WRITING ASSIGNMENT: The Urban/Rural rhyme in American history
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PROMPT. Across American history there has always been a debate (or rhyme) that emerges over whether the city or country life is preferable. Is it better to be closer or farther from the land? Are we better off following tradition or being progressive?
This assignment is another exercise in the construction of an effective Argumentative essay (although here the parameters are more brief). Make your case for who you believe comes closer to the Greater vs. Lesser Truth. What are the strongest arguments in favor of your position? What are the weak spots of the counter-arguments to your position?
Step 1: Then. Base your analysis on the reading of these two contrasting viewpoints. Which position do you find most persuasive and why; i.e., who wins this debate?
Step 2: Now. The rhyme today: find an example of this same theme of urban/rural contrast (e.g., "city-slickers," "red-necks" etc.) from today and introduce that into your analysis.
Source 1 of 2: H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) criticizes America (1922)
Excerpted from "On Being an American" by H.L. Mencken, in Prejudices: Third Series (New York: Knopf, 1922).
INTRODUCTION. I.L. Mencken was a noted journalist, writer, and satirist, He was a columnist for the Baltimore Sun from 1906 to 1948, and the founder and editor of the magazine American Mercury. Mencken became celebrated during the 1920s for his caustic commentaries on the "traditional" American values of rural and small-town America, in which he criticized in colorful prose the American "booboisie" for their provincialism and narrow-mindedness. His social and literary criticism greatly influenced a generation of intellectuals, many of whom became part of the "Lost Generation" that moved to Europe in the 1920s while decrying the limits of American culture. The following viewpoint presents a sampling of Mencken's writing on American society. It is excerpted from Prejudices: Third Series, a collection of his newspaper and magazine essays published in book form in 1922.
ISSUES TO CONSIDER:
>On what points does Mencken agree with the intellectuals leaving America?
>What attitude or bias does he reveal toward Germany and World War I?
>Which portions of this viewpoint would you rate most controversial? Why?
Apparently there are those who begin to find it disagreeable-nay, impossible. Their anguish fills the Liberal weeklies and every ship that puts out from New York carries a groaning cargo of them, bound for Paris, London, Munich, Rome and way points--anywhere to escape the great curses and atrocities that make life intolerable for them at home. Let me say at once that I find little to cavil at in their basic complaints. In more than one direction, indeed, I probably go a great deal further than even the Young Intellectual . It is, for example, one of my firmest and most sacred beliefs, reached after an inquiry extending over a score of yem's and supported by incessant prayer and meditation, that the government of the United States, in both its legislative arm and its executive arm, is ignorant, incompetent, corrupt, and disgusting-and from this judgment I except no more than twenty living lawmakers and no more than twenty executioners of their laws. It is a belief no less piously cherished that the administration of justice in the Republic is stupid, dishonest, and against all reason and equity--and from this judgment I except no more than thirty judges, including two upon the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States. It is another that the foreign policy of the United States-its habitual manner of dealing with other nations, whether friend or foe-is hypocritical, disingenuous, knavish, and dishonorable-and from this judgment I consent to no exceptions whatever, either recent or long past. And it is my fourth (and, to avoid too depressing a bill, final) conviction that the American people, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-teppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages, and that they grow more timorous, more sniveling, more poltroonish, more ignominious every day.So far I go with the fugitive Young Intellectuals-and into the Bad Lands beyond. Such, in brief, are the cardinal articles of my political faith, held passionately since my admission to citizenship and now growing stronger and stronger as I gradually disintegrate into my component carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, calcium, sodium, nitrogen and iron. This is what I believe and preach, in nomine Domini, Amen. Yet I remain on the dock, wrapped in the flag, when the Young Intellectuals set sail. Yet here I stand, unshaken and undespairing, a loyal and devoted Americano, even a chauvinist, paying taxes without complaint, obeying all law that are physiologically obeyable, accepting all the searching duties and responsibilities of citizenship un-protestingly, investing the sparse usufructs of my miserable toil in the obligations of the nation, avoiding all commerce with men sworn to overthrow the government, contributing my mite toward the glory of the national arts and sciences, enriching and embellishing the native language, spurning all lures (and even all invitations) to get out and stay out-here am I, a bachelor of easy means, forty-two years old, unhampered by debts or issue, able to go wherever I please and to stay as long as I please-here am I, contentedly and even smugly basking beneath the Stars and Stripes, a better citizen, I dare say, and certainly a less murmurous and exigent one, than thousands who put the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding beside Friedrich Barbarossa and Charlemagne, and hold the Supreme Court to be directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and belong ardently to every Rotary Club, Ku Klux Klan, and Anti-Saloon League, and choke with emotion when the band plays "The Star-Spangled Banner," and believe with the faith of little children that one of Our Boys, taken at random, could dispose in a fair fight of ten Englishmen, twenty Germans, thirty Frogs, forty Wops, fifty [aps, or a hundred Bolsheviki.
