PREJUDICES: A VERY Incomplete List of
This list actually started as one of those short "favorite films, favorite bands..." kind of lists you see at MySpace-type pages. But it exploded from there.
These are “touchstone” artists and works for me, that I return to again and again. Many helped make me who I am today. Every one below I could turn to any time and enjoy.
This is a list of personal favorites, not an “objective” attempt to list the best in a particular field. These are works and creators and people that excite me personally, that I find inspiring and rewarding. I have tried hard to avoid listing anything that doesn’t fit that description. I am not a critic, I am an enthusiast.
This list, despite its size (I never meant it to be so large) is painfully incomplete. But it’s better than no list at all.
Later I may add links to make it easier to skim through this, as well as links to some of the works and artists discussed.
ART AND ARTISTS
Modern (1900-today) “mainstream” novelists
Charles Bukowski (all, but esp. Post
All books by Daniel Pinkwater
Noir and Crime
Jim Thompson: The legend. His best
stuff is just magnificent.
Michael Hemmingson: His Wild Turkey is one of the few books that, as soon as I opened to the first page, I was compelled to read straight thru non-stop til the end. That's his best, but he has lots of other good stuff. He has written a lot of adult erotic books, but I like his crime stuff and wish he'd write a few dozen more like Wild Turkey.
Harry Keeler: He is insane and almost unreadable – one reviewer said he “writes in Choctaw” -- but still, you marvel as you grope through his demented plots. One of the strangest writers ever. Warning: he’s arguably much more fun to read about than to actually read. Find a good article on him on the web.
Richard Prather: Okay, I gotta pay my respects to this great man. I really haven’t enjoyed his books as much as the others above, but it’s a failing on my part, I’m sure. Prather created the wonderful smartass tough-guy detective Shell Scott, and millions of them were sold, and they are classics. They just don’t fully click with me, for some reason, though I damn well know that, when Shell Scott escapes a gang of hired killers in a nudist camp by grabbing a fistful of gas balloons from a vender and floating, utterly naked, over Los Angeles, to finally touch down at city hall… well, daddy-o, we are in the presence of true genius. And his books are filled with this kinda stuff. I know one day I’ll be in the mood to appreciate the gloriousness that is Prather, and so I have almost every Shell Scott book ever printed, and there are tons of them, on my shelves, in wait for that day. Meanwhile, I have enjoyed his earlier, non-Scott, non-humorous, more traditionally noirish novels.
Lots of 50s-60s Fawcett / Gold Medal noir paperbacks, and most any reprinted stuff from Black Lizard and Hard Case Crime books.
Horror and Science Fiction
Phillip K. Dick
Sleaze (1960s softcore porn novels)
(I’ve read hundreds of books in this obscure gutter genre, and found many worthwhile and amusing, and a few wonderful. Most sleaze books are worthless and dull, many are sub-literate, and they are mostly collected for their wondrously garish covers. But when I started reading them, I discovered some treasures. Sleaze novels were training grounds for some of today’s top writers, including the likes of Lawrence Block, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Silverberg, who wrote under fake names. There are many amazing individual books worthy of mention, but space doesn’t permit. Here are a few authors with a body of work I’ve found worthy of interest, for various reasons. I read everything I can find by them.)
Clyde Allison (William Knoles): (for
more on him, see “Neglected Writers,” below)
Pulp magazine heroes (30s-40s pulp magazines)
Doc Savage: I discovered Doc in the 4th grade, devoured his books, and he remains one of my very favorite heroes, one of the great fictional characters, heroic in every sense. A big influence on my life.
The Shadow: I actually don’t like the Shadow books that much, except when the Shadow is actually on the page, as they often seem like pedestrian crime novels otherwise. But when The Shadow appears, they are dynamite. The Shadow is a great, great character, and seminal. Batman comes mostly out of a fusion of the Shadow with Doc Savage.
Honorable mentions in pulps: The Spider, The Avenger.
