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Posts Tagged ‘H.L. Mencken’

Letters of Note

August 13, 2015 | by


Thomas Rowlandson, A Book Auction, 1810-15.

In his late twenties, my father was a habitué of the Charles Hamilton Autograph Auctions at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, where he would snap up anything that went unsold at the end of the day; in this way he earned the nickname The Vulture. Charles Hamilton himself was a noted signatures expert who had given testimony in a number of prominent forgery cases. His auctions were known for their quality and their miscellany, and for the personality of their proprietor. ‘‘Unless you have a soul made of solid lead,’’ he purportedly said, ‘‘your pulse quickens and your eyes brighten when you look upon something that a great man actually held and into which he put his personal thoughts.’’

My father, due to his own somewhat indiscriminate buying practices, ended up with a somewhat unfocused collection of bargains. He had some good pieces of ephemera—two tickets to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, a dinner invitation from Thomas Jefferson—but he also had a single strand of John Keats’s hair. And then there were the ones that got away. There was that time Hamilton auctioned off Harry Truman’s World War I diaries, and the asking price was a bit high, and no one was allowed to inspect them before bidding, “and they might have been incredibly boring,” but still … Read More »

There’s a Convention for Everyone, and Other News

January 26, 2015 | by


H.H. Backer’s Total Pet Expo. Photo: Yvette Marie Dostatni, via Slate

  • On the rise of the medical humanities: Can poetry’s therapeutic effects earn it a place on the doctor’s bookshelf? “Poetry can tell us about human experience, but it does this in its own language and not the more straightforward language of prose. It works by suggestion, but this doesn’t mean that it cannot console, teach, amuse, enlighten, mimic, disconcert and so much more. It can capture—or cause us to reconstruct—experiences and feelings that we might otherwise not be conscious of … Poetry’s use of language is at the furthest extreme from the self-help book, which is often dogmatic, insistent, reductive, bullying even.”
  • How to cheer yourself up when you’re feeling misunderstood: read scathing early reviews of canonical novels, such as this one, by H. L. Mencken, for a certain 1925 classic: “Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that … This story is obviously unimportant … What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people.”
  • Yvette Marie Dostatni’s new series of photographs documents the rise of the convention in America: the obsessive subcultures, the hotel conference rooms, the sprawling trade shows. “That's just the culture of the United States: People are looking for places they can fit in for two to three days, a pass to get out of their daily lives. They’re looking for people who are like them.”
  • Is there any hope of preserving or archiving the Internet? “The Web dwells in a never-ending present. It is—elementally—ethereal, ephemeral, unstable, and unreliable … In providing evidence, legal scholars, lawyers, and judges often cite Web pages in their footnotes … but a 2013 survey of law- and policy-related publications found that, at the end of six years, nearly fifty per cent of the URLs cited in those publications no longer worked.”
  • Among a certain kind of “creative” Silicon Valley set, the word maker has taken on a grating ubiquity—you’re not truly innovating if you’re not making something. Does this mean that, say, teaching is not a fundamentally creative pursuit? “I am not a maker. In a framing and value system is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year … To characterize what I do as ‘making’ is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I ‘make’ other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.”


The Art of Friendship

November 20, 2012 | by

Philia, the root of Philadelphia, roughly translates to “friendship” in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, an enduring source for understanding the ethics of friendship. Aristotle identifies three essential bases for friendship: utility, pleasure, and virtue. Friendships of virtue, Aristotle believes, are ideal because only they are based on recognition.

When I was thirty, I moved back to Philadelphia. I had only been gone a few years, and though I knew better, I had half expected it to be just as I’d left it. It was not: most of my friends had left the city altogether or moved, married, to the edges of town. Occasionally, I would run into people I had once known, encounters that produced deep and surprising embarrassment in me; unexplained life choices digested in fast, always alienating, appraisal. The more unsettling thing was that my close friendships were changing, too.

Friendship has never seemed both more important and less relevant than it does now. The concept surfaces primarily when we worry over whether our networked lives impair the quality of our connections, our community. On a nontheoretical level, adult friendship is its own puzzle. The friendships we have as adults are the intentional kind, if only because time is short. During this period, I began to consider the subject. What is essential in friendship? Why do we tolerate difference and distance? What is the appropriate amount to give? And around this same time, I discovered the curious, decades-long friendship between the writers Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and the sculptor Wharton Esherick. Their relationship seemed to me model in some ways; they were friends for over twenty years, mostly living in different cities. Each man was dedicated to pursuing his own line of work, and the insecurities and single-mindedness of ambition seemed analogous too to the ways that adulthood can separate us from our friends.

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