Why I Stay. Well, then, why am I still here? Why am I so complacent (perhaps even to the point of offensiveness), so free from bile, so little fretting and indignant, so curiously happy? Why did I answer only with a few academic "Hear, Hears" when Henry James, Ezra Pound, Harold Steams and the emigres of Greenwich Village issued their successive calls to the corn-fed intelligentsia to flee the shambles, escape to fairer lands, throw off the curse forever? The answer, of course, is to be sought in the nature of happiness, which tempts to metaphysics. But let me keep upon the ground. To me, at least (and I can only follow my own nose), happiness presents itself in an aspect that is bipartite. To be happy (reducing the thing to its elementals) I must be:
a. Well-fed, unbounded by sordid cares, at ease in Zion.
b. Full of a comfortable feeling of superiority to the masses of my fellow-men.
c. Delicately and unceasingly amused according to my taste.
It is my contention that, if this definition be accepted, there is no country on the face of the earth wherein a man roughly constituted as I am-a man of my general weaknesses, vanities, appetites, prejudices, and aversions--can be so happy, or even one-half so happy, as he can be in these free and independent states. Going further, I lay down the proposition that it is a sheer physical impossibility for such a man to live in These States and not be happy-that it is as impossible to him as it would be to a schoolboy to weep over the burning down of his schoolhouse. If he says that he isn't happy here, then he either lies or is insane. Here the business of getting a living, particularly since the war brought the loot of all Europe to the national strong-box, is enormously easier than it is in any other Christian land-so easy, in fact, that an educated and forehanded man who fails at it must actually make deliberate efforts to that end. Here the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is of low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and i thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy, And here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly-the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicanries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesquelies, and extravagances-is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-show ....
A Third-Rate Country. The United States is essentially a commonwealth of third-rate men-s-that distinction is easy here because the general level of culture, of information, of taste and judgment, of ordinary competence is so low. 0 sane man, employing an American plumber to repair a leaky drain, would expect him to do it at the first trial, and in precisely the same way no sane man, observing an American Secretary of State in negotiation with Englishmen and Japs, would expect him to come off better than second best. Third-rate men, of course, exist in all countries, but it is only here that they are in full control of the state, and with it of all the national standards. The land was peopled, not by the hardy adventurers of legend, but simply by incompetents who could not get on at home, and the lavishness of nature that they found here, the vast ease with which they could get livings, confirmed and augmented their native incompetence ....
The average American is a prude and a Methodist under his skin, and the fact is never more evident than when he is trying to disprove it. His vices are not those of a healthy boy, but those of an ancient paralytic escaped from the Cretsenheim [nursing home]. If you would penetrate to the causes thereof, simply go down to Ellis Island and look at the next shipload of immigrants. You will not find the spring of youth in their step; you will find the shuffling of exhausted men. From such exhausted men the
American stock has sprung. It was easier for them to survive here than it was where they came from, but that ease, though it made them feel stronger, did not actually strengthen them. It left them what they were when they came: weary peasants, eager only for the comfortable security of a pig in a sty. Out of that eagerness has issued many of the noblest manifestations of American Kultur: the national hatred of war, the pervasive suspicion of th aims and intents of all other nations, the short way with heretics and disturbers of the peace, the unshakable belief in devils, the implacable hostility to every novel idea and point of view.
