Book Reviews

Heeding the Sage of Baltimore

A new edition of H.L. Mencken's Prejudices captures the legendary journalist at his corrosive best.

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Prejudices: The Complete Series, by H.L. Mencken, Library of America, 1,222 pages, $70

On July 27, 1925, the great journalist, literary critic, and editor H.L. Mencken published his obituary for the left-wing populist, Christian fundamentalist, and three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan in the Baltimore Evening Sun. "Imagine a gentleman," Mencken wrote, "and you have imagined everything that he was not." Bryan had been "deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all beauty, all fine and noble things." Mencken practically danced on his grave.

Less than two weeks earlier, the two men had been together in Dayton, Tennessee, for the sensational trial of John Scopes, the public school teacher arrested for teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Bryan was there to aid the prosecution; Mencken was there to file scathing reports about the persecution of "the infidel Scopes" and to quietly strategize with the defense. "Convert [the trial] into a headlong assault on Bryan," Mencken told defense attorney Clarence Darrow. And so Darrow did, grilling the aged orator on the witness stand about his biblical literalism. Less than a week later, Bryan was dead.

It was a major event in the long career that made Mencken one of America's most influential men of letters. In addition to the thousands of articles and reviews he wrote for magazines and newspapers, Mencken was the first American author to write a book on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the first American editor to publish the work of James Joyce. But the Scopes "Monkey Trial" came during a particularly influential period. The same busy stretch of history that sent Mencken to Tennessee also saw President Woodrow Wilson's wartime suppression of free speech and other civil liberties, the prohibition of alcohol, and a bloody epidemic of lynchings and racial terrorism in the South. An atheist, an individualist, and a classical liberal of extreme Jeffersonian tendencies, Mencken railed against them all, collecting many of his best attacks in the six-volume series of books he aptly titled Prejudices.

Originally published in six volumes between 1919 and 1927, Prejudices was Mencken's attempt to "insert some rat-poison" into the country's political and literary life. It did the trick. With Prejudices: The Complete Series, a hefty new two-volume set published by the Library of America, today's readers can taste Mencken's rat-poison pen for themselves.

Whether he was denouncing prohibition ("the criminal, in the public eye, is not the bootlegger and certainly not his customer, but the enforcement officer"), moral crusader Anthony Comstock ("a good woman, to him, was simply one who was efficiently policed"), or government itself ("in any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen"), the overriding theme of the series remained steady: individual liberty vs. the tyranny of the majority. 

Take Mencken's horror at the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, which he called the "Wilson hallucination." Under the terms of Wilson's Espionage Act of 1917, it became illegal to criticize the U.S. government during wartime. Among the victims of this law was the radical union leader and Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who spent three years rotting in federal prison for delivering an anti-war speech. Facing strong pressure to pardon Debs once the Great War was over, liberal hero Wilson flatly refused. "Magnanimity was simply beyond him," Mencken wrote. "Confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor Debs, all his instincts compelled him to keep Debs in jail." Mencken, who once described the typical socialist as "a man suffering from an overwhelming conviction to believe what is not true," was no fan of Debs' left-wing politics. He simply hated government criminality in all its ugly forms.

Similarly, at a time when most leading Progressives (including Wilson) supported racial segregation and turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Jim Crow South, Mencken attacked the lawlessness of "Klu Kluxry" and routinely praised (and published) the work of black writers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and George Schuyler. White later said that Mencken pushed him to write his first novel, The Fire in the Flint, and then helped him secure a publisher. Zora Neale Hurston was a major Mencken fan. And according to the Harlem Renaissance giant James Weldon Johnson, "Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any other American then writing."

Because the last volume of Prejudices came out in 1927, readers of this handsome new edition unfortunately miss one of Mencken's most perceptive critiques of majoritarianism, his 1930 assault in The American Mercury on Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. First appointed to the Court in 1902, Holmes became an icon to the reform-minded thanks to his dissenting opinions in cases like Lochner v. New York (1905), where Holmes attacked the majority for striking down a maximum working hours law. Mencken dug deeper, surveying Justice Holmes' votes to uphold alcohol prohibition, to prohibit foreign-language teaching during wartime, to permit forced sterilization, and to keep Eugene Debs locked in prison. "Over and over again, in these opinions," Mencken wrote, Holmes "advocated giving the legislature full head-room, and over and over again he protested against using the Fourteenth Amendment to upset novel and oppressive laws, aimed frankly at helpless minorities." This wasn't responsible judging, Mencken concluded; it was judicial abdication. Prejudices was finished, but Mencken was still skewering majoritarian tyrants.

Today, with our simplistic Red-Blue political divide, Mencken's hostility to both church and state would find no comfortable home. That's too bad. The world is a better place when there's someone like H.L. Mencken standing athwart the majority yelling, "Stop!" 

Damon W. Root (droot@reason.com) is an associate editor at reason.

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98 responses to “Heeding the Sage of Baltimore

  1. (“in any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen”), the overriding theme of the series remained steady: individual liberty vs. the tyranny of the majority.

    Reading lots and lots of Mencken in college played a huge role in forming my rabidly libertarian outlook.

