Hunting the Snark

The Urban Dictionary (UD) informs us that Snark is a portmanteau word, a combination of “snide” and “remark.” Another UD entry likens the word to a weapon “that is brief, subtle, yet quite stabbing.” Lewis Carroll identified the Snark as a creature with either feathers and bites or whiskers and scratches. In his The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll advises the hunter to use “thimbles,” “forks and hope,” and to “serve it with greens.” The Snark is a tasty creature. Carroll offers up an obscure defense against the Snark: “You may threaten its life with a railway-share.” The line alludes to British Railway Mania of the 1840s in which many Britons lost their savings in buying shares in railroads that were either never built or the companies went under. The Snark is therefore a greedy creature and could be lured to its ruin. The Snark, he added, can also be charmed with “smiles and soap.” The Snark is both superficial and an unclean beast. Last but not least, Carroll warns that the hunter ought to have Courage to hunt the Snark. While British literature has had its share of Wits, I believe that Lewis Carroll could have been describing an American animal: Snark americanus.

Snarkiness is esteemed in America. Let’s not kid ourselves. People talk about the “Stinson burn;” there is even a Twitter hashtag: #burn. Round-table discussions with pundits on television often start with a topic calmly posed, but midway through the hour (or less) viewers will watch the debate deteriorate from thesis to snarky banter. Before late-evening talk show interviews became a humping ground for movies or books – the guest is now flattered and the host is ingratiating – the Snark would rise out of the depths. Truman Capote clashed with Gore Vidal and Vidal clashed with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley. Johnny Carson clashed with Joan Rivers, with Leno. George Takei locked phasers with William Shatner and so on. Snarky epithets flew. The high-pitched Truman Capote and poster-boy of heroin chic William Burroughs exchanged snarkish letters over In Cold Blood. Ratings indicate that viewers seem to find some voyeuristic glee in watching Snarks at play. Aren’t Snarks tasty, vicious, and clever?

Snark americanus is an all-terrain species. Look at all those Snarks who have infiltrated the book review boards. Amazon appears to be a jungle infested with Snarks. Goodreads and Barnes & Noble seem to have sprayed their portals with repellants because Snarks seem less frequent there. There are very few Amazon reviews in which a Snark does not dismiss a book on some silly pretense. Worse yet, other Snarks bite other Snarks in the comments to the review. I’ve read haughty dismissals and witnessed outright Snark ignorance.

A reviewer named Semper Cerebus opined on a wonderful little book (in my opinion) by the late Sister Miriam Joseph, The Trivium, edited by the late Marguerite McGlinn. In his review, Semper Cerebus mentions “Aristoteles’ Categories” and wonders whether Aristotle ever had “help from a psychiater.” The review is honest, to the point, and communicates the reviewer’s assessment of the book. A Snark, like a sniper with words, questioned Semper’s credibility because of the spelling of the two items I just cited. Said Snark dismissed Cerebus as an “egregious nincompoop who typed this up on his/her smartphone.” As if this dumb assery were not enough, another reviewer, who didn’t review the book, defends Semper: “Semper Cerberus is clearly a native German speaker. Aristoteles and psychiater are not misspelled; they are the German equivalents for Aristotle and psychiatrist.” This is all over a book that I’d wager few Americans would ever read for fun. There are reviews and comments far more vicious than this on Amazon; they seem to go on for pages. Snark americanus domesticus.

One should not confuse the Snark with the Troll, who rather rears its unkempt head with disruptive remarks and takes snarkastic delight in derailing discussion threads like lemmings love high cliffs and deep-sea swimming. The Troll’s modus operandi is to provoke and evade, and then reappear with aliases. The Troll is the web’s arsonist because it likes to start and fan flame wars. Finding the Troll, however, is easy enough: the brain droppings are always pungent non-sequiturs and ad hominem logic. The complete opposite of the Troll is the Brand Freak. The Freak is the darling of PR, a “webtrovert,” who roams about the web and can’t seem to shut up about how wonderful some product is. The Freak is essentially the salesman of the Digital Age without a territory.

Cultural commentators, like Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart, are not Snarks, nor are they Trolls even though they trawl the Web for content. As comedian Lewis Black once said, speaking of politics, “the material writes itself.” Stupid does what Stupid is. The MO of Colbert and Stewart is that they comment, hold it up, and the audience laughs. There is no need to explain. Their comments are just a pinch of seasoning. Snark americanus judges, feels compelled to assert its alpha status in the Animal Kingdom. As it lifts its leg, the Snark judges and judgment implies standards and values. It is a feral and vicious creature.

The American Snark uses Mockery and Sarcasm as venom. I think that the American Snark can be traced back to Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken. Others online refer to these two writers as debunkers but I think that is wrong because ‘to debunk’ is linguistically related to bunk, which is synonymous with claptrap, which is simply meaningless nonsense talk, not unlike Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky. Lewis and Mencken had plenty to say. They both snapped at American mendacity and mediocrity. They weren’t the first, though: Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915) and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) did it first, but the effect is entirely different. Anderson and Masters produced tragedy. The reading ends with a sigh. Lewis and Mencken are devourers; they make you cringe or laugh.

Sinclair Lewis set fire to small-town America in Main Street (1920) and then moved out to the big city with Babbitt (1922) to compete with the Joneses and mingle with the hustlers and low-lifers. He even kept his title character, George F. Babbitt, around for Elmer Gantry (1926) to ridicule religion with a capital ‘R.’

Lewis howled his criticism of the American lifestyle and outlook decades before Allen Ginsberg. He saw them as:

…a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable. It is contentment… the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking. It is the prohibition of happiness. It is the slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God.

