Marginalia, no.110

His treason, at best, only waits for sufficient temptation.

~ H.L. Mencken, Prejudices

I am a disloyal reader.  My own marginalia are each of them little betrayals of the text.  Loyalty would require something more generous.  I don’t give a fig for context or authorial intent, unless it’s my own.  I’m not interested in marking interpretive paths for others.  I only want to gorge myself on words.  I keep to the dark corners and at the first footfalls of eloquence, I strike.



Filed under Marginalia

8 responses to “Marginalia, no.110

  1. If every ninja read as keenly as you, sir, they would throw not metal but verbal shuriken.

  2. Ian Wolcott

    Very funny. Now prepare to die!

  3. Long live the death of the author!

  4. Ian,

    I like old Mencken a great deal. Your “disloyalty” as a reader does him the kind of justice he’d enjoy. Interesting to bear in mind––in connection with the quip you quote––Mencken’s own indefatigable fights against Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to suppress sedition, and to foment Comstockery, during WWI. By the way, do we know the antecedent to the possessive pronoun “His” in that quip? Or is it a part of your disloyalty to withhold it & send me to my own prejudices for satisfaction? 😉

    As for treason, cf. Sir John Harington (1561-1612)

    Epigram IV.v

    Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason?
    For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

    N.B. Harington was a courtier, and a god-son of Elizabeth I. He spoke advisedly.

    Yours, Mark

  5. Ian Wolcott

    That’s wonderful, Mark.

    The Mencken quote I culled from my copy of ‘A Mencken Chrestomathy,’ where it appears under the heading of ‘The Skeptic’ – but it’s from ‘Prejudices’ Third Series, pp.266-267. Here’s a bit more of it:

    “No man ever quite believes in any other man. One may believe in an idea absolutely, but not in a man. In the highest confidence there is always a flavor of doubt – a feeling, half instinctive and half logical, that, after all, the scoundrel may have something up his sleeve. This doubt, it must be obvious, is always more than justified, for no man is worthy of unlimited reliance – his treason, at best, only waits for sufficient temptation…”

  6. Ah, the Chestomathy! One of the world’s greatest bathroom books!

    You probably know the tale. But it from H.L. Mencken’s “Prejudices” that America obtained, in large part, the great gift of Richard Wright. Here’s how he tells it in his memoir, “Black Boy (American Hunger).” Pardon me if I bring coals to Newcastle. (Don’t worry, I used OCR: I didn’t type it all out.)


    “One morning I arrived early at work and went into the bank lobby where the Negro porter was mopping. I stood at a counter and picked up the Memphis Commercial Appeal and began my free reading of the press. I came finally to the editorial page and saw an article dealing with one H. L. Mencken. I knew by hearsay that he was the editor of the American Mercury, but aside from that I knew nothing about him. The article was a furious denunciation of Mencken, concluding with one, hot, short sentence: Mencken is a fool. I wondered what on earth this Mencken had done to call down on him the scorn of the South. The only people I had ever heard denounced in the South were Negroes, and this man was not a Negro. Then what ideas did Mencken hold that made a newspaper like the Commercial Appeal castigate him publicly Undoubtedly he must be advocating ideas that the South did not like. Were there, then, people other than Negroes who criticized the South? I knew that during the Civil War the South had hated northern whites, but I had not encountered such hate during my life. Knowing no more of Mencken than I did at that moment, I felt a vague sympathy for him. Had not the South, which had assigned me the role of a non-man, cast at him its hardest words? Now, how could I find out about this Mencken? There was a huge library near the riverfront, but I knew that Negroes were not allowed to patronize its shelves any more than they were the parks and playgrounds of the city. I had gone into the library several times to get books for the white men on the job. Which of them would now help me to get books? And how could I read them without causing concern to the white men with whom I worked? I had so far been successful in hiding my thoughts and feelings from them, but I knew that I would create hostility if I went about this business of reading in a clumsy way. I weighed the personalities of the men on the job. There was Don, a Jew; but I distrusted him. His position was not much better than mine and I knew that he was uneasy and insecure; he had always treated me in an offhand, bantering way that barely concealed his contempt. I was afraid to ask him to help me to get books; his frantic desirc to demonstrate a racial solidarity with the whites against Negroes might make him betray me. Then how about the boss? No, he was a Baptist and I had the suspicion that he would not be quite able to comprehend why a black boy would want to read Mencken. There were other white men on the job whose attitudes showed clearly that they were Kluxers or sympathizers, and they were out of the question. There remained only one man whose attitude did not fit into an anti-Negro category, for I had heard the white men refer to him as a “Pope lover.” He was an Irish Catholic and was hated by the white Southerners. I knew that he read books, because I had got him volumes from the library several times. Since he, too, was an object of hatred, I felt that he might refuse me but would hardly betray me. I hesitated, weighing and balancing the imponderable realities. One morning I paused before the Catholic fellow’s desk.

    “I want to ask you a favor,” I whispered to him.

    “What is it?”

    “I want to read. I can’t get books from the library. I wonder if you’d let me use your card?” He looked at me suspiciously.

    “My card is full most of the time,” he said.

    “I see,” I said and waited, posing my question silently.

