Between Impression and Expression: H.L. Mencken
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that being a witness to even the most electrifying events is no guarantee of recalling them accurately. The men and women who survived the sinking of the Titanic disagreed as to exactly how the great ship went down, even though they all saw it at the same time; victims of great disasters and horrific crimes, who presumably have had the smallest memories burned into their cortices by trauma, will often give entirely different accounts. On a lesser scale, our sporting press has always managed to wrest their own legendary interpretations out of events they personally witnessed, but those interpretations frequently bear no resemblance to what actually happened. This essay on the Jack Dempsey/Georges Carpentier fight, written by H.L. Mencken, has thus always been a favorite of mine, illustrating both the tendency of storytellers to aggrandize their own narrative at the expense of the facts, as well as the unreliability of the eye-witness. Neither factor has changed much since Mencken wrote about them, almost a hundred years ago.
The late herculean combat between Prof. Dempsey and Mons. Carpentier, in addition to all its other usufructs, also had some lessons in it for the psychologist — that is, if any psychologist can be found who is not an idiot. One was a lesson in the ways and means whereby legends are made, that man may be kept misinformed and happy on this earth, and hence not too willing to go to Hell. I allude specifically to a legend already in full credit throughout the length and breadth of Christendom, to wit, the legend that Carpentier gave Dempsey some fearful wallops in the second round of their joust, and came within a micromillimeter of knocking him out. Loving the truth for its own sake, I now tell it simply and hopelessly. No such wallops were actually delivered. Dempsey was never in any more danger of being knocked out than I was, sitting there in the stand with a very pretty gal just behind me and five or six just in front.
In brief, the whole story is apocryphal, bogus, hollow and null, imbecile, devoid of substance. The gallant Frog himself, an honest as well as reckless man, has testified clearly that, by the time he came to the second round, he was already substantially done for, and hence quite incapable of doing any execution upon so solid an aurochs as Dempsey. His true finish came, in fact, in the first round, when Dempsey, after one of Carpentier’s flashy rights, feinted to his head, caused him to duck, and then delivered a devastating depth-bomb upon the back of his neck. This blow, says Carpentier, produced a general agglutination of his blood corpuscles, telescoped his vertebræ, and left him palsied and on the verge of Cheyne-Stokes breathing. To say that any pug unaided by supernatural assistance, after such a colossal shock, could hit Von Dempsey hard enough to hurt him is to say that a Sunday-school superintendent could throw a hippopotamus. Nevertheless, there stands the legend, and Christendom will probably believe it as firmly as it believes that Jonah swallowed the whale. It has been printed multitudinously. It has been cabled to all the four quarters of the earth. It enters into the intellectual heritage of the human race*. How is it to be accounted for? What was the process of its genesis?
Having no belief in simple answers to the great problems of being and becoming, I attempt a somewhat complex one. It may be conveniently boiled down to the following propositions:
(a) The sympathies of a majority of the intelligentsia present were with M. Carpentier, because (1) he was matched with a man plainly his superior, (2) he had come a long way to fight, (3) he was the challenger, (4) he was an ex-soldier, whereas his opponent had ducked the draft.
(b) He was (1) a Frenchman, and hence a beneficiary of the romantic air which hangs about all things French, particularly to Americans who question the constitutionality of Prohibition and the Mann Act; he was (2) of a certain modest social pretension, and hence palpably above Professor Dempsey, a low-brow.
(c) He was polite to newspaper reporters, the surest means to favorable public notice in America, whereas the oaf, Dempsey, was too much afraid of them to court them.
(d) He was a handsome fellow, and made love to all the sob-sisters.
(e) His style of fighting was open and graceful, and grounded itself upon active footwork and swinging blows that made a smack when they landed, and so struck the inexperienced as deft and effective.
All these advantages resided within M. Carpentier himself. Now for a few lying outside him:
(a) The sporting reporters, despite their experience, often succumb to (e) above. That is, they constantly overestimate the force and effect of spectacular blows, and as constantly underestimate the force and effect of short, close and apparently unplanned blows.
