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No. 874:
Mencken and Tech. Change

Today, an aging curmudgeon utters a parable about technological change. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've just been lent an old tape of an H.L. Mencken interview. It was 1948, and Mencken was 68. By then he'd been the bad-boy critic of American style during most of the 20th century. Mencken was a brilliant iconoclast who knew language and who wielded it like a surgical laser.

When he wasn't pushing pins in all the favorite idols of American life, he wrote about the American language itself. He did literary criticism, drama criticism, even music criticism.

He wrote six volumes of essays and critiques and titled them Prejudices. He sneered at 19th-century nationalism. He called Americans "the most sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag."

He worked at many things during his life, but he embraced one vocation. Asked what he was, he'd always say, "I'm a newspaperman." My own father, also a newsman, held Mencken very high.

So, the interview kept returning to the theme of newspapers. Finally the interviewer asked a question that doesn't occur to us today. "What do you think of the way newspapers are getting into the new medium of television?"

Mencken quotes Gresham's law, "Bad money drives out the good." A fine restaurant goes downhill when it tries to compete with the lucrative hot-dog stand across the street.

Newspapers, he says, do what they do very well. TV is a new technology, utterly different from newspapers. It won't replace them. Instead, it will go off in new directions. If news people let themselves be suckered into TV, they'll surely lose the ability to put out good newspapers.

Mencken's disdains often led him astray, but not here. Forty-five years ago, we thought TV would replace the papers. Of course it never did. Newspapers may no longer fit into our lives the same way they did in 1948. TV has certainly captured some of their old functions. But there's too much it cannot replace. The papers let you sift the details and reread what you missed. They let you work a crossword puzzle.

Now books seem threatened by the new electronic communications technologies, and the story repeats itself. The big publishers are trying to enter electronic media. You can bet they'll be first to lose sight of functions that are unique to books.

That edgy old iconoclast Mencken understood something about technology. Change leaves many of our machines to be forgotten. But the technologies that fit us best simply adjust to an altered world. Your grandchildren will still use things like pencils, beds, and violins. They'll still read books and newspapers.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

H.L. Mencken Speaking, Caedmon SWC 1082, 1957, an imprint of Harper Audio. (I am indebted to Roy Demme for lending me this old and off-beat tape.)

See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica listing for H.L. Mencken.