Wednesday, November 13, 2019

'As Fascinating As a Revival or a Hanging'.

Laughter has no conscience. You can suppress it, blow your nose and leave the room but the internal convulsion remains. The comic impulse, at least in some of us, is overwhelming, more powerful even than weeping. It seems significant that seen from a distance, laughing can be indistinguishable from crying. So I offer no apology for getting yet another laugh or two out of H.L. Mencken’s “The Sahara of the Bozart,” first published on this date, Nov. 13, in 1917, in the New York Evening Mail, and collected in Prejudices, Second Series (1920). Its publication riled up many Southerners, including one classically minded critic who called Mencken a “modern Attila.” The essay is breathtakingly unfair and breathtakingly funny. Its unfairness seems beside the point:

“[The] civil war actually finished off nearly all the civilized folk in the South and thus left the country to the poor white trash, whose descendants now run it. The war, of course, was not a complete massacre; it didn’t kill them all. But those first-rate Southerners who actually survived were bankrupt, broken in spirit and unable to get along under the new dispensation, and so they came North.”

Until 2004, I was a lifelong Northerner. Observance of the Civil War centennial started when I was eight years old, and it turned me into a rabid Union patriot. I grew up watching The Beverly Hillbillies. I was never immune to Northern prejudice. My Southern stereotypes usually contained a nanoparticle of truth, much embellished by laziness, inexperience and popular culture.

Mencken’s essay was published on the cusp of the Southern literary renaissance. Think of Faulkner, Tate, Ransom (whose poems I’m reading again), Caroline Gordon, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren; and later, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Peter Taylor and Guy Davenport. Not all of these writers have worn well but the sheer number of them, all worthy of at least passing attention, is striking, though it probably wouldn’t impress Mencken. He writes:

“In such an atmosphere, it must be obvious, the arts cannot flourish. The philistinism of the emancipated poor white is not only indifferent to them; it is positively antagonistic to them. That philistinism regards human life, not as an agreeable adventure, but as a mere trial of rectitude.”

One of the first clich├ęs I had to jettison when moving south was that Texas was a Western state – an assumption based, logically, on all the Westerns I had seen. Not so. It was part of the Confederacy. It seceded, and some would say it never truly rejoined the Union. It’s a Southern city with Southern folkways.

I wondered if Mencken had ever visited Texas, and located a photograph of him in Houston in 1928, here to cover the Democratic National Convention. Of the four men in the picture (including Will Rogers), Mencken is the only one not smiling. The nominees were Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York for president and Arkansas Sen. Joseph T. Robinson for vice president. It was the first convention held in the South by either party since the Civil War. That November, Herbert Hoover trounced Smith by more than six million votes.

Mencken had written during the 1924 Democratic convention in New York City: “A national convention is as fascinating as a revival or a hanging. It is vulgar, ugly, stupid and tedious, to be sure, and yet there suddenly comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”


Thomas Parker said...

Mencken was never better than when he was being unfair. My love for him is almost entirely disconnected from whether I think his opinions are right or not. Surely only a unique genius could make a critique of the ideas of Thorstein Veblen the funniest thing I have ever read.

Don Kenner said...

If Mencken said the Civil War finished off the civilized southerners then he cannot truly be a despiser of the South. The true anti-Southern bigot does not acknowledge that there ever were civilized persons in the South. And if there were a small number of non-barbarians, surely they were not part of the effort to resist northern...assistance. Given Mencken's penchant for politically incorrect opinions, I wonder if he is today read more in the South than the north east. A truly gifted writer, he continues to amuse, even if it's your ox that's being gored.