1970s “men’s adventure” pulpish series novels
The Executioner by Don Pendleton: Earnest, utterly sincere, this series kicked off the whole 70s “one man against the Mafia” genre. I read the first books when they came out and I was astounded at the audacity of the concept and the sheer scale of the destruction hero Mack Bolan managed to wreak, book after book. Pendleton stopped writing after book 38 (he also didn’t write book 16). I stopped reading somewhere before #20, I think.
The Destroyer by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy: Brilliant witty stuff, smart and well-written, full of satire and black humor as well as grand adventure, and the relationship between Remo and his ancient mentor Chiun is beautifully portrayed. Sapir and Murphy stopped writing the series in the late 80s (the full story is more complex than that, really) and I stopped reading well before them. Though the series appeared right after the Executioner books began to be hits – I think this was the first of the many Executioner-inspired series -- the first book was actually written years earlier, but no publisher wanted it. The best-written of all this genre by far.
Honorable mentions (category of 70s “men’s adventure” pulpish series novels):
The Death Merchant by Joseph Rosenberger: Crazily written, extremely violent series that incorporated occult and pseudoscience themes into the 70s men’s adventure genre, and were actually extensively footnoted! Rosenberger infused these books with his personality, and all I’ve seen are distinctly by him, as opposed to hack writers. There are over a hundred of them. I love them in concept, though I’ve only read a few.
The Sharpshooter by Bruno Rossi: Several writers churned out the Sharpshooter books, but the best of these are hard-hitting, savage, violent, nasty and quite well written blood and guts revenge dramas. With titles like Head Crusher, Blood Bath and Savage Slaughter, you can’t say you didn’t know what you were in for. It’s one of my favorites in this misbegotten genre, though I’ve read only a few.
More: If you love this stuff, there is a huge amount of it. I’m in the midst of trying to complete a collection of every book of this type written. Some examples: The Butcher, The Penetrator, The Satan Sleuth, The Marksman, Soldatto…. You can often find them very cheaply, because no one wants to read this stuff. Well, almost no one.
A Few Unjustly Neglected Books and Writers
Penrod by Booth Tarkington: Simply wonderful and absolutely hilarious 1914 novel of boyhood. Should be an American classic. The sequels are also very worthy. The way some black characters are portrayed has probably doomed this book from ever receiving the appreciation and audience it deserves, since most Americans, though drowning in racist and misogynistic cultural noise, lack the simple ability to contextualize such material as Penrod. (Or, sometimes, even Huckleberry Finn!) But it is surely one of the best American novels of the early (or entire) twentieth century, as well as one of the funniest and most delightful.
Thomas Berger’s later, smaller novels: There are nearly a couple dozen of these, and they are marvels of wit and language, oddly neglected, since Berger is considered a top American writer for his Little Big Man novel and a few others.
Clyde Allison (William Knoles): The master of 60s softcore smut novels. Wonderfully smooth and funny writing. His books were so good that editors would actually fight, sometimes physically, over who would edit and proof his manuscripts when they arrived. Some of his sleaze books sell for $200 or more today. He should have graduated from writing under-the-counter sleaze books to become one of America’s best novelists. Instead, a manic-depressive, he slit his throat open with a razor blade in December 1972, age 46. “The greatest unknown writer of our time,” says paperback historian Lynn Munroe.
The Crazy Fool by Donald Ogden Stewart: Absurd, satirical 1925 screwball comedy. Stewart later ended up writing for Hollywood; among his films, The Philadelphia Story.
Thorne Smith: One of the great humorists, a wonderful stylist, never has received the appreciation due him. I predict future critics will discover him to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists.
H. Allen Smith: A great humorist and raconteur, always worth dipping into. Some of his pieces are among the best humor I’ve ever read. Oddly, the book The Best of H. Allen Smith is not a particularly good introduction. I prefer his short essays to his novels. Not only have I gotten enormous pleasure from Smith over the years, it was through his writing that I discovered both Thorne Smith and H.L. Mencken.
