The essay refers to the industrial region to the east of Pittsburgh, known as Westmoreland County. The area is characterized by the steel and coal industries and the settlements dotting it. Mencken traveled through this region by rail and speaks of the utterly dismal and bleak landscape which rolled by him on his journey. The feature, which depresses the author most, is the ugliness of the habitations of this industrial suburb, belittling the region’s contribution toward making America a highly prosperous nation.
Here, in the heart of industrial America, instead, Mencken vents his dismay. With a sense of growing disappointment, he glimpses how ugly the dwellings are. At best, the monotony is broken in place, by the sheer pretentiousness of some of the structures, which try to pass off as architecture. The countryside around, he observes, is not unbecoming, but the lay out of the pleasant river valley is not compatible with the ugly dwellings he describes nestling on the barren hillsides.
It strikes his aesthetic sense that the countryside around has not been assimilated into the architecture. He prefers ‘chalet’ like structures to break the sparseness of the hillsides and look graceful. The ugliness is pronounced by the fact that the houses are bundled like hovels, somehow to perched precariously on unsteady piers. The sheen of the houses is grimy – an effect pronounced by the yellowish brick used in the construction on which the soot of the mills comes to rest.
Even the most humble of European households would have held together better and its inhabitants would have succeeded in transforming it into a charming dwelling. Mencken essentially pins the blame on the inhabitants of the county for such unrelenting ugliness. He puts it down to dull and unimaginative responses to an opportunity for living gracefully, and without much expense. (Mencken, 256-258) The Strategies The impression of dullness and unrefined human sensibility is built up by the author early on in the essay.
The opening paragraphs, for instance, the third paragraph, quickly establish the author’s own sense of aesthetic propriety and environmental good sense. Here, he refers to the pleasant countryside and the way it contrasts with the ugly structures dominating it. It makes good sense in our minds too, to have dwellings that are more compatible. The fourth emphasizes a picture of sheer bad taste, literally built up brick by brick. Revealed is the gross instinct of inhabitants, coated over with the grime of the sooty world the citizens seem to be locked in.
Mencken uses the word ‘unlovely’ to describe what he sees. This is most appropriate in the context. The word is used deliberately to express a contrast to the loveliness Mencken feels will be befitting the countryside passing by the windows. The language used to describe the surroundings best expresses the characteristics of the coal and steel towns where the grime of the mills, it seems clogs out all sense of goodness out of the inhabitants’ minds. (Lamb, 328-9) Mencken used the power of language to shake people’s attitudes to their environment.
Similarly, environmental concerns today are lobbied vigorously. The attempt to preserve natural or man made beauty is definitely worth supporting. Any pretence to beauty in architecture as described by the author is definitely not welcome at all but it serves a limited purpose – to justify preservation of all that is good by contrast.
Mencken, H. L. “The Libido for the Ugly” (pp. 256-258) Lamb, Davis; Cult to Culture: The Development of Civilization on the Strategic Strata; National Book Trust; 2004