“Newspapers have degenerated, they may now be absolutely relied upon.”
It is 36 years since the gaseous incorporeal soul of Henry Louis Mencken, summoned before the throne of Him in Whom he for 76 years had expressed unbelief, presumably uttered the words the fleshly Mencken had rehearsed for such unlikely occasion: “Gentlemen, I was wrong!” In the interval between 1956 and the present, the art and ideas—and through them the personality—of the defunct Mencken continue to withstand time, political correctness, the assaults of hostile journalistic successors like Garry Wills and the late Henry Fairlie, and the more insulting attentions of those singalong-with-Mitch imitators whose paragon is R. Emmett Tyrrell of the American Spectator.
Still, it is my opinion that nobody yet has got H.L. Mencken right. For instance, Fairlie, in an essay he wrote to commemorate the Mencken centennial in 1980, dismissed his subject for having been merely a superior example of the personalizing writer who in Fairlie’s view typifies the American journalist; while Louis D. Rubin, Jr., writing for the Sewanee Review‘s summer 1991 number, professed to find only “mystery” in the supposedly contradictory attitudes upon which Mencken’s work rests. It has become a commonplace that nobody writing as Mencken wrote could be published in the American prints of today, by which is meant chiefly that to refer as outspokenly to Negroes, Jews, and lady politicians as H.L. Mencken regularly did is not only verboten but a one-way ticket to that instant obscurity that most working journalists cannot afford, and all of them abhor. But Mencken’s readiness for insult is not what primarily defines him, and neither is his alleged subjectivism. It is possible to be much less objective than Henry Mencken was, while sounding a great deal more so. What characterizes Mencken as a journalist is his ambivalence, an ambivalence that is indispensable equipment for the so-called creative artist and was common to most journalists in an era when novelists and even poets began their literary careers as newspaper reporters. In our own time—the heyday of the news commentator as secular guru, unelected politician, political scientist, unaccredited professor, and Keeper of the Conscience of America—any ambivalence is anathema, particularly to political columnists who regard acceptance of the fundamental ambiguity of human life as conduct unbecoming a professional.
In his youth Mencken experimented with the short story form and published a small volume of poetry, Ventures Into Verse. Quite sensibly, he abandoned both fiction and poetry and in middle age effected discreet raids on bookstores for the purpose of seizing, buying, and destroying copies of Ventures, which national renown had elevated to the status of collectors’ items. In due course he redirected his literary talent to criticism, but the germ of the creative artist continued to circulate in his system. As a newspaper reporter writing for an age vastly more literate than the present, Mencken saw, smelt, felt, heard, and touched as the novelist sees, smells, feels, hears, and touches; like the novelist also he sought to place the reality these sensations suggested to him within his work. There is none of what Henry James called “weak specificity” in Mencken’s writing; the background and the characters looming against it are presented dramatically, in broad strokes and in detail. This is true especially in the reportorial pieces, such as the famous Baltimore Evening Sun columns describing the Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and the national political conventions, but a poetic concreteness is discernible in the commentary as well. What Mencken gives his reader is less the “news,” strictly considered, than the era and the society in which the “news events” he covered occurred, and the “issues” sparked by such events. This is why his “journalism” lasts, why it continues to be read today in spite of the unpopularity of many or most of his opinions. I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that in Mencken’s work, American civilization between 1900 and 1948 (when he suffered the disabling stroke that ended his career) is embodied as pungently and completely as the civilization of Victorian England is in the novels of Trollope, or that of the American South from the Civil War to the Second World War in those of Faulkner. That is to say, Mencken did not subjectivize the American scene, he recreated it—exactly what every literary artist of the first rank has always done, and always will do.
It is an inherent weakness of the present anthology that Marion Rodgers has restricted herself to reprinting the material as Mencken wrote it for original publication in the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Chicago Sunday Tribune, the New York Evening Mail, and the New York American, though he rewrote many of the best of these articles for the Prejudices volumes, where they achieved immortality. Mencken typically produced his newspaper copy “at a gallop, mud-spattered, high in oath” as William Manchester remarked, then added a scattering of pencil marks to the first and only draft before sending it along to the copy desk. In a career that spanned nearly half a century and added millions of words to the national archives, he inevitably wrote too much and too quickly, so that reading through even this modest tome of seven hundred pages I experienced certain horrible moments when I felt that I really was encountering the hollow thumping of Tyrrell’s prose. But Mencken at his best was wonderful, and there is enough good writing available here not only to make sampling it an invigorating experience but to inspire new thoughts concerning a writer closely familiar to me since adolescence.
Mencken remarked in the 1920’s, when the New York Times was calling him the most influential private citizen in America, that should it ever become apparent to him that he had somehow produced an effect upon his day he would jump through the nearest window. He was not, he liked to insist demurely, a constructive critic: what would he have said to the proposition that he was a genuine American prophet! We need of course not worry about what he would have said, since he is an Angel of Gawd now and knows better. But the man who—again in the 20’s—predicted formally that the United States would blow up in a hundred years deserves respect today, even if his forecast was a little off; for once, it appears, he let down his guard and a spirit of uncharacteristic optimism seized him. Because the United States has already blown up; seventy years after Mencken’s prophecy, we are surviving more or less miserably beneath the rubble.
