What I consider the most cynical utterance in the entire literature of Americana — H.L. Mencken's "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public" -- presents a point of view I eschew enthusiastically. In fact, I not only eschew it, I spit it out.
Unlike some of my colleagues in the children's art form, I have a possibly sick respect for the public and I genuflect before the readers. Mine -- or at least those who bother to write -- are possessed of such a knife edge intelligence I can only marvel that they'd bother with my poor tripes al a mode. They seem overbred to the point of extinction, better read than Gore Vidal, trilingual at the very least, and so civilized that they offer their criticisms with an air of genteel embarrassment.
To come to the point, I love them, especially those who have stuck patiently with me through thin and thinner, forgetting my foibles and my feeble French, putting up with my crochets and carelessness, even swallowing the dumb jokes without once saying: "Get thee to a punnery." As I reflect upon this excellent body of Americans I can only think that history has long over-estimated H.L. Mencken. For all I know he died broke. (A dozen letterwriters will assure me tomorrow that he didn't, citing his net worth at death.)
What started all this, somewhat to my surprise, was a letter to the editor from the aptly named Fred Anger of San Francisco criticizing the entire ineptly named stable of Chronicle columnists. I will not repeat the contumely he directed at Charle McCabe since the contumacious Mr. McCabe is well able to fend for himself. Mr. Anger's displeasure with Stanton Delaplane will likewise be ignored. I know Mr. Delaplane as a saintly man beyond reproach and a writer of infinite style. His opinion of me, however, engages my ego ridden attention. "Herb Caen," he said, "has been writing the same column for 30 years."
A couple of years off, on the kind side but pithy and possibly true. Since Mr. Anger is a literate member of the reading public -- my favorite people -- I did not take his charge lightly. Have I been in a groove or a rut, is a rut much different from a grave and whatever happened to Walter Winchell? He sank out of sight in a sea of three dots … and here I am still using them. He said-she said jokes, punchless punch lines, Names that no longer make News, all the dreck that's unfit to print and all the trivia that's dead by noon -- those perishable items that die in the dark of the ink.
Well, mea culpa and all that, Mr. Anger. But every bone in my aching head assures me that this is not circa 1940 and a glance in the mirror convinces me it's later than I ever thought it would get. But if the column doesn't reflect this at least once in a while and I have been wasting everybody's time and a lot of type, garbled and otherwise.
In 1940 I did not know anything and was sure of everything. Today I'm not even sure about columns (value thereof in relation to reality, unperceived). 30 years ago I thought there was nobody in journalism to compare with Winchell and his three little dots. 30 years later the statement is still true but for a much different reason: I have reversed my opinion but the schoolboy addiction caused permanent damage. I'm punchy from those short, punchy items.
I began as a sentimentalist and a callow nostalgic. In the manner of a schoolboy in love, I thought San Francisco was the greatest city in the world -- there were no warts on my lady. I still think San Francisco is the greatest city in the world, but now I concede her warts and they bother me, perhaps too much.
30 years ago I could sit for hours at the knees of graybeards as they spun their tales of an older and better San Francisco, being put down as a Johnny-come-lately and accepting it -- "Kid, this was some town in the old days, too bad you missed it." But as writer Nick Browne has put it, "Nostalgia is a wretched witness who cannot describe the accident, gets the details all wrong and is very likely in the pay of an interested party."
Nostalgia also gets the names and dates wrong and has a fatal sense of direction. Old San Francisco was wonderful, as youth is wonderful, but I will take San Francisco now and onward with all its faults and problems. At least we've been shaken out of our self-satisfaction and that clears one big boulder out of the way.
As for Mr. Anger, who started all this, give me 30 more years of writing the same column. Maybe by that time I'll have got the hang of it.
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this! Had to read it twice!
H. L. Mencken House