Archive for the Books Category


If someone were to ask me who ranks first among all American journalists and authors since we gained our independence 229 years ago, my answer would be prompt and unequivocal. Clearly, it is Henry Louis Mencken who edited the Baltimore Sunpapers as well as “The Smart Set” and “The American Mercury” magazines.

For 60 years, the answer to that question has been crouched on my tongue awaiting the moment of liberation. But sadly, no one has posed the question in the proper format. Oh, there have been many occasions where Mencken’s name would come up, but no one has pinned me against a wall and demanded to know who the premier author and journalist was since Lord Cornwall took his defeated troops back to London. And so you see, this ancient essayist is not only forced to ask the proper question, but to answer it as well. The answer is, “The Sage of Baltimore,” Henry L. Mencken.

Mencken’s name came up a week or so ago because, back in 1920, he made a political statement that applies absolutely to the American political scene since the 2000 election. It was my intention to call that short statement to your attention as well as to the final two paragraphs of “The Chain of Command” by Seymour Hersh. Both the Mencken statement and the excerpt from Hersh’s book apply uniquely to the political situation we find ourselves in today.

Before this essay about the Mencken quote and Hersh’s book began to take form, two other men who led me to Mencken got in the way. They are Nat Fritz of the AT&T Construction Department in St. Louis, and Oscar Jaeger of New York who edited the newspaper of the Union that counted me as a member, an officer and one of its negotiators. They were both nonbelievers in religious matters, however, if this old essayist were to discuss Mencken, another nonbeliever, without mentioning them, their ghosts would haunt me endlessly, and rightly so. So before we deal with the Mencken quote and Hersh’s book, there is an urgent need to describe how Messrs Fritz and Jaeger influenced me.

In November, 1945 when the United States Army reluctantly agreed to discharge me, my next stop was to return to work at the Long Lines Department of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in its Division 5 Headquarters in St. Louis. Almost none of the returning veterans actually went back to the jobs they had held before leaving for military service. The jobs had changed and new people were performing them. Many of the newcomers were women, which was a favorable development, but the fact was that the returning veterans often had very little work to do.

AT&T, in the St. Louis Division, had given scant thought to how they would utilize the returning veterans. With not much to do, many of us felt like supernumeraries for the first few months after return to civilian duties. During those months, AT&T’s wartime rules of working eight extra overtime hours per week remained in effect. So we spent two evenings per week twiddling our thumbs after a day of performing the same unproductive and frustrating activity.

It was during these awkward months that there came an opportunity to renew an acquaintance with Nathaniel (Nat) Fritz who worked for AT&T’s Construction Department. Nat was probably 32 years of age after World War II. Nat was drafted during peacetime, before the war, after the Selective Service Act came into being. After returning to work, he was drafted again when the United States declared war.

The Construction Department had a staff at headquarters who directed the Gangs in the field where hundred of miles of coaxial cables were being plowed into the ground. The cables were intended to replace the open wires and the poles of an earlier generation of operations. Work in the Gangs was heavy and dirty. The men lived largely nomadic existences moving from one obscure motel or boarding house to the next lodging as the cable work progressed. AT&T never gave the Gangs the attention and the pay that they deserved.

Nat Fritz came out of the Gangs. When he became known to me he was on the Construction Department staff. Nat was no Errol Flynn. He was of average height. Obesity plagued Nat all his life. His glasses slid down his nose. His abdomen was ample and round which required pulling his trousers back into place as they often drooped. Nat was a product of AT&T’s Construction Gangs where, as we said, the work was hard and dirty. He never claimed to be anything other then what he was. While he now worked in a staff job, Nat never hid when there was less than pleasant work to be done.

Early in my friendship with Nat, he displayed an intellect that belied his appearance. That intellect was self developed as he had never set foot in a college or a university. It would be an insult to Nat to say his intellect came from an institution of higher learning rather than from his own self motivated brain power.

Fritz had been involved in the telephone worker’s union where he had held his own among the intelligentsia who had been attracted to the labor union movement after the war. When AT&T woke up to his leadership ability, they promoted him to a management job, thus depriving the Union of his talents and leadership.

Simply put, in spite of his ungainly appearance, Nat was a first rate intellectual. He was a voracious reader of everything. And foremost among his reading material was material produced by Henry Mencken. When Nat would speak to me about Mencken, he would often call him “The Old Man.” Being curious about “The Old Man” led me to books and articles written by Mencken.

The intellectual community in St. Louis was quite active, but used book stores were few and far between. Those stores were needed, as many of Mencken’s books were no longer new and could be found only in second hand shops. Paperback books were largely unknown at the time. As the late 1940’s melded into the 1950’s, Nat Fritz and your old essayist had many discussions about Mencken who was often considered a controversial influence on American letters.

