The Land of the Free and the Free Lance

The Mencken Society, with which I am delighted to be associated, is republishing H. L. Mencken’s Free Lance columns daily for the next four-and-a-half years:

On the 8th of May, We begin daily publication (with the exclusion of Sundays) of Mr Mencken’s Free Lance columns, each column posted on its its anniversary date.

Mr Mencken produced this column six days a week for four-and-a-half years. In the first years (1911-1914), he took on political and other follies of Baltimore City and such fusty material is likely to be of interest only to very hard-core Baltimoreans. Mencken becomes far more interesting to the general reader after the eruption of the First World War when he is a severe corrective to British and American war propaganda.

(Feel the love.)

Here’s a sample of the love from May 10, 1911:

The United Railways Company’s pay-as-you-enter cars are roomy and sightly vehicles, and no doubt the company finds them good investments—but let it not be forgotten that they have no room for smokers! The right to smoke on the rear platforms of Baltimore street cars is not a privilege that may be granted or withheld by the company at its pleasure. On the contrary, it is an ancient right, in the English meaning of the term, with 50 years of enjoyment ratifying and reinforcing it. The man (or corporation) who would destroy it must beware. The Salle Law, the Laws of Mann, the Statutes of Justinian and the great writs of habeas corpus, quo warranto and certiorari are on the side of the plain people.

So far, the pay-as-you-enter cars are run upon but two lines. Smokers, being tolerant and patient, quietly avoid those lines. But let the new cars appear elsewhere—and a loud protest will be heard. I know plenty of smokers who are already drawing in wind for that roar. It will shake the town. We Baltimoreans are not New Yorkers. We do not conform our private habits to the convenience of public service companies. When we would dance we do our own whistling.

Against smoking on street car platforms three complaints are made, to wit:

1. It prevents the use of pay-as-you-enter cars, which save the company money.
2. It compels women entering a car to struggle through a crowd of smokers, white and black, and a fog of smoke.
3. Smoking itself is an immoral and indecent practice.

The first complaint need not detain us. The company is already making money, and so long as it is as well managed as it is today it will continue to make money—not enough, perhaps, to earn dividends upon its enormous stock, but enough to give every bona-fide investor a fair return upon his investment.

The second complaint is also trivial. The smokers who stand upon the platform make that much more room inside; their failure to claim seats is really an advantage to those women who desire seats, and a favor to the company. As for the perils and horrors of struggling through them, they are grossly exaggerated by the peevish. It takes, on an average, about four seconds for a woman to proceed from the car-step to the interior of the car—and in those four seconds she is not likely to inhale enough smoke to poison her. Women, in general, are not nearly so delicate as romance makes them. A woman who can stand half an hour of the Lexington fish market is well able to face a few blasts of tobacco smoke. It is only upon entering a car that she is compelled to cross the rear platform. Leaving, she may use the front door.

But smokers are a filthy lot? Not more filthy, in the mass, than non-smokers. If I were a woman I’d much rather brush by a darkey from the guano works on the platform than sit beside him for half an hour in the car. Workingmen, white and black, who happen to be in dirty clothes commonly show decency enough to stand on the platform. Standing there, they smoke—and often pretty bad tobacco. Well, why not? They are tired, and standing is a sacrifice they make for the good of others–a proof of innate delicacy, of a high sort of self-respect. Why shouldn’t they be allowed the compensation of a pipe?

The fact that that pipe is charged with oakum is irrelevant. Not one woman out of 10,000 can tell the difference between good tobacco and bad.

So we come to the last complaint—that smoking is immoral per se. Is it? I’m sure I don’t know. But admitting that it is, it must be apparent that a public service company is not chartered to purge the common people of sin.

6 thoughts on “The Land of the Free and the Free Lance

  1. D. Hart,

    Been making my way through The American Language. Some very interesting stuff there, albeit (necessarily) dated.

    Also, always good to see a valiant knight quick to the rescue of Lady Nicotine. Obviously the battle was being fought even then. We’ve pretty much lost now, I think.

    PS, Hitler was also very much against smoking. So, as an anti-fascist, I happily smoke tobacco in all it’s forms. That’ll show Ol’ Adolph.


  2. It’s good to know that non-smokers have a long and proud history of being driveling sissies, even more comforting to know that there were men like Menken to call a spade a spade.

    An anecdote my brother Nate often reminds me of just about sums up Menken’s article: ¨Second- hand smoke is the leading cause of second-hand coolness.¨


  3. Seth, the Library of American has Mencken’s Prejudices (2 vols.) and his Memoirs (3-in-1 volume). The former has parts of his criticism, essays, and Free Lance columns. I think it’s a good intro. But there are lots of collections out there and many are cheap used. The Impossible Mencken has lots of good stuff. The Mencken Chrestomathy, a collection of writings that Mencken himself assembled, is also a good sampling.


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