Literary daybook, Feb. 3

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published February 3, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 3, 1909, Jane Porter writes to Hazel Strong from Africa.
-- "Tarzan of the Apes" (1914)
By Edgar Rice Burroughs

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1931, the Arkansas state Legislature passed a motion to pray for the soul of H.L. Mencken. One of Mencken's Laws was "Nature abhors a moron," and one of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being especially ruled by the "booboisie"; upon finding itself elevated to "the apex of moronia," Arkansas had apparently had enough. Mencken had drawn international attention with his mocking reports on the Scopes Evolution Trial in 1925, but he had long attacked the South for its devolution from "a civilization of manifold excellences" to a Home Sweet Home for "Ku Kluxery," "Bible Belt barbarism," "poor white trash." His single most famous and influential assault was the 1920 essay "The Sahara of the Bozart" (i.e., beaux art). To his earlier claim that the South was "culturally, about as dead as the Yucatan," Mencken added so much sand that it was now "almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert":

"In all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera-house, or a single theater devoted to decent plays ... Nor a historian. Nor a sociologist. Nor a philosopher. Nor a theologian. Nor a scientist. In all these fields, the south is an awe-inspiring blank." Mencken travels on, as Swift among the yahoos, through a land of "shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums ... of unanimous torpor and doltishness," to the conclusion that "it would be impossible in all history to match so complete a drying-up of civilization." Arkansas took all this -- or maybe it was Mencken's later desire to visit "the rambunctious Arkansans in their miasmatic swamp" -- pretty hard. Failing in their attempt to get the man to eat his words (or expelled from the U.S. as "a former subject of the Kaiser"), the legislature settled for saving his soul.

Mencken and Arkansas inspired Anita Loos to the 1925 bestseller, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Loos was Mencken's friend, a brunette, and unhappy with his preference for a blonde over her. When enlarging him to her prototypical dumb Gentlemen, she took his Arkansas as the home of her Blonde:

"The name of my heroine Lorelei Lee was invented although her birthplace was not and Mencken himself had a hand in that. For I wanted Lorelei to be symbol of our nation's lowest possible mentality and remembered Mencken essay on American culture in which he branded the state of Arkansas as 'the Sahara of the Bozarts.' I therefore chose Little Rock for Lorelei's early years; Little Rock, which even today lives up to Mencken's choice as a nadir in shortsighted human stupidity."

Lorelei was "just a little girl from Little Rock when I first left Little Rock," but she "came from a very very good family because papa was very intelectual, and he was a very very prominent Elk, and everybody always said that he was a very intelectual Elk." Lorelei's full life story brings the very very rich Henry Spoffard to tears and marriage; as embodied by Marilyn Monroe two decades later, it brought her first big hit.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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