H.L. Mencken, poet, author, essayist, journalist, philosopher, social critic, editor, philologist, political scientist, patron of the arts, and humorist, came as near as any other American scholar of the 20th century to be worthy of the title "Renaissance Man." His profundity, primarily as a comically witty social critic, reached the often startled minds of millions of Americans in his heydey between World War I and the New Deal. Communists denounced him as a reactionary, politicians assailed him as an anarchist, clergymen branded him a demon. Prior to his death in 1956, there was scarcely a stone in American society that Mencken failed to pick up and heave.
In fact, Mencken's ease in jiggling loose the sham in any scene, the farce in any crusade, and the quack in any crowd was maybe, and ironically, far too effective. Because today the magic that was Mencken has been reduced to sporadic bursts of brilliance in textbooks on the twenties. It is a nasty break for the contemporary student of American history.
Mencken has been excluded from recent history not due to his failure in accurately depicting American society—but because of his success. Mencken resolutely dethroned the quacks of everyday living, and not just those under indictment by the FTC. He assailed the myth-makers of the State, the Church and the University. His gifted insight did not come to a cautious detente at the doors of the respected and powerful: it mushroomed into nuclear assault.
So it was that Mencken created a bona fide enigma for the hordes of intellectuals who appreciated the obvious quality of the man but had horrid fears of recognizing the precise philosophical base from which it sprang. It was one matter to mimic Warren Gamaliel Harding, but what pleasant fellow could bring himself to denigrate the Y.M.C.A.? Mencken had a naughty habit of not only stepping on the toes of sacred cows, but of slaughtering them, butchering the meat into T-bones, having a cook-out in the middle of the pasture, and then throwing the bones back at the herd. Perhaps it's not so surprising that they finally stampeded.
But now, if you will, H.L. Mencken.…
Born in 1880 to a middle-class German-American cigar-making family, Henry Louis Mencken quickly discovered the "charms" of his native Baltimore—they were to enchant him for the rest of his days. Reading Huckleberry Finn at age nine was an event later described by Mencken as "the most stupendous of my whole life." Thereafter, he made a habit of digesting Twain's novel at least once a year until well into his forties. For the most part, the young H.L. cultivated a marvelous love of literature and a richly abundant vocabulary. From his father he had inherited a tremendous skepticism of religion, and he soon adopted a revulsion for that red, white and blue bastion of American youth—the Y.M.C.A. Years later he reflected:
All that the Y.M.C.A. horse and rings really accomplished was to fill me with an ineradicable distaste not only for Christian endeavor in all its forms, but also for every variety of calisthenics, so that I still begrudge the trifling exertion needed to climb in and out of the bath-tub, and hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.
Mencken's rise as a journalist was so precipitous as to induce frightening pangs of panic in any aspiring writer prone to comparison. As a newspaperman, Henry distinguished himself by becoming the youngest managing editor of a major American daily at 23. Soon after this job with the Herald, Mencken assumed similar responsibilities with the Baltimore Sun in 1908, commencing an association that was to remain intact until his mortal departure.
By 1914 Mencken had moved into the forefront of the American intelligentsia as co-editor of the Smart Set, a popular magazine amongst the young intellectuals. Here Mencken inaugurated his pet hobby of promoting and publishing any young writer showing some audacity and promise. The Smart Set proved a perfect vehicle for Mencken to launch his assault on the putrid sterility of the American intellectual establishment.
Mencken's most precise statement of the failings of Kultur in the New World are emblazoned in his striking essay "The National Letters." Here Mencken outlines each of the inhibiting factors condemning a spirited emancipation of the native literature. His target was the depressing void of courage in tackling the perplexing problems at the very roots of existence. Mencken stopped far short of expecting a potion for every ill, indeed his adamant reflexes against societal "uplifters" are well put:
Few doctrines seem to me to be worth fighting for. I can't understand the martyr. Far from going to the stake for a Great Truth, I wouldn't even miss a meal for it. My notion is that all the larger human problems are insoluble and that life is quite meaningless—a spectacle without purpose or moral. I detest all efforts to read a moral into it. I do not write because I want to make converts. In point of fact, I seldom make one—and then it is embarrassing. I write because the business amuses me. It is the best of sports.