The Ecstasy of Owen Muir by Ring Lardner, Jr. Great satirical Candide-like novel that takes on a slew of targets, including corporatism, capitalism, pacifism, organized religion, repressive government (pardon the redundancy), prison, and more. Lardner, an Oscar-winning screenwriter, was one of the blacklisted Hollywood 10, a group of Hollywood figures suspected of Communist Party membership. (Lardner was, in fact, a card-carrying Commie.) When, at the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) witch hunt hearings, Lardner was asked by the jackboot jackass Congressman J. Parnell Thomas: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Lardner’s gloriously insolent reply was for the ages: "I could answer the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but I'd hate myself in the morning." As a result he spent ten months in prison for contempt of Congress (and what American institution is more deserving of contempt?), and while behind bars he began work on this novel. Because of his notoriety and the book’s satirical content, no American publisher had the guts to touch it, though editors immediately realized its brilliance. A British publisher finally brought it out, and, though it initially vanished into obscurity, slowly it has become recognized by some readers as the great book it is. Comparisons may be made to Catch-22, but upon re-reading that book I vastly prefer this one. Lardner won Oscars for two screenplays: Woman of the Year and, years later, M*A*S*H.
The Great American Hoax by Alan Abel: Completely true, and one of the funniest and most profound books I’ve ever read. In 1959, notorious prankster Abel created a phony organization to clothe all naked animals, in the name of, what else, decency. His campaign to do so actually won many supporters and outraged many more, and made national news until – five years later – Time magazine finally exposed it as a hoax. Damn, think about it: if the media couldn’t figure this one out, what do you think our rulers are pulling on us that never gets exposed? Read this and understand much about politics, religion, and the eternal gullibility of the human race.
H.L. Mencken: Lots of people talk about him, and generally he is (utterly erroneously) denounced as a racist and anti-Semite, which is one of the great slanders in literary history. He is probably the most quoted American writer, outside of maybe Twain and Emerson. But how many people today actually read him, especially now that our cultural elites have tarred and feathered him as some kind of Nazi? He is arguably the greatest stylist in American literature (his only possible competition being Twain), one of the world’s great writers, a satirist on the level of Twain, Voltaire and Swift, a champion of freedom, and a complete and utter joy to read and reread.
John Collier: Master of witty, literary, smart and extremely readable macabre and darkly humorous tales. Once published in the New Yorker and other such tony places. Where would they be published today?
Chris Miller’s vulgar, hilarious National Lampoon short stories from the 1970s. Amazingly, they’ve never been collected in book from. For more on Miller see “Other Favorite Writers” below.
No Treason by Lysander Spooner: The most radical political tract ever written in America. Spooner shocks readers by simply telling the truth about politics, taxes, voting and government. His logic is undeniable and, I think, irrefutable. You either agree with him, and acknowledge the State as a vast illegitimate criminal gang, or you ignore his arguments and remain asleep.
War Is A Racket by Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC: Impassioned anti-war, non-interventionist tract by one of the greatest military heroes in U.S. history, the only officer in the Corps to win two Medals of Honor. Although almost no one knows this, Butler also exposed and halted a plot by U.S. business leaders to overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt and establish a fascist military dictatorship in America. (Or, more precisely, even more of a fascist regime than FDR ended up creating.)
The War Prayer by Mark Twain: Excerpt: “O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with hurricanes of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord…” As Twain makes clear, this is essentially what vast numbers of churches all across America pray every Sunday, they just don’t realize it. At least, some don’t realize it. Many do.
Mason Williams: Remarkable, funny poems and other expressions from a vigorous, unique, eccentric mind. Williams created a new poetic form (“Them Poems”) and wrote great stuff in that and other forms. His books are a little hard to find, but when you do find them, they’re usually cheap because most people just don’t know how great they are. Gems of laughter and genius abound in them. He has an amazing resume – songwriter, award-winning composer (“Classical Gas”), TV writer (“The Smothers Brothers comedy show), artist, poet, and much more. His real career, though, is just being Mason Williams, truly one of a kind.
