HL Mencken on The Crowd

The Crowd

Gustave Le Bon and his school, in their discussions of the psychology of crowds, have put forward the doctrine that the individual man, cheek by jowl with the multitude, drops down an intellectual peg or two, and so tends to show the mental and emotional reactions of his inferiors. It is thus that they explain the well-known violence and imbecility of crowds. The crowd, as a crowd, performs acts that many of its members, as individuals, would never be guilty of. Its average intelligence is very low; it is inflammatory, vicious, idiotic, almost simian. Crowds, properly worked up by skilful demagogues, are ready to believe anything, and to do anything.

Le Bon, I daresay, is partly right, but also partly wrong. His theory is probably too flattering to the average numskull. He accounts for the extravagance of crowds on the assumption that the numskull, along with the superior man, is knocked out of his wits by suggestion— that he, too, does things in association that he would never think of doing singly. The fact may be accepted, but the reasoning raises a doubt. The numskull runs amuck in a crowd, not because he has been inoculated with new rascality by the mysterious crowd influence, but because his habitual rascality now has its only chance to function safely. In other words, the numskull is vicious, but a poltroon. He refrains from all attempts at lynching a cappella, not because it takes suggestion to make him desire to lynch, but because it takes the protection of a crowd to make him brave enough to try it.

What happens when a crowd cuts loose is not quite what Le Bon and his followers describe. The few superior men in it are not straightway reduced to the level of the underlying stoneheads. On the contrary, they usually keep their heads, and often make efforts to combat the crowd action. But the stoneheads are too many for them; the fence is torn down or the blackamoor is lynched. And why? Not because the stoneheads, normally virtuous, are suddenly criminally insane. Nay, but because they are suddenly conscious of the power lying in their numbers— because they suddenly realize that their natural viciousness and insanity may be safely permitted to function.

In other words, the particular swinishness of a crowd is permanently resident in the majority of its members—in all those members, that is, who are naturally ignorant and vicious—perhaps 95 per cent. All studies of mob psychology are defective in that they underestimate this viciousness. They are poisoned by the prevailing delusion that the lower orders of men are angels. This is nonsense. The lower orders of men are incurable rascals, either individually or collectively. Decency, self-restraint, the sense of justice, courage—these virtues belong only to a small minority of men. This minority never runs amuck. Its most distinguishing character, in truth, is its resistance to all running amuck. The third-rate man, though he may wear the false whiskers of a first-rate man, may always be detected by his inability to keep his head in the face of an appeal to his emotions. A whoop strips off his disguise.

Jailbirds by Jim Tully – The American Mercury, 1928

Scanned and OCRed on Sept.8th, 2010 by Kevin I. Slaugther. Read “Thieves and Vagabonds” by Tully as well.

JAILBIRDS

BY JIM TULLY

THE jail room was thirty-five feet long, twenty-five feet wide, and seven feet high. In this large cage were fifty prisoners. Some had been sentenced and were serving jail terms; others awaited trial, or removal to the penitentiary.

The floor was of thick sheet-metal. Around the walls and ceilings were heavy iron bars, painted a ghastly yellow. On each side of the cage was a row of cells, a dozen in all. Each cell was about five by six feet. There were four hammocks in each, one above the other, two on each side. Each hammock contained a filthy blanket.

The oldest inmates had the choice of blankets and hammocks. The prisoner in jail the longest was the court of last appeal in all disputes.

In case of his release, to go to the penitentiary—or freedom—, the next in order of seniority took his place.

Between the rows of cells was a long pine table. A bench was on each side of it. There was room for only sixteen men on the benches.

Cards were not allowed in the jail, but somehow there was always a game in progress. Cigarettes, cigars, and plugs of chewing tobacco were the stakes.

Each prisoner, upon his arrival, had been deprived of all his possessions, with the exception of tobacco and handkerchiefs.

The daily routine began at five o’clock in the morning.

A guard awoke the inmates by pounding on the steel bars with an iron weight.

There arose from hammock, benches, table and floor as disheveled and terrible a group as ever pleaded for justice before merciless judges.

Swollen from sleep and grim from life, each face was a study for a philosophical misanthrope.

The odor of unwashed bodies was accentuated by the complete lack of ventilation.

There was but one faucet, and at it fifty men washed their faces. They pushed each other out of line like free citizens boarding street-cars.

The senior prisoner was allowed to keep a safety razor. He would shave any of his brothers in misery for the equivalent of fifty cents in cigarettes or tobacco. He plied his trade with the grimness of an executioner.

The blade was duller than a sergeant of police. The water was cold. The only soap available was a cake of coarse yellow naptha. The operation was violent and bloody.

At five-thirty they were called to break-fast. Half the men had not had a chance to wash.

They now stood, two by two, at a steel door which opened into another tank, in which was a long pine table.

Steaming hot chicory in a tin cup, two slices of hard bread, a spoonful of hash and a raw onion made all un-happy for the day.

Ten minutes were allowed in which to eat. It was impossible to gulp the boiling chicory in that time.

While the prisoners breakfasted, trus-ties swabbed the cells. They returned to wet floors and the same odors.

Any cigarettes or trinkets accidentally left in the cells were gone–stolen by the trusties.

Old magazines and daily newspapers strayed into the jail. Every line was read.

If a prisoner had arrived since the preceding morning, he was tried immediately after breakfast by a kangaroo court.

The charge was that of breaking into the jail without the consent of the in-mates. As in the outside world, judge, lawyers and jury took their places in the curriculum of injustice.

The blindfolded prisoner was led before the assembly. The senior prisoner, who was the judge, subjected him to a series of questions.

What was his age? What was he in for? Would he have an auburn or a brunette maiden to ease the loneliness of prison? Did he have dandruff—or any of the nameless diseases? Would he desire his breakfast brought to him by the chosen maiden as he lolled in bed? Would he have his chosen maiden bow-legged or pigeon-toed, or both? Or did he prefer a youthful virgin with a darker skin?

When the poor devil tried to name his preference, he was told to shut up. A roar of mocking laughter followed.

He was then given his instructions and told the rules of the prison. The violation of those rules would mean the infliction of so many lashes with a leather belt from the hand of the senior prisoner.

He was placed upon a blanket in the centre of the room. Suddenly the blanket was jerked from under his feet . He sprawled, still blindfolded, upon the floor.

Never was more moronic entertainment offered in American lodges. After he had nursed his bruises, the bandage was re-moved from the new arrival’s eyes. He was then made one of the bunch.

If a prisoner offered resistance to the kangaroo court, he was given the silence. No one talked to him during the day.

The following morning he was called before the court again. If he still offered resistance he was given the silence again, until at last he bowed to the majesty of prison law.

Few held out more than one day.

II

Guards brought in and took out different prisoners from early morning until late at night.

Some would leave to face juries of their uncaught peers amid the ironical good wishes and ribald sneers of the other prisoners.

The clanking of the iron doors and the calling of convict names by guards and trusties were the oases in the steel desert of monotony.

The next meal was at two o’clock. Chicory, bread, stew or beans. It was the last meal of the day.

A huge, gorilla-like Negro was the comedian of the tank. His crooked black arms hung to his knees. His lips were the size of doughnuts cut in half.

He had been released from the penitentiary four months before. After serving ten years as a two-time loser, he was now sentenced again for burglary. He laughed from morning until night.

“I’s a bad niggah, I is! Tain’t no use lettin’ dis niggah free no moah, nohow. I jist go percolatin’ ’round wit’ a gat an’ gits in trouble agin. I’se too bad a niggah to be loose exceptin’ on a chain.”

His eyes glistening with mirthful tears, he would laugh at his monstrous joke like a film comedian.

“I jis’ do a little burglin,’ an’ hot damn, de cops git me! An’ now dey takes dis heah niggah back home to de Big House agin.”

He would laugh again, louder than be-fore, his great lips shaking.

A pyromaniac was in the jail.

A tall, thin ghost of a man touching the shores of fifty, his eyes were blank, his mouth open. He faced a twenty-year sentence for arson. His gray hair straggled over a scar on his forehead. One shoulder drooped. One leg was shorter than the other.

He shuffled like a man paralyzed.

The ends of his fingers were blistered from holding burning matches. His eyes followed every match that lit a cigarette or pipe, in the hands of other prisoners. He did not smoke. He borrowed matches whenever possible. He would hold the burning piece of wood beneath his fingers. The blaze was lost in the blistered flesh. Prisoners would give him matches just to watch him sit in the corner and strike them on the floor.

Each hour was livened by a song from the Negro:

Standin’ on Fouth street,
Lookin’ up Main,
Cop come along
An’ ask me mah name.

I tol’ him mah name,
It was Dennis McGee,
I got seben wild wimmen
Aworkin’ foh me!

Ashes to ashes
An dus’ to dus’,
Was dey eber a woman
A burglah could trust?

A group would soon gather around him. To the stamping of feet and clapping of hands, the Negro would sing:

He took her to de tailah shop
To have her mouf made small,
She swallowed up de tailah,
De tailah-shop an’ all. . . .