If Mencken insisted that the more fantastic questions of metaphysics were beyond full human cognizance he certainly did not avoid speculating about them and avidly enjoyed consideration of the saltier aspects of homo-sapienism: death, sex, profanity, morality, and government to merely begin the list. Mencken's diagnosis of the contemporary predicament was elaborate but direct:
When one turns to any other national literature—to Russian literature, say, or French, or German, or Scandinavian—one is conscious immediately of a definite attitude toward the primary mysteries of existence, the unsolved and ever-fascinating problems at the bottom of human life.…These attitudes raise a literature above mere poetizing and tale-telling; they give a dignity and importance.…But it is precisely here that the literature of America, and especially the later literature, is most colorless and inconsequential. As if paralyzed by the national fear of ideas, the democratic distrust of whatever stikes beneath the prevailing platitudes, it evades all resolute and honest dealing with…hearty literature's elementary materials.…What is there is a highly self-conscious and insipid correctness, a bloodless respectability, a submergence of matter in manner—in brief, what is there is the feeble, uninspiring quality of German painting and English music.
Mencken had little patience for prissy establishmentarians and fought continually for American authors to use their talents creatively to advance new thoughts on tremendous, as opposed to trivial, ideas. Wherever he found a trace of the true spirit he cherished, he was quick to expose and deify it. H.L., never noted for his overwhelming discretion, found his comic genius firing gallantly in just such a discovery:
The poet hugging his Sonia in a Washington square beanery, and so giving notice to all his world that he is a devil of a fellow, is at least a better man than the emasculated stripling in a Y.M.C.A. gospel-mill, pumped dry of all his natural appetites and then vacuum filled with double-entry bookkeeping, business economics and autoeroticism. In so foul a nest of imprisoned and fermenting sex as the United States, plain fornication becomes a mark of relative decency.
"The National Letters" was published in 1920 and had considerable impact. But far more important than any singular contribution to the literature of the land was the mood of the times which was pervaded by a revulsion against oppressive, war-mongering Wilsonian democracy. The country had fought the war to "make the world safe for democracy," and had succeeded in making democracy unsafe at home. The purges of Germans, Socialists, "unpatriotic" authors, and subversives reached a condition rightly judged as insane frenzy during the years 1917 to 1919. Consequently, the 1920's saw a large minority of the nation openly critical of the repressive mores that had held imaginative writers in check. Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and others were not only writing vigorously but finally receiving justifiable praise from the New York Times.
As the society unclenched its fists and opened its arms to artists of such caliber in the twenties, Mencken felt a passion to move on. Beyond the implications of America's cultural straitjacket were the broader imperatives of social criticism. So in January, 1924, the American Mercury was hatched to give Mencken's illuminating wit a bright, new direction. He projected:
There is no middle ground of consolation for men who believe neither in the Socialist fol-de-rol nor in the principal enemies of the Socialist fol-de-rol—and yet it must be obvious that such men constitute the most intelligent and valuable body of citizens that the nation can boast.…It will be the design of the American Mercury to bring, if not alleviation of their lot, then at least some solace to these outcasts of democracy.
By the time the Mercury adventure launched a new course for Mencken's attack on frauds and mountebanks he had compiled a respectable stack of bound writings on a plethora of subjects. His first attempt was printed in 1903 and was Mencken's only stab at poetry—Ventures Into Verse. Two years later he reached into the dramatic arena with one of the first books dealing with Shaw, entitled George Bernard Shaw: His Plays, Mencken's real national stature was born in 1908, however, when The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche appeared. The book became a popular as well as critical success and is still cited as an authoritative interpretation of Nietzsche.
