The Bathtub, Mencken, and War

Article excerpt

Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out Na flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer," wrote H.L. Mencken on December 28, 1917, in the New York Evening Mail. The occasion for the iconoclastic journalist's lament was "A Neglected Anniversary," so titled because, as Mencken declared, America had neglected to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the invention of the modern bathtub, which had occurred on December 20,1842, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He proceeded to offer a history of the bathtub in the United States. President Millard Fillmore had installed the first one in the White House in 1851. This had been a brave act on Fillmore's part, since the health risks of using a bathtub had been the subject of great controversy within the medical establishment. Indeed, Mencken observed, "Boston early in 1845 made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862, it was repealed."

"A Neglected Anniversary" was the direct result of the anti-German propaganda that dominated the newspapers in the years before and during America's involvement in World War I. Mencken was an established and respected newspaperman. He had started his career as a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, becoming city editor in 1904. In 1906 he began his long association with the Baltimore Sun. Yet during America's antiGerman period, he could not get material on World War I published because of his proGerman views, which sprang from a love of the culture rather than from its politics. Mencken was enraged by the popular portrayal of Germans as "barbarous Huns" who committed atrocities such as the widely reported bayoneting of Belgian babies. (Although this accusation had been absolutely accepted by the American people, it was later proven to be pure Allied propaganda.)

Mencken attempted to infuse some realworld perspective on the war into American newspapers. Near the end of 1916 he traveled as a reporter to the eastern front to cover the hostilities, but the breakdown of diplomatic relations between Germany and America forced him to return. At home he discovered to his horror that most of his dispatches had not been published. Edward A. Martin writes in H.L. Mencken and the Debunkers, "It was 1917; Mencken, passionately pro-German, felt muzzled by the excesses of patriotism that dominated the attitude of Americans. The `Free Lance' column [Mencken's daily column in the Evening Sun] had been a casualty, in 1915, of his unpopular views of the war. The war and all of its ramifications were excluded from his writing until after 1919."

Thus, Mencken-a political animal to the core-turned to nonpolitical writing in order to publish. A Book of Prefaces, a collection of literary criticism, appeared in 1917. His book on the position of women in society, In Defense of Women, was issued in 1918. And the first edition of Mencken's magnum opus, The American Language, emerged in 1919. He also wrote for the literary magazine he coedited with George Nathan, The Smart Set.

But Mencken was far from sanguine about having his political views suppressed. He complained to Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, whose pages were also closed to him: "It is, in fact, out of the question for a man of my training and sympathies to avoid the war.... How can I preach upon the dangerous hysterias of democracy without citing the super-obvious spy scare with its typical putting of public credulity to political and personal uses?"

Seeking an Outlet

His restless frustration found vent in "A Neglected Anniversary." Like so much of Mencken's writing, the article was not quite what it seemed to be on the surface. It had levels of meaning. "A Neglected Anniversary" was a satire destined to become a classic of this genre of literature in much the same manner as Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," which satirized English policy in Ireland. In the article, Mencken spoke in an eloquent tone of mock reason, which was supported by bogus citations and manufactured statistics. …