H.L. Mencken vs. Ursula K. Le Guin – A Deal Me In Short Story Challenge

menckenWhen I joined Jay at Bibliophilopolis’s short story challenge, I added a little twist of my own, drawing two cards/stories from my deck and trying to find a way to link them in my review. It’s been fun but it’s not going to work this time.

H.L. Mencken would hate Ursula K. Le Guin.  Mencken would surely be one of those critics lamenting the sad state of Americans who spend their lives reading well below their grade level, stories about boy wizards meant for children, instead of facing the world  and simply dealing with it like an adult.

If H.L. Mencken saw me sitting in Starbucks writing a blog entry about a story set in Earthsea he would make a comment so acidic it would permanently change the pH balance of what hair I have left.  Ms. Le Guin would probably be able to make a come back that might put him in his place for a moment but not even she would have much hope of keeping H.L. Mencken down for long.

For this round I drew H. L. Mencken’s essay “On Being An American” which made for uncomfortable 4th of July reading.  Mencken is not very impressed with America:

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.

It gets worse from there.

Mencken wrote this essay in 1922 and while much his essay has become a bit dated some of his barbs still hit very close to home.  Take this passage for example:

He is intensely and cocksurely moral, but his morality and his self-interest 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.

Think of all the people you know who insist we “support the troops” in one breath and then complain about taxes in the next.  Just what is that about?  How do they think the troops are supported?

Mencken doesn’t just unload on the reader he backs up his claims with more than enough support thought he does carry all the baggage you would expect a white man living in 1922 to carry.  He is by no means forward thinking.  However he does rile against the Ku Klux Klan as much as he does against anyone else.

In fact, one of the things the surprised me about this essay was just how prevalent the Klan was in American life in 1922.  While there is still a Klan in America no one would mention it in an article about American life today, not as a serious force.  They really are not mentioned all that much in current articles about the Confederate flag except as a minor historical point.  No one worries about who they are voting for today, but in 1922 they were a major social and political force.  Mencken complains about them quite a bit but he mentions them as “the normal Americano–the 100 per cent Methodist, Odd Fellow, Ku Kluxer, and Know-Nothing.”    He even claims the Klan is clearly the secular arm of the Methodist Church.  This is not something I had ever heard of before.  While Mencken is on quite a rant in “On Being an American” he is an intelligent man.  If he portrays the Klan as a prominent part of everyday American life, it probably was.

So why did Mencken stay in America when he could have joined all of the ex-pats who were moving to Europe where they would become the Lost Generation?  Simply put, he thought America was the greatest show on earth.  The sheer entertainment value of it all kept him here.   “I never get tired of the show.  It is worth every cent it costs.”

Tales from EarthseaDarkrose and Diamond” by Ursula K. Le Guin is an Earthsea story but it would have been a perfect addition to the Bordertown series.  In Ms. Le Guin’s tale, a young man, Diamond, is faced with having to give up his music in order to go into his father’s merchant business.  He wants nothing more than to compose and perform as a singer and as a harpist.  He is in love with a girl who wants the same.

This being Earthsea, she is the daughter of the village witch and he has an untrained magical ability that could be powerful enough to make him the stuff of legend.

Diamond does leave his home for a larger city where he can apprentice with a respected mage.  There he learns all he can until he is faced with the choice of going on to the school of wizardry at Roke.  He is told that he has the potential to become one of the most powerful wizards in all of Earthsea if he trains his ability and focuses on learning how to use magic.  Earthsea magic comes from knowing the true name of things so wizards must spend their lives memorizing text from old books.

What would you do?  Go off to the school in Roke and probably never see your homeland again?  Return to your father’s business which will make you wealthy enough to marry, raise a family and live in luxury?  Or run off with your childhood love and join a band of travelling players?

A perfect story for Bordertown and something that would make H.L. Mencken yell “Release the Kracken!!!”

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5 Comments

  1. I think it might have been quite entertaining to have sat down with Mencken and debated a few things happening in the U.S.A. I quite like listening to a person who is a cross between intelligent and a bit of a windbag. As long as they ARE intelligent.

    1. He was certainly intelligent, but I suspect he would have wiped the floor with me.

  2. anon says:

    To be fair to Mencken, you should also read his essays on Beethoven and Joseph Conrad; he gave high praise to artists whom he liked.

    In the early 1920s the Klan had chapters in every state, including every county in New Jersey, and for a time they basically owned Indiana politics. Fortunately, they collapsed with the beginning of the Depression.

    1. I’m a fan of Mencken’s myself. I wish we had a few critics today willing to go all the way Mencken did whether they like and artist or not.

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