Mencken's views were influenced greatly by both Shaw and Nietzsche. Shaw was inspiring as a renegade of puritan morality who exercised a gifted flair for demolishing the prim and proper. Most adroit was, in Mencken's words, Shaw's ability to depict commonplace ideas "so scandalously the pious get all the thrills out of the business that would accompany a view of the rector in liquor in the pulpit." Nietzsche's radical viewpoints gave the philosopher an alternative to collectivist socialism on the one hand, and mystical Christianity on the other. Mencken swallowed a good deal of the ideology, being particularly vulnerable to Nietzsche's vehement repudiations of religion, democracy and the masses, as well as his explanation of the nature and role of a true aristocracy. It is apparent in reading Mencken's work of 1908 that a great portion of his thinking was firmly embedded in the ideological real estate of Shaw and Nietzsche.
Mencken's primary values were rigidly grounded in a rejection of all irrational dogmas, and a prima facie acceptance of individualism. For Mencken, the latter ideal was founded upon man's capacity for scientific thought—knowledge based on verifiable facts. Mencken never pretended to assume that the majority of mankind possessed this knowledge or desired to think and be free. He once wrote Upton Sinclair, "Isn't it a fact that the majority of people, even those who are most obviously oppressed, are quite devoid of any comprehension of liberty—that they are contented in their wallow?" But for gentlemen of scientific inquiry, an advance of thought and well-being was possible and justified a system of maximum individual freedom. Indeed, Mencken was convinced that the whole of human progress had been achieved by the efficacious minority of men who possessed that rare and precious mixture of intelligence, courage and honor. The progress of civilization was not due to the masses, but accomplished in spite of them, as Mencken contended:
Progress is a battle that enlists relatively few men, and on the whole they are unpopular and even disreputable. The names of Darwin and Huxley are certainly not held in honor by the generality of Americans; in Tennessee they are actually used to scare babies.
While Mencken mercilessly denounced reformers of the political realm, he saw much of the intelligentsia of the Western world in a crucial battle in which he was a vociferous partisan. The thrust of Western civilization had, in his eyes, been a struggle between reason and Christianity. Reason being the sole tool of the lonely geniuses of the ages, the Church had had little trouble in squeezing and squelching the isolated heretics who defied the true word. Christian faith, Mencken insisted, had nothing to show for its foundation by way of reason; it admitted as much in its cry for blind allegiance (faith), and relied singularly upon mankind submitting to "the inimical and impenetrable powers of the air."
With Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, Mencken proclaimed that the back of the faithful gospelers had been broken. Intellectuals in Europe, most notably Spencer, Huxley, Shaw and Nietzsche, were dethroning the reign of the Church, if not amongst the common herd, at least amongst the lead thoroughbreds. Mencken concluded that the Western intellectuals had finally proven victorious in their brutal struggle to conquer the witch doctors of the Church. He theorized: "Today a literal faith in the gospel narrative is confined to ecclesiastical reactionaries, pious old ladies, and men about to be hanged."
William Jennings Bryan, on this issue and many others, represented the all-encompassing target for the dastardly Mencken. Mencken commented: Bryan "liked people who sweated freely and were not debauched by the refinements of the toilet." At base, Bryan was "a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity.…He seemed deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things." The misguided direction of such a quack was prompted by a disgraceful envy, a quality that Mencken asserted was the key ingredient and principal curse of democracy. Precisely stated, this despicable jealousy was:
The ambition of a common man to get his hand upon the collar of his superiors, or, failing that, to get his thumb into their eyes. He (Bryan) was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits.
The irrationality of it all was seeping through, yet the dam burst in finality at the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Mencken, whose coverage of the trial was nationally syndicated, was fascinated by the true-to-life demonstration of the absurdity of the opponent. Mencken triumphantly reported on Bryan:
He descended to demagogy so dreadful that his very associates blushed. His one yearning was to keep his yokels heated up—to lead his forlorn mob of imbeciles against the foe.…Even Darrow, who knew better, occasionally yielded to the prevailing spirit. One day he lured poor Bryan into the folly I have mentioned: his astounding argument against the notion that man is a mammal.…There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic—there he stood in the glare of the world uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at. The artful Darrow led him on: he repeated it, ranted for it, bellowed it in his cracked voice. So he was prepared for the final slaughter.