Massa had no hooks an’ nails,
Nor anything like dat,
So on dis darky’s nose he used
To hang his coat an’ hat.

Ashes to ashes
An dus’ to dus’,
Was dey eber a woman
A burglah could trust?

III

A conglomerate gathering of frayed ras-cals, they were completely detached from the outside world. Regardless of color, innocence or guilt, they fraternized one with the other. Some tried to keep hearts from breaking; others tried only to kill the monotony of the hours. Thrown to-gether by the steel bars of circumstance, they snarled, quarreled, and cursed. Many seemed to bear all their burdens easier than propinquity.

One man among them held himself aloof.

Accused of forgery, with the certainty of conviction and a long term, he walked nervously up and down the tank. Even in misery he made no comradeship with more illiterate and braver rascals. His body was taut, his eyes swollen and strained at a door that did not open—for him.

Slowly the madness came upon him. Each night he sobbed and groaned. He may as well have thrown particles of ice at the sun.

Each time the iron door clanged he would suddenly rush forward and ex-claim, “Yes, sir! I’m ready!”

All but the pyromaniac laughed.

The door would let another prisoner out or in—and clang shut.

The forger would stand transfixed for a moment, and gaze at the iron-grey door. At last it opened for him.

One trusty took his head, another his feet. He was hurried out one morning with a leather strap around a swollen purple throat—a suicide.

The Negro laughed as he told his decrepit mates: “He’ll git up to Heaven and de good Lawd, He’ll say, `What foh you done fohged ma name foh? Ahse goin’ to put you to writin’ down de names of de preachehs an’ judges who keeps comin’ to Hell forebeh and ebeh.’ . . .”

A trusty brought in a paper which con-tained the picture of the forger’s wife and daughter. The young girl was posed by the photographer so as to show her beauti-ful legs. Her picture was fastened to the wall.

Otherwise life went on in the prison as though the forger had not lived among the men who knew of neither dawn nor dusk.

All day the electric lights burned. At night, all of them save a dim bulb over the door were switched out.

The pyromaniac would sit on his cot and bum a last match before going to sleep.

At intervals in the night, the main lights were switched on and off. The door clanged open and shut. A new face appeared in the morning.

A dope fiend, eaten with disease, was always well supplied with “snow.” The guards either knew or feigned ignorance for money. The prisoners knew. A stool-pigeon told a guard. No action was taken.

A friend regularly brought him clean handkerchiefs. The hem contained cocaine. Sometimes a spot soaked in morphine would be marked with a lead pencil. The saturated cloth would be soaked in a spoon of water. A match under the spoon, a safety pin jabbed into the arm, … dreams again!

Tobacco smoke circled, heavy as fog, about the steel room.

Men paced up and down, up and down, like automatons on a wire stretched across the empty chasm of life. It was night al-ways—with never a ray of day in the jail. . . or in their hearts. The Negro burglar alone was happy.

After many days the monotonous hum of voices would tell on their nerves.

They ached for solitude away from iron bars and caged men.

Each night a trusty came with a large can of Epsom salts. Coarse food, no exer-cise, bad air and overwrought nerves made indigestion king.

Ignorance and false pride sustained the inmates. Pride and hope. Alone, they might have given way to tears.

The Negro hoped for chicken again—in fifteen years.

Minds dulled with too much revery, with too much smoking, too many incessant tunes, often took on the illusion that they had always been behind the bars.

Among the two or three-time losers there was always much talk. Notes were com-pared. Denver Shorty, Texas Gyp, and Gimp the Red, each with a coterie of friends about him, talked of robbed banks and bullets in the night.

Young first offenders, actuated by the ego that makes the Pope and the yegg twin brothers, listened with awe.

“I blazed it out with the rube marshal and heard him fall in the alley. Another yap threw a bullet against the wall in back o’ me. . . . We got away with twenty grand—but Sailor Pete fell. A rube dis-trict attorney took three thousand an’ got him off with a little rap of a year. We sprung him in ten months.”

And Denver Shorty called, “Ain’t that so, Gimp?”

Gimp answered, “Yeah—what is it?”

In this world of iron bars and dim lights, ego paraded with braggadocio. Many lies were told.

“My kid brother’s only twelve years old, but he’s the best thief you ever saw,” was Texas Gyp’s contribution.

Young lads never before in jail told tales of long incarcerations for desperate crimes. Like snobs the world over, they wished to edge into the society which they admired.

Two brothers were in for automobile stealing. The younger, not over eighteen, was taken out of the jail one morning at nine o’clock.

The older brother walked the jail, mum-bling: “If those cops are givin’ the kid the third degree, I’ll kill ‘em.”

A guard brought the boy into the jail that afternoon. His face was black and blue. He staggered from exhaustion.

Ferocious hulks of life gathered about guard and boy. Among them was the brother. The guard, to whom the beaten boy had been delivered by the police, now met a heavy fist with his jaw.

A riot started. Other guards dragged their comrade out of the jail. The young criminal’s brother was knocked unconscious with a blackjack, and dragged out of the door. He died next day in a hospital.

The younger brother, bleeding and groaning all night, was taken away in an ambulance.

Added to the charge of stealing against him was the new one of resisting an officer.

The trusties were really the rulers of the little world. Their unpaid services added to the graft of the jailer. Like others of their kind, they assumed a great dignity with their little authority.

Prisoners serving jail sentences, they had privileges. They could run errands.

They had ample time to eat their meals. They were given as much food as they liked. Nonentities in the outer world, they were despots in a shutaway wilderness of iron.

Many of them were reluctant to leave when their terms expired. One had been a trusty at alternating periods for twenty years. Old, hopeless, broken, derelict, he would purposely commit small crimes in order to reenter the jail and become a trusty again.

He had never been in the Big House, or penitentiary. He scorned all those who had. Like most criminals, petty and great, he was really a moralist at heart.

Nearing seventy, bent double, with an awful leer on his face, he was known as Old Babyface in mockery. Intensely a Christian, he pored over his Bible with fanatical eyes. As bitter as St. Paul, and meaner in heart than Calvin, life had put glue on his fingers.

They stuck to everything.

He told everything to the guards . . . stole every-thing from the men.

Youths facing the State penitentiary the first time eagerly asked him questions about the Big House. He told them be-tween sneers of the hard way of crime.

IV

A newcomer slept in a heroin stupor.

There was blood on his hands and clothes. The morning paper came. A man was dead.

He was the murderer. The prisoners stared at his neck in silence.

He slept peacefully in the last moments of untroubled oblivion he was ever to have.

His hat was on the floor beside him. His shirt was torn to the belt. His collar was gone. His four-in-hand scarf was in a hard knot, as though a hand had pulled it tight.

He did not remember the quarrel.

A clean-shaven fellow had been brought into the jail with the murderer. His eyes were furtive and rheumy. His manner was a conciliatory apology. He told with weak gusto of being caught in the at-tempt to rob with a deadly weapon. He established himself on terms of familiarity with everybody in the jail. But the two-time losers, with an air of suspicion, with-drew from him.

“They got ‘im in here to pump the guy that bumped the fellow off. Then they’ll use it agin him at the trial,” was Gimp the Red’s comment.

It went around the jail, like gossip at a woman’s club. The new arrival was a stool-pigeon.

Gimp the Red and Denver Shorty were in the wash-room with a dozen other prisoners.

The loquacious fellow with the furtive eyes was among them.

There was a sudden groan. A fist crashed at the base of his brain. His eyes went tight shut with pain. Blows whistling with sudden speed smashed his face and body. A foot caught him in the groin. Bleeding, twisted, groaning, he writhed on the slippery floor.

The prisoners regained composure and washed themselves in the nonchalant manner of men at a hunt club.

A guard came, asked many questions, made many threats.

No one seemed to know who hit the stool-pigeon.

The bleeding mongrel was taken away. The prisoners went without breakfast that morning.

The old plan of the police to have one criminal win another’s confidence and be-tray him had been frustrated.

A few weeks later the murderer returned from the court-room. In his ears still rang, “To be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul!”

His hands, in steel bracelets, were before him. His eyes stared unseeing.

The handcuffs were removed. His cell door was closed. The guard left.

He fell wearily to his cot. His head sagged low. As if unable to hold it up, he placed his elbows on his knees and rested his jaw in the palms of his hands, in the manner of Rodin’s “Thinker.”

Only the pyromaniac noticed him.

He looked at the bent-over figure for several minutes. Walking to his cell door, he asked, “Have you got a match?”

The man lifted his furrowed face.

“Yes.”

He rose unsteadily and handed the pyro-maniac a small box of matches.

The incendiary’s eyes glowed. “Thanks—thanks!” And then, “Is it all over?”

“Yeap —I drew the rope. They’re stretchin’ it now, I suppose.”

The pyromaniac lit a match. It burned into his fingers as he watched.

“Well, it don’t make much difference,” he finally said. “Everybody kicks the bucket sooner or later.”

The condemned man rolled a cigarette. The pyromaniac held a match for him.

He watched the blaze while the murderer smoked feverishly.

“You know,” he said, lighting another match, “I wouldn’t be afraid to die. I’d rather like it. I wish this place’d burn up now.”

