“Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should
not be able to find my way across the room.”
Rarely does a published diary, even of a celebrated writer, become anything more than fodder for the specialist. Yet H.L. Mencken’s diary has been turned into a cause célèbre by its editor, Charles A. Fecher. Fecher’s introduction is probably the most spectacular knifing by an editor of his own author since Max Lerner, then in the Marxist phase of his endless career, denounced Adam Smith, in the introduction to the Modern Library edition of the Wealth of Nations (1937), as “an unconscious mercenary in the service of a rising capitalist class.” Equally in tune with the dominant cultural climate as Lerner had been in the 1930’s, Fecher’s hatchet job has succeeded in organizing a veritable lynch mob against the shade of the Sage of Baltimore. The gist of the lynching was summed up in one large-type newspaper headline: “Mencken Pro-Hitler, Diary Reveals.”
Fecher’s introduction is reminiscent of nothing so much as the immortal line of Claude Rains in Casablanca: he is shocked . . . shocked to discover from the diaries, unsealed only since 1981, that Mencken hated Franklin D. Roosevelt, that he strongly opposed America’s entry into World War II, and—always the killing thrust—that: “Let it be said at once, clearly and unequivocally: Mencken was an anti-Semite.” Carl Bode, author of a lengthy and tedious biography (Mencken, 1969), also weighs in, professing himself “stunned” at Mencken’s extensive, “knee-jerk” anti-Semitism, and Jonathan Alter, in Newsweek, adds, for good measure, that the diary reveals Mencken to have been “bitter” and “brooding” as well.
A lonely, brooding anti-Semite and pro-Nazi sounds like nothing so much as the psychological profile of the modal alleged assassin-of-Presidents that infests American mythology. Since in our contemporary culture Fecher’s charge is the moral equivalent of stating that “Mencken was a child molester,” he is morally obligated to present convincing evidence for his claim.
But first, Fecher’s other two accusations. Coming from a Mencken scholar who has written a book (albeit dull and plodding) on Mencken: A Study of His Thought (1978), Fecher’s purported shock and amazement at Mencken’s hatred of FDR and his opposition to World War II is simply beyond belief You don’t have to be steeped in Mencken’s published essays and letters to know that he hated Roosevelt and opposed US entry into World War II. The diary entries are, if anything, surpassed in intensity by Mencken’s published writings. Far worse, Fecher panders to the notorious historical amnesia of most Americans by acting as if anyone with such outlandish views must have been a lone nut and, at least implicitly, pro-Nazi. Fecher conveniently ignores the fact that millions of Americans hated FDR with equal intensity (though not with Mencken’s sparkling wit), and that a majority of Americans strongly opposed US entry into World War II.
The charge of anti-Semitism is even more to Fecher’s discredit. The canard that he was an anti-Semite and racist has long been hurled at Mencken, especially by his longtime assistant at the American Mercury, the humorless Charles Angoff (in his scurrilous H.L. Mencken, 1956). Much to Mencken’s amusement, the Progressive Party of Maryland introduced a resolution at the end of the 1948 national Progressive convention, denouncing his articles on the convention as “Redbaiting,” “Jew-baiting,” and “Hitlerite,” and Mencken was greatly disappointed when the convention’s chairman, Albert J. Fitzgerald, sensibly ruled the resolution out of order.
Charles Fecher, however, faced a special problem in levying the accusation of bigotry. For in his 1978 book on Mencken, Fecher had robustly and quite correctly rebutted the charges of anti-Semitism and racism (Mencken, pp. 25-26, 118-19, and especially p. 18I). Fecher might have added that, in addition to the fact of his having many close Jewish friends, Mencken, in 1938, called for admitting all Jewish refugees into the United States. Therefore, in order to execute a convincing turnabout, Fecher had to claim that his current flip-flop stemmed from the alleged revelations in the recently unsealed diaries.
But on the very evidence of this diary, the charge of anti-Semitism is arrant and malicious nonsense. It is wellknown that the published Mencken often used colorful categories to designate ethnic groups. But Mencken’s designations of Jews in the diary are purely descriptive, or even favorable. For example, Fecher damns Mencken as anti-Semitic because he notes in his dairy that a woman he met was a “French Jewess.” But was Mencken then a vicious anti-German because he describes one Dietrich as a “huge German”? Only in a debased culture where a simple notation that someone is Jewish is considered gravely “anti-Semitic” could Fecher get away with such an asinine charge. Moreover, Mencken’s label takes on further meaning in his very next sentence, unmentioned by Fecher: that “though she [the “French Jewess”] is polite, she finds it hard to conceal her distrust of me as a German.” (Diary, p. 55). Note that this entry was made before Hitler’s access to power, when the “French” root of her seeming anti-Germanism would leap to mind more than the Jewish one.
Another supposed evidence of Mencken’s bias is his diary reference to Lawrence Spivak, later publisher of the American Mercury, as a “young Harvard Jew.” (p. 71.) But Fecher once again fails to mention the context, in this case that Mencken immediately goes on to praise Spivak as “energetic and intelligent.” So that apparently, in Fecher’s grotesque universe, even a favorable reference to a Jew is deemed evidence of “anti-Semitism.”