Our lost heritage of popular poetry:
There is a whole lost world of pre-1960 popular poetry, poems that
were widely read, printed in newspapers and magazines, that mostly
used rhyme and meter, and that inspired and charmed and moved
millions of people. These were the kinds of poems that “ordinary”
people clipped out of newspapers and tucked into their wallets and
memory books, for times when they needed inspiration and courage.
This body of work, and those who wrote it, is now despised by
virtually everyone in academia, who have declared it kitschy or
mawkish or amateurish, and is thus officially dead. Yet many people
still find it worthy. And of course reading poetry in America today
is about as popular as deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, and often
about as easy and pleasurable. Any connection? Good starting sources
for such material is Best Loved Poems of the American People (1936)
edited by Hazel Felleman, and It Can Be Done: Poems of Inspiration
(1921). Both are still in print, testifying that there is still an
audience for this. There is plenty of subpar stuff in both, but also
some real gems. I wonder if this style of poetry will ever be
revived and appreciated.
I read hundreds of poems a year. In fact, I try to read at least one new poem a day, as well as returning to old favorites. Here are poems and poets I read again and again. First, my favorite poems, then, my favorite poets:
The Jumblies by Edward Lear (this may be my
favorite single poem)
Favorite poets and their works:
Siegfried Sasoon: World War I poems, like
“Lamentations” and “Does It Matter?”
Other Favorite Writers
H.L. Mencken (see my remarks under “Neglected Books and Writers,” above)
Murray N. Rothbard: Arguably he greatest libertarian writer and thinker of our age. A brilliant mind, of course, but also a marvelous writer, with a Menckenish wit and vigorous style, and a wonderful ability to communicate complex ideas clearly and understandably. My Chic interview with him is at this web site, and my review of his wonderful For A New Liberty at Amazon books is also linked at this page.
Robert Anton Wilson: Mind-opening novels, essays, and more.
H. Allen Smith: As mentioned above, a wonderful humorist, always a pleasure to dip into his work.
Mark Twain: A lifetime companion. I love the “Damned Human Race” later essays as well as the classic earlier stuff.
Voltaire: I especially like Candide. How marvelous, how modern and crisp to read, and how true.
Chris Miller: He’s best known as a screenwriter, especially for Animal House and Multiplicity, no special favorites of mine. But Miller wrote some absolutely hilarious and extremely vulgar stories in the National Lampoon in the 1970s that, for some insane reason, have not been collected in book form. In the mid-70s he spoke at Columbus College, where I was a student, and in his speech said that much of the material for his stories came from his true experiences. So, during the Q&A, I asked him if his penis was polka-dotted (a reference to one of his tales). The audience was stunned, but he got the reference immediately, laughed and said it was true, and offered to show me the proof in the men’s room after his talk. Then he quickly added he was just joking about the men’s room offer. So I still don’t know – is it, or isn’t it? But the stories are hilarious.
Lysander Spooner: (No Treason, Vices Are Not Crimes -- see my remarks under “Neglected Works,” above).
Anthony de Mello: An Indian Jesuit who wrote many books of marvelous short spiritual tales and parables, many funny, all enlightening. His work is a joy, whether read in short bites or longer reads.
Frederic Bastiat: Lots of people hail The Law, his impassioned defense of limited government, but I love his witty and devastating little essays on economic idiocies. He wrote in the 19th century, but all the fallacies he explodes in his essays are still all around us and still plague us daily.
Fred Reed: An ornery old guy who writes about the decline of America in a Menckenish way, with a writing style that seems off-the-cuff casual but is actually very elegant indeed. He properly despises and regularly lambastes the U.S. welfare-warfare state and the effete cowardliness and whininess of American society. He knows what was once great about America, and how it is being destroyed. He is one of the best current writers I’ve encountered on or off the Web.
Lester Bangs: The greatest rock writer ever, and arguably one of the best writers of any kind of the seventies. There are a couple of collections of his work well worth checking out. His writing played a major role in fomenting the punk rock revolution. He also helped shaped my musical tastes. I actually met him on the streets of New York City by utter accident, and was able to tell him how much I loved his stuff. He died in 1982.
