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August 29, 2006

Mencken Sees Tranquility Arise in U.S. From Ashes of Prohibition


Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.
- H.L. Mencken

November 1933 strikes me to have been a rather bleak time in which to have lived. At least there was the demise of the 18th Amendment for which to give thanks and with it the possibility of a more refined culinary sensibility. Shelia Graham took up the subject with noted curmudgeon, H.L. Mencken.

Miss Graham: I'm hoping the re-appearance of wine in restaurants will improve the food in this country. Americans pour scorn on the food they eat in England, but I think their own is worse. I have suffered indigestion ever since I came to this country five months ago. Do you think America is in for some kitchen reform?

Mr. Mencken: I doubt it. Americans, talking one with another, have a congenital antipathy to decent food. They eat bad stuff by choice and heave it in as fast as possible. This despite the fact their cooks have the best raw materials in the world. Nowhere else is there better meat or a wider range of good vegetables. But American cookery still grounds itself on English cookery and is thus but once removed from cannibalism.

On a related note, is a useful resource in the form of 365 excuses to get soused (Mencken makes the September edition). That end of WWII graphic cocktail graphic ought to be a T-shirt.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at August 29, 2006 10:41 AM


You should find a copy of "The Baltimore Of The Eighties" by Mencken in which he describes the foody riches of his city when he was young. It is included as an essay in The Vintage Mencken, a compendium put out around 1990 and was a chapter in his book Happy Days from 1940.

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 11:40 AM

The problem with Mencken is the depressing brilliance of almost everything he wrote. One thing I have not been able to track down, however, is a copy of "The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet" which sounds as though it veers from un-PC to unsane. It looks as though The Atlantic Monthly has a copy on-line but it is sitting behind their subscription wall.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 12:25 PM

He was fairly mad. I love when he is played as a supposedly winning card in a bloggy dispute as some sort of genius that all must bow before. On the matter of the goodness of the food around him when he was young, he is at his best. Here is a useful article in the NYT from 1988 on the man: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DE2D6133EF937A3575AC0A96E948260&sec=travel&pagewanted=print

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 12:30 PM

He is relentlessly witty which is a plus. I expect my politics are closer to Dorothy Parker (though I doubt I would have joined the Communist Party, even if it was the early '30s and people might be expected to be clueless). She was at least as sharp as Mencken. Plus, a babe.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 12:34 PM

babe + a life time of gin = unbabe.

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 12:51 PM

Well, most people do look better in their 20s than their 50s gin or no gin. Excepting me due to my backwards aging process.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 12:55 PM

Mencken was a bit of a nut: racist even by the standards of the times, and rather creepily anti-British and pro-German (and very proud of his own German heritage). But his work on The American Language was awesome in the literal sense of the term, and he could turn out hypnotically good prose on a manual typerwriter at the drop of a hat. Not a nice guy, but super-talented.

BTW, Dorothy Parker outlived everyone else in the Algonquin Round Table. Of course, the whole group was a pretty hard-drinking crew.

Posted by: utron [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 02:09 PM

The Skeptic, by Terry Teachout is a really great biography of Mencken.

What a fascinating character he was! He stood against the prevailing gails of his time, which included flipping FDR the literary bird at every opportunity.

Wouldn't it be interesting to know what his reaction to the current state of world affairs would have been?

He was also a gift musician and music lover. In fact, he attributed his literary talent, not solely to his intellect, but to his musical ear.

Posted by: Joshua H. [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 04:51 PM