But the clincher in demonstrating the odiousness of Fecher’s tactics is that (1) there are very few references to Jews at all in the Diary, and (2) there is nothing nearly as critical of Jews as in Mencken’s letter to his old friend Roscoe Peacock of April 30, 1931, published in 1961, in the delightful collection of Letters of H.L. Mencken, edited by Guy J. Forgue. Mencken was replying to a letter in which Peacock complained about the behavior of Jews on an ocean liner; he stated that, by and large, Jews are much more intelligent and charming than other Americans, but that “I agree with you that the unpleasant ones are unpleasant almost beyond endurance.”
Since Fecher is clearly well aware of the Forgue collection, we can only conclude that he is being disingenuous in basing his volte face on the Diary. Might it rather be that Fecher leveled the dread charge of anti-Semitism in order to hype the book?
If there was anything that Mencken truly hated, it was the despotism and Puritanism of Prohibition, and if there was any class of men that he truly disliked, apart from his own ethnic group of Anglo-Saxons, it was the Baptists and Methodists whom he charged with fastening Prohibition on America. Yet, far from accusing him of bigotry and “insensitivity” toward Baptists, the Liberal Establishment has always delighted in Mencken’s “irreverence” on this and similar issues. It was only when he shifted his dazzling and witty invective to the new and more sanctified despotism of the New Deal that Mencken has been cast down as a nasty reactionary. Mencken once wrote that his basic method was to “heave the dead cat into the temple” of social idols, to demonstrate to the faithful that lightning would not strike him dead on the spot. Unfortunately, what Mencken termed the “pecksniffs” and “wowsers” of the New Deal proved far more durable idols than those who had whooped it up for Prohibition.
To left-liberals like Fecher, it is “inconsistent” and “inexplicable” that Mencken could denounce politicians as a class and yet admire and support Maryland’s Governor Albert Ritchie, a Jeffersonian Democrat; that he could detest and denounce Methodists and Prohibitionists, and yet be a longtime friend and admirer of Methodist (and Prohibitionist) Bishop James Cannon; or, for that matter, that he could attack segregation laws and be a “racist” or have close Jewish friends and be “anti-Semitic.”
But if Fecher and other liberal critics truly understood their subject, the mystery could be cleared up easily. Typically, leftists are the sort of people who proclaim their love of “humanity” in the abstract, while being nasty and uncaring toward individuals in the concrete. As a man of the right, H.L. Mencken was precisely the opposite. Caustic toward mankind, or groups of men, in the aggregate, he was uniformly gentle, courteous, and loving toward his individual acquaintances and friends.
Setting the artificial brouhaha aside, there is in fact much for Mencken buffs to learn from his Diary. Not that he had a “dark” side, not that he was lonely and bitter, not that he was a closet Nazi or anti-Semite. Quite the contrary. While the diary unsurprisingly lacks much of the coruscating wit that pervades his essays and letters, it provides an unfailingly fascinating insight into the marvelous life that Mencken led, a life of productive work and lively and engaging conversation with a raft of close and interesting friends. And particularly we see Mencken as a moral and caring man who loved his wife deeply and was greatly devoted to his friends. Thus, he laments throughout the Diary that numerous writer friends (Sinclair Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald, and others) were killing themselves with drink. And this from a beer lover who proudly referred to himself as “omnibibulous,” but deplored the excess of drunkenness.
Mencken, furthermore, may have been scornful of men in the mass, but he was so worried about hurting the feelings of men and women he knew personally that he ordered the diaries sealed for 25 years after his death, and even then he asked that access to his diary be strictly limited to scholars. Fecher concedes that the Enoch Pratt Free Library, custodians of Mencken’s papers, violated the wishes of Mencken by publishing his diary.
In short, the true Mencken buff emerges from the diary with an even higher appreciation of HLM than ever before.
Mencken was a doughty and happy warrior who helped to liberate the American language and culture from pompous, pretentious, and flatulent writing and thinking. He was a staunch libertarian who often declared that he believed in absolute individual liberty, “up to the limit of the unbearable, and even beyond.” Mencken’s reputation is now under renewed assault by a malevolent left-Puritan culture that makes the old puritanism refreshingly libertarian by contrast. Virtually every day we find a new puerility or a new sacred cow that seems to cry out for Mencken’s cleansing treatment. But then we realize that under present conditions, Mencken would be hard put to get published at all. The consolation is that none of this fate would surprise Mencken, who, as early as 1934, in deploring the rise of the New Deal, wrote to Roscoe Peacock that “if I really believed that I had left a Mark upon my Time I think I’d leap into the nearest ocean,” for “the American people are more insane today than they were when I began to write.”
Perhaps so, but there is always a remnant who understands, and all the returns are not yet in. If totalitarian communism in Eastern Europe can collapse like a house of cards, perhaps some day the softer tyranny of left puritanism shall also disappear. Then, the great Mencken, despite himself, will be seen to have Made a Mark on more times than his own.
[The Diary of H.L. Mencken, Edited by Charles A. Fecher (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 476 pp., $30.00]
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