Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
These memoirs, written when the author was nearly sixty, describe how it was to grow up in Baltimore at the end of the nineteenth century. As the title declares, it was a happy time and even the tragedies that the youthful Mencken witnesses are seen through the eyes of youth and so largely robbed of their emotional impact. Thus, when his grandfather dies he records that his immediate thought was that he would not have to go to school next day. "I recognized its enormity instantly, but simply could not throttle it. The day was a Thursday—and they'd certainly not bury the old man until Sunday. No school tomorrow!"
The book was of course written long before the advent of political correctness, so there are plenty of references to blackamoors and similar unmentionables that would not appear in print today. It's difficult to know how acceptable they were in 1936; probably not very, but it's doubtful that if Mencken were writing today he would make many concessions to modern sensibility.
Freud was of course fashionable in the USA in the 1930s but Mencken explicitly avoids talk of sex; the book ends when the author reached the age of twelve and there is nothing about pre-pubescent stirrings.
The tone throughout varies from gentle irony to frank comedy: Mencken's father was given to practical jokes of considerable imaginativeness and enterprise. Even the cops, though widely feared, are essentially comic-book figures, unable to run fast owing to their girth and chiefly concerned with hitting black offenders over the head and hauling them off to prison.
In many ways the youthful Mencken sounds like a version of Tom Sawyer; it is no accident that Mencken's favourite reading was Huckleberry Finn. Like Mark Twain, he is a delight to read.
5 August 2007
%T Happy Days
%A Mencken, H.L.
%I Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd
%P ix + 313pp
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