There have been renowned columnists in U.S. history like Walter Lippmann, Ben Hecht, Westbrook Pegler and Molly Ivins. But none has been as savage, caustic and biting as H.L. Mencken.
To many, he was the most hated writer in America. Not to this admiring columnist.
Mencken was the “kettle drummer of revolt” in the 1920s, the great crusader against nonsense. His spirit was exemplified by the magazines he edited and wrote for, Smart Set and American Mercury.
“He denounces life yet makes you want to live,” Lippmann wrote. Another contemporary, Gerald Johnson, said Mencken “had the vital spark, so galvanic, so ruthlessly, joyously and utterly destructive.”
Mencken won his greatest plaudits and was pelted with his most hatred covering the Scopes trial in 1925 in Dayton, Tenn., for the Baltimore Evening Sun. (One of the papers I reported for in my newspaper career.)
HLM reveled in the spectacle of the “infidel” John Scopes on trial for teaching the theory of evolution in his high school biology class. Mencken sided with the prosecutor, famed attorney Clarence Darrow, and opposed the defense attorney, William Jennings Bryan, three times losing Democratic presidential candidate.
Mencken called Bryan a foolish figure, standing in the way of scientific progress, urging religious fundamentalism and opposing truth.
One of Mencken’s happy diversions during the trial was covering a nearby revivalist meeting.
Brother Joe Furdew, boss demagogue of the Holly Rollers sect, was holding nightly revival meetings “under a great huckleberry tree.” Clad in jeans, he chanted hoarsely:
“And I’m a tellin’ yu, Glory to God!—the Lord’ll cast down the high kings into the dirt—Glory to God! There are mighty men in the churches—Glory to God!”
Then, while “Brother Joe beat on his Bible keeping time, a young girl jumped out of the congregation and flung herself on the ground. “This sister,” the leader said, “has asked for prayers.”
What followed, HLM wrote, “reached heights of barbaric grotesquerie.”
“All the faithful began to pray on their knees. The leader also kneeled, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands.
“Words sprouted from his lips like bullets from a machine gun: appeals to pull back the penitent from hell, defiance of the powers and principalities of Satan and a vast impassioned jargon of apocalyptic texts.
“Suddenly he rose to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in tongues: blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose still louder.
“The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk like that of a man throttled. He fell back headlong across the pyramid of supplicants.
“A comic scene? No. The poor half-wits were too horribly in earnest. It was like peeping through a knot-hole at the writhing of people in pain.
“A young woman detached herself. From the squirming and jabbering mass. She jerked her head back, the veins of her neck swelled and her fists went to her throat as if she were fighting for breath.
“She bent backward until she was like half a hoop. Then she suddenly snapped forward. The whites of her eyes gleamed. Soon her whole body began to be convulsed—great convulsions that began at the shoulders and ended at the hips.
“She would leap to her feet, thrust her arms in the air and then hurl herself on the pile of bodies. Her praying flattened out into a delirious caterwauling like that of a woman in torment.”
Mencken concluded: “I describe the entire scene as a strict behaviorist. Subjective judgments I leave to infidel pathologists.”
At the trial, Scopes was convicted. The Evening Sun paid the fine of $100.
W.J. Bryan, 65, died four days after the trial. His death was hastened by the torrid temperature of the courtroom at a time before air-conditioning.
(For a movie version of the trial, see the DVD “Inherit the Wind” featuring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.)
DEATH WITH DIGNITY
For many years this column has been preaching the right to die, the right of physicians to administer a fatal drug when disease makes living an unbearable torture.
Oregon was the first state to pass such a law in 1997. Since then doctor-assisted deaths were legalized in California, Colorado, Montana, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.
More than 500 terminally ill Californians requested life-ending drugs since the law took effect a year ago. Such a law is necessary. People with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and suffering from fatal cancers have every right to a death with dignity.
Nevada legislators wrestled with the issue in 2017. The Nevada ACLU, AARP, the Progressive Leadership Alliance and the Libertarian Party backed physician-assisted suicide.
The Senate passed the measure, 11-10, but its Senate Bill 261 died at the mandatory end of the session.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor from the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)