Monday, April 1, 2013

A Fat Man Story: Ander Monson on HL Mencken's "A Forgotten Anniversary"

This fine morning on the first of April I write from my bathtub here in Tucson, Arizona to you.

And in fact I'd like to discuss the bathtub, introduced to America in 1842 in Cincinnati in its modern form, then made of mahogany and lined in sheet lead, and later popularized by President Millard Fillmore. All this is from the mouth of one of my favorite essayists, H. L. Mencken, in his essay, “A Forgotten Anniversary,” published in the New York Evening Mail in 1917. The Evening Mail is no longer extant, of course, having undergone a series of fattening mergers and finally folding its adulterated bulk in 1967.

For some reason I always picture Mencken as fat. Maybe it’s the initials. Like A. S. Byatt. W. G. Sebald, or B. T. Overdrive, initials suggest the fatness, possibly adorned with a timepiece in a front pocket, or at the least a classist smirk on one's face. When I was chubbier and younger, more closely approximating a basketball or a Hutt, I am ashamed to say that I aspired to this air of eminence: I went briefly by A. S. Monson, and then Ander S. Monson, on account of the middle initial made me more distinguished, like Franklin W. Dixon (author of the Hardy Boys novels—also, as I found out sometime around fifth grade, a composite: there was no Dixon but a legion of underpaid, mostly female writers—but the middle initial remained, however false, and impressed itself on me), and also my burgeoning corpulence.

It remains an embarrassment. The initials, not the fatness—though I still live in the shell of the fatness—because that never really goes away, our sense of our fat former or maybe present selves hovering like the outer boundary of our electron shell even as we've now found somewhat leaner days. As essayists we would do well to cleave to our embarrassments, for therein might we open ourselves to others. Are you listening, Mr. Mencken?

So as fat as I am or was, thinking of Mencken this morning, I write this missive to you from my bathtub, across which I’ve spanned a 2 x 12 with my laptop perched atop, on which I type carefully, not wanting to allow a stray splash to render it inert. There is risk, then, in every character I depress to transmit this truth to you.

I’ve always been a sucker for the bathtub in all its iterations. I love immersion, one of the greatest pleasures of the human, and the bathtub is immersion’s domestic home, unless you have a Jacuzzi, a sensory deprivation tank, a space station, or a pool. Immersion is, after all, what we hope for in our fiction, even in our nonfiction: we hope to be caught and carried under, to suspend our disbelief, as we say, for a moment, to go all-in, to catch some extended air, to follow a story wherever it may lead, to give our brain over to another’s for a moment. Immersion is what allows art to work its magic on us, for us to be moved without moving, to believe without leaving, to be changed without changing our clothes or our selves. It’s in the losing of ourselves for an hour to the art thing (as Mark Ehling has named it, in this space, “an art feeling”) that allows us to experience a whiff of transcendence.

Or maybe that’s just the Taco Bell Cool Ranch Tacos I'm still smelling, which, I must admit, were pretty good. They taste just like a cool ranch. I can feel myself getting fatter. Keep typing, chunko.


The observant may notice that today's date is April 1. I woke up this morning anticipating my far-too-big bowl of cereal on my favorite day of the year, April Fool's Day, in which we fool and venerate the fooled. We ask for it, we dupes: we chuckle heartily, our hearts clucking their amusement at our credulousness. Today is the day in which we should celebrate the art of critical thinking.

It is also a day for Doritos Locos Tacos Doritos (this is sadly not a joke). Or at least Doritos Locos Tacos. Or at least just Doritos if you don't want to get all loco on them. Or maybe a Jumbaco. At first I thought it sad that Taco Bell maintained locations in Tucson, Arizona, where I now live. Given the number of taco carts and trucks and local fast food Mexican, how could it compete? Then I realized: it's not really competing: it's not Mexican. It's barely anything at all. I don't feel so bad about eating there now, particularly since they've upgraded all their foods to be made with Doritos (that last part's a lie...for now: can't you see this is the future we've been asking for? Why settle for corn or flour tortillas when you can get everything, your drink included, terrorized with superflavor detonating nacho crystals?).

It's a little early for the heartburn, but thinking of it and typing so hard is causing my plank to rattle and my stomach to get all churny.

I wonder: have you been duped? Have you believed? Have you ruefully been forced to question the authority you grant to NPR, to CNN, these initialed fatties of the media, to the Economist, to the NYT, to the BBC, all these we trust to proffer (not to profiteer) information?

Today is a day to celebrate being lied to. We are being lied to. We should take the opportunity to enjoy it. Crack a beer. Adjust your lie. Our golf is winter rules, which as any duffer knows means you should feel free to kick your ball back in the fairway, you know, for fairness.

