The Sage of Baltimore Eulogizes German Bock

Author and journalist, Henry L. Mencken (1880-1956) is of interest to many on account of his scintillating style, one never equalled since. It’s of cinematic scale, an unlikely combination of stately Victorian and American razzmatazz. Another way to put it: Dickens meets the Jazz Age.

Mencken was Baltimore-born and raised, and was considered a star at Baltimore’s The Sun for the first third of the 1900s. He also had a noted career in New York as literary critic, especially his work on the The Smart Set and The American Mercury.

Mencken’s social and political ideas are, deservedly, much less remembered, or if they are, it is frequently with derision. He was an inconsistent thinker, one of those who claim to see no difference between the factions and despise them all even though in civilizational contests, things are never that simple. (Plus ça change…).

Probably due to his German-American roots, he opposed American entry in WW I. He deprecated the “Anglomaniacs” who wanted to help Britain – America’s cultural taproot – exit the morass of 1917. This was seen as rooting for the Kaiser. He repeated this obstinacy, digging himself in deeper, for WW II. This ensured permanent exile to the political wilds, and his undoing as a pundit.

In 1938, he wrote a case for Japan’s hegemony in the far east. He said virtually nothing about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, which broke relations with many Americans, Jewish and other, he had worked or socialized with in the inter-war years. The publisher Knopf stood by him, but on rather flimsy grounds from what I can see.

Mencken claimed to be the ultimate libertarian but the limits of that philosophy were tested by forces he never really understood. At all events, pressroom cynicism and c. 1900 social Darwinism worked (maybe) on the American stage in the William James and Taft era: it didn’t suit the lethal fascisms of 1914-1945. But he couldn’t muster the intellect or will to rise to the new challenge.

Still, his literary talent endures; that no one can question.

Mencken was a fervent opponent of National Prohibition, and wrote frequently on beverage alcohol. He was an avid homebrewer, for example, through Volstead. But even in beeriana his inconsistency shows. In a late 1940s radio interview you can hear on youtube, when asked about his reputation as a beerman, he downplays it, saying he favoured the “wine of the country” and if it was beer he drank that.

The extract below, from Europe After 8:15 (1914), authored by Mencken with two others, shows rather a different picture. So do other writings of Mencken on the topic of the malt.

The Technicolor description of the bock beer experience, indeed the chapter it is part of, are some of the best things in Menckeniana (when you know Mencken well, it is obvious he wrote the Munich section alone). The chapter should be read in full by connoisseurs of bibulous social history, since it consists in good part of a romp through the city’s beer halls and gardens; meanwhile, savour the taste note on Munich bock. Its grandeur may stand alone in the annals of beer appreciation.

N.B. Not surprisingly, Michael Jackson was a fan of Mencken’s talent with language. One time I browsed a Cincinnati bookstore with him, spotted a vintage volume of Mencken’s The American Language, and made a gift of it to Michael on the spot. It was followed by a dinner in a German-American restaurant. Cincinnati after 8:15, you might say.



Note re images: The first image is available on numerous Internet pages and is believed in the public domain. The second three, from the book mentioned, was sourced via HathiTrust, here.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belong solely to their lawful owners or authorized users. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Good Times Down on the Mississippi

…from overseas to the U.S.A., 

New York, Los Angeles, oh how I yearned for you, 

Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Ba-ton Rouge!

– Back In The U.S.A., Chuck Berry

If I’ve shown nothing else these last few days, it’s that the U.S. cocktail has English roots. Not so tenacious they were, as by the mid-1800s even the English thought the compounded drink was American, but whiskey studies have shown in recent years the English were at the bottom of gin cocktail and all the other kinds. It’s yet another of the world’s ethanolic compounds for which they are responsible directly or indirectly.

It shouldn’t be a surprise: America was founded by the British, certainly as a polity, errant as it was, but to a great degree socially and culturally as well. From laws to language, foodways to literature, the Anglo-Saxon influence is deep and enduring. To be sure, it is not the only influence. The country is famously a melding of many peoples and cultures, but to ignore the dominating influence that was Albion’s is bootless (that’s bootless, not bootlegging).

One of the parts of the country which demonstrated different influences is Louisiana. The Spanish and French were there, of course native Americans and African-Americans. It all shows in the food, architecture, mores, music.

West Baton Rouge (now Port Allen) in 1860 was still partly French but, as New Orleans 70 miles to the southeast, increasingly under Anglo-Saxon influence. The Civil War was starting, and Louisiana made fateful choices which marked its destiny in part to this day.

But our purpose here is to show the side that was, let the good times roll. The side that was, and not so to speak, laissez faire. You see it below in an extract from the Sugar Planter of February 11, 1860, a newspaper in West Baton Rouge. The first part reprises the meme of cocktail “cocking your tail”. We’ve seen it in England, Australia, now America. Whether at the bottom of the cocktail mystery or not, it is noteworthy that it pops up in old Louisiane.

A NEW BEVERAGE. – Simon, whose “shingle” is a Rainbow on high to the thirsty, has been presented with a recipe by a distinguished politician of the State for the making of a beverage which surpasses all other concoctions yet invented. Call and try one, be sure and ask for one of the new drinks, the Otherwise Cocktails! – if it don’t cock your tail, or otherwise, we are greatly mistaken.

BRANDY AND WATER by Degrees. – Brandy and water. Branwater. Bramwater. Bramwarra. Bramwar. Bremwar. Bamwr-wrr-wr. Berr-eughph! – Sugar Planter.

We’ve seen our contemporary in all the degrees – not excepting the last. His description is vivid. – Advocate.

It affords us much pleasure to meet the approbation of our worthy tutor, whose lessons it has ever been our pride to commit faithfully to memory, and to practice.

The Otherwise Cocktails – a good example of Stateside drollery, and not a little marketing savvy. Americans were always the best marketers.

The part on brandy is worthy of a Foster Brooks routine.

It’s laughs a minute, vous le savez, cause we’re down south in old French and Spanish country. The Protestant reserve that was always the un-boon companion to the alcohol tolerance had less scope there. In much of the country, certainly by 1860, a newspaper wouldn’t dare celebrate the joys of cocktails or have a laugh on the cloth-tongue that accompanies too much liquor. In Louisiana, the attitude was, vous ferez mieux de vous calmer.

It was le calme avant la tempête, in more ways than one…