All these way of thinking are the marks of the peasant-more, of the peasant long ground into the mud of his wallow, and determined at last to stay there--the peasant who has definitely renounced any lewd desire he may have ever had to gape at the stars. The habits of mind of this dull, sempiternal fellah--the oldest man in Christendom--are, with a few modifications, the habits of mind of the American people. The peasant has a great practical cunning, but he is unable to see any further than the next farm. He likes money and knows how to amass property, but his cultural development is but little above that of the domestic animals. He is intensely and cocksurely moral, but his morality and his selfinterest are crudely identical. He is emotional and easy to scare, but his imagination cannot grasp an abstraction. He is a violent nationalist and patriot, but he admires rogues in office and always beats the tax-collector if he can. He has immovable opinions about all the great affairs of state, but nine-tenths of them are sheer imbecilities. He is violently jealous of what he conceives to be his rights, but brutally disregardful of the other fellow's. He is religious, but his religion is wholly devoid of beauty and dignity. This man, whether city or country bred, is the normal Americano-e-the 100 per cent Methodist, Odd Fellow, Ku Kluxer, and Know-Nothing. He exists in all countries, but here alone he rules-here alone his anthropoid fears and rages are accepted gravely as logical idea , and dissent from them is punished as a sort of public offense. Around every one of his principal delusions-of the sacredness of democracy, of the feasibility of sumptuary law, of the incurable sinfulness of all other peoples, of the menace of ideas, of the corruption lying in all the arts-there is thrown a barrier of taboos, and woe to the anarchist who seeks to break it down! ...
America and World War I. Coming down to the time of the world war, one finds precious few signs that the American people, facing an antagonist of equal strength and with both hands free, could be relied upon to give a creditable account of themselves. The American share in that great struggle, in fact, was marked by poltroonery almost as conspicuously as it was marked by knavery, Let us consider briefly what the nation did. For a few months it viewed the struggle idly and unintelligently, as a yokel might stare at a sword-swallower at a county fair. Then, seeing a chance to profit, it undertook with sudden alacrity the ghoulish office of Kriegslieferant [war supplier]. One of the contestants being debarred, by the chances of war, from buying, it devoted its whole energies, for two years, to purveying to the other. Meanwhile, it made every effort to aid its customer by lending him the cloak of its neutrality-that is, by demanding all the privileges of a neutral and yet carrying on a stupendous wholesale effort to promote the war. On the official side, this neutrality was fraudulent from the start ... ; popularly it became more and more fraudulent as the debts of the customer contestant piled up, and it became more and more apparent-a fact diligently made known by his partisans=-that they would be worthless if he failed to win. Then, in the end, covert aid was transformed into overt aid. And under what gallant conditions! In brief, there stood a nation of 65,000,000 people, which, without effective allies, had just closed two and a half years of homeric conflict by completely defeating an enemy state of 135,000,000 and two lesser ones of more than 10,000,000 together, and now stood at bay before a combination of at least 140,000,000. Upon this battle-scarred and war-weary foe the Republic of 100,000,000 freemen now flung itself, so lifting the odds to 4 to 1. And after a year and a half more of struggle it emerged triumphant--a knightly victor surly!
There is no need to rehearse the astounding and unprecedented swinishness that accompanied this glorious business--the colossal waste of public money, the savage persecution of all opponents and critics of the war, the open bribery of labor, the halfinsane reviling of the enemy, the manufacture of false news, the knavish robbery of enemy civilians, the incessant spy hunts, the floating of public loans by a process of blackmail, the degradation of the Red Cross to partisan uses, the complete abandonment of all decency, decorum and self-respect. The facts must be remembered with shame by every civilized American; lest they be forgotten by the generations of the future I am even now engaged with collaborators upon an exhaustive r cord of them, in twenty volumes folio. More important to the present purpose are two things that are apt to be overlooked, the first of which is the capital fact that the war was "sold" to the American people, as the phrase has it, not by appealing to their courage, but by appealing to their cowardice-in brief, by adopting the assumption that they were not warlike at all, and certainly not gallant and chivalrous, but merely craven and fearful. The first selling point of the proponents of American participation was the contention that the Germans, with gigantic wars still raging on both fronts, were preparing to invade the United States, bum down all the towns, murder all the men, and carry off all the women-that their victory would bring staggering and irresistible reprisals for the American violation of the duties of a neutral.
