The Lost Art of Satire and Why We Need Another H.L. Mencken

By Kevin Wilson  

Satire is hard.

I’ve done a lot of writing in my life, covering everything from foul-mouthed rants on the state of politics in America to Star Wars text-based RP. I’ve written articles that have been read by thousands of people, and stories that no one else will ever see. Over the past decade I’ve put upwards of a million words on the screen in one form or another, but I still can’t write satire for shit.

It’s genuinely difficult to do it right. So difficult, in fact, that nearly no one does. Sure, sites like The Onion and Duffelblog and our own Article 107 do a pretty decent job by today’s standards, but none of it really lives up to the greats. It’s all topical and funny, but in my estimation, the best satire has an element of subtlety that you just don’t see anymore. Modern satirists want you to know up front that you are, in fact, reading satire. They try to be deliberately ridiculous, to the point that you have to be a special kind of stupid not to recognize it for what it is.

The greats of the art, and satire is an art, make no mistake, are clever and witty, but they deliver it with an earnestness that makes it hard to tell whether or not they’re pulling your leg.

Perhaps the best modern example is H.L. Mencken, one of the few undisputed masters of the art. Known as the Sage of Baltimore, Mencken was a popular writer, critic, essayist, and satirist who rose to prominence in the first half of the 20th century. He had a lot to say on just about everything, and his caustic wit poked holes in more than a few egos along the way. A collection of choice excerpts from his writing were compiled in A Mencken Chrestomathy, and it’s a fantastic read.

The problem is, it’s hard to pick out the satire at times, because his style isn’t any noticeably different when he delves into satirical writing. He tackles everything with a sort of maliciously gleeful abandon that’s an absolute joy to behold, and he absolutely refuses to pander to the less intelligent readers by giving the usual wink and nod we’ve come to expect from modern satire.

On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself nodding in agreement to some particularly clever passage, all the while wondering whether or not his ghost is having a quiet laugh at my expense.

Take, for instance, his essay The Criminal Law. First published in 1922, it deftly tackles the inadequacy of criminal justice in America. The chief problem, he says, is that it’s become nearly impossible for the judge to make the punishment suit the crime. In most cases, the judge is left to decide between depriving the convicted of money in the form of fines, or their freedom. The fine is often too gentle to be of any real consequence, and prison to harsh a sentence for minor offenses.

Mencken argues that this is a Hobson’s choice that makes a mockery of the very idea of justice. Medieval judges, he reckons, had it much better in this regard. They were free to custom tailor a punishment to the exact nature and severity of the crime.

“For the habitual thief, branding of the forehead with a large and warning T. For the short-weight grocer, three hours in the pillory, that his victims might pay him up with his own eggs and mark him well for future avoidance.”

Now, this is the part where I can’t help but wonder if he’s laughing at me from beyond the grave, because his reasoning here makes sense. Prison is a pretty terrible way to punish someone. At best, it takes the criminal off the streets for a time, but when they return, the chances they’ll have turned a new leaf are nonexistent. It does nothing to reform the habitual criminal, and if anything, a stint in prison will just encourage them to try harder the next go round.

But what if we empowered our judges to more carefully suit the punishment to the crime? I’m not suggesting we go as far as to mutilate through branding, or, as he suggests later on in the piece, marooning criminals on islands in the South Seas or sending them to Arkansas to butcher the politicians and clergy, thus bringing civilization to the both of them, but the idea makes sense. (It was that last bit that made me suspect the essay was at least partially satirical in nature, by the way. But then again, he fairly despised the Baptist and Methodist firebrands that held sway over the South at the time, so it’s kinda hard to say.)

Maybe that’s what Mencken was getting at here. Or maybe he was poking fun at the hard cases who insisted that judges were too soft on criminals at the time. Either way, you actually have to consider what he’s saying, or else run the risk of looking like a jackass.

That’s the power of a master satirist. It’s not enough to simply read what they’re saying and take what criticisms they have to offer at face value. They make you sit down and consider the issue from all angles. Maybe you agree with what they’re saying, or maybe you don’t, but one thing’s for sure: the comments sections on news sites wouldn’t be the flaming dumpster fires they are today if people had to worry about the authors trolling them as gleefully as Mencken trolled his audience back in the day.





Kevin Wilson is an artilleryman in the North Carolina National Guard. His hobbies include reading, writing, and looking down on Star Trek fans. He also enjoys whiskey and long walks on the beach, so long as they don't actually involve long walks or beaches. You can follow him on Twitter @gatling216 but we really wouldn't advise it.

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