Superhero (and such) mainstream comics:
Tons of DC superhero comics from mid-fifties to mid-60s. (Far too many to name. These are the comics I grew up reading, and so I am prejudiced, but I believe collectively they constitute one of the richest children’s literature anywhere, and, like the best children’s writings, the best of this can be enjoyed equally by adults.)
The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: Arguably the greatest “graphic novel” of all time; the book edition was the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine's 2005 list of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present."
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller: Stunning graphic novel re-invention of Batman, taking him back to his 1930s dark roots.
Carl Barks (Donald Duck)
Herbie: One of the strangest and most unique comics ever produced, and somehow it came from the tiny ACG (American Comics Group) company. Impossible to describe, it must be experienced. Herbie Popnecker is rotund, bespectacled, terse, completely imperturbable, and possessed of endless superpowers derived from… magical lollipops. Gorgeous women swoon over him, animals talk to him and know him by name, he can fly, travel through time, become invisible, and much more. His father, Pincus Popnecker, a complete dolt, is perpetually disappointed in his son and completely unaware of his enormous powers, calling him a "fat little nothing" and never realizing that Herbie is constantly rescuing him from his endless business failures. Sold in the mid-1960s right alongside Superman and Spiderman and such, yet weirder than the underground comics of the late 60s and 70s. Drawn by the wonderful, under-appreciated Ogden Whitney. When oh when will the Herbie stories be collected in book form?
My favorite superhero: Batman, especially the very first 1930s-era comics, and then mid-50s through mid-60s (my favorite era, the ones I grew up reading) -- specifically until the “new look” period that started May 1964. To a lesser degree I also appreciate the periodic attempts to revive the darker, noirish Batman).
A few favorite obscure superheroes: Werewolf (Dell, 1960s); The Black Dwarf (super-obscure, 1940s); The Question (Ditko, Charlton 1960s); the 1960s Archie/MLJ heroes (The Fly, The Shield, The Black Hood, etc.). Also I like most all of the 1960s Charlton heroes (Blue Beetle, Judo Master, Captain Atom, Thunderbolt, etc.), the 1960s ACG (American Comics Group) heroes (though these aren’t my favorites of the lesser-known mid-60s heroes), and the 1960s Tower Comics heroes, epitomized by T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. I also have a fondness for the whole run of the briefly-lived Super Comics (ICC) reprint company. The common ground in almost all the characters in this paragraph is that they appeared during the explosion in superhero comics set off by the success of the awful 1960s Batman show. As a comics-mad kid in the 1960s, it was extremely exciting, after years of seeing only DC and Marvel comics heroes, to see these new colorful comics suddenly appear. However, it’s more than that, as I still enjoy rereading the above comics today.
Today: I don’t regularly read any current superhero comics, though I’ll pick up the odd one every now and then, especially discounted copies. Perhaps I od’d in college, when I was literally reading every comic of that type published. I don’t like most of today’s art or writing styles, and I don’t like the prices of comics. I’m also ignorant of what’s out, though I do check comic stores from time to time. Most of my comics reading today is “underground” and zine type comics, and older horror and superhero comics like the above.
All late-60s and 70s-era black and white horror comic magazines from Eerie Publications. (Note, this is NOT the comic magazine Eerie, published by Warren, who also published Creepy. Totally different.) Most of the stories -- told in "chilling PICTO-FICTION" -- are awful but sometimes oddly interesting, many reprinted from 1950s horror comics. The incredibly garish, violent and lurid covers – showing heads and limbs being ripped off, blood-drinking monsters, gore-bespattered corpses, hideous tortures, and so on -- are the greatest features of these things, and have propelled them, in recent years, from worthless to outrageously expensive. Ghastly glorious gutter trash. Also the similar, if not quite so outrageous, magazines by Stanley publications.
Tales Too Terrible To Tell: one of greatest reprint anthologies of all time, this series gathered the wildest, weirdest, and most wonderfully worst horror tales from the 40s and 50s. How I lament its passing!
