Anyone who makes a list of the top ten essayists America has produced is likely to include both H.L. Mencken and Joan Didion.
Mencken wrote during the opening decades of the 20th century while Didion began her writing career in the centuries second half but each clearly became a key writer of their time. Each can be held up as uniquely American on some level, a product of the country thye lived in and wrote about. Their influence on the writers of their day has been profound.
For this round I selected two very slight pieces–Mencken’s short appraisal of writer Ambrose Bierce and Didion’s brief article on Las Vegas weddings “Marrying Absurd.” Each essay was interesting, each was entertaining. Each presented an opportunity to hear the author’s voice which is the only thing I can think of that connects the two, but each has such a strong voice that I suspect I’d hear it loud and clear in anything they wrote.
Here’s Didion on Las Vegas weddings:
Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniform pockets.
This in an article about marriages.
Here’s Mencken on Ambrose Bierce:
Bierce’s social criticism, like his literary criticism, was often amusing but seldom profound. It has, however, the virtue of being novel in its day, and so it made its mark. He was the first American to lay about him with complete gusto, charging and battering the frauds who ranged the country. The timorousness of Mark Twain was not in him; no head was lofty enough to escape his furious thwack. Such beserk men have been rare in our history; the normal American, even when he runs amok, shows a considerable discretion. But there was no more discretion in Bierce than you will find in a runaway locomotive. Had he been a more cautious man, the professors of literature would be politer to him today.
I think you can really hear the time period in both author’s work, too. Mencken’s piece dates to 1927 when Las Vegas was little more than a stop for gas on the way to somewhere else and Nevada was a place people went to to get divorced.
The Las Vegas Joan Didion writes of here is long gone now. People still go to Las Vegas to get married, I suppose, but the Las Vegas they visit is run by corporations not by mobsters. No more attendants in the ladies’ room either. Ambrose Bierce is little remembered today. I may be the only person you know who has read his master work, The Devil’s Dictionary, which really is kind of wonderful. You may have read his short story Incident at Owl Creek Bridge which is also very good. Reading these essays from the past provides a window on it, one I appreciate having the chance to view.