“But I’d want the judge in it,” snapped the murderer, “and that damn pie-faced jury. I raved in my sleep last night at the hangman—he painted my neck white where it was swollen an’ purple. . . an’ he put me in an iron coffin an’ gave me a hammer, sayin’, ‘Here, pal, you kin pound your way out.’ They dropped me through the trap—and I laughed and wriggled my way outta the rope.” He felt his throat. “I wish to God it was over.”

“It don’t take long,” said the pyromaniac. “Not over a minute.”

“No, it’s the waitin’ that kills. I gave the guy I bumped a better deal. He only died once.”

“O’ course you’ll have a preacher at the last,” suggested the pyromaniac.

“If they send me a preacher they’ll hang me twice,” was the answer.

Over his face passed clouds of reality.

“But, Bralen,” continued the pyromaniac, “it wouldn’t do no good to have the judge and jury die. . . they’d just get others.”

The murderer looked at the incendiary between puffs of smoke.

“Besides, you shouldn’t feel that way about ‘em. They hain’t no worse’n us—just different.”

He struck another match.

“If you die feelin’ happy towards every-body, you’ll wake up in tother world with your soul clean like fire.”

“Maybe you’re right,” answered the man about to die.

The incendiary walked to a group of prisoners.

“Bralen got the rope,” he said.

V

It was evening.

The Negro was starting for the peni-tentiary. He sang like one going on a glori-ous adventure:

Hang up de fiddle and de bow,

Lay down de shovel and de hoe,

Deys no moah stealin foh pooh ol’ Ned,

He’s goin wheah de bad niggah’s go.

He walked about getting ready, an antediluvian monster with the gift of laughter, his doughnut-lipped mouth open from ear to ear.

With crooked short legs, gigantic chest and baggy green-striped pants, the frayed bottoms of which dragged on the floor, and with a collarless shirt that was grimy and tom, he faced the meaningless futil-ity of his chaotic life with the laughter of a fool.

The fat guard waited, his hard lower lip and undershot jaw twisted in a smile at the Negro.

“Come on here, Rastus—time to go. They cain’t wait your Pullman all night, you know.”

“Dat’s all right, Mistah Guand. Tell ‘em foh me dat Geohge Washington Jones’ll be comin’ right along, an’ tell none o’ dem boys to come to de train to meet me, ’cause I’se been deah befoah.”

His eyes turned to the murderer’s cell.

“Ah’ll be waitin’ foh you, boy.”

“Go on, you black devil—an’ chew on a bone like an ape!”

The Negro laughed louder than ever.

“jis’ heah dat white boy talk! You bettah jist say all you kin, ’cause dey’s goin to buhn youh neck till it pops, an’ make it all red!”

The murderer stood up, his hands grip-ping the cell door until his fingers were white.

His heavy lantern-jaw was hard set. He scowled at the Negro. The Negro went on: “Bettah grin a little, white boy . . . ’cause you’se goin’ to dance till youh knees cave in—an’ you bettah pray hand too, Mistah Man, ’cause deys gonna hang you so fast it’ll be three days befoah de Lawd knows you’se daid.”

“Come on, Rastus,” laughed the guard.

The Negro put a shapeless hat on a bul-let head and shouted, “So long, eberybody! See you all in jail! Why dey allus takes you away at night so’s you cain’t see no purty country is moah’n I know.”

Guard and convict moved toward the door. It opened. Another guard entered. “Bring Bralen,” he said.

The murderer’s cell was opened. He was handcuffed to the Negro.

One smiled. The other frowned.

They marched away.

Mencken Day – September 11, 2010

Der Tag (Mencken Day), September 11, 2010

Mencken Day 2010 will commence at 10:00 AM on September 11, 2010 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St, Baltimore,MD. The Mencken Society’s Annual Meeting begins at 10:30 in the Wheeler Auditorium.

The Society’s speakers (in the morning) are Marion Rodgers, who will speak on her recent (hot off the presses) two-volume set of Mencken’s Prejudices, published by the Library of America, and David Donovan of the Enoch Pratt Free Library who has done heroic work in exhuming the entombed collection of Saturday Night Club material held by the Library. He will play selections from a recording of the Concert Artists of Baltimore’s concert, “A Saturday Night Club on Sunday Afternoon”, held April 11, 2010. If you missed the concert, here is your chance to at least get a taste of what was.

The Mencken Memorial speaker (in the afternoon) is Jonathan Yardley, book reviewer for the Washington Post and editor of Mencken’s My Life as Author and Editor(Knopf, 1993).

(Notice, the Mencken Society is different from the HL Mencken Club .)

The Third Annual Meeting of the HL Mencken Club – Oct. 22-23, 2010 – Baltimore, Maryland

The Third Annual Meeting of the HL Mencken Club

Oct. 22-23, 2010

Baltimore, Maryland

Friday, October 22:

7: 30 – 10 PM — Dinner

Paul Gottfried: “How the Left Won the Cold War”

John Derbyshire : “The PC Religion”

Saturday, October 23:

9 – 10 AM — PC Around the World

Grant Havers: “Canada: The Death of the West Up North”

TBA: “Eastern Europe: The Last Stand Against PC”

Ilana Mercer: “South Africa: A Warning”

10: 30 – 11: 30 AM — “Rights” Culture

Paul Gottfried: “The Civil Rights Act: PC’s Holy Shrine”

James Kalb: “PC: The Cultural Antichrist”

Richard Spencer: “‘When Will They Wake Up?”

12 – 2 PM — Lunch

12:45 Speaker: TBA

2:20 – 3 PM — Land of Illusions

Robert Weissberg: “Bad Students / Not Bad Schools”

Steve Sailer: “Can HBD Trump PC?”

Henry Harpending: “The Evolutionary Left”

3:30 – 4:30 PM — Traditionalism, Subversion, and Counterrevolution

Christopher Kopff: “Back to the Future or Why the Past is More Important Than the Present”

James Russell: “The Churches’ Betrayal of European Christianity”

Tom Piatak: “Christophobia and its Discontents”

5:30 – 6:30 PM Plenary Session — Q&A

7:30 – 8:30 — Dinner

John Derbyshire: Reading from the Mencken Chrestomathy

Peter Brimelow: “Neo-Socialism, or How the Government Can Elect a New People”

10:00 — Hospitality Suite

10:30 — Late-night “Cigar & Bourbon” Session — “What Needs to Be Done?”

Periodical Nerd :: American Mercury Frenzy

The first issue of HL Mencken and George Jean Nathan’s The American Mercury had a German oriented spine.image

In the photo above, in the middle, are the first 5 issues… Vol.1 No.1 – Vol. 2 No. 1. The first issue had the text of the spine reading from bottom to top, rather than from top to bottom. Not sure why, but I do know that that’s how the spines of German books are done.

Next to those are 4 issues from the 1950s, including an article from George Lincoln Rockwell.

As is clear from the photograph, the three other items are bound collections of 4 issues that make up a volume.

I can’t remember if I posted this before, I might have, I’m not checking right now and you probably didn’t see it when I did:

From “Clinical Notes”, published in The American Mercury vol. 1 no. 2, Feb. 1924
by HL Mencken and George Jean Nathan

The beautiful day, the day of blue and gold and sunshine, is God’s gift to the plain people; the bad day, the day of gloom and gray and rain, He has reserved for the exclusive pleasure of the aristocracy. The artist, the connoisseur of emotions, the philosopher —these have no use for the fair day: it distracts them, summons them from their introspection and solitude, calls them into the open. On such a day, work and those pleasures dear to men with a taste for the sequestered are impossible: the outdoors beckons too persuasively and too disconcertingly. But when the world is full of wet and fog and the monotony of rain, then the artist, the connoisseur of quiet, the philosopher and all their brothers are happy. It is on such days, while the yokelry is eating dill pickles and cheese sandwiches on the roadsides, or riding in Fords through the Jersey swamps, or chasing small white balls across the grass with a repertoire of clubs, that men of soul and sadness revel in the happiness that only God’s elect can comprehend.

HL Mencken on the first great evolution trial…

I’ve spent a LOT of time putting together a series of 13 podcast episodes of HL Mencken’s Baltimore Evening Sun reports on the Scopes trial from Dayton, Tenn. I’m releasing them in somewhat “real time”, according to the dates they were published 85 years ago. I’d like my visitors to this blog to hear them, and if you enjoy it, please pass a link along to others.

First, a list of the episodes and dates they’ll be released, I’ll link them up as they come out:

June 29th – Homo Neanderthalensis
July 9th – Sickening Doubts About Publicity
July 10th – Impossibility of Obtaining Fair Jury
July 11th – Trial as Religious Orgy
July 13th – Souls Need Reconversion Nightly
July 14th – Darrow’s Eloquent Appeal
July 15th – Law and Freedom
July 16th – Fair Trial Beyond Ken
July 17th – Malone the Victor
July 18th – Genesis Triumphant
July 20th – Tennessee in the Frying Pan
July 27th – Bryan
Sept. 14th* – Aftermath
*Will be released by July 30th.

