There’s a short story by the wonderful, much-missed writer Laurie Colwin called “An Old-Fashioned Story.” It’s about a rebellious young woman named Elizabeth whose horrible rich parents decided when she was a child that she should marry Nelson, the upstanding son of their equally horrible best friends. Elizabeth isn’t having any of it. Nelson’s ne’er-do-well older brother James sounds more up her alley, but he’s always off somewhere and she hasn’t seen him since she was a child. He finally shows up at his family’s holiday party, and she leaves with him, scandalizing everyone. But, as she sits in a bar listening to him drone on about his wicked ways, she realizes he’s a bore. A few weeks later, Nelson shows up at her apartment when she’s suffering from a cold. He turns out to be a secret rebel, and to be the one for her.
I thought of this story after reading (or listening to) social commentary by Walter Lippmann and H.L. Mencken, two of the top pundits of the 1918 era. I’ve tuned out of 21st century podcasts, and the audio accompaniment to my walks lately has been Lippmann’s 1912 book of essays A Preface to Politics. In it, Lippman, who was only twenty-three when the book was published, goes on sensibly about what’s wrong with politics in the United States: basically, that our system is organized around a notion of how people should be, rather than how they really are. He builds his case methodically, quoting William James and Nietzsche and G.K. Chesterton. He’s sensible, persuasive, and intelligent—Harvard Phi Beta Kappa intelligent. He’s the golden boy. Your mom would love him. But you wouldn’t say he was exciting.
Then, in the January 1918 issue of Smart Set, I came across H.L. Mencken. Mencken was the magazine’s co-editor, and after 136 pages of jocular stories of varying quality there’s a piece by him called “Seven Pages about Books.” Reviewing a book called Success Easier than Failure, by E. W. Howe, he writes that it’s “the first forthright exposure, so far as I know, of the working philosophy of the American people—not the moony philosophy they serve with the lip, but the harsh, realistic, Philistine philosophy they actually practice.” He goes on:
This fundamental dualism, this disparity between what is officially approved and what is privately done, is at the heart of the American character; it sets our people off from nearly all other peoples. It is the cause of the astonishing hypocrisy that foreigners see in us, and it is the cause, too, of our constant failure to understand those foreigners and their ways.
Mencken, the high school-educated son of a cigar factory owner, is as scruffy as Lippmann is urbane, as direct as Lippmann is deliberate. Reading him after weeks of 1918 journalism felt like stepping out into the fresh air from an overheated parlor. Finally—a writer who felt contemporary.
Then I read on. Mencken complains about how we “save the [n-word] republics from themselves” and then try to turn them into democracies. In a supposed tribute to the Jewish people, he says that any flaws they may possess are due to “corruption of blood” through intermixing with Greeks, Arabs, and Armenians. “The shark that a Jew can be at his worst is simply a Greek or Armenian at his best,” he says.
Meanwhile, in A Preface to Politics, Lippmann has turned his attention to a report on vice in Chicago. Prostitution, he says, isn’t a problem that takes effort to focus on, like trusts, or the poor. Instead, it “lies close to the dynamics of our own natures. Research is stimulated, actively aroused, and a passionate zeal suffuses what is probably the most spontaneous reform enthusiasm of our time.” Get it? Stimulated? Aroused? Passionate? Lippmann has sex on the brain! (I wonder if his editor noticed the puns. They might have slipped by me if the otherwise sedate narrator hadn’t had such a good time with them. He does all but say “heh heh heh.”)
It’s not just the puns. Lippmann argues that the preventive approach the Chicago commission advocates—more enforcement, putting lights in public parks, etc.—will never work. The only effective solution to prostitution, he says, is to get rid of the stifling morality that forces sex underground—to allow it to be enjoyed by people other than couples in lifelong monogamous marriages. Now that’s contemporary.
Mencken, as he winds up, takes a direct swipe at Lippmann, mocking his “sonorous rhapsodies.” Maybe he has a point.
But sorry, H.L., it’s too late.
Walter, you’re the one.