The View from Mencken’s Tomb

H. L. Mencken, courtesy of The Baltimore Sun, file photo by Robert F. Kniesche.

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The View from Mencken’s Tomb

by Hal Crowther
Southern Cultures, Vol. 16, No. 4: Winter 2010

"He was a verbal bully with a bully pulpit, more entertainer than sly persuader; in terms of reach and impact, a modern equivalent would be someone like Rush Limbaugh, although Mencken's demographic share was predominantly young and intelligent while Limbaugh's is old and stupid."

Forgive me if I date myself by exhuming H. L. Mencken. He was the patron saint of a certain kind of journalist, and soon the kind of journalism he and I practiced and understood will be consigned to the History department. Or Archaeology. But you’re an ancient mariner if you actually read Mencken hot off the presses—the hottest thing available in its day, now a neglected chapter in American Studies. The Sage of Baltimore, as both admirers and sarcastic detractors called him, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1948 and died in 1956, so I can’t even claim that I read Mencken while he was alive. I discovered him when he was barely cold, though, when Eisenhower was president and I was an adolescent contrarian looking for heroes and role models and finding slim pickings among the adults and celebrities on general display. My grandfather gave me that yellow paperback edition of the 1955 Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, and it became, for a season, my bedside bible. I published an essay claiming that I was fourteen when I began to channel H. L. Mencken, which coincidentally made me sound passably precocious, but my mother shook her head when she read it and told me I was closer to sixteen. You can’t exaggerate as much while your mother’s still there to pull the wings off certain flights of fancy, and it’s my mixed fortune, at this advanced age, to have a mother still available to edit my memory.