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Sunday, January 07, 2007

H. L. Mencken and the Smart Set

Henry Louis Mencken could never exist in the 21st century. He would not approve of it. But he'd be proud to see that his most cynical Twentieth Century comments and analysis of the behaviour of the 'booboisie' reached full fruition in the new millennium.

Mencken's best known for the (misquoted) "No one ever lost money by underestimating the taste of the American public."

(He originally did not specify a nationality.)

Here's a Mencken quote from the 1920s that needs no commentary:
"The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre -- the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. "

One of Mencken's most famous articles proves George S. Kaufman's adage that 'satire is what closes on Saturday night'.
In 1917 a 'history of the bathtub' appeared in the NEW YORK EVENING MAIL. It was written by H. L. Mencken and intended as a humorous column.
It's still being quoted as fact ninety years later, despite all Mencken's protestations that he made everything up.

Satire today is on the level of Sascha Baron Cohen's Borat. This sort of ethnic satire is hardly new. Ethnic humor was popular in the early Twentieth Century as immigrants flooded the USA and attempted to learn American mores, manners, and the English language. Montague Glass' POTASH AND PERLMUTTER (1910) was an affectionate look at Jewish garment district workers, told in their own language by one who knew them. Finley Peter Dunne's Irish bartender MR. DOOLEY is still quoted by CNN a hundred years later.

Mr. Dunne/Dooley and Mr. Mencken would all have interesting things to say issues affecting the present century. It's instructive to note that so much of what they wrote about the last one still applies today.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

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