Sunday

Sep. 12, 2010

Good Old God

by Heather McHugh

He's a hoot, with his flips of the nickel,
his penchant for law, and his playing with volts –

let the lovers be struck! (It's his joke, on our dime.) And by Jove
what a backside he turns! And by gum what bedeviled
expressions! A scowl full of thous, and the gene pool
is shot. "Thou shalt flower for moments– and rot

for the rest – being flesh, being given to
lust. Say you wanted an ocean of
feeling, or time? Here's a puddle to
come from, a crack and a crotch." He's a hoot,

don't you think? – there above the commotion, just
finding the bright side, just
winding his watch…

"Good Old God" by Heather McHugh from Upgraded to Serious. © Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the journalist and editor H.L. (Henry Louis) Mencken, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). He became one of the most influential and prolific journalists in America in the 1920s and '30s, 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."

On this day in 1864 Union General Sherman wrote to the Atlanta City Council: "You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it."

General Sherman had just captured Atlanta. Along the way, his soldiers had taken part in something known as "total war": They'd burned down crops, confiscated millions of pounds of corn and feed, and destroyed thousands of horses and mules and cows. They'd wrecked bridges, torn up railroad tracks to make train transport unusable, and they'd destroyed telegraph lines. In late August, they'd forced the surrender of Atlanta, occupied the city, and demanded that it be evacuated.

Atlanta's mayor protested that evacuation was not necessary, and it was harsh and cruel. General Sherman responded, in a letter on this day: "War is cruelty."

From Atlanta, General Sherman marched to Savannah, the infamous March to the Sea, where his troops caused about $100 million worth of damage with "total war" tactics.

The following spring, in May 1865, he wrote in a letter to a friend, "I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting."

In 1879, he spoke to the graduating class at Michigan Military Academy. He told the young cadets trained for battle:

"I've been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It's entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don't know the horrible aspects of war. [...] I've seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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