An astonishing number of the evils of Mencken’s own time, carefully noted and helpfully set down by him, are with us today in a form that is more highly developed still, and hence more virulent. I offer a few examples of his prophetic powers:
On the future of the United States of America: “Either we must soon see the glorious shores of Utopia, or the whole argosy will be wrecked.” (1936)
On the future of American democracy: “[Judicious men] warned that giving the vote to incompetent, despairing and envious people would breed demagogues to rouse and rally them, and that the whole democratic process would thus be converted into organized pillage and rapine.” (1940)
On the Democratic Party: “The plain fact is that the Democratic party is scarcely a party at all, but simply a loose federation of discordant minorities, chiefly devoted to civil war.” (1928)
On class in America: ” . . . Americans of one class seldom know anything about Americans of other classes.” (1928)
On American idealism: “There was a time when the American citizen was an idealist himself Now he is only idealism’s raw material, as a cow is the raw material of butter, ice-cream, and custard pie.” (1925)
On government regulation of the citizenry: “The ideal will not be reached until the laws are wholly transcendental and unobeyable . . . until a man may commit just as many crimes when he is at home in bed, with his car in dead storage, as he now commits every time he passes the corner of Baltimore and Charles Streets. Such is the dream of gendarmerie. Such is human idealism.” (1925)
On the American globalist impulse: “[Henry Ford] insists upon . . . laying down laws . . . for the government of . . . natural inhabitants [of foreign countries]. This is what Europe understands by Americanism, by Americanization. And this is what it fears.” (1925)
On the woman of tomorrow: “Once women have the political power to obtain their just rights, they will begin to lose their old power to obtain special privileges by emotional appeals. Men, facing them squarely at last, will consider them anew, not as romantic political and social invalids, to be coddled and caressed, but as free competitors in a harsh and abominable world.” (1918)
On Abraham Lincoln: “[H]e has become one of the national deities, and a realistic examination of him is thus no longer possible.” (1931)
On jazz: “It might just as well be made by a machine . . . some day, I suppose, the experiment of so making it will be tried.” (1934)
On dancing to jazz: “[A] puerile writhing on a narrow spot.” (1934)
On letting the Old World go to Hell in its own way: Mencken was never more farseeing, perhaps, than when he contended that Germany, not England, deserved to win the Great War. The Teutons are at least as civilized a people as the British, he argued, and maybe more so. Had the demon Kaiser actually put the Brits to rout, the balance of power in Europe would probably have been more stable in the postwar period than the British-American victory ensured; there would likely have been no Hitler, and we would surely not be witnessing today the dangerously chaotic situation in Eastern Europe as the absurd peace treaty imposed upon the Central Powers by Herr Prof. Dr. Wilson (“the perfect model of a Christian cad”) is finally undone.
Puritanism—the chief cultural inheritance of what Mencken called “the American of Anglo-Saxon descent” and what has been known since the 1950’s as the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or WASP—was his life-long preeminent bane, the object of his highest scorn, the butt of his severest satire. For him, Puritanism was much more than the sickening fear that “someone, somewhere, is having a good time”; it was the lust for control, for the modification of individual and collective behavior in service to an idealism that had become detached from all reality and reattached to a stubborn belief in “the palpably not true.” In Mencken’s estimation, truth, to the Puritan, was a matter of intention coupled with incantation:’ if it were desirable that a thing should be true, and if enough good men repeated often enough that it was true, and then proceeded, day in and day out, to act upon the assumption, then that thing would actually become true.
By the action of the Holy Spirit broadcasting itself from Beacon Hill, Transcendentalism was conceived immaculately. So was Progressivism. So was the New Nationalism of Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson. So was Prohibitionism. So were the Volstead and Mann Acts. All types of social work and every form of Uplift and Reform were likewise the hideous spawn of Puritanism, whose attempts forcibly to stifle truth and to promote error reached beyond the social and political fora to embrace the intellectual and artistic ones as well. “[T]he prevailing American view of the world and its mysteries is still a moral one,” Mencken wrote in a long essay, “Puritanism as a Literary Force,” “and no other human concern gets half the attention that is endlessly lavished upon the problem of conduct, particularly that of the other fellow. . . . The Puritan’s utter lack of aesthetic sense, his distrust of all romantic emotion, his unmatchable intolerance of opposition, his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views, his savage cruelty of attack, his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution . . . have put an almost intolerable burden upon the exchange of ideas in the United States.”
Beginning in the 1960’s, only a few years after his death, predictions began to be heard concerning the “decline of the WASP” in America; such rumors of a future enlightenment were greeted with many satisfied smirks and a few triumphant guffaws. From a strictly sociological standpoint they have perhaps been substantiated by the subsequent march of history, but from another point of view they have been vitiated completely. According to this perspective, the WASP during the quarter-century immediately past has triumphed as never before in the history of his race, although the result is the ruin of the country that his ancestors so hopefully established. To put it simply, he has succeeded in converting all other racial, ethnic, and religious groups in America to Puritanism by convincing them that they need for their own success and happiness to become as moralistic, intrusive, reformist, self-conscious, intolerant, and bigoted—in a word. Puritanical—as himself That the result of this great moral victory is turmoil, divisiveness, the wholesale abuse of law, a vast increase in religious rivalry and racial hatred, enmity and distrust between the sexes, a burgeoning neo-Prohibitionist movement, and a general breakdown in social cohesiveness that may in the coming decades end in actual civil war does not trouble him in the least. How Mencken would have relished this consummate irony! And how he would have enjoyed the final show!
[The Impossible H.L. Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories, Edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, with a foreword by Gore Vidal (New York: Anchor/Doubleday) 707 pp., $27.50]