When Mencken is interested, he goes to work with a writing style that retired undefeated. The hot dogs of his time were served in pastry shells, not “the soggy rolls prevailing today, of ground acorns, plaster of paris, flecks of bath sponge and atmospheric air all compact.”
Mencken applies the balm of humor to raw nostalgia. He caps an obligatory yarn of childhood play by stating: “A few years ago . . . I encountered a ma’m in horn-rimmed spectacles teaching a gang of little girls ring-around-a-rosy. The sight filled me suddenly with so black an indignation that I was tempted to grab the ma’m and heave her into the goldfish pond. In the days of my own youth no bossy female on the public payroll was needed to teach games.”
And Mencken expresses a warm honesty about the cold heart of a child. “Happy Days” ends with the death of his grandfather. “The day was a Thursday — and they’d certainly not bury the old man until Sunday. No school tomorrow!”
The same Mencken expression, unblinking but unfrowning, is turned upon the press. “Newspaper Days” and “Heathen Days” are correctives for those who lament the present media’s sensationalism, and curatives for those who think newsmongers go around speaking truth to power.
Journalism, Mencken explains, is fun, “especially for a young reporter to whom all the major catastrophes and imbecilities of mankind were still more or less novel, and hence delightful.” And “a newspaperman always saw that show from a reserved seat in the first row.”
When he wasn’t part of the show himself. Sundays were light on news when Mencken was at The Baltimore Morning Herald in 1903 — until “a wild man was reported loose in the woods . . . with every dog barking for miles around, and all women and children locked up. I got special delight out of the wild man, for I had invented him myself.”
“Journalism,” Mencken notes, “is not an exact science.”