The full text of the report at the end of the blog!

As frequent readers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of Mencken’s writing. He’s got a viewpoint that is hardly expressed anymore – a no-bullshit commentator on the follies of his day. Moreso, much of what he criticised then has only gone downhill, and his mockery and scathing verbiage is a balm for the mind appalled by the utter stupidity of the modern scene. The only man I’ve read that was able to mix his best elements together with style was Anton Szandor LaVey. LaVey introduced me to Mencken, as well as any number of authors, philosophers, artists and ideas. LaVey is indeed the proverbial gateway drug. It is the opposite of the religions of “the book”, his was a religion “of the world”. When Adversary Recordings rereleased his “Satan Takes a Holiday” CD, and I was tasked with writing promotional copy, this is the tail end:

“…as with most of the work that Anton LaVey has done, it’s a small door to a sometimes unseemly and Satanic world. Applying the true definition of “occult” to these songs is probably most appropriate, as they are hidden wonders.”

A few of the folks who didn’t get turned onto LaVey get real tripped up on the S-word. I’m not going to go into apologetics here, but I think I will be doing an episode on the topic. Let me assure you that you are nowhere near the first person, if you’re like many, to ask “But why not just call yourself ______?”

***

I’m not a writer. There are a few things that I’ve pecked out on the keyboard that I’m proud of, but I hold no illusion that they could even serve as an introduction to Mencken’s own words. Though mecken has penned a few pithy quotable lines, there has been one that I’ve found most reflects my own lifelong work, and I’ve used it many times. It is, in fact, the very first quote on my quotes page:

“I hope I need not confess that a large part of my stock in trade consists of platitudes rescued from the cobwebbed shelves of yesterday… This borrowing and refurbishing of shop-worn goods, as a matter of fact, is the invariable habit of traders in ideas, at all times and everywhere. It is not, however, that all the conceivable human notions have been thought out; it is simply, to be quite honest, that the sort of men who volunteer to think out new ones seldom, if ever, have wind enough for a full day’s work.”

-H.L. Menken, from “In Defense of Women”

***

July 6th was my 35th birthday and the 2nd anniversary of Underworld Amusements (I made a public announcement in October of ’08, but July was the time I started working on it seriously… well, as seriously as I’ve had spare time for). I’ve done quite a bit in the last two years under the banner of UA, but I’m reevaluating it as one should do everything. The podcast started in

The past month and a half I’ve been running ads on Facebook. It’s as cheap or expensive as you want to make it, so I made it cheap and tried to target the people I think would be most interested. It’s brought traffic to the site, but the idea of paying .15 to .50 cents for someone to merely visit the site is hard for me to do. UA is a no-budget operation, more or less. The meager profits from books just go to spending money on website hosting and whatever expenses come along.

This isn’t a wind-up to hitting you up for donations, though it probably sounds like it. No, this is a wind-up to ask anyone who has enjoyed a podcast or book released under the Underworld Amusements banner to occasionally, or at least once, post a link on facebook, write a review on itunes, or do some simple free task to promote what I’m doing. After 14 podcasts, including a number of interviews (from Oscar winner HR Giger, to one-time “worlds worst person” John Derbyshire, to Church of Satan High Priest Peter H. Gilmore, among others), I’ve received exactly one review on iTunes, and that I hounded a friend for.

A few folks have been very supportive, and I’ve done my best to reciprocate. That’s how I roll. I’ve done my best to avoid SPAMMY behavior. I haven’t trolled social network sites begging for folks to “friend” me. I rarely do it on my personal profile and just as rarely do it on my “business” pages. I promote other projects and publishers directly on the UA site and moreso on my personal site. This respectable method isn’t working. Paying for clicks is, but it’s also spending the little money I make that could be spent on new projects or making ongoing projects better.

***

I’ve tried thinking of ways to organize some sort of project that would assist others who are working on projects or have blogs or books to promote to do so easily. Something either a little more targeted than “facebook”, but not a whole separate system that competes with the established sites. I don’t want to build a social network for misfits, but I would like something like an Instapundit for misanthropes. Something that’s compelling enough to bring returning visitors, but not so involved that people have to set up identities, and something that can push that same info out to folks.

I’m not sure what form it’ll take, but it has a name and a url, though I’m not letting that on right now, as it could radically change or not happen. It’d be like telling you my sons name while still a virgin (well, technically, after I had the first two kids aborted, and was planing on making another kid).

Thieves and Vagabonds by Jim Tully

The following story was transcribed and introduction was written for a ‘zine a few years ago and was never published. I offer it here now because I just rediscovered it on my computer.

Jim Tully is one of my literary heroes, and I don’t have many. Tully was a defacto Satanist, of this I have no question. He lived his life as he saw fit.

Credited with originating the hard-boiled writing style practiced later by such authors as Dashiell Hammett. His own story is on par with such figures as Jim Thompson and Jack London, writing not from fantasies, but from his own hard won experiences.

This red-headed Irish bruiser became one of the most respected writers during the roaring twenties, a time filled with more historical greats than probably ever before or since.

A literary bum, Jim also spent time doing an assortment of jobs to get him from one day to the next. By the time his first book was published in 1922, he’d been a dishwasher, chainmaker, boxer, newspaper reporter, tree surgeon, circus handyman, and Hollywood press agent. Through these jobs he compiled a few lifetimes of experiences and characters to write about.

Just like the most of the once great figures of history, Tully has been all but forgotten. His works slowly went out of print and his name brought up less and less. Just like the legacy of Al Jolson, who was in his time considered to be the greatest entertainer the world had known, is resigned to the intrepid hands of those who search the dustbins of our uniquely American past.

As Satanists, we search these dustbins. Most of the dust it churns up is lung-choking garbage, but once in a while an amazing thing will be found.

“Thieves and Vagabonds” was originally published in H.L. Mencken’s monthly magazine The American Mercury in 1928. This work is being published for the first time in 80 years.

Since we’re talking about Mencken, I’ll quote him now. It’s one I’ve sort of adopted as my own long-form motto:

“I hope I need not confess that a large part of my stock in trade consists of platitudes rescued from the cobwebbed shelves of yesterday… This borrowing and refurbishing of shop-worn goods, as a matter of fact, is the invariable habit of traders in ideas, at all times and everywhere. It is not, however, that all the conceivable human notions have been thought out; it is simply, to be quite honest, that the sort of men who volunteer to think out new ones seldom, if ever, have wind enough for a full day’s work.”
-H.L. Menken, from “In Defense of Women”

Enjoy,

Kevin I. Slaughter

THIEVES AND VAGABONDS

Jim Tully

NO BIRD flew through the air. No bare branch stirred. The turbulent water of Lake Huron was icily supine in the midst of the frozen desolation. The little town in the Thunder Bay river section was buried deep in snow. For days the weather had remained the same.

The cold cut to the marrow of sparsely clad bones, like frost-bitten razor blades. The deep drifted snow glinted chameleonlike under the spasmodically shining sun. It, too, seemed a frozen candle in the sky.

All day the wind had whirled the snow in every direction. It abated by night, and the snow ceased falling. A deadly calm, and a deadlier cold settled over the earth. It was twenty degrees below zero.

Every living thing had hunted shelter for the night. The stars glistened above, as if piercing through the atmosphere with swords of burning steel. The moon was a mist of frozen white and yellow.

To keep beggars from freezing the calaboose was left open. A pine structure for the lesser offenders, it stood on a side street―alone.

A group of vagabonds huddled around a jumbo stove in a wretchedly furnished room that faced a row of cells. The window of the room was stuffed with rags; there were but three unbroken panes of glass left. The door was cracked and frostbitten. The unbroken panes were covered with a heavy frost. A large lamp, fastened with a bracket, was above the door.

The echo of a locomotive whistle was heard, like the faraway sound of vibrant music. The vagabonds listened, and a flare of interest passed over their life-beaten and weather-lashed faces. But no word was said as they turned their eyes to the round stove again, like tired dogs dozing. The engine whistled once lore and all eyes became alert.

“That old boy’s a ramblin’ to git out o’ the cold,” said a derelict with a weazened face. “He thinks !it’ll be warmer ‘n Detroit.”

“Yeap,” said a one-legged man, “it’s a hell of a night for yeggs and hoboes. I wouldn’t even want a railroad bull out on a night like this. We’re gittin’ punished for our sins.”

“It’ll be hotter ‘n this when you git punished fur your sins, One Leg,” grunted a heavy man with a red kerchief around his neck.

“Maybe so, maybe so,” drawled One Leg. “I been punished enough in my time for all I ever done.”

The heavy man, a crumbling mountain of muscle, smiled a crooked smile, rubbed his week-old beard with a knucklecracked hand, and said, “What da hell, what da hell―gittin’ soft, One Leg? You’d steal pennies from dead men’s eyes.”

“You bet your life I would, Husky. Dead men don’t need no pennies, and they don’t need their eyes shut-they can’t see nothin’.”

The group laughed without mirth.

“I hope no hobo’s on that rattler just pullin’ in. He’d freeze―sure’s Gawd is just,” said the derelict with the weazened face.