The second selling point was that the entrance of the United States would end the war almost instantly-that the Germans would be so overwhelmingly outnumbered, in men and guns, that it would be impossible for them to make any effective defense-above all, that it would be impossible for them to inflict any serious damage upon their new foes. Neither argument, it must be plain, showed the slightest belief in the warlike skill and courage of the American people. Both were grounded upon the frank theorythat the only way to make the mob fight was to scar it half to death, and then show it a way to fight without risk, to stab a helpless antagonist in the back. And both were mellowed and reenforced by the hint that such a noble assault, beside being safe, would also be xtrem ly profitable-that it would convert very dubious debts into very good debts, and dispose forever of a diligent and dangerous competitor for trade, especially in Latin America, All the idealist nonsense emitted by Dr. [Woodrow] Wilson and company was simply icing on the cake. Most of it was abandoned as soon as the bullets began to fly, and the rest consisted simply of meaningless words-the idiotic babbling of a Presbyterian evangelist turned prophet and seer ....
The Greatest Show on Earth. All the while I have been forgetting the third of my reasons for remaining so faithful a citizen of the Federation, despite all the lascivious inducements from expatriates to follow them beyond the seas, and all the surly suggestions from patriots that I succumb. It is the reason which grows out of my medieval but unashamed taste for the bizarre and indelicate, my congenital weakne s for comedy of the grosser varieties. The United States, to my eye, is incomparably the greatest show on earth. It is a show which avoids diligently all the kinds of clowning which tire me most quickly--for example, royal ceremonials, the tedious hocus-pocus of haute poluique, the taking of politics seriously-and lays chief stress upon the kinds which delight me unceasingly-for example, the ribald combats of demagogues, the exquisitely ingenious operations of master rogues, the pursuit of witches and heretics, the desperate struggles of inferior men to claw their way into Heaven. We have clowns in constant practice among us who are as far above the clowns of any great state as a Jack Dempsey is above a paralytic-and not a few dozen or score of them, but whole droves and herds. Human enterprises which, in all other Christian countries, are resigned despairingly to an incurable dullness-things that seem devoid of exhilarating amusement by their very nature-c-ar here lifted to such vast heights of buffoonery that contemplating them strains the midriff almost to breaking. I cite an example: the worship of God. Everywhere else on earth it is carried on in a solemn and dispiriting manner; in England, of course, the bishops are obscene, but the average man seldom gets a fair chance to laugh at them and enjoy them. Now come home. Here we not only have bishops who are enormously more obscene than even the most gift d of the English bishops; we have also a huge force of lesser specialists in ecclesiastical mountebankery--tin-horn Loyolas, Savonarolas and Xaviers of a hundred fantastic rites, each performing untiringly and each full of a grotesque and illimitable whimsicality. Every American town, however small, has on of its own: a holy clerk with so fine a talent for introducing the arts of jazz into the salvation of the damned that his P rformance takes on all the gaudiness of a four-ring circus, and the bald announcement that he will raid Hell on such and such a night is enough to empty all the town blind-pigs and bordellos and pack his sanctuary to the doors. And to aid him and inspire him there are traveling experts to whom he stands in the relation of a wart to the Matterhorn-stupendous masters of theological imbecility, contrivers of doctrines utterly preposterous, heirs to the Joseph Smith, Mother Eddy and John Alexander Dowie tradition-[William J]Bryan, [Billy] Sunday, and their like. These are the eminences of the American Sacred College. I delight in them. Their proceedings make me a happier American.
Turn, now, to politics. Consider, for example, a campaign for the Presidency. Would it be possible to imagine anything more uproariously idiotic-a deafening, nerve-wracking battle to the death between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Harlequin and Sganarelle, Gobbo and Dr. Cook-the unspeakable, with fearful snorts, gradually swallowing the inconceivable? I defy anyone to match it elsewhere on this earth. In other lands, at worst, there are at least intelligible issues, coherent ideas, salient personalities. Somebody says something, and somebody replies. But what did [Warren G.] Harding say in 1920, and what did [James] Cox r ply? Who was Harding, anyhow, and who was Cox? Here, having perfected democracy, we lift the whole com bat to symbolism, to transcendentalism, to metaphysics. Here we load a pair of palpably tin cannon with blank cartridges charged with talcum powder, and so let fly. Here one may howl over the show without any uneasy reminder that it is serious, and that some one may be hurt. I hold that this elevation of politics to the plane of undiluted comedy is peculiarly American, that nowhere else on this disreputable ball has the art of the sham-battle been developed to such fineness ....