EC Comics in general, of course.
The horror and sf tales of the great Basil Wolvington. Mindboggling genius! What a tragedy he didn’t link up with EC comics, and produce a far larger volume of work of this type.
In general, I like 40s and 50s horror and monster comics, good and bad. Lots of good stuff is in the old Marvel reprints from the 70s of their older horror stuff.
Underground, “alternative” comics:
John Porcillino (King Cat Comics)
Newspaper comic strips:
Too many to list… a few that come to mind:
Favorite one-panel gag cartoonists:
VIP aka Virgil Partch
Other comics-kinda stuff
Pud comics, tiny strip found in Double
Bubble gum in 1950s and 1960s
I see a couple hundred or more films a year. Picking “favorites” would be an agonizing and wretched process.
So instead of “favorites,” here is a sampling that is representative, or at least indicative, of some of my tastes in film.
Here are a few mainstream and/or independent films that come to mind that I’ve (mostly) seen pretty recently and really like. If you threw all these into a blender, I’d almost certainly like the film that came out. (Trash, horror and sleaze films get a separate listing, below this one.)
Directors (or film creators)
Trash / Exploitation filmmakers and films
Underground / Experimental films and
Classic American Popular Films:
In general, the best stuff that shows up on Turner Classic Movies. Too many to list. The usual classics and actors, like Bogart, Bette Davis, etc etc. ad infinitum. Almost any decent noirish films, screwball comedies, crime dramas, horror and science fiction, classics, etc. There are thousands of these. In the 70s I came to feel that almost anything produced in the 30s through early 50s was worth watching, as a rough rule of thumb.
A few classic gems a bit off the mainstream: Three Men On A Horse (1936), hilarious no-budget farce starring the great Frank McHugh; The “I Love A Mystery” and “The Whistler” series of 1940s fun pulp dramas; Detour (Edgar Ulmer); The Black Cat (Karloff, Lugosi, Ulmer); poverty row cheapies like PRC studio films;…but again this could go on forever.
Kung Fu and Blaxploitation Favorites
In the mid-1970s I went almost every week to the Fox Theater, a decaying Columbus, Georgia slum theater with a mostly black audience, to see blaxploitation and kung-fu double features. The Fox, and its next-door sister theater The Dream, were remarkable places, and rather scary (“Here comes that white guy again!”) at times. One week a guy was stabbed to death out front. Frequently during the inevitable cathartic climax of blaxploitation films, excited members of the mostly or entirely black audience would scream out at the evil Caucasian villains: “Kill that white motherfucker!” and so on. Several times I came extremely close to doing that myself, but I chickened out. I would either have been cheered or beaten to death. All in all, my visits to these theaters were always very… atmospheric. But I saw many great films there.
Kung Fu Films
All of these films have run together in my mind. Hopefully I’ll sort it out and add more titles later.
Some documentaries I’ve really enjoyed:
Actors (in no particular order):
Animation (TV and film)
Favorite TV shows
Green Acres: I owe my discovery of this
magnificent treasure to Chuck Barber. I assumed it was idiotic
trash. He said, no, no, it’s brilliant. At his insistence I checked
an episode out, and discovered the greatest surrealism to ever
appear on American TV. Listen to me, this is brilliant and hilarious
stuff. Though a hit show, it was taken off the air as the networks
sought a younger, “hipper” audience with Norman Lear-type “socially
relevant” shows, most of which now seem creaky while Green Acres
still seems fresh and timeless, as it probably will 10,000 years
Favorite Rock Bands
Great Radio Rock Songs
Some great songs that actually played, and still play, on the real-world radio:
Louie Louie by The Kingsmen (The greatest
version of the greatest rock song ever -- not the best rock
song, maybe, but the greatest)
My Favorite Rock Guitar Solos of All Time
Ron Asheton: I Wanna Be Your Dog, No Fun, TV
Eye, Dirt, 1970
The Five Greatest Versions of “Louie Louie”
Greatest Rock Magazine: Creem
ART AND ARTISTS
I am inspired by these:
Virtually all the artists above are heroes of mine in one way or another. But here are some people whose greatness transcends their artistic or other achievements, persons whose lives I find worthy of emulation and study. None of them are perfect (well, arguably one of them is), and some are considerably less perfect than others, but they all lived extraordinary, courageous, fascinating, gigantic lives and left the world a far better place.
