The Free Lance

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/May 8, 1911

Those busy persons who devote themselves just now to an effort to “resuscitate” and “rescue” Baltimore with fog horn and megaphone must be given credit for honest intentions, but the unemotional observer cannot put down the thought that their striving, in the long run, will do more harm than good. The net result of their campaign, so far, has been the spread of the absurd notion that Baltimore is as dead as Ur and Sirpula—a city that was but is no more—a sort of sarcophagus of enterprise and mausoleum of commerce. In this notion, it is needless to point out, there is no truth whatever. Baltimore still offers plenty of opportunities to the man of enterprise. When an Epstein sets up shop here he makes just as much money as he could make in Portland, Seattle or any other of those strident western towns. When an Emerson cuts loose he gets rich. When a Hochshild and a Kahn start a new store they go ahead quickly and surely—despite the fact that the city is old and has plenty of stores already.

That Baltimore is not growing as fast as some of the western towns is true enough, but the causes therefore must be plain to any sane man. Cities of Baltimore’s age and situation are past their boom days. A city bulges until it fits its niche—and then it stops bulging until that niche grows larger. The future progress of Baltimore depends upon the future progress of the territory it serves. If that territory increases greatly in population then Baltimore will increase greatly in population, but if that territory does not then Baltimore will not.

The western towns are in the midst of a new country—a country into which settlers are pouring. It is not oratory that makes them grow, but the inevitable operation of the laws of nature. In a contest between two or more such towns, of course, oratory may have some effect. The newcomer, groping blindly, will head for the reddest red lights and the loudest bawling. But here there is small chance for such methods to be effective. A display of fireworks may attract an occasional man, but it will not attract a regiment of men, for there is no regiment of men in our vicinity with eyes astrain for such signs. The chariot of empire still heads westward. Our booms belong to the past; today we must be content to grow.

But is Baltimore growing normally? Is the city getting its due share of trade and new population from the territory it reaches? Can anything be done to increase that share? And if so, what? Let us look into that matter on some other day.

New examples of the American language:

• Money earned that way won’t never do nobody no good.
• I was away at the time, which is the reason I hadn’t knew of it.
• There ain’t many men that would give their wife as much money without askin’ where it had went.
• Excuse me; I thought you was a party I knowed.

Once more does the brave Eugene O’Dunne heave a brick at the newspapers. They print, says Eugene, many things that are not true. Alas, the point is well made! Worse still (and of this the valiant tyrannicide says nothing), they fail to print many things that are true.

Going through such a book as Frank R. Kent’s “The Story of Maryland Politics,” one encounters scores of good stories, and, what is more, scores of extremely important stories, that now first get into print after five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five years. When those stories were fresh, when the heat of current drama was in them, the Baltimore newspapers passed them by. If they had been printed then, how they would have stirred up the animals! Even today more than one of them makes better reading than any political tale in the day’s news.

A year or so ago the newspapers of the United States, for all their theoretical alertness, missed one of the best stories of half a century. I refer to the story of Dr. Ehrlich’s invention of salvaran. Here were the most important tidings imaginable: an announcement of enormous interest to every intelligent human being in the world, a piece of news far more important, in its ultimate bearings, than that of Lincoln’s assassination—and yet the Associated Press, the United Press and all the other American news agencies neglected it, and not more than a dozen newspapers so much as mentioned it. The only American paper, indeed, that gave it space commensurate with its importance was the New York Times. In London, theTimes of that city devoted columns to it. In Chicago, Boston, Washington and Baltimore it got, at best, a few lines.

Poor old Diaz seems to be down and out. The common people of Mexico heave him into the hell-box. Hereafter they will run their arid republic to suit themselves. The honest views and yearnings of every Mexican citizen, however numerous his fleas, will be recorded, heeded, embalmed in legislation.

God help Mexico!

The Hood statue, at Liberty and Baltimore streets, wrapped, like some gigantic ham, in hideous canvas, awaits the light touch of the unveiler, the roaring eloquence of the dedicator. And meanwhile certain industrious gentlemen erect behind it a huge pyramid of bricks, sand, barrels of cement, wheelbarrows, old boards, kegs of nails, window frames, picks and shovels. McLane Place, ever since the fire, has been a favorite area for such architectural debauches. And the so called Courthouse Plaza is its rival.

Here is a sample of No. 2 hardwood Scandinavian journalism. The author is George Brandes, the distinguished Danish critic, and the man he is writing against is J. Worm-Muller, a well known journalist of Norway. Worm-Muller, it appears, lately attacked Brandes in the Norwegian papers. The great critic’s answer follows:

“Why does Mr. Worm Muller lie so damnably?

“It does not improve his case that this is the second time within a year that he has lied about me and slandered me. I hope he is not setting up shop as a professional!

“Why does he try to spoil nature’s good intentions? No one expects to find in him his mother’s genius or her heart. Nature evidently felt herself unable to make anything big or fine of him. But it was obviously intended that, for all his insignificance, he should develop into a decent man and an honorable citizen—and not into the Norwegian national liar. He has been a patriotic howler for a long while and very solicitous about the honor of Norway. Now let him be a bit solicitous about his own—and, just for a change, try to be a gentleman. It will come hard, but he should try it all the same.”

Could Colonel Watterson or Gen. Josephus Daniels beat that? Has Arkansas anything more startling to offer?

The newspaper men who covered the Peace Conference last week seem to have come away without much enthusiasm for peace in their hearts.

“The speeches,” said one of them this morning, “were far above the average of public spell-binding and one of the speakers, a little Jap, came near giving a bang up show. But some of the duffers in the audiences!! Believe me, I never saw another such tournament of whiskers. The same ancients who wag their heads at Lake Mohonk, who sign petitions against compulsory vaccination, who address Sunday schools on the drink evil, who subscribe to the Independent and the Atlantic Monthly—there they were. Why should such folk protest against war? How could the bloodless shed blood?”

Which reminds me of a saying current among journalists. It is this: No reporter ever covered a preachers’ conference and remained a Christian.

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.