My discussions with Nat came to an end when AT&T decided that the new Area headquarters in Kansas City needed my presence. Nat taught me an important lesson. A person does not need to let his hair grow to his shoulders or to wear a cape, or affect eccentric behavior to be considered an intellectual. Intellectuals come in all sizes and some of them like Nat Fritz have calluses on their hands. Nat was the man who introduced me to Mencken more than 50 years ago, for which this old geezer remains grateful.

Nat performed one other service for me when he encouraged me to seek office in the Long lines Federation of Telephone Workers. As time went on, the Presidency came my way as well as a position on the Executive Council which met quarterly in New York. It was there that a warm friendship with a professional journalist, Oscar Jaeger, came into being. At that time, Jews in the telephone business were a complete rarity. Oscar never worked in the industry. He worked on the Union newspaper. He owed nothing to Ma Bell. The Union hired Oscar. AT&T, in all likelihood, would never have done that.

When a reference was made earlier to Nat Fritz holding his own with the intelligentsia in the labor movement, Oscar Jaeger was the man that came to mind. Like Nat Fritz, no one would ever mistake Oscar for a movie star. Oscar was a professional journalist who presided over a union publication. He did not look like an actor; he looked like a harried editor. His jackets did not match his trousers, but no one seemed to care. Oscar was a gifted journalist.

Above every thing else, Oscar loved a debate. He did not have a mean spirited bone in his body. As soon as he perceived that anti-Semitic prejudice was not part of my makeup, Oscar began to discuss and debate ideas with me. One day it occurred to me to mention Mencken. From that day on, Oscar appointed himself as my sponsor. Instead of eating steaks that flopped over the edge of plates at Roth’s on Eighth Avenue, Oscar took me to book stores in Greenwich Village which carried second hand books by Mencken. You see, old Oscar was as enthusiastic about Mencken as the board member from St. Louis. The mother lode of second hand book stores was the Strand store on 9th or 10th Street off University Place which is within hailing distance of Union Square. Students from New York University supported several other bookstores in that neighborhood along with the Strand.

In our debates/discussions, Oscar never demeaned anything that came from me. He would argue but he never ever bullied. When he would ask me to write for the Union newspaper, he would rarely limit its length. If it was too long, Oscar would run part of it in later editions.

As you can tell, Oscar was one of my favorite people. As with Nat Fritz, it was clear that intellectuals come in all sizes and shapes. My friend Oscar was a first class intellectual as was my Missouri friend, Nat Fritz.

Now that our respects have been paid to the ghosts of the people who led me to Mencken, it is time to see what he had to say. In the 50 years he worked for the Baltimore Sunpapers and “The Smart Set” and “The American Mercury,” Mencken had much to say and much of it was controversial. Mencken died in 1956, but the Mencken Society still exists. After more than 50 years since he was forced to retire from writing by a stroke, his thoughts continue to provoke comment. In 2004, nearly 50 years after his death, the New York Times published an 1100 page book called, “Guide to Essential Knowledge – a desk reference for the curious mind.” The Guide says:

“No subject was safe from Mencken’s barbs: women, religion, the South, the middle class, Prohibition, even democracy itself.”

The Guide goes on to quote Mencken when he wrote, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” Perhaps that is a take off on Mark Twain’s remark that one should never pick an argument with a man who buys ink by the barrel.

Mencken is also quoted by the Guide as saying, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

The second quote from Mencken is the prelude to his 1920 quote in the Baltimore Sun. Mencken wrote:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a down right moron.”

There are those who will argue that the day has already arrived.

Now let us turn to Seymour Hersh. Brother Hersh is a prolific writer who seems to have access to all kinds of figures in government, in the press, as well as to foreign sources. Currently, he writes for the New Yorker Magazine where he disclosed that the United States is now engaging in the preliminaries to war with Iran. Hersh’s latest book is “Chain of Command,” published last year. It is a typical Hersh book with statements from government officials that only Hersh can produce. The book is 367 pages. The epilogue to “Chain of Command” has two paragraphs that every person who supports the idea of democracy ought to read and think about.

As he campaigned, in the summer of 2004, George Bush repeatedly reassured audiences that his policies had made America safer. “We’ve turned the corner,” was the refrain in his stump speech. “We’re moving America forward by extending freedom and peace around the world.” Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, “are now governed by strong leaders. They’re on the path to free elections.” America, he added, would engage its enemies around the world “so we do not have to face them here at home.” The President did not mention the missing weapons of mass destruction, the growing G.I. death toll, the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the devastation to all aspects of civil life in Iraq. He did not mention the adverse Supreme Court decisions in June of 2004 that challenged the legal basis of his postwar prison system, and told him that foreigners, as well as American citizens, were entitled to due process even in a time of war. And he did not discuss growing alienation and bitterness as Americans, already torn by racial and religious differences, became increasingly politically and economically divided in the past four years.

