H.L. Mencken: The Soul Behind the Sass


Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H.L. Mencken, 2nd ed., by William Manchester, Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 327 pages, $25.00/$8.95

Has there ever, in any metropolis or recess of Christendom, lived a more enchanting man than H.L. Mencken?

Henry Louis Mencken managed to give birth to better than 30 finely honed books, covering the gamut: poetry, drama, literature, philosophy, religion, politics, government, war, the arts, sex. He rivals Walter Lippmann as America's preeminent 20th-century journalist; he is alone at the top among the epoch's essayists and satirists. Mencken's pen savaged all that was Great and Bogus in America: the cads in Washington, the Babbitts on main street; the archmorons in the pulpits. By the time of his star's perihelion, the Roaring Twenties, Lippmann had knighted him "the most powerful private influence on this whole generation of educated people."

But there's more. Henry was not simply notorious; he was right. About the inane sterility of American letters pre-WWI—demonstrated, for example, by the virtually universal rejection of Mark Twain as a serious literatus. About the American penchant for—nay, addiction to—outrageous quackery: "The church itself, as it has grown more sordid and swinish, has only grown more prosperous," he detailed. About the immorality and inefficacy of government schemes; to wit, Mencken's Law: "Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel."

Mencken was charming and correct, a combination virtually unheard of in the annals of American Thought. Hence, his life was a gem. In a dusted-off reprint of his virgin 1951 fling with biography, the now-famous William Manchester repolishes that Menckenian sparkle all over again—adding two poignant chapters to update at the front and finish off at the end, as Mencken was laid to rest in 1956.

Manchester has superbly resisted the temptation to swipe prose and wit from the infectious Mencken; indeed, he pointedly alerts the reader to the Biden Syndrome. "In the 1920's, and even today—see The American Spectator—writers have attempted, and have always failed, to ape the great original." Manchester gives us, instead, a fine narrative in his own words, one that attempts only to complement the real H.L. and never to substitute. It works. The Mencken reader triples his or her appreciation to learn that the poison pen was attached to a warm and kindly soul.

But how that would have stunned Mencken's hapless prey in the first decades of this century. Mencken's roar began its crescendo fortissimo as literary criticism. Assuming the book editorship of The Smart Set, a trendy journal about to become famous, in 1908 (at age 28), he reviewed everything his German-American paws could snatch. He zipped through 25 to 50 books per month (this while a full-time editor/columnist at the Baltimore Sun by day) and torched the literary scene with an attack on the Puritanism that had grasped its hands about the throat of any novelist inclined toward reality, life, or flesh.

Mencken objected—with a bang: "I am by nature a vulgar fellow. I prefer 'Tom Jones' to 'The Rosary,' Rabelais to the Elsie books, The Old Testament to the New, the expurgated parts of 'Gulliver's Travels' to those that are left. I delight in beer stews, limericks, burlesque shows, New York City, and the music of Haydn, that beery, delightful old rascal! I swear in the presence of ladies and archdeacons. When the mercury is above ninety-five, I dine in my shirt sleeves and write poetry naked."

By the '20s, Mencken had ignited a generation. American criticism, "smelling of the pulpit, the chautauqua, the school room," was a neo-Victorian order in hasty retreat, chased by a robust postwar disillusionment and the taunts of one merciless critic. As editor, a post to which Mencken graduated (along with George Jean Nathan) in 1914, he maintained a torrid complementary assault: having shell-shocked the enemy to forge a beach-head, he searched out brave, promising young talents to storm the shore. As Manchester notes, "For almost a decade there was scarcely a major writer in the country who did not trace his career from a first acceptance in The Smart Set."

Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Upton Sinclair, Ezra Pound, O. Henry, Eugene O'Neill, and countless other stars of the emerging liberation of letters owed great debts to their American field marshal, H.L. Mencken. In 1922, Lewis barked, "If I had the power, I'd make Henry Mencken the Pope of America." In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, he told the Swedes of Mencken's prime sponsorship of what had become a marvelous Golden Age for American authors. But, then again, the point that Sinclair Lewis's star was tied to H.L.'s had been made by others. As Manchester reports, a typical newspaper headline of the era read:


H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis Denounced at First Congregational Service


Maybe it was Prohibition, or perhaps it was the War, that took Mencken out of literature and onto the larger stages of politics and social life. He lusted to "stir up the animals," as he put it, and from his comfortable Baltimore Sun confines, "he defended prostitution, vivisection, Sunday sports, alcohol and war. He attacked democracy, Christian Science, osteopathy, the direct primary, the single tax, and every civic improvement boosted by the city fathers." On the quacks, Mencken gorged; he strove "to combat, chiefly by ridicule, American piety, stupidity, tin-pot morality, cheap chauvinism in all their forms."