Perhaps the creme de la creme of H.L. Mencken was poured into his depiction of the average American. In another of his brilliant essays, "On Being an American," Mencken really opened up on the low state of the common citizen:
Here the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read 50 good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy.
As proof that even the vast majority of the nation's heroes were bogus, Mencken cited the esteemed literary talent of Woodrow Wilson, the respected theological passion of Bryan, the alleged nobility of J. Pierpont Morgan, and the simple fact that the United States Congress was taken seriously. Objecting loudly to the paralyzing parameters of accepted social behavior and humiliating regimentation of social custom, Mencken perceived that the American people were largely paranoid—afraid to step out of line, afraid of immigrants, afraid of mysterious political demons. As he summed up:
The normal American of the "pure-blooded" majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen.
Most depressing of all was the constant war for survival that had to be waged by the actual thinkers of the age. Mencken decried the ever-creeping constraints of American society:
The whole drift of our law is toward the absolute prohibition of all ideas that diverge in the slightest from the accepted platitudes, and behind that drift of law there is a far more potent force of growing custom, and under that custom there is a national philosophy which erects conformity into the noblest of virtues and the free functioning of personality into a capital crime against society.
Being such a social criminal, H.L. Mencken was a heathen and a maverick. Always quick to search out the back-door route hidden to the crowd, it was his miraculous sense of humor—including mastery of the reductio ad absurdum—that became his greatest weapon. For instance, in launching a mock campaign for President in the twenties, Mencken's platform included the legalization of the lynching of all public officials, the promise to keep the population "lightly stewed" at all times by spraying the air with alcohol, and the death penalty for all defeated candidates for the Presidency on the grounds that if they are permitted to live they invariably become intolerable nuisances. Ah, yes indeed!
As Douglas Stenerson has concluded in his Mencken biography, if there was a single cause or idea that could sum up Mencken, it would have to be his undying, unquestionable libertarianism. Mencken doggedly adhered to the motto of Thoreau, "mind your own business," and strove for a minimum of interference from the state. It was Mencken's observation that "the main gain of modern man has been the weakening of governments." Yet he could see, especially in his later years, the strong ascension to greater power by expanding government bureaucracies. Mencken attributed the growing statism to a mistake of 20th century thinking:
What keeps such notions in full credit, and safeguards them against destructive analysis, is chiefly the survival into our enlightened age of a concept hatched in the black days of absolutism—the concept, to wit, that government is something that is superior to and quite distinct from all other human institutions—that it is, in its essence, not a mere organization of ordinary men, like the Ku Klux Klan, the United States Steel Corporation or Columbia University, but a transcendental organism composed of aloof and impersonal powers, devoid wholly of self-interest and not to be measured by merely human standards.…This concept, I need not argue, is full of error.
Mencken chided the notion that public servants were somehow better equipped than private citizens to provide the leadership for a society. "There is actually," he said, "no more public spirit among them than so many burglars or street walkers." In the end, he surmised that "government is actually the worst failure of civilized man."
It would be a paramount disgrace to let Mencken's discrediting of government obscure the principles he enthusiastically lauded. Highest on the list was the imperative of free speech. In his journals, especially the Mercury, Mencken adopted a liberal policy of exposing the writings of philosophical opponents. He exhalted the personal fortitude entailed in taking a stand based upon honest, thought-out convictions, believing "there is something even more valuable to civilization than wisdom, and that is character." Mencken's position on intellectual courage was poignantly stated:
A Socialist who goes to jail for his opinions seems to me a finer man than the Judge who sends him there, though I disagree with all the ideas of the Socialist and agree with some of those of the Judge.
H.L. got a chance to show his stuff during World War I by stridently defending a number of alleged subversives, most notably Eugene Debs, against rampant government repression. Mencken was one of a very few men who stood up to the war-crazed insanity and organized a powerful defense for Theodore Dreiser, whose book, The Genius, had been banned by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1916. Exactly one decade later Mencken himself was arrested and risked a jail sentence over a freedom of the press dispute with a puritanical watch-dog committee in Boston upset over a particular article in the American Mercury.