Lewis mocked. His pronouncements were barbs and his novels, bites at the working end of the American Dream. Exhibit A: Snark americanus. Venom: Mockery. Feathers and bite.

Where Lewis used mockery, Mencken used sarcasm. Exhibit B: the Snark with whiskers and scratches. Now, here is something interesting. Sarcasm is almost always a defensive measure, a knockout punch; it is a response to something seen, heard, or overheard. Repartee is to Wit what Sarcasm is to Malice. But Mencken was not a defensive sarcast; he was on the offensive, attacking. He is the pater familias of the modern Snark online.

Mencken knew that he was not a novelist. He was an essayist. He brewed his poison from behind the desks of the Baltimore Evening Sun and The American Mercury. He used a typeface slanted left, opposite of italics, so readers would know that he was ironic. The typeface was called Ironics. Mencken knew words the way a conservatory-trained pianist understands Chopin’s Études as finger-exercises. Mencken was the cultural commentator of his day. Unlike our modern day Colbert and Stewart, Mencken was vicious. He aired his opinion. He explained like a critic why something was mediocre and mendacious. Nothing was safe from his Corona typewriter. Hardly a snob or an elite, but Mencken saw Democracy as nothing more than mob rule, politics and politicians as necessary evils, and the citizenry around him as woefully ignorant. He invented the portmanteau booboisie, a blend of the words ‘boob’ and ‘bourgeoisie,’ as his word for American society.

Mencken got personal. He assessed Religion as a false comfort and superstition. He lambasted those who denied science. Mencken had covered the Scopes Trial and availed himself of every opportunity to caricature William Jennings Bryan as a boob, as if the orator needed to be reminded that he lost four times in his quest for the Executive Office. When Bryan died a week after the Scopes Trial ended, Mencken eulogized Bryan as a “walking malignancy,” a man who loved “gaping primates of the upland valleys,” “greasy victuals of the farmhouse kitchen,” and “cocks crowing on the dunghill.” Pure snarkiness. Bryan and evangelical Christianity were objects of Mencken’s scorn “Heave an egg out of a Pullman window,” he wrote, “and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.” Mencken blamed the American education system for perpetuating conformity. “The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself.”

The antidote to the Troll is silence. The Freak do-gooder is swatted away like a mosquito: it is there and won’t go away. Now, if satire, as in Swift’s A Modest Proposal, is the genre in which the writer uses words like a surgeon uses a scalpel, then what purpose does the Snark serve in the literary ecosystem?

Is sarcasm really “the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence”? The speed at which a person can insult another is not intelligence. Is it generic-brand Irony? According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “sarcasm” derives from the ancient Greek word “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.” Mockery definitely tears apart its target. Bitterness and sarcasm can go together. Spoken sarcasm, however, in any language relies on pitch, what linguists call inverse pitch obtrusion (John Haiman is cited in the link). But how does a reader know that what is on the page is the sign of the Snark? Mencken had to use Ironics, his special typeface.

Sarcasm is not new to literature, but the reader has to have a context or some sense of intonation to know that writer is deliberately mocking or sarcastic. Caesar is assassinated. Shakespeare has Mark Anthony use the phrase “honorable men” in his eulogy. The audience knows that the word is sarcastic and the object of that scorn is Brutus. Shakespeare’s sarcasm has context and intonation on the page and stage. Snarkus americanus domesticus assassinates with an Uzi; it sprays venom for bullets. There is no precision, often no real sound logic. Mencken used logic because he knew that without it his words were nothing more than rhetoric.

There is no mistaking that Lewis and Mencken are American Snarks of a higher order. They criticized to effect redress, although it could be said that neither men offered solutions to the problem. Readers went to HL’s column in the paper with the expectation of snarky bon mots the way viewers used to wait for the late Andy Rooney monologue on Sixty Minutes except Rooney was not Snark; he was a curmudgeon..” Mencken offered social commentary as entertainment in his essays. Lewis, on the other hand, wrote novels that were less snarky than Mencken’s columns. His criticisms were couched in literature. I suspect that Mencken thought that the essay as literature was going the way of the dodo.

Snarkiness on the page needs context and intonation for mockery or sarcasm to work well. Lewis wrote what he saw. Mencken did the same, but journalism is a very different type of wild grass to tame than a novel. The daily material Mencken chose was not all timeless; it was ephemeral, contemporary, which is why he is both a time capsule and dated. Mencken could have tamed his inner Snark the way Truman Capote did when he wrote the reportage classic In Cold Blood, but Mencken didn’t exercise restraint or craft a novel. The other difference is Capote was a Snark in person and not on the page. Alfred Knopf, the publisher and long-time friend of Mencken, had this to say about H.L. the man:

His public side was visible to everyone: tough, cynical, amusing, and exasperating by turns. The private man was something else again: sentimental, generous, and unwavering—sometimes almost blind—in his devotion to people of whom he felt fond . . . the most charming manners conceivable, manners I was to discover he always displayed in talking with women . . . he spent a fantastic amount of his time getting friends to and from doctors’ waiting rooms and hospitals, comforting them and keeping them company there.

Sinclair Lewis as the Snark with feathers and bite did put it on the page, but chose a classier venue. Maybe that is it. He has fared a little better than Mencken, but only slightly; he is not read much. Snarkus americanus domesticus proves their point that stupid does wrong right.

Sinclair Lewis dedicated Elmer Gantry to Mencken and the recipient of that honor reciprocated with kindness. Mencken would later write “[If] there was ever a novelist among us with an authentic call to the trade…it is this red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds.” One Snark hailing another Snark as they swam pass the lemmings.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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