Mencken: Man of the Newspaper
By Daniel Silliman
September 29, 2003
for Tracy Simmons
Mencken was a newspaperman. He was the essayist, the sage of Baltimore, the great American stylist, but all of those things rose out of Mencken the man of the daily paper. By his own account, this American stylist was a newspaperman first. He was an author a score of times, a nationally respected critic, a philologist of historic contributions, a student of medicine and of music. But first and finally he was a newspaperman. “Nothing enthralled him as much as the sweaty, contentious world of daily journalism that he inhabited.”
Newspapers aren’t known for their style; they aren’t designed that way. Newspapers are designed to be disposable, intended to wrap fish a few days after it leaves the presses. Newspaper writing is not formed as great rhetoric, it is not meant to be framed or even famed. It’s meant to be read. The end product of a newspaper isn’t writing, as one might suppose, but the knowledge of a community. The best of newspaper writing is sharp, easy to read and tailored for the greatest impact. Mencken, formed by 35 years of newspaper work, knew all of these lessons to the fullest, putting them into practice with the pounding of the typewriter.
This is seen nowhere so clearly as in the lead. It is in the first sentence that the style of newspapers are totally separated from writing of every other kind. Newspaper writing stands on the opening lines. A well-styled opening for a newspaper isn’t the slow beginnings of a story, it isn’t the claim of an academic work, it isn’t the well wishing of a letter. The newspaper lead is a creature unto itself. The newspaper lead starts with a punch. It is short and sharp, snapping the reader into the story and immediately commanding his time, concern and attention. The greatest newspaper leads are brutal, intense and harsh. A Miami cops reporter writes “Joe died hungry” and one is driven into the story. A good lead snaps, setting up the whole story and forcing us again into the reality of what it is to be human.
Mencken’s leads display some of the best of a style formed by the newspaper. His trademark opening is with a whiskey lead, causing one to sit up, inhale, and keep going:
-“No man ever quite believes another man.”
-“Man, at his best, remains a sort of one-lunged animal, never completely perfect, as a cockroach, say, is perfect.” “It was hot weather when they tried the infidel Scopes at Dayton, Tenn., but I went down there very willingly, for I was eager to see something of evangelical Christianity as a going concern.”
-“The problem with human progress is that it tends to go too fast—that is, too fast for the great majority of comfortable and incurious men.”
-“On the purely technical side the American novel has obviously made immense progress.”
Though his subject is not hard news, his style is. He writes to seize. He writes with the quick step and the hard kick of a newspaper. Menchen explains the importance of this style when telling the story of how he came to be a critic. On the first day his editor tells him that the main idea “‘is to be interesting, to write a good story. All else is dross.’” Mencken accepts the lesson, saying that the critic needs a certain ferocity.
While Mencken’s notoriety came as essayist with a honed style and an iconoclastic aggression, his formation was as a newspaperman. By his own account, he was a reporter when he was “young, goatish and full of an innocent delight in the world.” He wrote “millions of words” and learned “all the worldly wisdom of a police lieutenant, a bartender, a shyster lawyer, or a midwife.” He loved his days as a reporter, describing them as “the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth… I was at large in a wicked seaport of half a million people, with a front seat at every public show, as free of the night as of the day, and getting earfuls and eyefuls of instruction in a hundred giddy arcane, none of them taught in schools.” He became a reporter by a feat of tenacity—bugging the local city editor nightly for, as he tells it, a month and 10 days—and took the trade with the same fierce attitude. His first copy lead with “A horse, a buggy and several sets of harness, valued in all at about $250, were stolen last night from the stable of Howard Quinlan, near Kingsville,” an example of the hard style and solid training that would serve him so well.
To read Mencken on his days as a hoofing-it reporter is to see him drunk with the hard-bitten romance of the job, belying Mencken’s formation as a newspaperman. Mencken paid his dues as a reporter, capitalizing on the speed, the accuracy, the precision and even the style he learned working the typewriter in a Baltimore newsroom. He spent 35 years working for newspapers, and claimed to have never regretted the choice. It was a role that shaped every part of him:
"I chose newspaper work without any hesitation whatever…I have never regretted my choice. More than once I have slipped out of daily journalism to dally in its meretricious suburbs, but I have always returned repentant and relieved, like a blackamoor coming back in Autumn to a warm and sociable jail. It was the printing press that left its mark, not only upon my hands, face and clothing, but also upon my psyche."