Mencken's pets and peeves were clearly elucidated: "I am in favor of free competition in all human enterprises, and to the utmost limit. I admire successful scoundrels, and shrink from Socialists as I shrink from Methodists." Consequently, he favored a free economic system as the best possible arrangement, not devoid of swindles and buffooneries, but far better than any system of institutionalized government swindles and buffooneries. The greatest threat to the individual was clear—a powerful state was to be avoided at all cost. Yet Mencken's realism is found again in his sobering analysis of the governmental mystique: "The government can not only evoke fear in its victims; it can also evoke a sort of superstitious reverence. It is thus both an army and a church, and with sharp weapons in both hands it is virtually irresistible."
The Mencken zenith was the 1920's. The American Mercury was the craze on college campuses, literally hundreds of editorials denounced Mencken's blasphemy each year (Alfred Knopf published an entire book, Menckeniana, of anti-Mencken editorials), and the New York Times appraised him as the most powerful private citizen in the United States. The bloody war was best narrated by the villain himself:
I have been denounced on the floor of Congress by statesmen from the Bible Belt and in blistering terms. The wowsers dislike me and have tried to jail me. I have been barred from the mails. During the late War for Human Freedom I was on the suspect list…along with Sacco and Vanzetti, and one of my own partners was put to watching me. The evangelical Protestant papers charge me with favoring the Pope's scheme to put a Catholic in the White House, and the Catholic papers damn me for atheism and anti-nomianism. The Red-hunters put me among the Radical, and the Radicals belabor me as an intransigent Tory. In Greenwich Village I am thwacked as a medieval, and among college professors I am regarded as an anarchist. During the 12 months of 1926 more than 500 separate editorials upon my heresies were printed in the United States, and at least 400 of them were hostile.
But the age changed swiftly and drastically. It is realistically said that Mencken's notoriety fell with the stock market. Mencken's physician had once commented that he had never seen anyone with such complete objectivity about himself, and this trait added to his perceptiveness in forecasting his niche in the society as well. In 1933, aware of the trend of the New Deal and the direction of American politics, Mencken left the Mercury to devote his time to renewed writings including a three-volume autobiography and two revisions of his 1919 masterpiece, The American Language. This latter work is still regarded as a veritable landmark in American philology.
The reaction of Mencken to the New Deal, and the reaction to his reaction, are important to understand. Initially Mencken, who usually voted for Democrats, respected Franklin Roosevelt (he dubbed him Roosevelt II) as a "gentleman and a scholar." By the time Roosevelt's first few months were completed, however, the experienced Mencken could see the demagogic quest for power all over again. What alarmed him most was the instant scramble for jobs and power by the great bulk of the intelligentsia and the enormous hand-outs doled to some at the expense of others. In Mencken's eyes, FDR became a "milch cow with 125 million teats." The United States was having another of its moral crusades, once again at the sacrifice of freedom and individuality. Mencken frantically wrote to publisher B.W. Hubsch:
I begin to believe seriously that the Second Coming may be at hand. Roosevelt's parodies of the Sermon on the Mount become more and more realistic. The heavens may open at any moment. Keep your suitcase packed.
As Mencken saw the world, those intellectuals who had been unable to cope with the disillusion of the twenties were ripe for a crusade in the thirties. They had convinced themselves that the problems of existence could simply be solved by a law here, a bureaucracy there. "They believed…there was a remedy at hand for every conceivable public ill, just as the herbalists of the Middle Ages believed that there was a cure in the fields or woods for every disease of man. They were thus in a mood to swallow any dose that the quacks ventured to prescribe, and were half convinced before the New Dealers began to function."