We have a President who spent months terrorizing the nation with dire warnings about mushroom clouds emanating from Saddam Hussein’s arsenal and then could say, as he did in a campaign speech in August of 2004, that it didn’t matter. “We may still find weapons,” Bush said. “We haven’t found them yet… Let me just say this to you: knowing what I know today, we still would have gone into Iraq.” We have a President who can stand aside as the dogs of war are turned loose on prisoners and then declare, as he did in June 2004, the “America stands against and will not tolerate torture. We will investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and undertake to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment in all territory under our jurisdiction” and that “freedom from torture is an inalienable human right.” There are many who believe George Bush is a liar, a President who knowingly and deliberately twists facts for political gain. But lying would indicate an understanding of what is desired, what is possible, and how best to get there. A more plausible explanation is that words have no meaning for this President beyond the immediate moment, and so he believes that his mere utterance of the phrases make them real. It is a terrifying possibility.

Exerpt from “Chain of Command” by Seymour M. Hersh
Epilogue page 366-367

As a long time supporter of democracy – particularly in the United States – and as a former soldier, the thought that the chief executive “believes that his mere utterance of the phrases make them real” is indeed, a terrifying possibility. Nat Fritz, Oscar Jaeger and Henry Mencken would be outraged. That goes as well for your ancient essayist.

Now a final thought about Mencken. He was a bachelor for nearly 50 years. It could be said that Mencken was sort of belligerent about his singleness. While he made much of his bachelorhood, he took time to write his own memorial. It said:

“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.

As he approached his 50th birthday, Mencken found himself attracted to a young woman who was barely in her 30’s. This was not a “homely girl”; it was a deep attraction for a lovely lady. Her name was Sara Haardt who counted writing as one of her attributes. Unfortunately, Sara became tubercular. Periodically, she was hospitalized in sanitariums located in mountains and other out-of-the-way places where, it was reasoned, the air was healthier. In the 1930’s, there was no real cure for tuberculosis, so confinement for weeks and months in sanitariums was the only treatment.

In 1934, Sara died. On the fifth anniversary of Sara’s death, Mencken observed: “I will have her in mind until thought and memory adjourn.

It was Mencken’s very touching tribute to his wife, Sara. Beyond that, it must be submitted that no other writer could offer a sentence where a heartfelt memorial is in communion with the elegant phraseology of “Until thought and memory adjourn.”

There are more than 70 books written by Mencken and perhaps a dozen more about his life and career in my library. All those books have been read at least once. Nat Fritz and Oscar Jaeger would most likely join me when it is claimed that the premier American author and journalist in American history was HLM – Henry Louis Mancken.

March 2, 2005


It’s all happening again. It’s all happening again, and I’m sure present and future readers are sick of me belaboring this point. At least Bush paid lip service to torture being bad. Trump is pro-torture, and advocates “going after” the family members of terrorists. The head of this country is no longer even pretending to have a shred of compassion.


For reasons unknown to me, I have been a voracious reader from the time Miss Brantley rescued me from the girls’ room.  I have told the story before but perhaps it bears repeating.  On my first day in school in the Forsythe School in Clayton, Missouri, I felt the need to relieve myself and walked into an open space which turned out to be the girls’ room.  In a flash, Miss Brantley, the first grade teacher saw me and led me to the boys’ room.  She told me that she understood my situation and that within a few weeks I would learn how to read.  Thus that mistake would never be repeated again.  And so I conclude that my voracious reading habits are attributable to Miss Brantley, a lovely white-haired woman.

There is one more story having to do with my reading habits.  When I was a prisoner of the German Army near Rimini, Italy in World War II, I found a German language paper on the floor and started to read it.  When I ran across a phrase, early in my reading, I asked a guard to explain it to me.  In effect, he told me that he was lost in the German language because he was a Rumanian, Rumaniabeing allied with Germany.  So you see, my attempt to explain my reading habits goes far back.

In 2005, I entered the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia for a trabeculectomy on my one remaining eye.  As it turned out, there was a hemorrhage and in spite of all of the efforts of the Wills people, starting with my surgeon, L. Jay Katz, M.D., there was nothing that could be done over the next few months to restore any sight to my eye.  Soon I will celebrate the anniversary of the sightlessness that glaucoma has brought to me for the past five years.

Glaucoma stopped my father from reading his Bible every evening because at that time, in the 1940s, there were no books that could be turned into audible speech.  But these days there are a good many books that are provided for those who are sightless, with an announcer reading the book to me.  My daughter and her husband, Maureen and Walter Nollmann have even recently bought me a Kindle which does all sorts of tricks.  So in effect I am not left with nothing to read.  Far from it.  As a matter of fact, it is at this point that I wish to give you a book report of my recent reading that may interest you.

In the past year and a half, there was a presidential election in this country which had hotly contested primary and general elections.  The fact that we had such a situation has much to do with my book report.  My report involves the following books.


