April 18, 2004June 4, 2004Meeting Report

May 23, 2004

Esther Franklin and Pete Holmquist
The Poet or the Journalist:
Who has had the Lasting Influence?

American literary figures Walt Whitman and H. L. Mencken are not normally connected with each other.

Pete Holmquist started with his talk on Walt Whitman, assisted by his daughter.

He started with the question: "Which is more influential, the poet or the journalist?" He didn't directly answer, but suggested that poets answer the "Why" question while journalists usually concentrate on the "Who, What, When, Where and How." The poet can serve as a conscience-driven individual for the benefit of society. He said that only the individual has a conscience; society does not. He then played a recording about Whitman's life, which mentioned a major change in Whitman's outlook that took place after a year in slave-holding New Orleans in 1848. That experience perhaps changed him from an ordinary journalist into the author of Leaves of Grass.

Esther Franklin continued with a talk on H. L. Mencken. She mentioned that both Whitman and Mencken were self-educated journalists. Mencken was the leading American journalist in the 1910s and 1920s. Gore Vidal, who should know, said, "Mencken was the most influential journalist of his day. He was also the wittiest." He was a great but highly critical book reviewer and edited Smart Set and The American Mercury. He discovered and fostered the careers of many prominent writers, even ones with whom he disagreed politically. He was an atheist and, by present day standards, a libertarian conservative. He wrote many caustic opinion pieces that would not today be considered politically correct. They were not in his day either, especially during World War I, when he began work on The American Language, to direct his energies towards something that was not seditious. He regularly attacked in print those he considered to be ignorant, superstitious or do-gooders, especially those with political power, such as Franklin Roosevelt. He had no use for prohibitionists or fundamentalists. To him fundamentalism was "the pervasive fear that someone somewhere is having a good time." A stroke in 1948 ended his career and he died in 1956. 

Report prepared by Wayne Luney, HAGSA Recorder


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April 18, 2004 2004 Meetings June 4, 2004