We want the lie. We need the lie. The lie is entertainment. The lie is narrative. We’re reassured by being told a thing even if it is false. The lie is where the human’s drawn. The lie is wholeness, seamlessness, the convenient arrangement of events into a story that can mean. The lie is manipulation; the lie is art.


Clever reader, by now you may suspect my bathtub story’s rub is false, that Mencken’s bathtub story’s false. You would be correct. Not that Mencken didn’t write these things: he did. That's not the joke. The joke is that they simply were not true. It's not much of a joke, but I'll come back to that. I'm not convinced it's all that much of an essay either. But it was great fake news.

"Fake news has been with us for a long time," writes Robert Love in "Before Jon Stewart," his riff on the history of fake news in which he details late nineteenth century papers' penchant for publishing sensation and story [my italics] over fact. Fake news is with us now: today, more obviously, but weekdays when the Daily Show is on, when the Onion publishes, when we are credulous. While we no longer consider fake news from real news organizations okay (except on April 1st), fake news from fake news organizations is just fine—great, in fact. Often it delivers real news. And for sure we  like the taste of story. We always did, but in a disintegrating, disconnected world, we're suckers for a story. We like sensation, that slowness, that transporting feeling. We want—we must believe in fact, but I don't think that it's important to us as feeling something is.

But by emphasizing story we are asking for it, people. I don't mean to say that it's not possible to fact-check a story or ground a narrative in fact: it is, but by asking it for story, by constructing it to mean, to make us feel, we're leaving the realm of strict phenomena and are heading into interpretation, subjectivity: we're coasting toward an art feeling, a feeling of glorious emotional fatness. I ask that we remember this, our own hunger, our own desire, when we want to closely probe the things that offer us that art feeling, wondering just what we sacrifice to get it.


Here's Robert Love again:
Hoaxes like this seem so Colbert now, like mutant cousins to his notion of “truthiness.” But hoaxers are historically not comedians; they are, like Mencken, journalists who write entertaining stuff that sounds vaguely true, even though it’s not, for editors who are usually in on the joke. The hoaxing instinct infected newsrooms throughout the early days of modern newspapers to a degree that most of us find puzzling today. Newspapers contained hundreds, if not thousands of hoaxes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of them undocumented fakes in obscure Western weeklies. The subjects were oddball pets and wild weather, giants, mermaids, men on the moon, petrified people (quite a few of those), and (my favorite) the Swiss Navy. 
So years later Mencken revealed that his history, though widely believed and propagated, contained no actual bits of truth. He reports: “This article, as I say, was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days, and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that the war elevated its stature. We might note that the height of the James Frey scandal occurred while the US government perpetuated mistruths leading to a unmeritorious war. We might note that the Clifford Irving hoax (subject of the film The Hoax, in which he faked the authorized biography of Howard Hughes) occurred during the height of the conflict in Vietnam. I point these out to suggest (and I am not the first) that our anger against these authors became a sort of national sport, an entertainment in which we built ourselves a safe outlet for our rage that we didn’t feel safe directing against the architects of the lies we were fed by the government and duly reported by the press, until they got wiser.

Today—this year, this decade, which feels like it's on the edge of slipping into something—we occupy a precarious space, perched between the age of the authority we’ve ceded to journalism (because who has time to check everything or maybe even anything?) and the age of crowdsourced, immediate (sometimes mis-)information, which makes up a good story. We need to trust our information, but what we really want is entertainment. We don't want to blink. A country's doomed: we are nonplussed. We keep clicking for something newer. The speed of news delivery, and the increasing devolution of those tasked to report and verify it as fact from the salaried to freelance staff do not jive well with increased reliability. What does that mean for how we can expect to live our lives? Must we okay the fudge, understand the imprecision, understanding that at least we're getting speed and something fun to—in the words of the prechewed 90s pop act the Spice Girls—spice up our lives like Doritos Locos Tacos?

Today—April First—we occupy a particularly precarious space, perched between belief and dis-, and it's a lovely one. I ask us to hold it and consider it: a moment of wonderment in which the impossible is sometimes possible for a moment before it disappears and drops us back into our lives this afternoon.


Though Mencken admitted that he made it up, no one took much notice. Probably because that's what papers did at that time. Or because essayist confabulates fake bathtub history doesn't have much pop or saleability. (Or it wasn't a story then; it might be now: see also Jonah Lehrer, see also Jayson Blair, see also Stephen Glass—how we like to hound our boys). Mencken's bathtub tale is still in fact perpetuated and propagated. The Museum of Hoaxes reports: "as recently as February, 2004, the Washington Post noted in a travel column, 'Bet you didn't know that . . . Fillmore was the first president to install a bathtub in the White House.' It sheepishly ran a correction a few days later."

(Maybe the ease of cut and paste exacerbates all this. In the time it took to use the keyboard shortcut to drop that bit of text in here it did occur to me that I might want to check that out at least on Wikipedia before reporting it to you again, but that seemed like a lot of work, and besides, I've spent enough time faking Wikipedia entries to not invest all that much trust there either.)

