Bowing to H. L. Mencken

February 3: Onthis day in 1931, the Arkansas state legislature stood to pray for the soul ofH. L. Mencken. One of Mencken’s Laws was “Nature abhors a moron,” andone of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being especially ruledby the “booboisie.” Upon finding itself elevated to “the apex ofmoronia,” Arkansas had complained, to which atheist Mencken responded,”I didn’t make Arkansas the buttof ridicule—God did.” Trying a different tactic, the Arkansas legislaturetried their group prayer, to predictable effect: “I felt a great uplift,shooting sensations in my nerves and the sound of many things in my ears,”Mencken confirmed to the press, “and I knew the House of Representativesof Arkansas was praying for me again.” 

Mencken’s single most famous and influential assault on theSouth was the 1920 essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart” (i.e. beauxart). Upon his earlier claim that the once vibrant and civilized South was”culturally, about as dead as the Yucatan,” Mencken’s new essaykicked so much sand that the South was now “almost as sterile,artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.” AsMencken’s preference for blondes over brunettes inspired Anita Loos to writeher 1925 bestseller, Gentlemen PreferBlondes, so Mencken’s essay inspired Loos to have her Dumb Blonde come fromArkansas:

The name of my heroine Lorelei Lee was invented although herbirthplace was not and Mencken himself had a hand in that. For I wanted Loreleito be symbol of our nation’s lowest possible mentality and remembered Mencken’sessay on American culture in which he branded the state of Arkansas as”the Sahara of the Bozarts.” I therefore chose Little Rock forLorelei’s early years; Little Rock, which even today lives up to Mencken’schoice as a nadir in shortsighted human stupidity.

Although Lorelei was “just a little girl from LittleRock when I first left Little Rock,” she “came from a very very goodfamily because papa was very intelectual, and he was a very very prominent Elk,and everybody always said that he was a very intelectual Elk.” With an Elkof this ilk in her genes, she learns all about Gentlemen, and how to turn hersand to the diamonds that are a girl’s best friend.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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