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Jack Smith

Curmudgeons Are Declared Mere Gadflies

December 28, 1987|Jack Smith

Even curmudgeons have their defenders, I've found.

Jules Levine denies that those I named as curmudgeons the other day are, or were, true curmudgeons; a curmudgeon being "anyone who hates hypocrisy and pretense and has the temerity to say so; anyone with the habit of pointing out unpleasant facts in an engaging and humorous manner."

"Actually," Levine says, "they should have been categorized as gadflies. George Bernard Shaw was less a curmudgeon than a gadfly who liked to puncture popularly held beliefs. Mort Sahl, too, is less a curmudgeon than a gadfly. Certainly, Gore Vidal is a full-blooded gadfly, not a curmudgeon. H. L. Mencken is another who was less a curmudgeon than a gadfly."

Levine deplores the shortage of gadflies today, just as I did curmudgeons, noting that Sen. William Proxmire, with his Golden Fleece awards, Rep. Pat Schroeder, who dubbed Ronald Reagan "the Teflon President," and our own iconoclastic Howard Rosenberg are among the few he can think of.

By definition, I can't see much difference between a gadfly and a curmudgeon. A gadfly, according to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate, is "a usually intentionally annoying person who stimulates or provokes others, especially by persistent irritating criticism. . . ."

The same source defines a curmudgeon as "a crusty, ill-tempered and usually old man."

It is curious that Webster's Third New International (unabridged), which was published 22 years earlier, defines curmudgeon as "a crusty, ill-tempered or difficult often elderly person." Somehow, despite the trend toward greater sensitivity in the use of adjectives and epithets, elderly has become old , and person has become man . Are elderly women not eligible any more to be curmudgeons, in Webster's book?

According to those definitions, Levine may be right that the curmudgeons listed by Jon Winokur in his book, "The Portable Curmudgeon," are more properly gadflies. But I think the dictionary misses the mark in suggesting that a curmudgeon must be elderly. H. L. Mencken was a curmudgeon from the day he was 9 years old.

By the way, I needn't have been uncertain in saying that I didn't know whether Mencken liked baseball, but I suspected that "to him all sports were pastimes of the booboisie."

"That's putting it mildly," writes Curt Roberts of San Pedro. In evidence he offers a quote from Mencken's autobiographical "A Choice of Days" (Knopf: 1980).

Hoping to correct his "scholarly stoop," his father had enrolled him in an exercise program at the YMCA. "All that the YMCA's horse and rings really accomplished," he says, "was to fill me with an ineradicable distaste, not only for Christian endeavor in all its forms, but also for every variety of calisthenics, so that I still begrudge the trifling exertion needed to climb in and out of a bathtub, and hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense. If I had my way no man guilty of golf would be eligible for any office of trust or profit under the United States, and all female athletes would be shipped to the white-slave corrals of the Argentine. . . ."

Also, in the only recorded interview he ever gave, Mencken is heard to say, on the deterioration of his profession, "Why, I know newspapermen today who play golf !"

Shirley Wolf agrees that Westbrook Pegler fit part of the definition, being "a crusty, ill-tempered, churlish old man," but that he did not "point out unpleasant facts in an engaging and humorous manner."

"He was downright mean and ornery, without any humor whatsoever," she writes.

True, Pegler didn't think anything was funny, not even Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he vilified without respite, but his invective was so unleavened that it often provoked laughter.

It was Pegler who said of Los Angeles: "It is hereby earnestly proposed that the U.S.A. would be much better off if that big, sprawling, incoherent, shapeless, slobbering civic idiot, the city of Los Angeles, could be declared incompetent and placed in the charge of a guardian."

Irma B. Frazier of Santa Ana comes to the defense of Burt Prelutsky, whom I described as a "real, old-style, dyspeptic, unrelenting, misanthropic curmudgeon." She says: "No way will I let you call Burt Prelutsky a curmudgeon. He is a very classy guy."

I have also received a note from Burt Prelutsky:

"At the risk of losing my reputation, I want to thank you for what I, at least, regard as kind words."

Spoken like a true curmudgeon with class.

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