Correspondence

The Flamingo Kid

Letter From Charleston

It is a truism to note that H.L. Mencken, like his great vitriolic predecessor Jonathan Swift, was a thoroughgoing misanthrope.  So perverse was Mencken’s vision of human existence that he preferred to read King Lear as farce rather than as tragedy—since nothing, he was fond of saying, could be more farcical than death.  But if Mencken’s loathing for his fellow man prevented him from discovering some remnant of dignity in the antics of the intelligent ape, it made him one of our most acute observers of the American political scene.  “Mirth,” Mencken wrote in his “On Being an American,” “is necessary to wisdom. . . . Well, here is the land of mirth, as Germany is the land of metaphysics and France is the land of fornication.  Here the buffoonery never stops.”

The “buffoonery” that so regaled Mencken was of the unconscious sort, the buffoonery of those, especially in political life, whose grotesquely inflated sense of their own self-importance provides the rest of us with endless mirth.  (The honorable senator from Massachusetts is perhaps our most unadulterated contemporary American specimen of such buffoonery.)  Yet Mencken’s own satiric art was itself a kind of buffoonery, albeit of the wickedly honed and self-conscious variety, and one intended to remind us that, the moment we begin to take American politics too...

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