Of course we know Mencken as an essayist. And the essay (thus the essayist) gets by on the authority, such as it is, of the I. We take it for granted, sure: we have to, we don’t get to suspend our disbelief; to engage in an essay is to engage with the I in front of us, the simulated self speaking. If we didn't trust its intentions—that at least it's leading us wherever for a reason—then why are we listening to it speak? Of course the I in essay doesn’t come out and claim that what it is telling us is truth, or absolute: it claims its subjectivity. It is an I after all, and it can be mistaken or duped, led astray, confused, inveigled, mis- or disinformed. How well do we know ourselves, we ask: not as well as we would hope. We would not be this way if we did: confused, seemingly blind some days to the primacy of our habits and habituations. Otherwise the world would be a less surprising and dramatic place than it is, with a capacity for such glorious wreckage: we are weak in ways we cannot know, even though we should better gauge our seams and faults and accommodate for them. The essay prizes these, gets squinty trying to see things straight. It’s okay.

In fact Mencken goes out of his way to occasionally foreground the I in his essay: "and, for all I know to the contrary, [the first bathtub] may still be in existence and in use," "Moreover, the English bathtub, then as now, was a puny and inconvenient contrivance -- little more, in fact, than a glorified dishpan," "This legislation, I suspect, had some class feeling in it, for the Thompson bathtub was plainly too expensive to be owned by any save the wealthy," and so forth. Admitting the I to reflect upon the subject—or in the first instance to lie directly to the reader (since Mencken knew well to the contrary) increases its believability. It dimensionalizes the tale: there is the story and there is the I telling the story, and we occasionally see one or both or the space between them. Harder, oddly, to doubt an I that knows it's telling a story.

As such the essay as a form doesn’t (mostly: one could make an argument for "The Facts of the Matter" by Anonymous as a legit piece of hoaxery with a righteous point) have much truck with April Fool’s: we are all fools to believe what we read or hear on April first. We are fools to try to pin an I too closely to the truth or to project our rage on those who tried too hard to entertain—and failed, it must be said, except as quarry.

Instead we might do better to recognize performance and appreciate it when it’s in front of us, and simply say that we are entertained, that we were fooled, and that we can own our falling-for-it and think what that might mean for us.


I remember mornings growing up on April 1 when I would switch the sugar with the salt containers on the kitchen table and wait for my brother’s howl as he dug into his cereal. That might be a practical joke—anyway, it’s practically a joke—but it’s not an April Fool. I suppose I might have reminded him that In Life Sometimes the Names on the Containers Do Not Always Correspond with their Contents, and that this should be celebrated, not condemned, and also that I was bigger than him, which is unfortunately no longer the case, thereby changing the tenor of our relationship. Now he is an investment banker and I am up late writing an essay about a dead man I thought was fat for no good reason.

Still, I believe there was a lesson there for my brother: don’t believe the world is as stable as you think. It doesn’t take much to tip a life into submission, an economy into recession, a country into upheaval, a career into a downward spiral.

Still, there’s not much to be gained by my childhood joke: a wasted bowl of cereal, an irritated sibling, a story to be related years later without much narrative fizz or pop.

Whatever Fool the Authorities choose to perpetrate this year, whether it’s the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest, Instant Color TV, a guide to the small republic of San Serriffe, Life Found on the Moon, The Economist Theme Park, or The Guardian’s shift to an all-Twitter feed, etc., these hoaxes undercut themselves amusingly: even as you're reading them you're thinking, hmm, really? They're only sort of plausible at best, not really designed to fool us, or not for long.

If Mencken's essay isn't really a joke, and it's not an April Fool, perhaps it was a prank designed to illustrate something that he understood about how news propagates, un-fact-checked, even in the pre-Internet age. Though it might come in the voice of a noted humorist and essayist, published in a Newspaper of Note (perhaps not coincidentally The Evening Mail also counted among its contributors eminent cartoonist and maker of elaborate machines Rube Goldberg), and reinforced with some essaytastic goodness, that didn't mean that it was strictly true. I'm not exactly sure it is an essay, actually. Or if it is, it's a speculative one (a la Robin Hemley—note also Hemley's insistence on the usefulness of wonder—a rare commodity today).

Or maybe the lesson we might draw is that that The Evening Mail is no longer in operation, but the essayist is—as is his fake history of the bathtub. I'm operating the essayist right now, even if he turns out on a Google search (see, there are uses for these quick excursions) not to be all that fat (or fat at all: but maybe we can get this misinformation propagating).   

That’s how we get by, isn’t it? By propagating? By trust and a little optimism, a laptop in the bathtub,  the occasional salt in our cereal and a bit of wonder after?

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