On Chicago, Mike Royko, and Henry Mencken
March 4, 1982
I had occasion to consider the work of Chicago's famous columnist Mike Royko while helping prepare a script for a one-man show by Springfield actor Kevin Purcell devoted to his work. He was good at a time when few columnists were, but I did not believe that he deserved to be the first winner of the H. L. Mencken Writing Award offered by Mencken's old Baltimore Sun. In the piece I would write that calling Royko the new Mencken risks misunderstanding both men, but I was being polite. Privately, I thought the award demeaned Mencken and in defense of my hero I set out to prove why.
The result was unfair in parts—Royko's biography of Dick Daley, Boss, which I don't mention, is very good—but only in parts.
The smallest noise rings like a thunderclap when all around it is silence—which brings us, awkwardly, to the subject of Mike Royko. In an era in which publishers are again "united in printing pap" (as Carl Bode has remarked about the 1920s) and journalism threatens to degenerate into merely another species of flummery, Royko's columns in the Chicago Sun-Times are as conspicuous as farts in a church. Royko is not the first great newspaperman to come out of Chicago, although he is one of the very few to stay there. For a lot of people, Chicago without Royko is unthinkable. Indeed, to some Royko is Chicago.
I used to read Royko with the diligence I now apply to the soccer scores. For a couple of years back in the early '70s I even subscribed to the now-vanished Chicago Daily News expressly for his column which then ran in that fine paper. He detested many of the same things I detested, which was proof to me that he was a man of high intelligence and purpose. The papers in Springfield were devoted practitioners of the Post school of journalism—Emily Post, that is. They believed that if you can't say something nice about people you shouldn't say anything at all. This rule inevitably excluded much of the political and social landscape from their editorial purview, and Royko's rude bellyaching about Daley and racism and life under the thumb of the muscled overseers of urban USA was music to my ears.
It's been five or six years now since I sought out Royko, however; this in spite of the fact that his audience has never been larger, or wider. Royko is increasingly referred to as the Mencken of the '80s, a compliment conveyed officially last fall when the Baltimore Sun, the bard's old paper, gave Royko its first annual H. L. Mencken Writing Award. To those of us who honor Mencken, calling Royko the new Mencken risks misunderstanding both men.
At first glance these comparisons seem no more odious than most. The two men share a contempt for American politicians and American beer, finding both insipid. Both started at the bottom of the newspaper business, as beat reporters. Each was flattered (Mencken in 1948 at a Progressive Party convention, Royko in 1981 by the Illinois General Assembly) when a major political body (quoting Alistair Cooke) "officially deigned to regret his existence." Finally they share an intense love of their home towns. HLM so preferred Baltimore that he commuted to New York every fourth week during the year to edit The Smart Set rather than move from his house on Hollins Street. When the Chicago Daily News folded, rumors were rife that Royko would hie off to Washington, D.C. a place which offered him the same scope for endeavor that a statehouse renovation contract offers an ambitious architect in Springfield. But Royko too stayed home; just as Chicago is unthinkable without Royko, so Royko is unthinkable without Chicago.
Ultimately, however, tagging Royko as the Mencken of the '80s is merely another of those labels which journalists so carelessly apply, like "right-to-lifers." A reader knowing Mencken only by his being constantly compared to Royko, will find little to remind her of Royko. Royko is a champion of the working man, who leans toward a sort of AFL-CIO liberalism, a prole's prole who loved nothing more than a good game of softball. Mencken was a comfortable child of the bourgeoisie, a political conservative, even a reactionary whose private enthusiasms (besides covering national political conventions) ran toward string quartets and the drama.
These differences were nowhere more evident than in the writing styles of the two men. Mencken biographer Carl Bode traces the former's literary influences to Macaulay, Bierce, Rabelais, and Thomas Huxley. While Royko is a fine stylist, he is not really much of a writer. True, Mencken may only seem more vivid, more diverse because he is more self-consciously literary, but if (as Cooke has alleged) Mencken's invective sometimes amounted to using a blunderbuss to crack nuts, Royko merely throws a thesaurus at therm (Royko's tirades against Downstaters last summer are a case In point. Compare his "hicks," "rubes," and "bumpkins" to Mencken's description of a minor party candidate: "Soak a radio clown for ten days and nights in the rectified juices of all the cow-state Messiahs ever heard of and you have him to the life." )
One chooses one's tool for the task, of course. Mencken traded in ideas, and if his accomplishments as a thinker did not match his ambitions, at least he dipped his toes in that murky stream. Ideas and the books in which ideas are discussed seem not to interest Royko. Here I suppose is the most striking difference between them, and ultimately why Royko's work tends, over a long period to go stale. Royko is the chronicler of Chicago, all right, but nobody thinks in Chicago, and one of the things they don't think about is Chicago.
Unlike the German Mencken, whose roots reach back to Europe, Royko's work (like the work of the long line of Chicago newspapermen from which he descends, and which includes Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner, George Ade, and Finley Peter Dunne) sprouts from thin soil which is fit only for one or two crops specially adapted to it. Of all the virtues traditionally linked to Chicago—brawn, vigor, ambition, humor—none is linked to the mind. His audience finds the paucity of ideas in Royko congenial—it is the root of his Chicago-ness—but it often oversteps the bounds into anti-intellectualism.
Royko's reputation as an iconoclast is not entirely deserved, for example. His complaints are complaints over means; his notions of the relations of capital, humans, and institutions are safely mainstream. Indeed, there are times when the only thing that sets Royko apart from the League of Women Voters is the ladies' revolting preference for chilled white wine. Stripped of its vaudeville-isms, for instance, Royko's sole contribution to the RTA debate last year was to ask for a state subsidy. This is not the '60s; at a time when the urban crisis needs imagination, anger is not a sufficient program. And while it is too much to expect a columnist to change the way people act, he isn't much good if he doesn't sometimes at least change the way they think.
I feel compelled to wonder whether Royko, who knows Chicagoans so intimately, really knows Chicago. I suppose what I miss most in Royko is the ability to explain his city. Saul Bellow fled to Chicago many years ago because he knew it to be a place where people don't read and thus a place where he could escape the intellectual fevers of New York. But Bellow is no Chicago writer. Indeed, he functions at the other extreme; as John Updike notes of Bellow's fictional self in The Dean's December, he "cannot think of urban deterioration without bringing in metaphysics and epistemology." Royko portrays the same subject in terms of tow company scams and aldermanic burlesque. Bellow is too far from the city to explain it, and Royko too close.
It is unfair to criticize a man for his failure to do things he never pretended to do, of course. What I don't like about Royko's work really is what I don't like about Chicago. Emmett Dedmon in his book Fabulous Chicago (recently reprinted) noted that in its literary heyday in the '20s Chicago was filled with people whose ideas were too big for any but the biggest city in the land, which is why practically all of them left for New York. It's too easy to forget how much smaller Chicago is than New York; writers as distinct as E. B. White and Jimmy Breslin, for example, can both be described as essential New Yorkers, while in Chicago Royko is the only possibility. Chicago is still a city that debates deep dish pizza recipes with the ardor with which more cosmopolitan cities argue about art or plot revolutions. Royko is Chicago's poet, and his only fault is that he sings it so true. ●