April 5: On this day in 1926, H. L. Mencken was arrested by the Boston vice squad, charged with the possession and sale of indecent literature. The literature in question was the April, 1926 issue of Mencken’s American Mercury magazine, found offensive for “Hatrack,” a short story by Herbert Asbury. “Hatrack” is the nickname of a skinny but welcoming small-town prostitute, one whose attempts to reform have been rebuffed by the upright members of her community. This causes Hatrack to fall back to her old but not insensitive ways: servicing her churchgoing clients according to denomination, the Catholics escorted to the Protestant cemetery, the Protestants to the Catholic. The punch line of Asbury’s story compounded hypocrisy with miserliness: when one gentleman tenders Hatrack a dollar, she responds, “You know damned well I haven’t got any change.”
Reverend Chase and the New England Watch and Ward Society were not amused. When he had all issues of the Mercury pulled from the Boston newsstands, and promised trouble to any would-be vendors, the game was on. “I am against any further parlay with these sons of bitches,” wrote Mencken to publisher Alfred Knopf. “Let us tackle them as soon as possible.”
The showdown was an orchestrated affair. Chase and his seconds made themselves available at the appointed hour on Brimstone Corner of Boston Common; before police and press, Mencken offered the purchase of his magazine; Chase tendered his half-dollar, and Mencken was hauled off to the station (though not before biting his coin for the crowd, as Hatrack might have done). The next day the court ruled in Mencken’s favor, thus giving him victory, as much publicity as he had the year before with his reports from the Scopes trial, and yet another application of Mencken’s Law: “Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of improving or saving X, A is a scoundrel.”
Mencken would later become a star witness at the Esquire vs. Walker obscenity trial, at which the magazine was charged with publishing lewd photos and cartoons. Being the author of the highly respected The American Language, Mencken was brought in to argue that words such as “behind,” “backside,” and “fanny” were acceptable parlance. Willing to do almost anything to defeat Puritanism — “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy” — Mencken refused to accept even carfare for his court appearance, later saying that he had enjoyed himself so much that he would have paid to get in.
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.