Mencken for the Masses


The Impossible H.L. Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, New York: Anchor Books, 707 pages, $15.00

Reading any of the six volumes of Mencken's Prejudices, one feels like an intimate friend hearing Mencken's voice across a dinner table. The sentences sizzle and the ideas dazzle. But when reading the simpler newspaper articles gathered in this new collection, one feels more like a spectator in an enormous stadium packed with the full range of human types. There is some bite to the articles, but enough wit and affection to win over the crowd.

After all, the reader who purchased The Smart Set, The American Mercury, or Prejudices was buying Mencken. The same cannot be said of the reader of the Baltimore Evening Sun, so in this selection of his newspaper articles, Mencken's prose is simplified for a wider readership. There are fewer glittering nuggets in the vocabulary, the amusing examples are piled less high, and rarely does an article fill more than six pages. Also, he softens his tone. The sarcasm is less soaring. The surprise put-downs are fewer; the descriptions of the American scene less audacious. Mencken's easier tone and less heroic hypotheses permit him seduction of a wider audience.

For example, in a piece on telephones, Mencken remarks on sitting down to dinner "the other day…without any impertinent and imbecile jackass summoning me from the table to the telephone." But then he softens the statement: "I speak of jackasses and morons, perhaps seeming to lay it on a bit thickly."

Besides using less spice in the preparation, Mencken prepares more common dishes. Many of the subjects are terrifically mundane. He ruminates on radio programs, on traffic, on movies, on jazz, on bald heads, on New York, on Baltimore, on banks, and on hot dogs. Also, there are 13 articles on the Scopes evolution trial and 37 on national political conventions (only eight of which are in Malcolm Moos's collection of Mencken, On Politics).

Two articles concern the 1921 boxing match between Jack Dempsey and George Carpentier, the handsome and graceful war hero from France. The first article is Mencken's account of Dempsey thoroughly clobbering the challenger. Mencken's piece was controversial because all the sports writers reported that Carpentier put up a strong effort. Interviews with the fighters confirmed Mencken's account.

Mencken followed up with an explanation of how the entire corps of sports writers, with the public in their train, fell into line in the making of a legend. Besides explaining the many factors particular to Carpentier, Mencken lays out several points about the sports writers: First, since "they are all in favor of prizefighting as a sport…their subconscious prejudice is against a capital fight that is one-sided and without dramatic moments." Second, "After they have predicted confidentially that a given pug will give a good account of himself, they have to save their faces by describing him as doing it." And finally, "they are, like all other human beings, sheep-like, and docilely accept any nonsense that is launched by a man who knows how to impress them." The article is a model piece of social psychology, and it shows Mencken's fascination with the plasticity of human thinking.

The five-article section called "The Dark American" deserves notice. It collects some of the most interesting of Mencken's newspaper work. The first article warmly applauds the open letter to President Wilson by the dean of Howard University, which eloquently asks that blacks enjoy the same protection of property and political rights that whites enjoy. The second article denounces violently the peremptory rejection of a black applicant to the Law School of the University of Maryland in 1935.

In the third and fourth Mencken becomes almost indignant (something he prided himself on not doing) over the lynching of a black man, evidently a murderer, on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1931. Mencken describes the affair as "a complete collapse of fair process" and reprimands state officials for not taking serious steps to arrest the offenders. The last article in the section concerns a case in violation of a local proscription on interracial activity, "Mencken Calls Tennis Order Silly, Nefarious."

Those who have heard the charges that Mencken had it out for Jews should consult the 1938 article "Help for the Jews," in which Mencken exposes the "gross and disgusting peck-sniffery" of Roosevelt for not letting the Jews pour into the U.S. "Why shouldn't the United States take in a couple of hundred thousand of them," Mencken wrote, "or even all of them?"

The book's editor, Marion Rodgers, provides a fine introduction that includes fresh material from Mencken's unpublished "Autobiographical Notes," such as the following: "If it is a fact that I am doomed to go unheeded, then I don't care a damn. I write because I like it, not because I want to convert anyone." The singularity of Mencken is that when he says something like this, you believe him.

Even the average newspaper reader, the common man Mencken elsewhere handled roughly, could sense the sincerity and integrity behind Mencken's words. Although Mencken showed restraint in his newspaper articles, his integrity permitted him even there to air ideas more pungent and unconventional than perhaps those of any other personality ever in the American mass media.

This volume has one regrettable feature: the cover illustration by David Levine. It is hideous and false. Never have I seen a photo of Mencken with eyes menacing and mouth grinning. In every photo of Mencken grinning, he bears an expression fit for a boy that just blew out the candles on his birthday cake. Further, the ears and cigar are absurdly, even obscenely, enlarged. Levine's drawing is the perfect liberal caricature of Mencken as a repulsive and ridiculous old man. That caricature has nothing to do with the man revealed in the pages of this book.

Daniel Klein is assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine.