Posts Tagged ‘H.L. Mencken’

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Newsmen Collected and Conversed About

July 3, 2009

The death knell of American print journalism is being sounded with great regularity these days — more frequently surely than even the newspapers themselves are published. No doubt a quick Google news or blog search will find someone talking about it right now, even as you read this. But in the midst of that fatalism, it’s with perhaps even greater delight that two of the Washington Post‘s book critics have looked back at journalism’s sunnier eras — and their reviews are as delightful as the books themselves promise to be.

In Thursday’s Post, Michael Dirda examined the Library of America’s new volume of works by A.J. Liebling, including The Sweet Science, which Dirda points out was once named “the best sports book of all time”  by Sports Illustrated. Comparing Liebling with his friend and fellow New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, Dirda wrote:

Appropriately, Mitchell and Liebling, like two Arthurian paladins, were themselves great friends, going back to their earliest days as journalists for the New York World-Telegram. They are fundamentally different writers, though. Mitchell’s prose tends toward a Virgilian wistfulness, ever aware of the tears in things and the constant changing of the seasons and the end to which we all must come. (The omnibus “Up in the Old Hotel” collects nearly all his best work.) Liebling, by contrast, is more often bright and snappy, with a taste for learned analogy and a greater range of subject matter. While Mitchell often comes across as a somewhat lonely, modern-day Montaigne, Liebling is more the gregarious newspaperman of genius, a connoisseur of good food, beautiful women and late-night drinking, as well as an ardent habitue of the boxing ring and the track.

When I mentioned in a quick email exchange yesterday that I teach Mitchell in my Mason classes, Dirda called that writer “one of my gods,” and his review yesterday offered an equally reverent assessment of Liebling’s writing — an assessment that’s urged me to check out the new volume myself. Read Dirda’s full review here.

And in today’s paper, Jonathan Yardley devotes his semi-regular “Second Reading” column to H.L. Mencken‘s Newspaper Days, the middle volume of an autobiographical trilogy that also included Happy Days and Heathen Days. This book covers Mencken’s years at the Baltimore Morning Herald, from 1899 to 1906, and remembering his first reading of it, Yardley writes:

H.L. Mencken, by Nikol Schattenstein. From Washingtonpost.com

Journalist H.L. Mencken, 1927. Portrait by Nikol Schattenstein. Linked from Washingtonpost.com

I was swept away by Mencken’s prose — firm, confident, inventive, blunt, hilarious — as well as by the mixture of unabashed nostalgia and fierce irreverence with which he wrote, not to mention the extraordinary intelligence of every sentence. This, I realized, was writing that far transcended anything ever done by any other American journalist, indeed writing that far transcended mere journalism and strode confidently into the temple of literature. 

And from the balance of the review here, it seems like Yardley’s fondness for the book has hardly dimmed or for Mencken himself, a writer who’s been much maligned and defended in recent years (and even during his own lifetime) but whom Yardley calls again “the greatest journalist there ever was.” 

Between the two reviews, a glance back at the history not just of American journalism but of America itself — especially timely this weekend, as we reflect once more on where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re headed.

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“More and Better Psychopaths”

April 29, 2009

A recent Facebook conversation with a friend in North Carolina touched on the Black Dahlia story — the  1947 murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short — and several of the books and films either based explicitly on the killing or just inspired by it. James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia is probably the best known and one of my favorite novels (though I literally walked out of the theater while watching the film, completely insulted by Brian De Palma’s adaptation), but there have been others of note. Jack Webb, of Dragnet fame, explored the case in his book The Badge; John Gregory Dunne’s novel True Confessions (and the Robert De Niro/Robert Duvall film based on the book) drew on the killing; and there’s even a jazz album by Bob Belden — a great one, I might add! — that charts Short’s life and death with its own narrative drive and passion. (It has the feel of a terrific soundtrack, though it was never attached to a movie.)

Thinking about the Black Dahlia sent me to examine a new book from The Library of America: True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and covering “350 years of brilliant writing about dark deeds.” The anthology features both Jack Webb’s account of the Short slaying and Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer,” first published in GQ and then expanded the memoir My Dark Places — both of which (essay and book) help to reveal connections between the 1958 slaying of Ellroy’s mother and his interest in the Short case, which he first read about in Webb’s account.

But beyond those two entries, I also found a wealth of great material, beginning with Schechter’s fascinating introduction, which quotes both Plato and Freud to delve into some of the sociological and psychological reasons behind man’s eternal fascination with such stories and then traces the historical development of the genre: Puritan execution sermons; Hawthorne, Melville and Poe’s fascination with crime stories; the emphasis on lurid tales to move papers during the height of yellow journalism; the rise of pulp magazines and books capitalizing on sensational stories; and then New Journalism and the arrival of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and ushering in if not a new genre of what Schechter calls “serious book-length studies of particular crimes, written by major authors and published by prestigious presses.” He particularly notes Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, and Joe McGinnis’s Fatal Vision among those books, though none of them nor In Cold Blood is excerpted here because of the anthology’s focus on self-contained works.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, during their trial for killing a 14-year-old boy in 1924

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, during their trial for killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924

Still, even without those classics, there’s plenty here to savor: from one of those execution sermons (from no less than Cotton Mather) through a series of murder ballads to Meyer Berger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a Camden, NJ shooting spree  (a case recently reflected on by critic Sarah Weinman) and straight through to Dominick Dunne’s account of the Lyle and Erik Melendez trial. Along the way, we get some of the most famous criminals in our nation’s history —  Leopold and Loeb, Charles Manson, Ed Gein, Son of Sam — and some of the best writers, many of them familiar but others perhaps unexpected by readers here: Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Susan Glaspell, Damon Runyon, Joseph Mitchell, H.L. Mencken (from whom the title to this blog post is taken), Edna Ferber, Jim Thompson, James Thurber (wait, James Thurber!?), Zora Neale Hurston, Robert Bloch, Calvin Trillin, Gay Talese, and Jimmy Breslin, among many others. 

I’ve hardly had time to do more than sample a few of these, but I can assure you that it’s a collection to which I’ll return, not only for reading but also as a valuable resource. 

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