    “You’re not trying to get me into trouble, are you, boy?” he asked, staring at me.

    “Oh, no, sir.”

    “‘What book do you want?” 

    “A book by H. L. Mencken.” 

    “Which one?”

    “I don’t know. Has he written more than one?” 

    “He has written several.”

    “I didn’t know that.”

    “‘What makes you want to read Mencken?”

    “Oh, I just saw his name in the newspaper,” I said.

    “It’s good of you to want to read,” he said. “But you ought to read the right things.” I said nothing. Would he want to supervise my reading?
    “Let me think,” he said. “I’ll figure out something.”

    I turned from him and he called me back. He stared at me quizzically. “Richard, don’t mention this to the other white men,” he said.

    “I understand,” I said. “I won’t say a word.”

    A few days later he called me to him.

    “I’ve got a card in my wife’s name,” he said. “Here’s mine.”

    “Thank you, sir.”

    “Do you think you can manage it?” 

    “I’ll manage fine,” I said.

    “If they suspect you, you’ll get in trouble,” he said.

    “I’ll write the same kind of notes to the library that you wrote when you sent me for books,” I told him. “I’ll sign your name.” He laughed.

    “Go ahead. Let me see what you get,” he said.

    That afternoon I addressed myself to forging a note. Now, what were the names of books written by H. L. Mencken? I did not know any of them. I finally wrote what I thought would be a foolproof note: ‘Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy’––I used the word ‘nigger’ to make the librarian feel that I could not possibly be the author of the note––’have some books by H. L. Mencken?’ I forged the white man’s name. I entered the library as I had always done when on errands for whites, but I felt that I would somehow slip up and betray myself. I doffed my hat, stood a respectful distance from the desk, looked as unbookish as possible, and waited for the white patrons to be taken care of. When the desk was clear of people, I still waited. The white librarian looked at me. “‘What do you want, boy?” As though I did not possess the power of speech, I stepped forward and simply handed her the forged note, not parting my lips. “‘What books by Mencken does he want?” she asked.

    “I don’t know, ma’am,” I said, avoiding her eyes.

    “Who gave you this card?”

    “Mr. Falk,” I said.

    “‘Where is he?”

    “He’s at work, at the Memphis Optical Company,” I said. “I’ve been in here for him before.”

    “I remember,” the woman said. “But he never wrote notes like this.”

    Oh, God, she’s suspicious. Perhaps she would not let me have the books? If she had turned her back at that moment, I would have ducked out the door and never gone back. Then I thought of a bold idea. “You can call him up, ma’am,” I said, my heart pounding.

    “You’re not using these books, are you!” she asked pointedly.

    “Oh, no, ma’am. I can’t read,”

    “I don’t know what he wanted by Mencken,” she said under her breath. I knew now that I had won; she was thinking of other things and the race question had gone out of her mind. She went to the shelves. Once or twice she looked over her shoulder at me, as 
though she was still doubtful. Finally she came forward with two books in her hand. “I’m sending him two books,” she said. “But tell Mr. Falk to come in next time, or send me the names of the books he wants. I don’t know what he wants to read.” I said nothing. She stamped the card and handed me the books. Not daring to glance at them, I went out of the library, fearing that the woman would call me back for further questioning.

    A block away from the library I opened one of the books and read a title: “A Book of Prefaces.” I was nearing my nineteenth birthday and I did not know how to pronounce the word “preface.” I thumbed the pages and saw strange words and strange names. I shook my head, disappointed. I looked at the other book; it was called Prejudices. I knew what that word meant; I had heard it all my life. And right off I was on guard against Mencken’s books. Why would a man want to call a book Prejudices? The word was so stained with all my memories of racial hate that I could not conceive of anybody using it for a title. Perhaps I had made a mistake about Mencken. A man who had prejudices must be wrong. When I showed the books to Mr. Falk, he looked at me and frowned.

    “That librarian might telephone you,” I warned him.

    “That’s all right,” he said. “But when you’re through reading those books, I want you to tell me what you get out of them.”

    That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words … Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they 
were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it. Occasionally I glanced up to reassure myself that I was alone in the room.”

    • Ian Wolcott

      That’s a great passage, Mark. I hadn’t read it before and had no idea about any Mencken-Wright connection. Fascinating.

      • The essay that prompted the ire of Southern editorialists such as the one the young Richard Wright read that fateful day was, of course, “The Sahara of the Bozarts.” Which must be in the Chrestomathy. (Twain had done something similar in “Life on the Mississippi,” accusing Southern writers of perpetuating pompous, faux-medieval Walter Scottish prose.)

        White Southerners never much like it when their much-vaunted “civilization” comes under attack. I know because, yes, my home state is none other than the infamous Hotspur State: South Carolina, where still the Confederate battle flag flies on the capitol grounds (though now no longer atop the capitol itself), and where stands a statue honoring the old white terrorist Ben Tillman.

        Forgive the reminiscence. But when I was a college kid in Columbia, SC, in the early ’80s, I used to read Marx on the state house grounds under that flag and beside that statue. Not that I understood Marx, of course. I was 18. But I somehow knew he might someday help me understand Ben Tillman and that damned old flag. Much later, I simply settled for what was better: DuBois. And now I live in Kyoto.


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