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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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