This list could be infinitely large, but I’ve tried to pick those whose influence I am most aware of on my daily life and values, and whose life and work I continue to study.
In no particular order:
H.L. Mencken: A large portrait of him hangs over my desk as I write this. Arguably the greatest stylist in American literature, unquestionably one of the world’s great writers, a satirist on the level of Twain, Voltaire and Swift, and a complete and utter joy to read and reread. Though today he is (utterly erroneously) denounced as a racist and anti-Semite, he was, in fact, one of the greatest defenders of the liberties of blacks and Jews in his lifetime. He championed more black writers than any other prominent critic and editor of his time, risked his life to fight lynch mobs, and repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism (indeed, most of his close friends were Jewish). The last article he wrote was an attack on segregation. He was America’s leading champion of individual liberty and economic freedom (classical liberalism, now known as libertarianism), during a time when those values were almost extinguished in America, and is one of the most astute political thinkers America has produced. He is endlessly quotable. Despite his public persona, he was mostly kind, thoughtful and generous in private life. He has been badly mistreated by critics and biographers, most of whom seem simply incapable of understanding him. William Manchester’s delightful H.L. Mencken: Disturber of the Peace, though published in 1950, may still be the best introduction to his life; certainly it is the most fun to read, and it captures like no other biography the excitement, the fun, the incredible energy, the love of liberty and the zest for life that made Mencken’s life such a grand adventure. Of the recent biographies, Mencken: The American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (2005) is the best. Terry Teachout’s widely publicized and praised The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (2002) is contemptible trash.
Albert Schweitzer: Once universally known as “the most famous man in the world,” he is now less and less known. Perhaps one of the few actual practicing Christians who ever lived. A loving, kind and tireless humanitarian, doctor, missionary, philosopher, musician, writer, scholar, theologian, preacher and more. Few know of, and understand, his wide-ranging genius, and what he gave up in fame and worldly goods to pursue his vision of love for all persons in diseased and impoverished Africa. His phrase “a reverence for life” beautifully sums up his philosophy:
"If I am a thinking being, I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence. For I shall know that it longs for fullness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds good whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development." -- Albert Schweitzer, "The Ethics of Reverence for Life."
Harry Browne: I found his classic book How To Be Free in an Unfree World in the 1970s, years before I became a libertarian, and it influenced me profoundly and does so today. It is not a libertarian book per se, but a brilliant and very practical guide to living a life free from all sorts of tyrannies, not just political. Later I had the pleasure of knowing him and working with him on some small projects. Most people know of him from his two Libertarian Party presidential campaigns, and he was indeed a model candidate and would have been the finest president in American history if elected. His other books are all worthwhile, too. A marvelous writer, and a kind, gentle, brilliant man.
Murray N. Rothbard: In my view the greatest libertarian thinker in history, and the father of the modern libertarian movement. A master economist, historian, philosopher, and more. A truly wonderful (and underappreciated) writer, a sort of modern Mencken. Charismatic yet completely unpretentious, and so generous with his time, as willing to speak to an unknown student or activist as to a world-class scholar. A blazing mind, a tireless champion of liberty, and willing to leave the ivory tower and wade into the nitty-gritty of political activism. I had the honor of knowing him, in a small way, and spoke with him several times and interviewed him for Chic (that interview is at this Web site). My review of his For A New Liberty, originally written for Laissez Faire Books, is at Amazon.com
Jesus: It’s a cliché to put him on a list like this. Yet surely he is one of the most remarkable figures in history. Billions of alleged followers, yet almost no one attempts to live as he suggested. Try loving and forgiving your enemy, or your neighbor, for five minutes or so, and see why; or even harder, try loving and forgiving yourself. He offered the gorgeous and psychologically liberating promise of instant forgiveness and redemption, preached a doctrine of love triumphing over all. No wonder he was hated, imprisoned, tortured and killed. Doubtless he would be today, also, and by his own loudest self-proclaimed followers. Was he the Son of God? If so, what are the rest of us? Someone should found a religion based on the Sermon on the Mount.