“Don’t worry your potato soul, Weazle,” advised the man called One Leg. “They ain’t no smart ‘boes ridin’ freights tonight. And them that ain’t smart―well, the deader the better. Too many dumb ones on the road already.”

The decrepit of the earth lapsed into silence. The husky vagabond arose and reached into the bottom of the wood-box. He pulled out a chunk of wood. “Don’t know what we’ll do when the wood’s gone,” he sneered. “Burn the shack down, I guess.”

“I’d just as soon,” responded One Leg. “These jails are gettin’ rottener every year. A self-respectin’ tramp can’t stop in them no more. It used to be when I first went on the road they was decent jails. You’d git good eats and java. Now all you git is hell from the jailers and corn bread and chicory.”

He was interrupted by the man with the weazened face. “Well, if you don’t like the jails you kin quit trampin’.” Then, scornfully, “Quit your crabbin’! You’re lucky they let the jails open.”

II

The large man moved his shoulder and neck muscles nervously, completely oblivious of the conversation.

“What’s the matter, Husky, old snowbird, do you want a shot?” asked a vagabond, looking at him.

“Naw, I don’t want a shot. Gosh! Can’t a man sit quiet without you mosquitoes buzzin’ at him? I was jist thinkin’ o’ the days I was a man―and a damn good one at that.”

“What you was don’t buy any ham an’ eggs,” laughed One Leg. “People go to Hell ’cause they was what they was. No one gives a cockeyed nigger for what you was. What you was is all over―has-beens ain’t useful to society nohow.”

“That may be, One Leg, but a hasbeen’s better ‘n a never-was, any day. What you were shows what you was-and I was one of the two best men of his weight in the world. Think o’ that, you bums and would-be yeggs! The world’s damn big―and they wasn’t any man in it―millions and millions o’ them―that could lick me. Huh,” he looked about with scorn, “that’ll make your eyes pop out like eggs―huh―the world’s damn big.” He raised an immense hand. “Lookit that mitt―and this mug”―putting his hand to his jaw. “It’s stopped wallops from all o’ them―an’ the best any o’ them ever got was an even break wit’ me―and only one o’ them ever done that.

“I used to go ’round ‘em like hoops on a barrel and they called me the Ghost Wit’ the Kick of a Mule. I put the fear o’ Gawd in their hearts, I did. I played on their ribs till they cracked. Didden I put the Chicago Slasher out wit’ a rabbit punch―and he croaks before mornin’? I’ll say I been a man in my time!”

The derelicts looked at Husky in a disinterested manner. He rose and went on.

“When Regan was champeen, who fought him a twenty-round draw? Me! An’ the gong saves him in the last round. I was gittin’ better ‘n the twentieth. I kin hear the crowd hollerin’ yet. No one ever stood up in front o’ him twenty rounds before, neither. In the third round he sez to me, he sez―’Say your prayers, Husky, you’re a goin’ to Heaven to-night,’ and I grunts back at him, ‘Not ’til I gives you hell first,’ I sez. And then we went at it. Lord almighty, what a battle! In the ‘leventh round I drops him for a count of eight. Eight, do you hear that? I jest come within two counts o’ bein’ the champeen o’ the world, I did. But the Kid he gets up and shakes in his knees and then comes at me with his right sailing plumb fer my jaw, an’ quicker ‘n lightnin’ I squared ‘roun ‘n’ hooked my left―an’ doubles him up like a rusty knife.”

Husky gulped.

“It was a night like this an’ colder ‘n Hell wit’ the door open. They was forty thousand people there an’ I come near bein’ champeen. You git that―you bread-beggars―you crums―you meat-snatchers―you unbathed bastards! ―an’ don’t make fun o’ your betters! I’m still man enough to clap your heads together.” He slapped his immense broken-knuckled and finger-twisted hands together and went on: “Don’t you never call me Snowbird agin, One Leg, or I’ll make you pick your teeth with that crutch o’ yourn. I’ll make you dig your grave with it if you say I’m a hophead out loud.”

One Leg looked about the room, then turned with a bored expression away from Husky. The other vagabonds did the same.

The ex-bruiser, baffled by their unconcern, trembled with the memory of past glory. The crumbling muscled hero of a little hour that had passed, he looked about forlornly.

His hands dropped from their clenched position; his taut muscles relaxed. He jerked the soiled red kerchief from around his neck and wiped his rheumy eyes. He then seated himself by the stove. A strained silence followed.

III

One Leg broke it with, “Well, ‘boes, any of you want to see my new invention?”

“Sure―what did you invent?” asked Weazle.

“A dog-fooler,” answered One Leg, pulling up the trouser of his remaining leg and showing the calf of it wrapped about with heavy brown paper. “There ain’t a dog in this country can bite through that,” he said proudly.

Husky felt the paper and exclaimed, “Gosh, it’s only paper!”

“Sure! What did you think it was―cement?” One Leg snarled.

“Well, a fellow needs somethin’ like that―there’s a lot of dogs in Michigan,” commented a vagabond.

“Well, I ain’t very fast on this one leg,” resumed the inventor, “so I had to rig up somethin’ to protect it.”

“I’ll bet a Newfoundlan’ kin bite through that,” said a vagabond who had not spoken before. “I seen ‘em up in Maine bigger ‘n cows.”

“How about a bull-dog?” asked another.

“Oh, they can’t bite very hard,” answered One Leg. “Their jaws don’t open very far―it takes a big mouth for a hard bite.”

“A collie’s mean, though,” ventured Husky. “They’d bite their uncle if he wasn’t lookin’.”

“Them little terriers are pizen to me,” said a nondescript. “They don’t bite so hard, but they raise old Ned till they git all the darn dogs in the neighborhood after a guy. ”

Husky looked bored. “Let’s forgit about dogs,” he said. “Doc don’t care about dogs, do you, Doc?”

The vagabond addressed might have been any age. from fifty to eighty. His shoulders were round, his hands delicate, slender and bloodless. His face was pinched pink and blue. His hair straggled silver into his bleared and insane eyes.

His pockets were ripped on his buttonless coat, the collar of which hid his thin neck. There remained still a touch of authority in his incisive manner, as if he belonged not in such crass surroundings. With precise enunciation he turned to his mountainous questioner.

“My name is Dr. John Abercombie, if you please, sir, and I may say that I am not at all interested in dogs-only the human brain.” He raised his right hand in the manner of a professor before a class. “It is, gentlemen, the most marvelous gift of God. I speak of man’s brain―not woman’s.”

Laughter interrupted him. He frowned at his audience.

“And I often said to her, ‘But, dear, remember our position―and your own good name―even if you do not love me―you cannot afford a scandal. You surely would not trade a brain specialist for an Italian teacher of the dance! Ah, dear wife, do you not recall the words of the woman-weary Shakespeare, “Frailty, thy name is woman?” Madness lies in getting what we want―one should be careful of the brain. The convolutions of the cerebrum are many―this man belongs in the medulla oblongata position. He has touched the pia mater which connects the nerves of your body―it is that most delicate portion of the brain.’”

Weazle rubbed his yellow eyebrows in a bored manner.

“Well, one thing’s a cinch―none of us has any brains―that’s why we’re here.” He looked at Doc. “Believe me, herdin’ sheep in Idaho beats this life. The sheep may be dumb, but they hain’t any dumber than us.”

“Chortle for yourself, Weazle,” snapped One Leg.

“Well, I’ll sing, then,” returned Weazle beginning in a cracked tenor voice:

Oh, all you young Dukes and you Duchess,
Just listen to what I do say,
Because it ain’t ourn that we touches,
You send us to Botany Bay.

Singin’ too-ral-too-ral-looralay,
And too-ral-loo-ral-lorray,
Because it ain’t ourn that we touches,
You send us to Botany Bay.

Oh, had I the wings of a buzzard,
I’d spread out my pinions and fly
‘Way back to Old England forever,
And there I’d be willin’ to die!

“Gentlemen,” said Doc slowly, “most anyone would be willing to die in England.”

Weazle flared into a cockney accent:

“England’s a white man’s country―and the women are all beautiful―not like in this hick country.”

Doc rubbed his thin, bloodless hands, and gazed at Weazle with the round eyes of the insane.

“Slandering womanhood ill becomes a gentleman, young man. Perhaps you have never known a real American woman.”

“No―but that wop did.”

Doc was frozen dignity.

“I shall not discuss such matters with children.”

His head sank. He looked a fragment for the pity of his fellows.

All were oblivious except Husky. He rose from his seat and put a heavy hand on Doc’s shoulder. “Don’t take it so hard, old boy. You were up an’ now you’re down. I know what you mean-these yaps don’t. They’re just a lotta hogs an’ they hain’t never seen but one pen in their life. We been in real ones, ain’t we, Doc?”

He patted the remnant of science. Doc did not stir.

“No use talkin’ to these yaps about brains, Doc. They don’t know what you mean.”

IV

The door opened.

A rugged fellow of about thirty-three entered. He held his hands funnel-like to his mouth and blew hot breath upon them.