(b) They are all in favor of prize-fighting as a sport, and seek to make it appear fair, highly technical and romantic; hence their subconscious prejudice is against a capital fight that is one-sided and without dramatic moments.
(c) They are fond, like all the rest of us, of airing their technical knowledge, and so try to gild their reports with accounts of mysterious transactions that the boobery looked at but did not see.
(d) After they have predicted confidently that a given pug will give a good account of himself, they have to save their faces by describing him as doing it.
(e) They are, like all other human beings, sheep-like, and docilely accept any nonsense that is launched by a man who knowns how to impress them.
I could fish up other elements out of the hocus-pocus, but here are enough. Boiled down, the thing simply amounts to this: that Carpentier practiced a style of fighting that was more spectacular and attractive than Dempsey’s, both to the laiety present and to the experts; that he was much more popular than Dempsey, at least among the literati and the nobility and gentry; and that, in the face of his depressing defeat, all his partisans grasped eagerly at the apparent recovery he made in the second round — when, by his own confession, he was already quite out of it — and converted that apparent recovery into an onslaught which came within an ace of turning the tide for him.
But why did all the reporters and spectators agree upon the same fiction? The answer is easily given: all of them did not agree upon it. Fully a half of them knew nothing about it when they left the stand; it was not until the next day that they began to help it along. As for those who fell upon it at once, they did so for the simple reason that the second round presented the only practicable opportunity for arguing that Carpentier was in the fight at all, save perhaps as an unfortunate spectator. If they didn’t say that he had come hear to knocking out Dempsey in that round, they couldn’t say it at all. So they said it — and now every human being on this favorite planet of Heaven believes it, from remote missionaries on the Upper Amazon to lonely socialists in the catacombs of Leavenworth, and from the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding on his alabaster throne to the meanest Slovak in the bowels of the earth. I sweat and groan on this hot night to tell you the truth, but you will not believe me. The preponderance of evidence is against me. In six more days, no doubt, I’ll be with you, rid of my indigestible facts and stuffed with the bosh that soothes and nourishes man…Aye, why wait six days? Tomorrow I’ll kiss the book, and purge my conscience.
Meanwhile, I take advantage of my hours of grace to state the ribald and immortal truth in plain terms, that an occasional misanthrope may be rejoiced. Carpentier never for a single instant showed the slightest chance of knocking out Dempsey. His fighting was prettier than Dempsey’s; his blows swung from the shoulder; he moved about gracefully; when he struct the spot he aimed at (which was very seldom), it was with a jaunty and charming air. But he was half paralyzed by that clout on the posterior neck in the very first round, and thereafter his wallops were no more dangerous to Dempsey than so many cracks with a bag stuffed with liberty cabbage. When, in the second round, he rushed in and delivered the two or three blows to the jaw that are alleged to have shaken up the ex-n0n-conscript, he got in exchange for them so rapid and so powerful a series of knocks that he came out of the round a solid mass of bruises from the latitude of McBurney’s point to the bulge of the frontal escarpment.
Nor did Dempsey, as they say, knock him out finally with a right to the jaw, or with a left to the jaw, or with any single blow to any other place. Dempsey knocked him out by beating him steadily and fearfully, chiefly with short-arm jabs — to the jaw, to the nose, to the eyes, to the neck front and back, to the ears, to the arms, to the ribs, to the kishkas. His collapse was gradual. He died by inches. In the end he simply dropped in his tracks, and was unable to get up again — perhaps the most scientifically and thoroughly beaten a man that ever fought in a championship mill. It was, to my taste, almost the ideal fight. There was absolutely no chance to talk of an accidental blow, or of a foul. Carpentier fought bravely, and for the first minute or two, brilliantly. But after that he went steadily down hill, and there was never a moment when the result was in doubt. The spectators applauded the swinging blows and the agile footwork, but it was the relentless pummeling that won the fight.
Such are the facts. I apologize for the Babylonian indecency of printing them.
*: It even appears to this day on Wikipedia, thus forever ensuring its sacrosanct status as an unvarnished truth. — LP