Monday, February 13, 2006

Dull Boy of Baltimore

A Book Review
Title: Mencken — The American Iconclast
Subtitle: The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore
Author: Elizabeth Roger

Mencken was a wag and influential newspaperman who admired Nietzsche, imbibed Huxley, and despised Bible-believing xtians, especially evangelicals and "holy rollers" (such as myself, though I really don't do that much rolling). Though despising them, yet for some strange reason, he was also fascinated by them. Also, he smoked cigars and was something of a roué who wasn't above callously jilting someone.

Just those two things tell me a lot. In many ways, Mencken was a thoroughly modern man. I recall many years ago a high school teacher telling me that she thought my writing style, at the time, reminded her of Mencken's. She gave me a book having some of his selected essays, which I read. I remember finding him humorous and witty, scornfully so, but only mildly interesting. His writing also seemed insubstantial and not really going anywhere — like someone obsessively talking about an itch he has and doing so with a perpetual sneer on his face. I never read much of him after that.

But he was a notable character back in early 20th Century America, and so I'd thought I might read up on him a little bit. He was a contemporary of Aimee Semple McPherson, although the book doesn't say very much about what Mencken might have said or thought about her specifically, although I heard that he came to her defense when she was being prosecuted by the district attorney regarding the famous "kidnapping" episode.

Anyhow, I have Marion Elizabeth Roger's recent biography of his life. On the front cover is a flash photo of him quaffing a beer. I guess he was celebrating something. The End of Prohibition perhaps? Roger's biography was pretty well written, though in places I suspect she "imaginatively" supplies some interpolative details to grease the gears of her narration.

After getting one-third the way through the 553 pages of Roger's book, I decided to call it quits. It wasn't because her biography was anything less than comprehensive and well written. If someone is a Mencken fan, then I would definitely recommend her biography of his life. But honestly speaking, I just didn't find H.L. Mencken all that interesting a person to read about. Yes, indeed, in his day he was a influential journalist with a smart-aleck attitude, sometimes witty and humorous. But also combined with it was an ineradicable arrogance and an inelastic conviction of his own intellectual superiority to the mass of his fellow men. I guess he got that from imbibing too much Nietzsche and Social Darwinism. Occasionally, he was given over to visceral antipathies. It seemed to me his hatred of William Jennings Bryan was pretty close to being downright pathological. I guess it would be comparable to the "Bush Derangement Syndrome" often found among the loonier portions of today's Left.

But his antipathies weren't just limited to Bryan. After reading instance after instance where he is calling someone or another a "mountebank", or denouncing this and that, even if in differing and clever ways, still, it all gets to be rather threadbare after awhile. Invective, even if combined with a clever turn of phrase or bon mot, can get very tiresome. More than anything else, I found him a boring subject and what he had to say so much wind. Plowing through all 553 pages of Roger's biography just didn't seem worth the effort.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Tragicall Historie

Things at work have kept me very busy lately, and consequently I have been more than usual tired, which is why my blogging has been very sporadic over the last few months. That and my reading binge have made blogging with any regularity more difficult for me. For example, I just worked through an recently published scholarly biography about the 16th Century English playwright Christopher Marlowe, who died young, a dagger in the eye, in what could be described as a barroom brawl with some shady people.

Now, long ago when I was a young college lad, I directed the lighting for a stage production of Marlowe's "The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus", so naturally I took a look at the book about Marlowe when I saw it on the new book shelf at the local library, here in Clingerville in Red State America. The book certainly provided a flood of detail about university life in Cambridge, the Elizabethan spy network, the Privy Council, people getting tortured on the rack, intricate political intrigues among Tudor era aristocrats, women dying in childbirth, life in Canterbury and London and Shoeditch, when manly men ran around dressed in those funny lace collars; Reformation Wars, various bombastic actors, Tamburlane, the mysterious Thomas Dee, Thomas Walsingham, Sir Walter Raleigh, James VI of Scotland, various rogues, pamphleteer, lawsuits, corrupt judges, Puritans, and swindlers. But much of what actually concerned Marlowe's life, outside of his poetry and plays and the little bit we know about his family, seemed more like "informed conjecture" than anything else, based on the scant body of hard evidence we actually have about his life.

Much of the book seemed, in my opinion, more like educated interpolation based mostly on what we know about his times and the milieu he lived in. Yes, he translated into English some of Ovid's smuttier stuff. His Tamburlane was a real sensation on the stage, as was his Faustus. Shakespeare probably borrowed a line or two from him. Did they ever meet? Nobody really knows for sure. And yes, it is pretty certain Marlowe was a spy of sorts for Her Majesty's government. And he was here and there at various times. And on occasion he was arrested but released. He had enemies, some of whom didn't exactly have squeaky clean reputations themselves. He was allegedly an "atheist" and a homosexual. Possibly, which may explain some of the revived interest in him. University Humanities Departments nowadays love those sorts of things — though it seemed that the author of the book tended mostly to punt on the matter.

Now the front cover of the book had a restored painting of a young man, arms crossed, with a insouciant smile and thin mustache, dressed in a Elizabethan doublet decked with gold buttons, painted around that time, but even then there's no real certainty that it was actually a portrait of Christopher Marlowe. We only know the painting's date, and that its Latin motto reads as "That which nurtures me destroys me". While little is actually known about Shakespeare's personal life, not all that more is known about Marlowe's.