Mirth is necessary to wisdom, to comfort, above all, to happiness. Well, here is the land of mirth, as Germany is the land of metaphysics and France is the land of fornication. Here the buffoonery never stops. What could be more delightful than the endless struggle of the Puritan to make the joy of the minority unlawful and impossible? The effort is itself a greater joy to one standing on the sidelines than any or all of the carnal joys that it combats .... One man prefers the Republic because it pays better wages than Bulgaria. Another because it has laws to keep him sober and his daughter chaste. Another because the Woolworth Building is higher than the cathedral at Chartres. Another because, living here, he can read the New York Evening Journal. Another because there is a warrant out for him somewhere else. Me, I like it because it amuses me to my taste. I never get tired of the show. It is worth every cent it costs.
Source 2 of 2: A Critique of H.L. Mencken (1928) Catherine Beach Ely (dates unknown)
Source: Catherine Beach Ely. "The Sorrows Mencken," North American Review, vol. 225, no. 1 (January J928).
INTRODUCTION. Catherine Beach Ely was a writer on art criticism and social issues. In the following viewpoint, taken from an article published in the North American Review in [January 1928, she takes aim at H.L. Mencken, perhaps America's most prominent cultural critic of the 1920s. Her criticism of Mencken is also a defense of the American society Mencken made a point of satirizing, with its optimism, religious faith, and patriotism.
ISSUES TO CONSIDER:
> How does Ely describe Mencken?
> Does her description of Mencken accurately describe the tone of the opposing viewpoint?
> Do you think she presents an adequate response to Mencken's arguments? Why or why not?
The exile of Henry Mencken among us ignorant, naive Americans is a tragedy of modern letters. Self-condemned to this unhappy existence by his own decision, and not by our insistence, he continues to afford us the unparalleled spectacle of his supreme condescension. He endures our stupidities and crudenesses with pained disgust. With what one would call a missionary's zeal, were not the concept missionary so foreign to his taste, he labors to convert us to the sophisticate's viewpoint. He abandons the civilizations of other lands, presumably more in harmony with his fastidious predilections, in order that we Americans may feel the contrast between his lofty intelligence and our inane futilities.
What desperate isolation, that of this apostle of pessimism stranded on the shores of cheerful, constructive America! Constructive-the very word makes the indignant Mencken shudder at the rawne s of a nation bent on erecting its own destiny and well being, though undoubtedly this egregiously prosperous country of ours offers a convenient financial environment to the mental alien.
Mencken laments the blundering ineptitude of Americas history. With consummate disregard for the fitness of things, we left an enlightened Old World in the Seventeenth Century and embarked in crude boats, landed upon crude shores, and began our crude career. Gathering momentum, our foolishness launched us into the international disagreement of 1917. Not content with the bourgeois obsession for engineering our own destiny, we must needs meddle in the affairs of Europe at a moment when our intrusion was most embarrassing to the theories of the defeatists and to the schedule of the Teutons-our absurd chivalry of 1917 was the bitterest dreg in Mencken's sorrow-cup. Since then he castigates us with the whip-lash of his exasperation. Increasingly we provoke his diatribes concerning our inferiority to a sophisticated Europe which he voluntarily abandons to dwell among us "boobs," as he airily designates us.
America's Exasperating Qualities. Our idiotic cheerfulness aggravates Mencken. Destitute of the acrimony which marks the superiority of the alien literati, we pursue our inferior bourgeois objectives with hopeful vigor, with candid and unseemly optimism, The world has been revolving on its axis since 1492, and America has not yet learned the proper attitude of cynical acquiescence to fate and of jesting unconcern for human responsibility. She insists on being useful and altruistic in spite of the oral and written precepts of our conspicuous intellectual, Mencken the Mentor. Full many a time he pushes us Yankees beneath the dark waters of pessimism, but unfailingly we bob up again on the life-preserver of our buoyant instinct for overcoming difficulties and dangers. In America apparently we cannot realize that conquering obstacles is obsolete.
Mencken deplores our antiquated regard for the sacredness of home, church, and history, We are so slow to learn that there is no such word as tradition in the lexicon of modern thought. Tradition implies affection for the past, whereas the Mencken school would have us understand that we have no past and no future worth cherishing, only the present for donning harlequin's attire and proclaiming the farcical futility of human endeavor.
