Literary Daybook, April 5

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
April 6, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On April 5, 2063, first contact between humans on earth and visitors from another planet.
-- "Star Trek: First Contact" (1997)
by Jonathan Frakes, Director

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1926, H. L. Mencken was arrested by the Boston vice squad, charged with the possession and sale of indecent literature. The literature in question was a short story entitled "Hatrack," by Herbert Asbury, included in the April 1926 issue of Mencken's American Mercury magazine. Hatrack was a small-town prostitute whose attempts to reform had been rebuffed by the upright and churchgoing of her community. This caused Hatrack to fall back to her old, and not insensitive, ways: servicing her upstanding clients so that those Catholic were accommodated in the Protestant cemetery, and those Protestant in Catholic graveyards. The punch line of Asbury's story compounded hypocrisy with miserliness: When one gentlemen tenders Hatrack a dollar, she responds, "You know damned well I haven't got any change."

Reverend Chase, secretary of the New England Watch and Ward Society, and a type that Mencken loved to bait, was not amused. He managed to get all available copies of the Mercury pulled from newsstands in the Boston area, and he dared those who would to attempt selling any new ones. Editor Mencken conveyed his feelings clearly to publisher Alfred Knopf: "I am against any further parlay with these sons of bitches. Let us tackle them as soon as possible."


The showdown was an orchestrated affair. Chase and his seconds made themselves available at the appointed hour on Brimstone Corner of Boston Common; before police and press, Mencken offered the purchase of his magazine; Chase tendered his half-dollar, and Mencken was hauled off to the station -- though not before biting his coin for the crowd, as Hatrack might have done. The next day the court ruled in Mencken's favor, thus giving him victory, as much publicity as he had the year before with his reports from the Scopes trial and yet another application of Mencken's Law: "Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of improving or saving X, A is a scoundrel."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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