Robert E. Lee: I think he was the last of the great, noble Americans of the mold of the Founding Fathers. He enshrined duty: “Duty is the sublimest word in the language. You can never do more than your duty. You should never wish to do less.” He opposed slavery and the secession of the South, and felt the Civil War was a lost cause. Yet because he felt it was his duty to defend his homeland, he turned his back on guaranteed Northern military glory to lead the doomed Confederate army. After the war, he devoted his life to healing the split between North and South, turning down riches and fame to become the humble president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), then a small, undistinguished school which he transformed into an innovative college to train future leaders, from both North and South, of post-Civil War American.
(I idolized Lee as a young child, reading everything I could about him. When I was still in grade school, my parents took me to see Washington and Lee University. In the school chapel, our tour guide pointed out where, he said, Lee sat each Sunday. “No sir,” I piped up, pointing to another place. “He sat over there.” The guide smiled indulgently and said I was wrong, and those in the tour looked on with amusement. As we left the chapel, the guide called me and my parents back in. “I looked it up, and you were right,“ he said. To make amends, he gave us a private look at places not on the official tour. As I recall, he also let me sit in Lee’s desk chair.)
Thomas Jefferson: For all the obvious reasons.
Wayne Dyer: Several years ago my wife and I were answering a survey question: Who is the living person you most admire? To our surprise, we both answered Wayne Dyer. It was because we agreed with his earlier self-help books, and admired his effort to live a consistently high-quality life based on integrity, self-actualization and spiritual growth. I find his first two popular books, Your Erroneous Zones (1976) and Pulling Your Own Strings (1978) enormously useful, and I refer to them regularly; they remain my favorites of his dozens of books. His later, more spiritual books, while I find them interesting and provocative, have not attracted me as much, which may well be a failing on my part rather than his.
Thomas Edison: I love his relentless and irrepressible optimism and enthusiasm and entrepreneurship, so quintessentially American. In 1914, when Edison was 67, his laboratory and factory caught fire and burned to the ground, destroying much of his work and doing over $100 million (in today’s dollars) in damage. Edison, called out of bed in his nightclothes, stood in the cold winter night air and stared at the roaring blaze, then shouted excitedly to his oldest son: “Charles! Where’s your mother? Go get her and tell her to bring her friends! They’ll never see a fire like this one again!” The next day, walking through the ruins, Edison told Charles: “Son, there’s great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burnt up. Thank God we can start all over again.” Publicly, he declared: "I am 67, but I'm not too old to make a fresh start." The buildings were rebuilt and he was back to work.
Ron Paul: The greatest Congressman since the days of the Founders, quite possibly the greatest ever. When I told him that, he smiled modestly and said, “Sometimes people are kind enough to say things like that to me. But I always tell them, you know, there’s not a lot of competition.”
Forrest J. Ackerman: I once wrote him and told him I thought he might be the greatest man in the world – and I wrote this not as a child, but as a man 53 years old. He is many things, but above all, the founder of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which sparked and inflamed the imaginations of untold numbers of children, many who took the dreams and passions he inspired into their adult lives. A life of generosity, creativity, contagious enthusiasm, and love.
Percy Wells Cerutty: The controversial, charismatic Australian distance running coach who realized distance running could be a philosophy and a way to self-discovery and even spirituality. Decades or more ahead of his time, in both his training techniques and his philosophy. In high school, when I was a freshman runner looking for something to read about my new sport, a coach gave me a copy of Cerutty’s Athletics: How To Be A Champion. I devoured it and must have read it a hundred times or more. I copied passages on index cards. It forever changed my life. One day someone will make a great film about his remarkable life.