He wore a dark suit that had been well tailored. Full of the grease-stains of the road and pricked in several places by the sharp pieces of coke upon which he had lain, it nevertheless fit him well and accentuated the lines of his powerful body. He was about six feet tall. His hair curled around the edges of his cap. His face was intelligent, well cut; his eyes a vivid blue. When he removed his hands he showed a sardonic sneer. He tried to smile. The sneer remained.

All in the group save Husky were deferential to the new arrival. They acted as though a man had appeared among them. He walked toward the stove.

“God Almighty, what a night! Is this all the wood you’ve got?” He blew on his hands again. Then as if irritated at the scarcity of wood, “What a hell of a bunch of vagabonds and thieves you are! You’d all sit here and freeze before you’d rustle some wood.”

He pushed One Leg from his chair, tore it apart, and put it in the stove.

He pulled a quart of whisky from a sagging coat pocket.

A constable’s voice was heard.

“Come on, here! It’s a wonder you ain’t froze! You oughta be in school instead of galavantin’ around the country.”

He stood in the door with a youth of fine features.

All the vagabonds looked up except Doc. He still stared at the rotting floor. The youth walked to the stove.

“They’re comin’ younger an’ younger. Soon babies’ll be on the road,” laughed a vagabond.

“Yes―lovely babies,” remarked Doc, looking at the youth. The sound of the constable’s footsteps could be heard, dying.

Tacked to the wall was part of a map of America. The ruffian in the tailored suit walked toward it.

“It’s not all here. The Gulf of Mexico and the Southern States are missing.”

“Well, you don’t count ‘em anyhow,” laughed One Leg.

The man traced a route with his finger.

“We’re a hell of a ways from nowhere…and along ways to go.”

He walked away and stood with his back to the stove. His eyes scanned the array of derelicts.

“Where you from, Bozo?” He turned to the youth.

“Over yonder,” returned the lad, circling the room with his hand.

“We’re all from over yonder,” put in Doc.

The wind rose in a terrifying crescendo. The kerosene lamp flickered. A shadow passed over the room.

The wind died down, then rose again, louder than before. Doors and window rattled violently.

“It’ll blow the cells outta the building if it keeps this up,” laughed Weazle.

“Or the wool off a sheep’s tail, eh, Weaz?” suggested One Leg.

Doc spoke in a cracked, appealing voice to the youth who had taken his fancy.

“So you’re from over yonder?” He broke into a half song:

Over yonder―when the roll is called
Over yonder―I’ll be there!

The ruffian in the worn tailored suit took up the words in a rich vibrant voice:

On that bright and glorious morning
When old time shall be no more…
When the roll is called over yonder
I’ll be there!

He beat time with feet and hands. The youth and Weazle took up the song.

They stopped suddenly. The wind pounded at the door. The ruffian in the tailored suit took another drink.

“Gimme a swig o’ that, for God’s sake!” pleaded Husky. “I’m needin’ a drink for a week. I’m goin’ nuts in here―two whole days of it.”

“Who ran your saloon last year? I’m not feedin’ good liquor to hoboes. You get a couple of swigs of this an’ it’d blow your empty can off. It’s not regular liquor, you know. It’s nitro-glycerine. I use it for soup―it opens anything.” He looked at Husky, trembling on his pine box scat.

“Lord, have a little pity, ‘bo! I’d give everybody a drink if I had it. I’d give the sun away an’ sit in the shade… That’s why I’m here.”

The man’s sneer vanished for a second. “I’ll give you a swig-just to watch it work.” He handed him the bottle. “Bathe your troubles on Nitro Dugan.”

V

The vagabonds became alert at mention of the name.

Husky clamped his immense jaws about the neck of the bottle.

“Here―what the hell! I’m giving you a drink―not the whole bottle!”

Nitro Dugan wrestled with Husky, who held the gurgling fluid upward.

Impatient, he stepped backward and slammed a heavy fist against Husky’s jaw. The bottle broke and fell to the floor.

Husky stood, legs apart, the neck of the bottle in his mouth.

“Give a bum a horse and he’ll want a stable,” snapped Nitro, looking at the spilled liquor. The bottle neck rattled to the floor.

Husky’s mountain of muscle trembled as though lava poured through it. He frowned at his benefactor with menace and seated himself on the pine box. Nitro sneered at him, “Now would you like some ham and eggs?” His voice rose. “What do you think I am―a traveling bartender?” Pointing to the floor, “Look what you did-you’d muss up Heaven if they let you in.”

Husky’s heavy voice boomed. “Gwan away from me-afore I tap you on the button!”

“Don’t talk to me that way, ‘bo. I’ll put a hole through you so big you can bury yourself in it,” sneered Nitro Dugan.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen―remember where you are,” pleaded Doc. “It ill behooves men to forget themselves over such trifling matters.”

“Shut up!” snarled Husky, pushing the emaciated vagabond backward.

He stood before Nitro with fearful menace. “Go ahead and try to put your hole through me, ‘bo. They hain’t a bullet made that kin go through my hide.”

Nitro stood with his defiant sneer, his right hand buried in his coat pocket.

All eyes opened startled wide.

“Don’t, for God’s sake! Don’t you see he’s just a wreck? And now you’ve drove him mad with hooch,” the youth pleaded.

“The hell I’m a wreck! I’m Battlin’ Hagen, you whippersnapper! No longlegged sap kin talk about drillin’ holes through me an’ git away wit’ it.”

All drew in closer. The youth held Nitro’s right hand. Nitro commanded, “Hands up, you bum, or I’ll throw a bullet through you!”

Husky dashed toward Nitro. A bullet missed him. He twisted the snub blue revolver from Nitro’s hand. The youth picked it up.

Nitro made a move for the gun, but Husky was upon him.

“Now we’ll take it―man to man―you yellow dog!” Nitro, with the same defiant sneer, twisted a left fist upward. It connected under Husky’s chin. The blood spurted from his teeth.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” pleaded Doc. A wild blow caught him. His jaw went to one side. His eyes popped. He fell unnoticed.

One Leg decided against Husky and thumped him with his crutch. The blows rattled from his head.

Then, as if irritated, Husky pulled his right shoulder back in the midst of the general melee. His fist caught One Leg on the right ear. It shot him perpendicular for at least six feet. He then fell like a telegraph pole, chopped low.

Husky did not look at him.

Now roused, he rushed in relentlessly, using every trick long years in the ring had taught him.

Nitro parried, feinted, and stalled for time. His blows rattled on Husky’s jaws like pebbles on an iron roof.

Hurtling bodies drowned the noise of the roaring wind. Nitro’s coat was torn from his shoulders. Crushed against the door, he began to push his knees upward in an effort to cripple Husky. The ex-bruiser, equal to the occasion, used the same tactics.

“Stop it! Stop it! I’ll shoot,” the youth cried.

The gun was leveled at the bloody assailants. As if eager for a breathing spell, they stopped hostilities and looked at the youth.

Doc sat erect, rubbing his jaw. He rose shakily and stood, a ghoulish spectator, blood dripping from the corners of his mouth.

One Leg still slept, like a crippled soldier, with the crutch across his breast.

The blue gun was held firmly. The monsters of men looked down its barrel.

The lamp above the youth accentuated his fine cut features. A strand of blondishbrown hair fell from under his cap. The vagabonds faced him in a half-circle as he leaned against the door.

“You wouldn’t shoot, would you, kid? Why do you care if we kill each other?” coaxed Nitro.

“I don’t―but if you do, they’ll blame it on us―and throw the key away.”

“Ho ho―that’s it―lookin’ out for yourself!” Nitro again sneered, stepping closer.

“Sure―ain’t I human? But stand where you are!”

The revolver was shoved forward.

“Now quit your fightin’―both of you. You’ll get us all thrown out in the cold. If you want a fight, beat it on out of here. Then you kin freeze and go to Heaven like little babies swattin’ flies.”

Husky sprang forward. He grabbed the gun with one hand; and with the other he ripped the youth’s clothing to his waist. The lad’s cap came off in the scuffle.

The half-circle of vagabonds gasped in unison.

“God Almighty! It’s a girl!”

VI

The words awoke One Leg. He clattered to his one foot.

Centuries fell from every face save Doc’s. Impassive as stone, he saw not a girl, but a fellow vagabond.

The girl, with hair falling over her slender shoulders, now stood with the expression of a trapped animal; arms folded across her breast. The half-circle began to close in.

“You dirty devils! Now you want to paw me! You’re all alike―every one of you―even the damned preacher in the Reform School!”

Her words made them hesitate. Her left hand searched for the door knob. An awful stillness followed. The wind could be heard trumpeting outside.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” pleaded Doc.

“Shut up, you nutty yap!” from Nitro Dugan.

Husky, his mind on weightier matters, held the revolver loosely in his hand. He touched the girl’s arm. She shrank.

Nitro Dugan moved closer, and delivered a powerful blow to Husky’s Jaw. He grappled for the gun.

It turned downward and exploded. A moan followed.

The girl looked upward for a second. Her left hand searched for the door-knob again. Her right crashed the lamp to the floor. A blue flame spread over the kerosene in Husky’s direction.

