Sep. 12, 2008
Where I Am With You
Waking from a nap,
we stand at the window
watching dark clouds crawl
across the sky, whip
down and out and up.
Lights come on early,
and people below
on the street scurry
and bumble about
My arm around you, you say—
Let it rain, let it pour.
It's the birthday of the journalist and editor H. L. (Henry Louis) Mencken, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). He graduated as the valedictorian from his high school at the age of 15, but even though he was burning to write, he did exactly what his father expected: He took a job at the cigar factory. He started out rolling the cigars alongside the other blue-collar men, and he actually enjoyed that manual labor. But when he was promoted to the front office, he was hopelessly bored. He finally mustered up his courage and told his father that he wanted to pursue a career in journalism. His father told him to bring up the subject again in a year.
Mencken had been working at his father's factory for three years when, on New Year's Eve in 1898, his father had a convulsion and collapsed. His mother told Mencken to get a doctor, 11 blocks down the street, and Mencken later said, "I remember well how, as I was trotting to [the doctor's] house on that first night, I kept saying to myself that if my father died I'd be free at last."
His father died two weeks later. The day after his father's funeral, Mencken shaved his face, combed his hair, put on his best suit, and went down to the Baltimore Morning Herald, asking for a job. Mencken came back every single day for the next four weeks. He finally wore the editor down, and he got to write two articles, each fewer than 50 words long.
He went on to become one of the most influential and prolific journalists in America, writing about all the shams and con artists in the world. He attacked chiropractors and the Ku Klux Klan, politicians and other journalists. Most of all, he attacked Puritan morality. He called Puritanism, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
At the height of his career, he edited and wrote for The American Mercury magazine and the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune, and published two or three books every year. His masterpiece was one of the few books he wrote about something he loved, a book called The American Language (1919), a history and collection of American vernacular speech. It included a translation of the Declaration of Independence into American English that began, "When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody."
When asked what he would like for an epitaph, Mencken wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."
It was on this day in 1940 that four teenage boys discovered the Lascaux cave paintings, generally agreed to be the greatest works of prehistoric art ever found. The boys were looking for fabled buried treasure in the woods, and they stumbled upon a cavern, about 65 feet wide and 15 feet tall. When the boys held up their lanterns, they saw that the walls of the cave were covered with paintings of animals.
It turned out that the cave paintings were about 17,000 years old. Anthropologists believe that the cave was used as a kind of church, devoted to the worship of animals.
There are more than 200 paintings and 1,500 engravings in the Lascaux cave, almost all of them animals, including bulls, deer, oxen, herds of horses, stags, and cats, painted in various shades of yellow, red, brown, and black, realistic drawings with beautiful, fluid lines, showing the various creatures turning their heads, walking through water, falling off cliffs.
One of the few traces left behind by the artists are their own handprints, which they made by tracing around their own fingers.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®