The transvaluation of 19th century to 20th century liberalism had become complete, and the recent edition liberals were caught in a whirlwind, suddenly entrusted with immense power to re-chart the American way. The New Deal was a demagogue's delight and gave us, "only two classes of men in the United States: those who work for their livings, and those who vote for them." The "advances" of Roosevelt II as described by Mencken:
The effect of every sort of New Deal is to increase and prosper the criminal class.…The criminal believes, like the demagogue's client, that the world owes him a living and that it is not immoral for a have-not to seize the property of a have. Neither the criminal nor the demagogue makes any distinction between haves who acquired their property honestly and those who obtained it by chance or fraud. It is sufficient that they have it and can be made to disgorge of it.
Mencken held that ever since the days of Jefferson the people had been throwing away more and more of their personal rights to the government and the government, in turn, had been expanding in scope and repression through taxes and diminished liberties. "No government," he said, "is ever in favor of the freedom of the individual. It invariably seeks to limit that freedom, if not by overt denial, then by seeking constantly to widen its own functions."
It is of little wonder why the doormen of the New Deal unleashed fire and brimstone upon Mr. Mencken. But superior in interest to the political squabbles are the historical ramifications of Mencken's role in the thirties. It has generally been accepted by the prevailing text book authors that, as the New York Times said, "the Depression showed that if the rulers didn't have the answers, neither did Mencken." This hypothesis has come close to dogma in sealing his historical fate.
As concerns the values of H.L. Mencken, however, there seems little evidence in retrospect that the crash of the stock market produced a negative verdict upon them at all. Mencken had articulately heralded a free, open and competitive economic system; the crisis of 1929 was the result of just the opposite. Without any esoteric econometric analysis, the actual causes of the collapse, relatively unknown to American economists in the thirties, stemmed from the inflationary and the deflationary policies of central banking establishments—government-controlled—among the Western powers following World War I. Such a conclusion, which has since been arrived at by a majority of monetary economists, does far more to support Mencken than to defeat him. His only "defeat" came at the hands of the then current economic mythology.
It is curious that the Grade A litmus test for Mencken's analysis is continuously bypassed—have the New Deal formulas proven any healthier in reality than Mencken said they would? More workers were unemployed in 1938 than when FDR ran his "Happy Days Are Here Again" campaign in 1932, and the real end to severe unemployment came only with the war economy. Furthermore, a vicious post-war inflation soon proved as pernicious as the pre-war perplexities. Current-day New Deal Keynesianism is likewise failing to provide economic prosperity in an embarrassing fashion. In fact, the growing state control and politicization of the society and economy are root causes of contemporary American problems approaching the crisis stage. Finally, Mencken was an early historical revisionist objecting to the suspicious and "barbaric" ways our nation entered both world wars and ran its incredible governmental operations in general. He openly predicted that his absurdly radical ideas on these subjects would someday garner agreement in the most learned of historical circles. Either Mencken was clairvoyant or brilliant.
It may seem more than incredible to the Ivy League scholars of today that a totally literate man could have actually opposed the New Deal—and on moral grounds no less. It has been handy to relegate such an opponent to the role of an anachronism rather than risk the strain of contemplating his challenges. Undoubtedly miffed by his laissez-faire economics and libertarian politics, the powers-that-be tag Mencken—the sensational iconoclast—as simply a witty right-winger. Contemporary academia, in many respects, is mysteriously striving to emulate the scholarly sterility of ages past which H.L. Mencken, for one, fought bitterly against.
The paranoia of the unenlightened notwithstanding, H.L. Mencken has left a booming gold mine for the inquisitive intellectual prospector. For the true spirits among us, his treasures might be better thought of as a vast undiscovered and unclaimed continent—a sort of literary Paradise Lost.
This day's student of ideas who rejects the puerile shams that pose as our national godfathers could treat himself to no better remedy than the pathologies and prescriptions of H.L. Mencken. And you could bet a year's subscription to the W.C.T.U. News that it would make old Henry Louis let loose with a smile in his fiery dungeon to know that he had at long last secured a solid, substantial place in our history, equal in stature to that of every other scoundrel, cad, huckster and mountebank who ever graced the shores of the American Republic.
Tom Hazlett attended UCLA and California State University at Northridge, and holds a bachelor's degree in economics. He is a partner in a public relations firm and a free-lance writer.