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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Out of Fashion, or Just Plain Goofy

Saturday, August 16, 2008

When the library of the late Ken Postlethwaite, former columnist for this newspaper, came up for sale a few years ago, I bought, among several other of his books, a volume entitled "The World of George Jean Nathan." When I was a teenager (back in the 1950s), I fell under the sway of H.L. Mencken, the wonderfully droll, not to say outrageous, sharp-tongued satirist of American manners, who, together with his buddy George Jean Nathan, from 1900 to 1930, in the now-forgotten monthly periodical; "The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness," took potshots at all things pretentious, most things American.

As a teenager, I had to laugh out-loud at Mencken and Nathan's irreverence toward all things revered by everyone else. That's part of every teenager's compulsive makeup, after all. Of course, much of their merriment was crude and tasteless. In a brief list of promises they offered the public in case they should be elected president and vice president of the U.S. appears this smidgeon of fluff: "They agree to bend their best efforts to the restoration of chattel slavery in the South, and to extend it to the North, and to make it include white slaves as well as colored ones." Can you even imagine anyone's writing and publishing that today? I could almost hear the phones ringing, from outraged folks calling to cancel their subscriptions.

Lest you suspect these two men were utter dolts, I hasten to remind you that Mencken was a well-respected newspaperman and political analyst for the Baltimore Sun, and Nathan was, for many years, drama critic for several prestigious magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, and, above all, American Mercury.

No, Mencken and Nathan just enjoyed, and made a name for themselves by, being wiseacres, lampooning everything they found pretentious. Each had a biting and nifty writing style, which they used to let the air out of any passing pomposity. Mencken may have been the more popular and enduring, but Nathan, a graduate of Cornell, had his own place in the founding of American Mercury, the dark green covers of which I understand each college undergraduate, back in the 1920s and '30s, had to display under his arm walking to and from classes, just to be de rigeur. Each must've felt the daily temptation to push his luck just so far and no farther.

Take, for instance, Nathan's endless series of essays on women and relationships between the sexes. This is what he has to say in 1921, the year after women finally won the right to vote in this country, in an essay entitled "General Conclusions About the Coarse [sic] Sex": "The man who has been married to a woman for a number of years, who has lived with her, has played upon all her whims and moods, knows her every gesture and every tone, is like the man who has owned a piano and has played upon it for the same long length of time. The moment he enters a house with another piano in it, he feels like trying the new one. There isn't a man or woman living who hasn't experienced the innocent wish to try someone else's piano."

Call me a pig, if you will, but I think that last is hilarious!

But what about these other, more pointed, observations that Nathan makes about women? "Woman, it seems to me, was wrought primarily by an all-wise Creator for man's entertainment and bemusement. That she is the mother of the race hardly invalidates the point. ... I have known many women in this life, and I have never known one who did not, in the lovely heart of her, wish to be, above all the more serious things of the world, a pretty and desirable toy. A woman is always a plaything for the man she truly loves." A very handsome man, Nathan, it goes without saying, was a lifelong bachelor.

My sense is that George Jean Nathan, long an arbiter of taste in American theatrical happenings, was expressing his authentic thoughts about women here. A reader might, as a result, fantasize a lunchtime meeting of Nathan and, say, Gloria Steinem. Or, one might rather wonder how many other men, in the lovely heart of them, heartily agree with Nathan!