Dodging low, she was gone. The door slammed shut.

Husky awaited the fast creeping flames. Nitro Dugan jerked the door open with,

“Well, it’s our move―damn the luck!” Doc remained.

The other vagabonds scurried after Nitro Dugan.

“Wait a moment, gentlemen,” Doc called. “Perhaps he isn’t dead.” No hobo heard.

An obscure paragraph in a Detroit paper announced next day that the jail at______ had burned to the ground.

Two unknown tramps, seeking shelter for the night, had been found dead among the ruins.

BookNerd: Thanks for giving myself more books…

DSCN3265

From top to bottom, all used:

“Soul On Ice” Eldridge Cleaver

“The War of the Worlds” HG Wells (Penguin Classics)

Three Gothic Novels (Penguin Classics)

Essays” Sir Francis Bacon

“The Impossible Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories” ed. by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (intro by Gore Vidal)

“Hollywood Babylon” and “Hollywood Babylon 2″ by Kenneth Anger (I somehow lost my hardback copies of both of these)

HL Mencken on Christianity and Agnosticism Part II

From DAMN! A Book of Calumny

XXXVIII

THE ROAD TO DOUBT

The first effect of what used to be called natural philosophy is to fill its devotee with wonder at the marvels of God. This explains why the pursuit of science, so long as it remains superficial, is not incompatible with the most naif sort of religious faith. But the moment the student of the sciences passes this stage of childlike amazement and begins to investigate the inner workings of natural phenomena, he begins to see how ineptly many of them are managed, and so he tends to pass from awe of the Creator to criticism of the Creator, and once he has crossed that bridge he has ceased to be a believer. One finds plenty of neighborhood physicians, amateur botanists, high-school physics teachers and other such quasi-scientists in the pews on Sunday, but one never sees a Huxley there, or a Darwin, or an Ehrlich.


XXXIX

A NEW USE FOR CHURCHES

The argument by design, it may be granted, establishes a reasonable ground for accepting the existence of God. It makes belief, at all events, quite as intelligible as unbelief. But when the theologians take their step from the existence of God to the goodness of God they tread upon much less firm earth. How can one see any proof of that goodness in the senseless and intolerable sufferings of man—his helplessness, the brief and troubled span of his life, the inexplicable disproportion between his deserts and his rewards, the tragedy of his soaring aspiration, the worse tragedy of his dumb questioning? Granting the existence of God, a house dedicated to Him naturally follows. He is all-important; it is fit that man should take some notice of Him. But why praise and flatter Him for His unspeakable cruelties? Why forget so supinely His failures to remedy the easily remediable? Why, indeed, devote the churches exclusively to worship? Why not give them over, now and then, to justifiable indignation meetings?

Perhaps men will incline to this idea later on. It is not inconceivable, indeed, that religion will one day cease to be a poltroonish acquiescence and become a vigorous and insistent criticism. If God can hear a petition, what ground is there for holding that He would not hear a complaint? It might, indeed, please Him to find His creatures grown so self-reliant and reflective. More, it might even help Him to get through His infinitely complex and difficult work. Theology has already moved toward such notions. It has abandoned the primitive doctrine of God’s arbitrariness and indifference, and substituted the doctrine that He is willing, and even eager, to hear the desires of His creatures—i. e., their private notions, born of experience, as to what would be best for them. Why assume that those notions would be any the less worth hearing and heeding if they were cast in the form of criticism, and even of denunciation? Why hold that the God who can understand and forgive even treason could not understand and forgive remonstrance?


XL

THE ROOT OF RELIGION

The idea of literal truth crept into religion relatively late: it is the invention of lawyers, priests and cheese-mongers. The idea of mystery long preceded it, and at the heart of that idea of mystery was an idea of beauty—that is, an idea that this or that view of the celestial and infernal process presented a satisfying picture of form, rhythm and organization. Once this view was adopted as satisfying, its professional interpreters and their dupes sought to reinforce it by declaring it true. The same flow of reasoning is familiar on lower planes. The average man does not get pleasure out of an idea because he thinks it is true; he thinks it is true because he gets pleasure out of it.


XLI

FREE WILL

Free will, it appears, is still a Christian dogma. Without it the cruelties of God would strain faith to the breaking-point. But outside the fold it is gradually falling into decay. Such men of science as George W. Crile and Jacques Loeb have dealt it staggering blows, and among laymen of inquiring mind it seems to be giving way to an apologetic sort of determinism—a determinism, one may say, tempered by defective observation. The late Mark Twain, in his secret heart, was such a determinist. In his “What Is Man?” you will find him at his farewells to libertarianism. The vast majority of our acts, he argues, are determined, but there remains a residuum of free choices. Here we stand free of compulsion and face a pair or more of alternatives, and are free to go this way or that.

A pillow for free will to fall upon—but one loaded with disconcerting brickbats. Where the occupants of this last trench of libertarianism err is in their assumption that the pulls of their antagonistic impulses are exactly equal—that the individual is absolutely free to choose which one he will yield to. Such freedom, in practise, is never encountered. When an individual confronts alternatives, it is not alone his volition that chooses between them, but also his environment, his inherited prejudices, his race, his color, his condition of servitude. I may kiss a girl or I may not kiss her, but surely it would be absurd to say that I am, in any true sense, a free agent in the matter. The world has even put my helplessness into a proverb. It says that my decision and act depend upon the time, the place—and even to some extent, upon the girl.

Examples might be multiplied ad infinitum. I can scarcely remember performing a wholly voluntary act. My whole life, as I look back upon it, seems to be a long series of inexplicable accidents, not only quite unavoidable, but even quite unintelligible. Its history is the history of the reactions of my personality to my environment, of my behavior before external stimuli. I have been no more responsible for that personality than I have been for that environment. To say that I can change the former by a voluntary effort is as ridiculous as to say that I can modify the curvature of the lenses of my eyes. I know, because I have often tried to change it, and always failed. Nevertheless, it has changed. I am not the same man I was in the last century. But the gratifying improvements so plainly visible are surely not to be credited to me. All of them came from without—or from unplumbable and uncontrollable depths within.

The more the matter is examined the more the residuum of free will shrinks and shrinks, until in the end it is almost impossible to find it. A great many men, of course, looking at themselves, see it as something very large; they slap their chests and call themselves free agents, and demand that God reward them for their virtue. But these fellows are simply idiotic egoists, devoid of a critical sense. They mistake the acts of God for their own acts. Of such sort are the coxcombs who boast about wooing and winning their wives. They are brothers to the fox who boasted that he had made the hounds run….

The throwing overboard of free will is commonly denounced on the ground that it subverts morality and makes of religion a mocking. Such pious objections, of course, are foreign to logic, but nevertheless it may be well to give a glance to this one. It is based upon the fallacious hypothesis that the determinist escapes, or hopes to escape, the consequences of his acts. Nothing could be more untrue. Consequences follow acts just as relentlessly if the latter be involuntary as if they be voluntary. If I rob a bank of my free choice or in response to some unfathomable inner necessity, it is all one; I will go to the same jail. Conscripts in war are killed just as often as volunteers. Men who are tracked down and shanghaied by their wives have just as hard a time of it as men who walk fatuously into the trap by formally proposing.

Even on the ghostly side, determinism does not do much damage to theology. It is no harder to believe that a man will be damned for his involuntary acts than it is to believe that he will be damned for his voluntary acts, for even the supposition that he is wholly free does not dispose of the massive fact that God made him as he is, and that God could have made him a saint if He had so desired. To deny this is to flout omnipotence—a crime at which, as I have often said, I balk. But here I begin to fear that I wade too far into the hot waters of the sacred sciences, and that I had better retire before I lose my hide. This prudent retirement is purely deterministic. I do not ascribe it to my own sagacity; I ascribe it wholly to that singular kindness which fate always shows me. If I were free I’d probably keep on, and then regret it afterward.


XLII

QUID EST VERITAS?

All great religions, in order to escape absurdity, have to admit a dilution of agnosticism. It is only the savage, whether of the African bush or the American gospel tent, who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely. “For who hath known the mind of the Lord?” asked Paul of the Romans. “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” “It is the glory of God,” said Solomon, “to conceal a thing.” “Clouds and darkness,” said David, “are around him.” “No man,” said the Preacher, “can find out the work of God.” … The difference between religions is a difference in their relative content of agnosticism. The most satisfying and ecstatic faith is almost purely agnostic. It trusts absolutely without professing to know at all.


XLIII

THE DOUBTER’S REWARD

Despite the common delusion to the contrary the philosophy of doubt is far more comforting than that of hope. The doubter escapes the worst penalty of the man of hope; he is never disappointed, and hence never indignant. The inexplicable and irremediable may interest him, but they do not enrage him, or, I may add, fool him. This immunity is worth all the dubious assurances ever foisted upon man. It is pragmatically impregnable…. Moreover, it makes for tolerance and sympathy. The doubter does not hate his opponents; he sympathizes with them. In the end, he may even come to sympathize with God…. The old idea of fatherhood here submerges in a new idea of brotherhood. God, too, is beset by limitations, difficulties, broken hopes. Is it disconcerting to think of Him thus? Well, is it any the less disconcerting to think of Him as able to ease and answer, and yet failing?…

But he that doubteth—damnatus est. At once the penalty of doubt—and its proof, excuse and genesis.