Mencken's deluge was awesome, as was its equal and opposite reaction, which reached virtual apoplexy after his founding of the outspoken and notorious American Mercury in 1923–24. "It is difficult to describe…the great wrath the Mercury inspired," Manchester writes. "A massive chorus of Rotarians, preachers, American Legion leaders, and college professors seemed to have organized itself for Mencken's private amusement; he had but to say the magic words and the chorus responded in a spluttering, hysterical hymn of vituperation. He became, alike to the unwashed, Fundamentalist preachers and the well-washed ladies of the D.A.R., the symbol of a common enemy."

While Manchester has some difficulty tracing the source of the animosity, the answer seems clear: Mencken simply stood up to the frauds. Indeed, he hunted them down. When schoolteacher John Scopes was put up on charges of teaching evolutionism in the Monkey Trial in 1925, Henry leaped on the preposterous indictment with glee. He personally hooked Clarence Darrow to defend "the infidel Scopes" and dashed to Dayton, Tennessee, to brew his famous syndicated accounts of the trial and local tent-revival shows. He trashed the pathetic prosecutor and star witness, William Jennings Bryan, and when the demagogue died days later, boasted "We killed the son-of-a-bitch." Yes, the Baptists would get a little hostile now, wouldn't they…

Mencken viewed the critic's role sharply, as a commando against orthodoxy. "The liberation of the human mind," he wrote, "has never been furthered by…dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe." Certainly, Mencken grew to be one of the great dead-cat hurlers of our, or any, time. Yet he remained remarkably a gay fellow as well; never did he let cynical playfulness succumb to bitterness, as did his cherished fore-heavers Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.

Mencken's life oozed with gusto. "He never asked me to join him for a beer," remembers Manchester. "I was invited to 'hoist a Schooner of malt.'" Even in his last days (much of which Manchester witnessed, and an account of which is augmented in this edition), he could sit down to lunch at the Maryland Club and introduce its fare to a guest by noting, "The cooks here do a swell job with soft-shell crabs. They fry them in the altogether. Then they add a small jock-strap of bacon." And if he had not lost his appetite, neither had he lost his bite: "This is a very high-toned club. Nothing but men. Any member who suffers a heart attack must be carried outside to the front steps before a nurse can attend him."

Yet the glow of Manchester's biography radiates from the theme that the Prohibitionists would never have guessed: Mencken was a sweetheart. The sass hid a soul that softened for all the virtues its master deeply admired: family, civility, loyalty, honesty, talent, and an earnest day's work. So much of this biography is a testament to the cleavage between the war-like public persona and the private, gentle man. "His readers thought of him as bigoted, cantankerous, wrathful and rude," Manchester writes. "It was a case of mistaken identity."

Indeed, in a hundred ways the Sage of Baltimore devoted himself to friends, family, and, during a five-year marriage (ended tragically by Sara Haardt Mencken's death at age 37), to wife. Mencken "became the most considerate visitor of the sick on record. Friends who, in health, would not see him for weeks or months, found him at their hospital doors each evening, so long as they remained bedridden, with stacks of fiction under his arm and evangelical quotes on his tongue."

As an editor, he was a miracle. Younger writers clung tightly to precious letters of encouragement, letters he wrote by the gross (he penned more than 100,000 letters in his pre–personal computer lifespan). He strictly maintained a policy of returning all submissions within three days of receipt. As author Manchester would be keen to note, "His consideration of contributors was incredible. If, reading a contribution, he thought it might be sold to a magazine paying more money, the author was so advised, and Mencken offered to withdraw. Stories of promise that, for various reasons, did not suit the Mercury, were returned with notes suggesting magazines they did suit. And those authors who did sell manuscripts received, a month after publication, a notarized transfer of copyright, in the event they should want to publish the piece again.

Those who have sniffed vainly about the latter 20th-century America for a man or madam who is both wise and pleasant will take solace in the fact that one such character did indeed roam this jungle in our century's first half. Manchester, whose well-received Mencken tome launched him toward treatises on President Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and others, does not, one suspects, realize how very correct, about so very much, the object of his first affection was. (Manchester suggests a real fondness, for example, for the political economy of Jack Kennedy.) But he, like the rest of us, has fallen in love with the man Mencken. That's fine; those who escaped the New Deal's reeducation camps are privy, however, to an added bounty in this fluent, colorful account of the swiftest American on record.

Indeed, the clear-headed reader will be saddened, he will miss Mencken's charm and his politics. We could really use him now, what with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Tip O'Neill and Jerry Falwell, Gary Hart and Donna Rice, the Moonies, the feminazis, the Naderite crusaders, and the television evangelists. How Mencken could have—But oh, shut up! So long as there remain fools, uplifters, hustlers, or Congress, we will always be able to use H.L. Mencken, Patriot, American.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett is an economist at the University of California, Davis. On his wall hangs the famous photo of H.L. Mencken swigging a Schooner of malt at Rennert's Hotel at 12:01 A.M. on April 7, 1933, the first legal glass of beer in post-Prohibition America.