Hero worship exasperates the cynics as the most foolish phase of tradition. To make a hero of an American is to imply that there is something fine in human nature and, worst of all, in American human nature. Acknowledging gratitude for a salient personality in public life runs counter to the sophisticate's assumption that gratitude is a weakness and that there is no greatness of character. Yet, in spite of Menoken's tutoring, incorrigibly stupid America continues to cherish her sacred memories and hopes. She persists in erecting monuments to her heroes, and in teaching her school-children to believe in Country and Flag-foolish America! disgruntled Mencken!
Patriotism heads Menoken's list of bourgeois offences. To be a patriot is to stir the risibles of advanced thinkers. How arrogant of America to value her experiences as a Nation, how tasteless her self-reminders of her evolution as a Republic! Columbus might better have remained comfortably in Italy; as for the Puritans, if they had foundered in the deep sea, we should have been spared the record of their austere follies. England was well rid of us, yet we are none the better for our independence. This dollar-chasing America presumes to prate of patriotism, to sing the glories of her birth, and to seek divine guidance. Mencken sorrows over all these childish tendencies, sorrows because our Nation will not cast aside her preoccupation with reminiscent emotions. Patriotism implies team
work, the submersion of the Ego, the upward look, the strong right arm, the romance of history, whereas Menckeni m puts the individual in a vacuum and tells him to exist without the atmosphere of enthusiasm expressed in national service and devotion.
America is incurably religious, although Mencken points inexorably to the signposts of modem intellectualism. She persists in putting faith and will power above barren mental cerebration. Underneath her crust of materialism she cherishes spiritual ideals. America's spiritual energy angers Mencken, because he makes himself believe that the religion of America is synonymous with hypocrisy, superstition and wrong-headedness. What light have we Americans to the consolations and inspirations of piety-we least of all peoples!
For the Mencken school faith is demoded, aspiration a weak delusion. Yet America refuses to repudiate religion. She makes it the foundation of her institutions, the motive-power of her charities, the keynote of her progress. Mencken sorrows over Americas narrow conformities, so contrary to the self-sufficiency of intellectualism. The American bourgeois blunders onward and upward instead of reclining at full length in the dry lands of Rationalism.
As an alleviation for the crass stupidities of the American "booboisie", Mencken has founded a school of congenial spirits, A select inner circle of Americans choose him as their guide and pattern. Our Menckenites form an esoteric band of superior minds, whose special function it is to deride all things American. They reflect his prejudices and imitate his cawings and croakings at our absurdities. Chief among them in stereotyped implicit obedience is Sinclair Lewis. Self-acknowledged tar pupil of Menckenism, Lewis incorporates his master's theories into novels which put the dunce cap on America and condemn her to the dark comer as the world's most imbecile race.
Menoken's band of imitators-the bad boys of literature-console him for his grievance at sentimental America. He has imparted to them his swagger, his bravado. They jeer at the plain person, who in the grapple with life turns to sentiments which brighten the bleakness of an unkind environment by revealing a goal worth a struggle. Like street arabs pelting strangers in comely garment, they throw derisive epithets at the kindly virtues and gracious deeds which brighten somber places.
They have the brawler's delight in destruction-the instinct to break the blight wings of idealism, to silence the song of hope, the flutter of expectation, They love to tease, to worry, to injure the purposeful citizen pursuing the round of homely existence,
'What's the use!" they sneer; "your work is futile, your faith nonsensical, your courage childish-you poor dupe, you preposterous bourgeois!" Thumbing the nose, they coff at the harmless effusions of life. Parades, both literal and figurative, with the old fellows in uniform, the young ones beating the drum and playing the fife, the applause and enthusiasm of the crowd as an outlet for human ardor, offend the superiority complex of the Mencken coterie.
Mencken, critic in perpetuum, assuages his vexation at our perverse Americanisms with the cup of malice which he prepares for himself His caustic middle age will pass into tart old age spent in the America he disdains but refuses to desert. For, were he absent from foolish America, his occupation would cease. With no America to berate, his career would vanish, his mentality atrophy. Having stored up for himself no gentle thoughts, no mellow traditions, no mild benignant pleasures of the mind, how could he live in a land he did not despise? How could he endure a congenial environment after the bracing air of antagonism to all things American? On his peak of scorn he noisily bewails America; but he enjoys his sorrows.
For Further Reading:
Lorin Bantz, ed., The Culture of the Twenties. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.
Stanley Coben, Rebellion Against Victorianism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
George H. Douglas, HL. Mencken: Critic of American Life. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978.
Edward A. Martin, H.L. Mencken and the Debunkers. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984.