Book Review: H.L. Mencken’s Un-Neglected Anniversary
“On December 20 there flitted past us, absolutely without public notice, one of the most important profane anniversaries in American history, to wit, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub into These States. Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day.”
A brilliant little article captivates readers with the story of a little-known fact about a little-known figure.
The article goes viral. Before long, it is being cited in textbooks, scholarly research, and encyclopedias. The author receives widespread critical and popular acclaim.
This “news” article is a hoax, a fake.
The fact-checkers belatedly attempt to arrest the spread of the viral article, but it is too late.
The hoax has become a bona fide urban legend.
In recent years, the trickle of “fake news” has exploded into a torrent, but the phenomenon of “fake news” far predates the Internet Age.
In H.L. Mencken’s Un-Neglected Anniversary, P.J. Wingate explores the origins of “fake news” in an infamous newspaper article nearly a century old.
H.L. Mencken - one of America’s leading journalists, famous for his biting wit and cynicism - published an article titled “A Neglected Anniversary” in the New York Evening Mail on December 28, 1917.
In that article, Mencken riveted readers with the wholly fabricated account of “the seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub into These States,” culminating in the memorable anecdote of President Millard Fillmore installing the first bathtub in the White House.
With what Wingate calls, “an amazing mixture of obvious fact and hard to refute fiction,” Mencken concocted a thoroughly plausible tale, complete with fake citations, dates, and details, cynically reeling the reading public into his elaborate hoax.
However, his creation soon took on a life of its own. Textbooks, reference books, and popular lore spread the story of Millard Fillmore and the first bathtub in the White House far and wide.
Eight years after the original “satire” debuted, Mencken confessed to the hoax in a public retraction titled “Melancholy Reflections,” in the Chicago Tribune.
However, in a textbook case of “the boy who cried wolf,” the reading public assumed that the retraction was the hoax!
This surprised even Mencken, a man not given to overestimating human nature. He quickly doubled down on his retraction with a third article, titled “Hymn to the Truth.”
But the truth didn’t matter anymore; America had a fact. For years, the only fact many Americans had been taught about President Millard Fillmore was that he had installed the first bathtub in the White House.
Fiction had become fact.
Mencken’s intentions left much to be desired, his legacy even more so.
Writers have copied Mencken’s savvy “fake news” techniques to dupe the news-reading public with audacious journalistic fabrications - some with malicious intent.
Mencken always claimed that his article was a “satire.”
To put the article in context, Mencken published “A Neglected Anniversary" at the end of 1917, after America’s entry into World War I. Mencken had earlier travelled to Europe to report on the war but was blacklisted by the American newsmen for his pro-German sentiments.
Ever a critic of democracy, Mencken watched with horror as Allied propaganda, which he considered to be the real “fake news,” flooded American newspapers.
As his way of exposing the gullibility of the American public, Mencken published his “satire” in December 1917.
However, the key to satire is taking an idea to its extreme to showcase its absurdity (such as Bastiat’s masterful “Candlestick maker’s Petition” exposing the folly of protectionism).
If Mencken was aiming for satire, he surely missed the mark.
Satire must be obvious to the mockers, if not always the mocked.
By any ethical standard but his own, America’s leading journalist clearly crossed the line from clever satire into patently “fake news.”
For this hoax gone awry, American journalism ought to recognize H.L. Mencken for what he was: the “Godfather of Fake News.”