thing I wrote for my first newspaper, a rural weekly, was the obituary of a man named Miller. We had beats, which in my case involved covering the endless public meetings of such bodies as the Ditch Maintenance Board of a small city in Ohio.
I’m not complaining. That’s how I learned to write and to be skeptical of anything done by government at any level. Journalism was a slow process of maturation. As a kid in my twenties, I recognized the privilege I was granted by the job. I could walk into the police chief’s office and ask impertinent questions. I learned something about the psychology of power and how to approach it. I learned how to deal with the enforced tedium and vulgarity of much free speech. I could listen to the stories people told me about their lives which, in some cases, they had never shared with another person. I had a lot of fun.
H.L. Mencken titled the first chapter of Newspaper Days (1941), one of the most exuberant books in our literature, “Allegro Con Brio” -- at a fast tempo, and with spirit. On this date, February 24, in 1899, Mencken had his first two newspaper stories published, in the Baltimore Morning Herald. What’s noteworthy about both is how familiar they seem to me and how mundane their subject matter is: “Team Stolen” and “Exhibited War Scenes.” The first is drawn from the cop beat, the other is what we used to call “chicken-dinner news.” I won’t pretend that the briefs forecast the stylist to come, but Mencken was eighteen years old and already had the gift of feeding off experience and enjoying himself. In Newspaper Days he writers:
“In the present book my only purpose is to try to recreate for myself, and for any one who may care to follow me, the gaudy life that young newspaper reporters led in the major American cities at the turn of the century. I believed then, and still believe today, that it was the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth. . . . Life was arduous, but it was gay and carefree. The days chased one another like kittens chasing their tails.”
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. Enlivening company, all, and Mencken is the most reliable and fastest-acting.