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His­torian John Chalberg came to Hillsdale and gave H.L. Mencken imper­son­ations. Courtesy | Wiki­media Commons

Stu­dents who attended “How Funny do Amer­icans Talk” on the evening of Oct. 22 were in for a rare treat as imper­sonator and his­torian John “Chuck” Chalberg pre­sented America through the eyes of H.L. Mencken. 

In a pre­sen­tation spon­sored by the History Department and the H.L. Mencken society, Chalberg intro­duced his audience to the jour­nalist, satirist, and his­torian H.L. Mencken and his book “The American Language.” 

Known for his biting satire, Mencken lived during both world wars and was highly critical of the United States’ alliance with England. He is famous for quips such as “Puri­tanism: the haunting fear that someone some­where may be happy.”

Chalberg’s speech described Mencken’s childhood and edu­cation as well as the beginning of his career in journalism.

“I wanted to be a news­pa­perman. Took me a while, but I got a job,” Chalberg said, as Mencken. “Sud­denly, I was at large in a wicked seaport city with half a million people.” 

During the war, Mencken’s views were unpopular, according to Chalberg, so he set out to make a book on the American Lan­guage, in which he detailed the col­lo­qui­alisms of the American people. 

“Why did I write it? My chief excuse was simply one of human interest and enter­tainment,” Chalberg said as Mencken. 

“After all,” he con­tinued, “Why should we Amer­icans ever permit any per­pet­u­ation of the curious notion that our lan­guage is merely on loan from England?”

Chalberg began playing Mencken while he was attending grad school and teaching U.S. History. 

“I started doing Mencken for stu­dents, I think for the humor and the insight,” Chalberg said. 

Mencken’s char­acter has proven to be a par­ticular chal­lenge for Chalberg since recordings of him talking are very rare. 

“Right before he suf­fered a stroke late in ’48, Mencken gave an interview to somebody on the Bal­timore Sun, and that interview is recorded, and that’s all I have that I know exists,” Chalberg said. 

In addition to per­forming as Mencken, Chalberg has taken on well-loved char­acters as Teddy Roo­sevelt and Branch Rickey in the past and has even per­formed as G.K. Chesterton for a Hillsdale con­vo­cation ceremony.

Dis­tin­guished Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of History Darryl Hart attended the lecture and said he appre­ciated Mencken’s char­ac­ter­istic wit and satire. 

“I do wish we had Mencken around to write about COVID, the virus, and the government’s response right now,” Hart said.

“It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I was just expecting a formal talk, not an imper­son­ation,” said sophomore Kathryn Luke. “I truly enjoyed it.”