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Volume 17, Issue 3: Ex Libris

Los Books

Reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell and Nathan Wilson

Happy Days:1880-1892; Newspaper Days: 1899-1906; Heathen Days:1890-1936
by H. L. Mencken
reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell

Henry Louis Mencken, master and unapologetic champion of the American iteration of the English tongue, employed the language in all its pugilistic, cocksure glory. His three-volume autobiography, which he wrote in the years spanning 1936-1943, displays his two-fisted virtuosity in the American dialect in nine hundred of the twentieth century's most enjoyable pages. While not much of a one for poetry—he rejected it as "jingly and juicy nonsense"1—the man nevertheless loved words, deeply. Rather than devote his to the articulation of "the pearls of the imagination," the newspaperman-by-trade-and-heart trained them to elevate "overt facts" and anecdotal storytelling into an utterly unpretentious art.

And so anecdotes comprise the bulk of the autobiography; in fact, there is no more overarching narrative structure than one may glean from the "Note about the Author" closing out each volume. Born in 1880 in Baltimore, he began writing for that city's Morning Herald in 1899, moving on in 1906 to the Sun, where he remained until a few years shy of his death in 1956. Along the way, he wrote for and co-edited the Smart Set, a magazine of literary criticism, and sired a prodigious litter of eminently readable books and essays. An athletic wordsmith, he remarks in one place that his career had coaxed out of him some ten million words, with more sure to follow.
His childhood memoir Happy Days enjoys a throne of honor atop that vaunted heap of letters. Mencken delighted in his nonage, and dare I say, was profoundly grateful for it. Gleeful, doxological passages on the glories of an uncomplicated young life crowd this first volume; his passage on stewed blackberries alone ought to fetch the $15.95 that Johns Hopkins Press levies for the book. Mencken assiduously avoids the psychoanalytic brine in which so many autobiographers marinate their childhoods, and what he spares us in self-reflection he makes up for in his lively recollection of the bygone. He writes of a Baltimore where a housewife fetching soft crabs for the family supper shilled out but "two-and-a-twelfth cents apiece," and where the grammar-school pedagogues took after the boys with yardsticks. His recollections of things that a lesser writer would bathe in sucrose, such as the peach ice cream that stapled down the family desserts, always arrive with some salty change-up—the Mencken family tired of the fresh peaches, and turned the ice cream over to the conniving, gluttonous family Shetland. He reports, unsentimentally, that even the stewed blackberries turned up the occasional grasshopper.
Newspaper Days charts Mencken's career at the Morning Herald, which he talked his way into via six winter weeks of pestering Herald editor Max Ways for a beat. After one of his regulars did a six-day stint in absentia, Ways gave Mencken his first crack at journalism. Upon seeing his first hundred words in print, "there ran such thrills through [Mencken's] system as a barrel of brandy and 100,000 volts of electricity could not have matched."2 Mencken soon found himself pulling down a regular paycheck and living the reportorial life—irregular hours, fried steaks and potatoes, ringside seats at hangings, drink-addled colleagues, and theater passes, all of it washed down with copious doses of malted drink. Though he spectated at many a blow-up, Mencken himself was no lush; his respect for alcohol was that of a highly amused professional. Mencken the twenty-five-year-old admired drink the way Mencken the ten-year-old admired blackberries—as part of a life "very busy and excessively pleasant."3 That life also included feasts. Again, no asking price is too steep for the man's descriptions of the Herculean repasts that weighed down the tables of Baltimore and the equally heroic appetites of those who dispatched them. Only the most pusillanimous gnostic could turn up his nose at these passages, for they exude an uncomplicated delight in what grease, flour, and heat can do to God's creation.
Volume Three is the most topical of the autobiography; we now turn to his "random reminiscences" harvested from the days spanning his adolescence to his early sixties. He alights upon his topics—journalism, ales, personalities, politicians, traveling, and others—following a chronology of yarns assembled mainly to give him opportunity to stretch his essayist's legs. In Heathen Days we find all of Mencken's strengths present and kicking; we also find ourselves holding him at an arm's length. In chapter XVII, "Inquisition," Mencken stakes out for himself a generous tract on the wrong side of the Scopes trial, embodying the Progressive era's modernist arrogance, even if he took up with its more charming scraps. The fundamentalist Tennesseans he encountered proved ready magnets for his derision and scorn, however grinningly deployed. He positively tars and feathers William Jennings Bryan, whom he calls "a quack, pure and unadulterated" in another chapter. For, sure enough, Bryan was a Christian, which was sufficient reason for Mencken to dismiss him.
Mencken was an unapologetic unbeliever; he describes his own incredulity at the Christian faith with the same glee he uses for food and beer. His father, he writes, "enjoyed and deserved the name of an infidel;"4 the phrase "Sunday-school superintendent" and its variants is one of his chief insults. Though his irreligion gets into the books like smoke gets into the furniture, let the caveat stretch no further. For the Christianity he encountered was, in the main, the pietistic and simpering variety that, when it finally molted, ordained Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Indeed, whenever he encountered something vertebrate in the faith, he praised it—the sturdy singing of hymns in Sunday-school, or the admitted rhetorical greatness of his much-maligned W.J. Bryan. Such passages are few and far between; more frequent are his offhand imprecations which, in their larger doses, become quite tiring. However, Mencken is worth fighting through, if only because he seems an enemy worth fighting with. Infidels these days are hardly a tenth as clever, entertaining, or worthwhile.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
by J. K. Rowling
reviewed by Nathan Wilson

