Bowing to H. L. Mencken

February 3: On this day in 1931, the Arkansas state legislature stood to pray for the soul of H. L. Mencken. One of Mencken's Laws was "Nature abhors a moron," and one of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being especially ruled by the "booboisie." Upon finding itself elevated to "the apex of moronia," Arkansas had complained, to which atheist Mencken responded, "I didn't make Arkansas the butt of ridicule—God did." Trying a different tactic, the Arkansas legislature tried their group prayer, to predictable effect: "I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves and the sound of many things in my ears," Mencken confirmed to the press, "and I knew the House of Representatives of Arkansas was praying for me again." 

 

Mencken's single most famous and influential assault on the South was the 1920 essay, "The Sahara of the Bozart" (i.e. beaux art). Upon his earlier claim that the once vibrant and civilized South was "culturally, about as dead as the Yucatan," Mencken's new essay kicked so much sand that the South was now "almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert." As Mencken's preference for blondes over brunettes inspired Anita Loos to write her 1925 bestseller, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so Mencken's essay inspired Loos to have her Dumb Blonde come from Arkansas:

The name of my heroine Lorelei Lee was invented although her birthplace was not and Mencken himself had a hand in that. For I wanted Lorelei to be symbol of our nation's lowest possible mentality and remembered Mencken's essay on American culture in which he branded the state of Arkansas as "the Sahara of the Bozarts." I therefore chose Little Rock for Lorelei's early years; Little Rock, which even today lives up to Mencken's choice as a nadir in shortsighted human stupidity.

Although Lorelei was "just a little girl from Little Rock when I first left Little Rock," she "came from a very very good family because papa was very intelectual, and he was a very very prominent Elk, and everybody always said that he was a very intelectual Elk." With an Elk of this ilk in her genes, she learns all about Gentlemen, and how to turn her sand to the diamonds that are a girl's best friend.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.