XLIV

BEFORE THE ALTAR

A salient objection to the prevailing religious ceremonial lies in the attitudes of abasement that it enforces upon the faithful. A man would be thought a slimy and knavish fellow if he approached any human judge or potentate in the manner provided for approaching the Lord God. It is an etiquette that involves loss of self-respect, and hence it cannot be pleasing to its object, for one cannot think of the Lord God as sacrificing decent feelings to mere vanity. This notion of abasement, like most of the other ideas that are general in the world, is obviously the invention of small and ignoble men. It is the pollution of theology by the sklavmoral.


XLV

THE MASK

Ritual is to religion what the music of an opera is to the libretto: ostensibly a means of interpretation, but actually a means of concealment. The Presbyterians made the mistake of keeping the doctrine of infant damnation in plain words. As enlightenment grew in the world, intelligence and prudery revolted against it, and so it had to be abandoned. Had it been set to music it would have survived—uncomprehended, unsuspected and unchallenged.


XLVI

PIA VENEZIANI, POI CRISTIANI

I have spoken of the possibility that God, too, may suffer from a finite intelligence, and so know the bitter sting of disappointment and defeat. Here I yielded something to politeness; the thing is not only possible, but obvious. Like man, God is deceived by appearances and probabilities; He makes calculations that do not work out; He falls into specious assumptions. For example, He assumed that Adam and Eve would obey the law in the Garden. Again, He assumed that the appalling lesson of the Flood would make men better. Yet again, He assumed that men would always put religion in first place among their concerns—that it would be eternally possible to reach and influence them through it. This last assumption was the most erroneous of them all. The truth is that the generality of men have long since ceased to take religion seriously. When we encounter one who still does so, he seems eccentric, almost feeble-minded—or, more commonly, a rogue who has been deluded by his own hypocrisy. Even men who are professionally religious, and who thus have far more incentive to stick to religion than the rest of us, nearly always throw it overboard at the first serious temptation. During the past four years, for example, Christianity has been in combat with patriotism all over Christendom. Which has prevailed? How many gentlemen of God, having to choose between Christ and Patrie, have actually chosen Christ?


XLVII

OFF AGAIN, ON AGAIN

The ostensible object of the Reformation, which lately reached its fourth centenary, was to purge the Church of imbecilities. That object was accomplished; the Church shook them off. But imbecilities make an irresistible appeal to man; he inevitably tries to preserve them by cloaking them with religious sanctions. The result is Protestantism.


XLVIII

THEOLOGY

The notion that theology is a dull subject is one of the strangest delusions of a stupid and uncritical age. The truth is that some of the most engrossing books ever written in the world are full of it. For example, the Gospel according to St. Luke. For example, Nietzsche’s “Der Antichrist.” For example, Mark Twain’s “What Is Man?”, St. Augustine’s Confessions, Haeckel’s “The Riddle of the Universe,” and Huxley’s Essays. How, indeed, could a thing be dull that has sent hundreds of thousands of men—the very best and the very worst of the race—to the gallows and the stake, and made and broken dynasties, and inspired the greatest of human hopes and enterprises, and embroiled whole continents in war? No, theology is not a soporific. The reason it so often seems so is that its public exposition has chiefly fallen, in these later days, into the hands of a sect of intellectual castrati, who begin by mistaking it for a sub-department of etiquette, and then proceed to anoint it with butter, rose water and talcum powder. Whenever a first-rate intellect tackles it, as in the case of Huxley, or in that of Leo XIII., it at once takes on all the sinister fascination it had in Luther’s day.


XLIX

EXEMPLI GRATIA

Do I let the poor suffer, and consign them, as old Friedrich used to say, to statistics and the devil? Well, so does God.

HL Mencken on Christianity and Agnosticism

From The New Mencken Letters

“I realize what life must have been in Judea 1925 years ago. No wonder the Romans finally bumped off the son of Joseph. After an hour on the main street, listening to the bawling, I feel like loading a cannon with the rejecta of the adjacent hogs (Sus scrofa) and letting fly. The thing is genuinely fabulous.
I have stored up enough material to last me 20 years.”
-From a letter regarding the Scopes Trail

“So long as there are men in the world, 99 percent of them will be idiots, and so long as 99 percent of them are idiots they will thirst for religion, and so long as they thirst for religion it will remain a weapon over them. I see no way out. If you blow up one specific faith, they will embrace another. And if, by any magic, you purge them of pious credulity altogether, they will simpl[y] swallow worse nonsense in some other department.
This fact constantly forces itself upon me when I read the usual anti‑clerical literature say in Socialist tracts or in such papers as the Truth-Seeker What always emerges is this: that the stupid man, even after he has been convinced that Jonah did not actually swallow the whale, still remains a dunder‑head. Today he is on his knees; tomorrow, emancipated, he snorts with the Boisheviki. Turn to Italy. Anti-clericalism is the fashion—-but the country swarms with quacks. The mob-man must believe something, and it must be something indubitably not true. The one thing he can’t get down is a fact.
For these reasons, it seems to me a waste of time to attack the dominies.
I used to do it for the fun of it, but never seriously. In truth, I can never take religion seriously enough to get in a sweat about it. It simply doesn’t interest me. Ail I ask is to be let alone. If, as seems likely, the present mania for passing Christian legislation goes to such lengths that life in the United States becomes insupportable, I shall move out. But meanwhile what goes on in churches intrigues me no more than what goes on in lodge-rooms of the Knights of Pythias. I know no one who is religious, and hence am not privately bothered.I often read religious books, but only as a relaxation.”
-From a letter to Upton Sinclair

“The God business is really quite simple. No sane man denies that the universe presents phenomena quite beyond human understanding, and so it is a fair assumption that they are directed by some understanding that is superhuman. But that is as far as sound thought can go. All religions pretend to go further. That is, they pretend to explain the unknowable. As I said long ago, they do it in terms of the not worth knowing. La Eddy first borrows the old Jewish God and then offers to tell us exactly what He wants. Illness, it appears, is distasteful to him. He is surprised, and a bit horrified, to observe a Presbyterian doubled up with cramps. He intended no such thing; it is all due to the Presbyterian’s folly. All this, in brief, is buncombe. Anyone who pretends to say what God wants or doesn’t want, and what the whole show is about, is simply an ass.
Eddy’s guess is not even probable. She goes against the plain evidence. That is all there is to it.
In other words, the objection to religion is that it represents an effort by ignorance to account for a mystery that knowledge simply puts aside as intrinsically impenetrable. The more ignorant the man, the more firm his faith. All genuine knowledge is skeptical.”
-From a letter to Marion Bloom

“I seem to have been born a complete theological moron. I have a wide acquaintance among the clergy of all denominations and frequently discuss divinity with them, but so far I have felt no impulse whatsoever to accept their teaching. My father and grandfather were skeptics before me and that fact probably explains my general attitude. I never think of asking supernatural aid in time of trouble, and I am thoroughly convinced that there is no survival of human personality after death. Some time ago a bishop of my acquaintance asked me what I’d do if on dying I found myself at the pearly gates. I told him that I’d seek out the Twelve Apostles at once and say, “I apologize most profoundly”. This, I fear, is the best I can offer.”
- Letter to reader of an article publishedin the New Yorker, 1939

April 16, 1938.
Dear Mr. Rhode:-
I can hardly qualify as an atheist; I had better be described as an agnostic. Your first proposition seems to me to be dubious in its premiss. There is no visible reason for saying that the human mind can comprehend only the products of other minds. Its area of comprehension is, of course, very narrow, but if it encountered a phenomenon disassociated from any other mind it might conceivably comprehend it. Your second proposition is equally dubious. I can imagine a chain of causation going back into infinity, and thus having no beginning in an uncaused effect. Your third proposition may be either true or not true,but if you proceed to the corollary that you know what the purpose of the universe is, you are upon very shaky ground. Your last proposition I deny flatly.
I know hundreds of men who are quite devoid of what you call the desire to worship. You must know plenty yourself.
My view of the anthropomorphic God described in the Bible is set forth at some length in two books, “Treatise on the Gods” and “Treatise on Right and Wrong.” I should add, perhaps, that neither book denounces any of the prevailing religions, or has any propagandist purpose. I have no desire to convert anyone to my own ideas, and in fact greatly dislike all converts. The one proposition which, in my estimation, is sufficient[ly] self-evident to be fought for is that religious speculation should be completely free, and that any effort to limit it is anti-social and immoral.”
- On April 11 Rhode had written Mencken from 608 Orpington Road, Baltimore, that his Sunday School class was discussing the proofs for the existence of God. Would Mencken as an atheist kindly dispute these propositions: 1) That the human mind can comprehend only the products of the divine mind; 2) That the uncaused cause of everything is God; 3) That our world has a purpose; and 4) That God must exist because we desire to worship Him.