Hillsborough writer Hal Crowther is widely admired for his provocative columns and ability to shock us by his creative use of words, phrases, comparisons, and images as powerful weapons that can persuade or provoke us.
For this rare talent and his willingness to attack the sacred cows of our generation, Crowther draws comparisons to H.L. Mencken, whose newspaper columns rocked America in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.
Crowther’s long-time interest in Mencken began as a teenager when his grandfather gave him one of Mencken’s books. For his own writing, Crowther won the Baltimore Sun’s H.L. Mencken Writing Award.
Now Crowther has written a book about Mencken, “An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H. L. Mencken,” published last month by the University of Iowa Press.
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As famous as Mencken was 75 years ago, we know a lot more about Crowther than we do about Mencken.
Who was he?
“H.L Mencken was,” according to one modern writer, Daniel Raeburn, “the greatest American journalist of the last century and possibly the best writer of American English ever.”
That should get our attention. That same admirer, though, says, using a word my editors would not let me share with you, that he was the worst kind of jerk, and continues, “It is for this latter quality that we are doomed to remember him if we remember him at all.”
So how could Mencken be both the greatest and best and the worst all at the same time?
Crowther’s book seeks to tell us enough about Mencken so we can frame an answer to that question.
But where to begin is a problem, as Crowther explains on the book’s first page. “Mencken is almost too big to approach with any confidence. Setting yourself to write about him, you feel like an old farmer with his old mule, at sunrise of a long, hot day, looking out over fifty acres that ought to be plowed before sundown. Give me strength, Lord, and where do I begin?”
In responding to The Charlotte Observer’s Dannye Romine Powell’s question about what he likes so much about Mencken, Crowther sums up his book, “There's nothing I like so much about H.L. Mencken. He was widely regarded as the most hated man in America in the '20s and '30s and that was long before they published his letters and journals, which reviled nearly everyone and betrayed most of his friends. Not a sweetheart. It seems to me that no one who knows his work well would like him. Rather, we respect him, we tend to hold him in awe--for English prose unmatched by any journalist of his time or ours, for his unprecedented readership that included nearly all educated and skeptical Americans for several generations, for the outrageous courage to ridicule every sacred cow back when those cows were truly sacred -- democracy, religion, patriotism, capitalism, idealism, agrarianism, chastity, sobriety. Name it and he mocked it, including World War I. He rooted for the Kaiser. Somehow, he was never lynched, jailed or even assaulted. He was the last fearless, powerful, unavoidable independent voice of the free press the Founders intended, and to a large extent this book is a lament for the loss of such voices, as it becomes clear that we'll never hear any more, and that the balance of power they provided is gone forever. It's nearly impossible to feel affection for Mencken, but it's irresponsible--for any American--not to read him.”
Why read Mencken? Crowther gives more reasons, “It was his glamorous language that seduced me and hundreds like me.…When I disagreed with him, it was still like listening to music. When I agreed, is was like electroshock therapy.”
Crowther on Mencken is a literary treat not to be missed.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.