Journalism students at the University of Nevada, Reno, used to find me forbidding and intimidating. It’s as if I were one of those newspaper city editors of yesteryear: crusty, brusque and mean.
One such city editor was Charles Chapin of the New York Evening World in the late 19th century. He boasted that he had fired 108 reporters, including the son of the great Joseph Pulitzer. Chapin was so hated in the newsroom that when he called in sick one day famed reporter Irvin Cobb growled: “Let’s hope it is nothing trivial.”
But, no, I am hardly a Chapin throwback. What few UNR students know is that beneath my demanding, hard-shell exterior is guy who was all mush.
I was particularly sentimental at the Yuletide, reading my three favorite Christmas stories, the beginning of Luke 2, the beginning of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and H.L. Mencken’s “Christmas Story.”
Luke 2:1-20 is a marvelous account of the birth of Christ. Mary is “great with child,” not the prosaic pregnant as in modern versions. And then: “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Next favorite, the Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.”
The opening delights me no matter how many times I have read it. Scrooge is as “solitary as an oyster”…“No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle”…Christmas? “Bah! Humbug!” He declares that “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
When his nephew wishes him a Merry Christmas, Scrooge replies: “What right do you have to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
When two visitors ask for a donation for the poor, Scrooge replies starkly: he will give nothing. He cruelly adds that if people want to die they should do so in order “to decrease the surplus population.”
Ah, the Mencken story, my third Christmas favorite. HLM was vitriolic, acerbic, caustic, mocking, mordant, sardonic and iconoclastic. He snarled about “the swinish multitudes.”
“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” he declared. Moreover, Americans were an “ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers who live in a land of abounding quackery.”
But Mencken reveals a tender side in his wonderful Xmas tale, a “Christmas Story.” It is quintessential HLM but with a twist that few know except Menckenoids. “Christmas Story,” first printed in The New Yorker in 1944 and published by Knopf as a little book in 1946, is gentle with its irony.
Fred Ammermeyer, a flaming infidel who sends Baltimore clergymen “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine, is determined that the waterfront derelicts celebrate Christmas without any of the usual holy roller calls for repentance.
But the bums, reverting to mission piety after several rounds of beer, begin singing mission hymns: “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” and “Wash Me and I Shall Be Whiter Than Snow.”
This was too much for a police lieutenant and Ammermeyer. They slouch off in disgust at the sad turn of events.
The next day the lieutenant encountered Ammermeyer on a Baltimore street and sadly lamented: “Well, what could you expect from them bums? They have been eating mission handouts so long they can’t help it.”
This column by Jake Highton, an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, (Jake@unr.edu), was printed in the Sparks Tribune, Dec. 25, 2011.