Who is the Half Blood Prince? Tisn't Potter. Tisn't Voldemort. It's a surprise. The marketers tell us that someone dies. Does that really boost sales?

Anyhow, the sixth book hit shelves recently, the book in which Ron finally starts making out with people, and in which someone dies, someone you know and love. Read it and find out who. They're dead. They're not coming back.
The down sides of Potter should be obvious; a number of people make a living talking about them. Good and evil aren't exactly consistent constructs, though Rowling is usually a little clearer on the surface. But despite weaknesses in the series, there are a few things that make me like Rowling the person despite the craze. Rowling's writing is pleasant and makes no attempts to be sophisticated. She is the most successful writer, well, ever, but still seems to be writing simply to amuse herself. Because of her lack of pretension, this makes the series tolerable. Plenty of people are pretentious about the series, but she doesn't appear to be one of them. On top of that, her characters are most crudely drawn when they are whining, as if she has trouble understanding whiners. I appreciate that about her.
Plot wise, this volume consisted of occasional bad news and some back-story on Voldemort's childhood. Then there was Harry's second-hand textbook with brilliant notes in the margins that teach Harry more than he has learned in a long while. An inscription claimed the book once belonged to the Half Blood Prince. A curiousity about the identity of the prince and a knowledge that someone is going to die both keep us going. We find out who the prince is and someone dies. We are then done, ready for the next book with a distinct game plan for how Harry must tackle Voldemort in the final volume. Though many people will be surprised, the story itself is unremarkable and relies heavily on a reader's predisposition to care.
The standard criticisms of Potter—moral confusion—do hold water and aren't only connected to sorcery. Parents, Christian and nonChristian alike, have begun realizing that while it might be unlikely that their children will begin mixing potions and pursuing the dark arts (hopefully), it is a little more likely that the occasional lying/cheating/stealing/disobedient activities of Potter and friends could cause problems. Not that that concern is having an impact on sales.
Wherein lies the thrill of Potter? Why the enormity of the fan base? I have recently heard Potter books compared to the Super Bowl. We like to have events and things that bring us together, form a temporary community, and feed us chips. But nobody expects the Super Bowl to be good. If it is, that's a bonus, but that's not what it's about. It's a cultural event. We want another reason for a party. However Potter began its buzz, it's a Super Bowl now, and everybody's happy even with a twenty-one point spread.

The Loved One; Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh
reviewed by Nathan Wilson

Evelyn Waugh was an RC novelist with whom I was terribly unfamiliar. Recently I was given two of his novels by someone discontent with my unfamiliarity. The Loved One is a short satire, almost a novella. It is fantastically scathing in its treatment of secular America, particularly as we relate to death. The story swirls into being with a first suicide and ends with a second. His prose can take some getting used to, but is extremely effective. Brideshead Revisited is a little different. Full length and acclaimed, it is believed by many to be Waugh's classic. It is a story about Catholic guilt centering around the nostalgia of a British officer in WWII. When moved with his men to a wartime base at Brideshead, we the readers are walked down the memory train wreck that occurs in our hero's mind, beginning with his first year at Oxford and hopping through decades. In this work Waugh is a sort of Catholic F. Scott Fitzgerald. We wander through all the same sorts of follies that Fitzgerald gives us, but we have extra condemnation thrown on top. There is repentance shown; there is a promise of more. But the story focuses on the necessity of guilt. Guilt is a wonderful thing and the more guilty the life, then the closer that life is to God. There is a sort of truth here, but in a flat, typically Catholic form. Both books are solid reads nonetheless.

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