Esther Franklin and
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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