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Get to the point

The Spectator's book reviews are very entertaining this week. Byron Rodgers takes a hatchet to Marion Elizabeth Rodgers' biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast with such evident glee as to make one suspect sibling rivalry, although as far as I know, writer and reviewer are not related.

I confess to being ignorant about H. L. Mencken. He features in my book of insults, saying things like, "Puritanism - the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy" (good), and "Love...the delusion that one woman differs from another" (not so good). I was quite pleased, therefore, to learn from this review that Alistair Cooke was also underwhelmed, at least at first:

‘It seemed to me, as I have since discovered it seemed to most English readers, noisy and verbose, and his invective style was that of a blunderbuss cracking nuts.’ To him Mencken seemed an American mystery, but that of course was before Cooke, too, became an American.

(Alistair Cooke, by the way,  was not all he seemed. As his Telegraph obituary confirms, his real name was Alfred, and he was the son of a metalworker, from Salford, Lancashire. At Cambridge, "none of his contemporaries could remember a trace of a northern accent. It was at Cambridge, on his 22nd birthday, that Alfred changed his name by deed poll to the more dashing Alistair." Still, his weekly "Letter from America", broadcast until very shortly before his death at the age of 95, was a delight.)

Rodgers (the reviewer) is unimpressed by his namesake's efforts.

Her book, 662 pages long, ends, or nearly ends, with acknowledgments to ‘My parents, Maria Arce [sic] Fernandez and William Livingston Rodgers, whose love sustains me, my siblings Linda and Bill Rodgers, who read several chapters’, and so on, down to her editor (‘rightly called ‘Editor Nonpareil’), and her uncle, whose ‘steady hand helped me over many a rough passage’. It could be the film star Gwyneth Paltrow at the rostrum, Oscar in one hand, tears flowing. This is Miss Rodgers in full earlier flow:

Baltimore’s weather throughout February 1899 had been colder than previous years. At first, the light snowfall brought high-stepping trotters. Throughout Union Square and outlying areas the tinkling of bells could be heard as laughing couples, dripping with furs, skimmed over the powdery roads in sleighs. In a matter of days, however, the snow was accompanied by a biting wind that whirled ice from the roofs into the faces of pedestrians.

How the hell does she know? And how can you drip with furs? More to the point, what are all those furs and bells to do with H. L. Mencken? The paragraph ends, ‘Outside the Herald offices, the drifts would have been up to Henry’s knees.’ Ah, apparently it is to show his determination to get a job on the paper, turning up night after cold night. But all he himself seems to have said was, ‘I hoofed it ever hopefully to the Herald office, and then hoofed it sadly home.’

He has a point. There is filling in of gaps, and there is sheer invention. More of the same follows:

And then there is summer. ‘The hot summer months dragged on. Street lamps were littered with the shiny corpses of June bugs; at Union Square, dead moths floated in the fountain.’ Again, how does she know? Yet again, who gives a…? Clearly the Editor Nonpareil did not feel his duties involved taking a red pencil to this tosh, for here even the fact that it was hot has absolutely no relevance.

My friend Geraint Morgan, a university lecturer, once set his students an essay on the causes of the first world war. One began, ‘It was hot that summer in the Old Kent Road. The doors of the public houses stood open, the sound of tinkling pianos drifted out, past the small children clustered round the door…’ Geraint was not sure what to say, for the writer was a mature student and easily embarrassed. In the end he came up with ‘Do you think, might it be possible, for you to get down to the … er, boom boom boom a bit earlier?’

Unfortunately Rodgers never gets down to the boom boom boom at all....she is loth to quote anything. H. L. Mencken was a writer, which was why she wrote the book in the first place, and why I was reading it. And it doesn’t much matter whether he had dazzling blue eyes or siblings, and was a laugh in bars. It doesn’t even matter that he married tragically, his wife dying five years after the wedding, when all a reader wants to know is what he was like as a writer. He published hundreds of thousands of words. Did his style change, his approach, his subject-matter? Why does she not publish a single complete column? She had enough space, and, God knows, I would have traded in all the June bugs and the furs for that.

As it is I still don’t know what the fuss was about. It has given me no pleasure writing this.

Now that I don't believe.