the uneasy fear of ideas
November 7, 2010, 7:17 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,

Even in the new world, things get old in a hurry.  And it makes sense that in the American north east, where the Puritans and Quakers and Dutch first established themselves, and where new treaties and governments and constitutions were established first, and native peoples beat back, the body politic began its atrophy.

H. L. Mencken was a Baltimore writer and social critic.  In this excerpt from his essay, The Scene Almost Staggers, he takes down the eastern seaboard cities, that densely populated string of urbanity from which the great western expansion sprung.  Class esteem, self actualization and fear are the hallmarks of the east coast society that only a few generations earlier had escaped similar social strictures and clambered onto boats to make the trans Atlantic journey to a new kind of elusive freedom.

I left a midwestern city ten years ago, its twins and lawns and new uncomfortable towers, drawn by the lights and density of the American north east.  A girl I knew back then said, curiously, LA was the city to go to now, because of its start up verve, sun, sense of possibility.  Her words rankled; and I went east easily trading the new car city for the potential urbanity of the older east.  But the streets, wonderfully formed, were for the most part empty, and still are.  The cities are there, but the money and the ideas and the people are in the suburbs.

Mencken pulls no punches describing his own home town from the vantage of San Francisco.  If a city is as much its people as it’s building, spaces and forms, then what’s the advantage of beauty and urbanity if occupied by thugs and savants?

From Mencken’s essay:

The East, it seems to me, is gone, and perhaps for good. All the towns along the seaboard are now as alike as so many soldiers in a row. They think alike. They hope and fear alike. They smell alike. They begin to look alike. What one says all the others say. What one does all the others do. It is as if some gigantic and relentless force labored to crush all personality, all distinction, all tang and savor out of them. They sink to the spiritual and intellectual level of villages—fat, lethargic, and degraded. Their aspirations are the aspirations of curb brokers, greengrocers, and honorary pallbearers. The living hope of their typical citizen is to die respected by bank cashiers, Young Men’s Christian Association secretaries, and policemen. They are ironed out, disemboweled, denatured, dephlogisticated, salted down, boiled, baked, dried in a kiln.

Think of Washington: a hundred thousand miserable botches of ninth-rate clerks, all groveling at the feet of such puerile caricatures as Daniels, Burleson, and Palmer. Baltimore: mile after mile of identical houses, all inhabited by persons who regard Douglas Fairbanks as a greater man than Beethoven. (What zoologist, without a blood count and a lumbar puncture, could distinguish one Baltimorean from another?) Philadelphia: an intellectual and cultural slum. Newark: a worse one. New York: a wholesale district with an annex for entertaining the visiting trade. New Haven and Hartford: blanks. Boston: a potter’s field, a dissecting room. Mental decay in all its forms, but one symptom there is in common: the uneasy fear of ideas, the hot yearning to be correct at all costs, the thirst to be well esteemed by cads.

-H. L. Mencken, The Scene Almost Staggers, 1920, San Francisco