While most of Mencken’s lasting fame came from his dalliances, Alister Cooke said he was “the master craftsman of daily journalism.” Mencken knew journalism as the trade that was learned in four days and dropped as soon a better paying job was offered, but he also knew the beauty of journalisms hard and swift pen.
A Matter of Function
By Daniel Silliman
Contemporary Issues in Philosophy
for Dr. James Stephens
1. I have a philosophy professor who is colorblind. He mentions this every so often, especially as example of immediate awareness and the Myth of the Given. He is color blind – by which he wants to mean that he doesn’t have the immediate and indubitable awareness of the qualia of color – yet, he can regularly and accurately name colors. He claims that he can’t see color, but every measurable indication is that he knows it. My colorblind professor knows blue in some way, since he can appropriately say something is or isn’t blue. But what does his knowing mean if it’s unrelated to seeing? What does his seeing mean if it’s never a matter of function?
2. Some students have, among themselves, said they suspect he isn’t actually colorblind but that it works so well as an example that he claims to be colorblind for the sake of the examples. When pressed, he continues to claim he doesn’t see color and makes the same claim in non-class situations, leading us to believe he actually is colorblind, and leaving us still with quandary: can we divide between an internal knowing and the external function?
3. If we ask my professor, “how do you know that is blue?” he will say either “those things are normally blue” or “there’s something about the shade that makes that color slightly different.” He can never insist that “it’s just blue and I know it’s blue, damn it.” “Blue” is blue, for him, not because it just is but because of the relation of “blue” to everything around it. If he is as accurate at this as the next man, then the question of whether he really sees color is irrelevant. He may or may not see color, but it’s hard to see exactly where that matters if his use rises to the standard set by linguistic peers. While he may be colorblind in the sense of qualia, if his usage is equal to someone who isn’t, the distinction between colorblind and non-colorblind is nonexistent. The only working distinction between the two isn’t immediate and indubitable awareness of the qualia of color, but the linguistic usage. To “know color” may be meaningful to the individual because of the immediateness of qualia, but to the rest of us, to society, to “know color” is only meaningful in the measurable talk of usage, relation and proximity. For it to be something that matters to us, meaning can’t be a matter of inner certainty. For meaning to matter to us it must be a thing of use, function.
4. One knows color if (and only if) one “knows color.” Knowing is a function not of some certainty via immediate awareness, but of language. One knows something, so far as the rest of us are concerned, when one can talk about it. This is the reason classes have tests or papers. Knowing is a matter of function.
5. Wittgenstein explores this with an example known as “the beetle in a box.” In the example everyone in a society has a beetle in a box that no one else can see, and knowing beetles in any way beyond a peek at your own beetle is a case of linguistics. In fact the beetle in the box itself is uninteresting in its privacy. Only a linguistic “beetle,” which isn’t the beetle at all but is a thing with a place in the linguistic economy, is public, can be discussed and actually be something we know. The beetle, whether it exists or not, can only be of interest and of importance when and where it’s a matter of function.
6. Color isn’t known through private experiences immediately aware, but through a place in syntax. This is not a denial of color sensations, but a claim about knowing color and giving the meaning to color. One can only explain color in terms of a place in linguistic economy. A color can only be spoken of intelligently in its differences from other colors. “Blue” means blue because of syntax, because it holds a position next to “red,” “green,” and “yellow.” Meaning arises from use. Where it is in any way something we can speak of, meaning is a matter of function.
7. To return to language through the analogy of a game that Wittgenstein is always using, a game is a tight system and each piece is defined against the rest of the system and in the system. A knight can only be explained in the context of use, to understand the knight is to use a knight, to move him in the context of the game. It’s hard to imagine how else an explanation would run except in the direction of use. To push the example back into the realm of color awareness, it’s hard to see how knowing white from black is concerning in a case where someone still moves their pieces according to the game. If the distinction has nothing to do with their ability to play, it’s hard to see where it matters. Such distinctions are important, but important as a matter of function.
8. This leaves us groundless in the sense of immediate and indubitable grounds – “The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.” – but it saves us any ability to appeal. One can’t give meaningful answers to questions about what one indubitably knows, one can only insist. That which cannot be doubted cannot be explained. If one knows immediately and givenly, one can only insist that one knows in answer to any question. There are no public reasons for a thing totally grounded. An idea with grounds is one that cannot be explored, having no (public) reasons. An idea that can be appealed, justified in the third person, cannot be indubitably grounded. We can only talk about public knowing; we can only talk about knowing that is a public function.