George Hunka

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Friday, March 08, 2019

A toast to ...

I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

Yesterday I mentioned in passing the great American satirist H.L. Mencken; many years ago I had the opportunity to visit his home on Hollins Street in Baltimore, which had been kept up as a museum. Alas, a few years later, economics dictated the closure of the home, and it's been off limits to the public ever since.

It was a pleasure, then, to find yesterday that the Baltimore National Heritage Area has leased the house and, with a $3 million bequest from Max Hency, will renovate and restore it, with an expected opening to the public of September 12, 2019, which would have been Mencken's 139th birthday. More information in the BNHA's press release here.

The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, has also been on my must-visit list for some time. Comparisons and contrasts between Twain and Mencken, two great American humorists and satirists, are interesting if not necessarily instructive; one is especially impressed that despite the bourgois comfort and respectability of the residences of both, it doesn't appear that this comfort and respectability blunted any of their harsher conclusions about the role, status, and significance of the human race in this vast universe of ours. And I for one would love to hear what they would have had to say about Congressional condemnations of bigotry and prejudice — about as pointless, I suppose, as Congressional condemnations of fog and the color blue.

All in all, between the two, Twain must take precedence over Mencken in so many ways, and Christopher Hitchens offers a few cogent reasons for this in this 2002 book review in the New York Times. Quoth Hitchens:

Not unlike his hero Mark Twain, [Mencken] fulfilled the unofficial office of a one-man opposition. Mencken resembled Twain in his contempt for religion and his distrust (to put it no higher) of foreign adventurism and political hubris. He was also, like Twain, a tremendous humorist and satirist and even entertainer. But there was a largeness and humanity to the laconic Samuel L. Clemens that was crucially absent in the Sage of Baltimore ...

The contrast with Mark Twain is revealing at all points. I possess a recording of Mencken's only known radio interview [possibly this one — GH], which he employed to attack the idea of radio in rather cranky and ponderous terms. It is difficult to imagine Huck's creator making such a paltry use of such a great opportunity, and it is impossible to picture him composing euphemisms about the Führer.

Even so, reading Mencken today still has its pleasures.

So this afternoon at Cafe Katja I'll be raising a glass to the BNHA, the Mencken Legacy Group, and the man himself. Until next week.

Posted on March 08, 2019 in /Toasts
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