Monday, June 05, 2023

'Indexes of Levity'

“I thought he was an impressive writer because he attacked things I wanted attacked.” 

Many people read this way. They read not simply for content but for content that substantiates what they think they already know -- that is, their opinions. We might think of this as rubber-stamp reading, a form of self-imposed censorship. Don’t waste time with thoughts and conclusions unlike your own. Much contemporary poetry is written and read in this spirit: 1. I don’t like climate change. 2. The poet in his poem doesn’t like climate change. 3. Therefore I like the poem. QED. Aesthetics be damned. Style is irrelevant. “Meaning” is all. Such is the corruption of literature


Paul Fussell is writing in “H.L. Mencken: Writer,” published in the Fall 1997 issue of Menckeniana, the journal of the Mencken Society. Fussell begins as a nineteen-year-old at Pomona College in 1943, waiting to be called into the infantry as a member of the Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army. He was soon commissioned as a second lieutenant with the 103rd Infantry Division, wounded in Alsace and awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. While still in college, he already knew that Mencken was battling with the bosses at the Sunpapers in Baltimore:  


“Mencken, true to the tradition of a free press, regarded patriotism not as universal celebration but as the use of the intellect to serve the long-term health of the country. To Mencken, the function of the press even in wartime was not that of a mouthpiece of the federal government. The job of the press is criticism.”


Fussell credits Mencken’s series of “elegantly subversive” Prejudices volumes with making him a genuine reader and eventually a writer. He reveled in Mencken’s “refreshing battle against complacent inhumanity and the morons” – like any know-it-all aspiring young literary man. Fussell grew up – in war, in literature and scholarship. He eventually concluded that not only did he find Mencken’s opinions attractive, but grew to appreciate the style of his prose:


“As I have said, it was courageous ideas not often uttered that first attracted me to  Mencken's works. His style was of course working on me to recommend these ideas, but it was much later that I was drawn to observe closely the uniqueness and the power of that style. Put together, the matter and the manner entwined inseparately with each other, and you have sheer magic, abuse raised to the status of the highest art, satire entering the precincts of beauty. As time went on and I seemed to need less and less the stimulus of Mencken's impudent generalizations, his style began to occupy my attention.”


In other words, Fussell was growing up—as a reader and a man. He spends much of the rest of his essay going over Mencken’s prose – diction, word choice, sheer audacity. His language has energy and is seldom inert on the page, though aping Mencken’s style is a bad idea. He’s best enjoyed, not copied, and is probably best encountered when young. Few writers are so invigorating or so readily imitated. Fussell writes:


“As I have tried to indicate, his devices of style are deployed largely for their own funny sake. They are indexes of levity.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

If I could raise one man from the dead, it would be Mencken. We have such need of a man who said that the only way a reporter should look at a politician is down.