The acerbic H.L. Mencken, America’s premiere social critic of the 1920s, once famously compared America to a zoo.
“Mr. Mencken (questioning) ‘If you find there is so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, then why do you live here?’
“Mr. Mencken (answering): ‘Why do people go to zoos?’”
Mencken’s career began at America’s entry into World War I, but his satiric barrage on American life and culture came during the 1920s, a decade of barn storming, flagpole sitting, twenty-four-hour dance marathons, Prohibition, speakeasies, boosterism, Coolidge, gangster wars, and revivals—capped by Wall Street cupidity that led to the 1929 crash and subsequent Depression.
In one of his better-known essays, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” Mencken pilloried the South and its culture. “It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a sterility. . . . And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and the ‘progress’ it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara desert.”
As for the mass of Americans, Mencken had plenty to say, and none of it flattering. For a true picture of an American one need only visit Ellis Island, “and look at the next shipload of immigrants. You will . . . find the shuffling of exhausted men. From such exhausted men the race of Americans has sprung.”
The American, according to Mencken, “. . . is dull; his cultural level is no higher than that of domestic animals; his morality and self-interest are identical.” This is the individual that en masse constitutes the “boobosie.”
In Mencken’s view, the whole country had been going downhill since 1900. The award for the worst state of the union would be shared by Tennessee and California. American politics is based upon the assumption that politicians are divided into two groups, and that one of them is good.
Mencken not only deserves to be read, he needs to be read. Reading him makes us face the fact that we have only timid truth tellers now, few at best and none with his scope. In fiction, Americans had Ring Lardner in the 1920s and Sinclair Lewis in the 1930s. There has been no one like them since.
Lardner’s dark stories of the booboisie, written in the first-person, depicted the ignorance and cultural vapidity of Mencken’s mass American, one of the mob. Publishing his major novels a decade later, Sinclair Lewis was the perfect novelist to match Mencken’s observations. While Mencken supplied the abstract analysis of America-as-zoo or circus, Lewis fleshed the body out with details. In Babbit, he drew a portrait of a complacent businessman, George Babbitt, from a mid-size Midwestern city, who epitomized the vapid boosterism and materialism of the time. In Elmer Gantry, he examined the underbelly of revivalists like Amy Semple McPherson, who married her third husband while her second was still alive, and Billy Sunday, who defended the fact that he made as much money in one day as the average American workman made in a year. (“Homo boobiens,” Mencken wrote, “is a fundamentalist for the precise reason he is uneducable.”) In Main Street, Lewis pilloried small town cliques, provincialism, and pettiness. Many of Lewis’ critiques are still strikingly relevant. He is one of our major observers of the American scene.
Since Lardner and Lewis’ time no essayist or fiction writer has attempted a satirical anatomy. Kurt Vonnegut was a satirist—perhaps our only recent satirist—and Helter Skelter had thinly disguised caricatures of William F. Buckley and Malcolm Forbes. But Vonnegut’s satire was in a different vein from Lardner and Lewis’. They were social realists, while Vonnegut blended science fiction into most of his novels.
Yet considering the multitude of critical problems civilization faces, the imagination strains to understand why American writers have not delve into the psyches of mass murderers, Fundamentalists, Wall Streeters, lapdog journalists, politicians, and corporate criminals, to name a few of the unsavory types that dominate our national life. We have no one of Tolstoy’s genius to craft the complexity of present-day corruption and its consequences into a vast, social realist novel. Such a work would, at any rate, be too dark for most.
Now, after a lapse of ninety years, Mencken’s comparison of the United States to a zoo seems understated. Peter Weiss’s 1960s drama, Marat/Sade, updated the characterization by implicitly likening contemporary western civilization to a madhouse.
My own way of coping with the insanity of contemporary civilization—and what else is it but insane?—has been to write a satiric novel that is filled with slapstick violence. The first draft of Grand Tally: A True Account of the Recent Happenings in Moosehead, Montana and New York City was improvised with a glass of brandy after dinner for four or five months.
A writer for People magazine handed me the premise. According to her, a major U.S. mapmaker issued a road atlas minus one of the western states. As I pondered how such a gaff could have occurred, I realized that since the bottom line is everything in today’s business, a firm run by accountants would care less about quality. If the accountants specified that the atlas was to have 120 pages, and the proofs returned with 122, something would have to be cut. Thus was Grand Tally born.
Grand Tally, the mapmaker, decides to eliminate Montana, which covers two pages. This move unleashes a national drama that alternates between Moosehead, Montana and New York City and ends—literally—in an explosion. The slapstick action brings together the Montana militia, Homeland Security, the Montana National Guard, journalists, New York celebrities and a charismatic Christian cult headed west to meet the Rapture.
Grand Tally was completed almost a decade ago, but in 2003 American life did not seem as hopelessly out of control as it does today. When our collective insanity became evident to everyone except the ringmasters, the time was ripe to publish.
For the time being, Grand Tally is available as an e-book only, for iPad and Kindle.