The first book is by Richard Wolffe, who is an NBC commentator.  Wolffe was born in Birmingham, England and is a very literate fellow.  His book is called “Renegade” and it is about the Barack Obama campaign for the presidency.


The second one is “Battle for America.”  The authors are Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, veteran Washington reporters.  It has much to do with the campaign for the presidency of the US last year.


The third book is “The Audacity to Win.”  The author is David Plouffe, who was the campaign manager for Barack Obama.  It involves the primary battle between Obama and Mrs. Clinton.  I found Plouffe’s book very interesting reading.


The fourth book is “Too Big to Fail.”  The author is Andrew Ross Sorkin.  It is about the banks and Wall Street, and I will tell you in advance that I found it so unbelievable that I almost quit reading it.  Sorkin writes for The New York Times.  This book is about Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and other organizations on Wall Street.


The fifth book is a political book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.  They are also veteran Washington reporters.  The title is “Game Change.”  “Game Change” is about Barack Obama as well as Hillary Clinton and in addition there is great coverage of John Edwards.


The last book is “The Madoff Chronicles” by Brian Ross, a reporter for ABC News.  It is about Madoff and his Ponzi scheme.


Of these six books, three of them come under a question of believability of the authors.  I find it basically impossible to believe that the authors had access to the principles as they repeatedly voiced their innermost thoughts.

The first of these is “Battle for America.”  That is the book by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson.  The next one is “Too Big to Fail” by Andrew Ross Sorkin.  I have told you in the preceding paragraph that Sorkin claims to have heard infinite details that boggle my mind.  That book was about Wall Street and the financial crisis and I find it almost impossible to believe that Sorkin was so intimate with the principles that he heard all of the stuff that he recorded in his book.  The third book on my scorn list is “Game Change” which is a new book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

The three books cited which are in doubt in my mind have verbatim quotes which could not have been recorded unless the speaker was talking into a recording device.  That is impossible.  It strikes me that in reporting on the campaign for the presidency last year, each author had set out to outdo the previous author in defense of his “insiderness.”  In this case, I find that Richard Wolffe is refreshing because he reports the facts and it is up to the reader to decide to believe them or not.  The worst case was Andrew Ross Sorkin, which caused me to question whether he ought to be on the financial beat for The New York Times.  I simply do not believe that Sorkin had all of the intimacy that he claims with respect to the financial meltdown.

So there you have my little book report which tells you that sensationalism ain’t dead yet.  It also tells you that some books are capable of being believed and others are not.

Of all of the forgoing books, I found Brian Ross’s story about Bernie Madoff the most informative.  If the political writers had used Brian Ross’s respect for the news, then their books would have been better received by readers such as myself.


Now we move on to another observation about the recent books that I have heard.  In a number of the books reported on a little earlier in this report, I am struck by the use of the “f” word.  I was not raised in a convent and I spent the appropriate amount of time in the United States Army.  When it comes to vulgarities, our English cousins are among the best.  But clearly the best soldiers in terms of vulgarities were the Australians.  The people who appear in this book report don’t even come close to using vulgarities appropriately.  Clearly they are in love with the “f” word.  When they run out of something to say, they often employ the “f” word for no apparent reason.

I questioned my daughters and one of their husbands in an effort to determine whether this was common usage in the American speech patterns among younger people.  The two daughters and one husband all assured me that the “f” word is in common usage every day in every way.  Over the years I have found that men who used vulgarities often were colorful folk.  William Cowper Brann, who published newspapers in Texas about a hundred years ago, was a colorful user of vulgarities.  The people quoted by the six authors that I have read recently don’t hold a candle to William Cowper Brann.  So I guess I would say that if you are going to use vulgarities, don’t go out of your way to work them into your speech patterns.

One of the lessons from this essay should be that vulgarities are alive and well and you should be grateful to me for keeping you from reading books that are inauthentic.  It took 82 years for all of this to happen but my belief is that Miss Brantley would be edified by what her erstwhile pupil, who wandered into the girls’ room, has now accomplished.



March 1, 2010

Essay 440


Kevin’s commentary:

We are dipping into 2010. Not because we’re completely done with 2011 and 2012, but because I want to publish a whole mess of essays in the next few days and it’s easiest to do that by starting fresh with a new year.

I really enjoyed the fact that this essay came with a reading list and I wonder if I dig deeper into the archives of Ezra’s Essays that I will find more of them. I know that Pop reads almost constantly and I would very much enjoy more regular updates on what is striking his fancy. Particularly I want to keep an eye on his reading list to see if any fiction sneaks its way into there, so I can say “I told you so” when he enjoys it.

More on Australians, cursing, and the military here and here.

Also, Connor Shepherd speaks very highly of “Game Change.” I’ll need to investigate further.