  2. Mencken is the best evidence that God exists, and that He has a sense of humor.

  3. Just in time for Christmas (hint, hint).

  4. Apropos to a certain thread from yesterday:

    The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre ? the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

    The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

    1. And that moron will be replaced by another moron, virtually indistinguishable in moronity from his august predecessor.

      1. Yeah, I give you ~ 50:50 odds on two consecutive wins coming up.

        Good old representative democracy!

        1. You know, as far as putting money on candidates, I think a good bet would be to select the moron with the least substance.

          1. Sarah Palin vs Obama, 2012. You’re going to get your campaign, buddy.

            1. Too bad ol’ Henry Louis isn’t around to enjoy it.

              1. Too bad he isn’t around to write about it, because the MSM morons will treat it like it’s as serious as a heart attack.

                1. If only it had the same effect.

            2. Palin’s not going to run in 2012, or hopefully any other year.

              1. Palin will probably run, but it will probably be like Pat Buchanan in the 90s. Lots of rabble-rousing but no results come Primary Election time.

                1. Yeah, I don’t see her as a nominee at all. In fact, I think she’s just flirting with America by even suggesting she’ll run. I bet she doesn’t.

  5. Great pic of Warty’s dad.

    1. If you change the glasses, make him bald, lose the combover and the cigar, and then subtract a few fingers, you’ve got something pretty close to what my dad looks like.

      1. That’s exactly what I meant.

      2. I think I know your dad. Does he have a spiderweb tattoo on his arm?

  6. the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

    I’m thinking of a name….

  7. Too bad ol’ Henry Louis isn’t around to enjoy it.

    “Tonight, on Hardball, we talk to H L Mencken about th election, the candidates, and why he is such an evil anti-semite who wants you to die penniless in a ditch.”

  8. I suppose if you lived at the time, Mencken would have been great. They guy had a gift for insulting people. But insults are only funny if you care about the subject. Yeah, William Jennings Bryant was a clown. But insults at his expense fall pretty flat in 2010. In 1920 going after Wilson and Jim Crow was about as cutting edge as it got. In 2010, it is pretty stale.

    The real message of the writing is that Mencken is awesome and pretty much everyone else in the world sucks. That may have been true. But after twenty or thirty pages it starts to taste a little bitter.

    1. Oh, c’mon. The boobsoisie is still as boobish as it was when he was writing, so he still has something to offer.

    2. He didn’t just insult specific people. He also insulted offices, actions, and institutions that still exist today. even if they didn’t, his deliciously worded bon-mots would still be relephant.

      1. If I didn’t live in a world where the entire culture is cynical and such institutions were not attacked on a daily basis pretty much everywhere I go, Mencken might be worth reading. But I do live in such a world. In the 1920s and 1930s when such cynicism was the exception rather than the rule, I am sure Mencken was manna from heaven.

        I am not saying he is a bad writer. He is certainly clever and smart. I am just saying he hasn’t aged well.

        1. “…going after Wilson…is pretty stale.”
          Glenn Beck would beg to differ.

        2. John, I can accept your Palin boner. But dissing Mencken? You’ve gone too far, sir. Pistols at dawn?
          But seriously — what are these institutions that are widely attacked on a daily basis? Seems to me the authority-fellating is just as bad today, if not worse, than in Mencken’s day.

          1. These institutions are attacked on a daily basis, yes. I will agree that Mencken is an important figure. But he is important stylistically more than substantively. I am sorry the guy is a clever writer. He wasn’t a great thinker.

            I am an unrepentant snob and contrarian. I should love the guy. For some reason I find him stale and unappealing.

            1. “He wasn’t a great thinker.”
              Really?

              1. See, John, you have swallowed, completely, the Mencken narrative spun, spun, spun by the “taste-makers” for the past seven decades. I would just encourage you to explore his writings a little more deeply.

                1. “”I find him stale and unappealing.””

                  Don’t ever go to Peter Lugar’s steakhouse. You’re one of those people who’ll be like,”meh, whats with all the butter?”

                  Seriously, if you try to segment his style and substance, you understand neither.

    3. Yeah, it’s too bad he couldn’t have foreseen the existence of Obama and gone to work on him.

  9. First appointed to the Court in 1902, [Oliver W.] Holmes became an icon to the reform-minded thanks to his dissenting opinions in cases like Lochner v. New York (1905), where Holmes attacked the majority for striking down a maximum working hours law. Mencken dug deeper, surveying Justice Holmes’ votes to uphold alcohol prohibition, to prohibit foreign-language teaching during wartime, to permit forced sterilization, and to keep Eugene Debs locked in prison.

    I can’t understand why OH Holmes is so fondly remembered today as a great jurist when, in fact, he was a perverse activist and an enemy of individual freedom.

      1. Holmes was the ultimate Boston Brahmin. I like you calling him “OW”. Makes him sound like a Kentucky moonshiner.

        1. Shee-it, yew mean ol’ Oh-Dubya? Why, that ol’ polecat allus wuz meener n’ a cornered coon with a sore tooth. My daddy knew him when he wadn’t more n’ knee-high to a pissant.

    1. I can’t understand why OH Holmes is so fondly remembered today as a great jurist when, in fact, he was a perverse activist and an enemy of individual freedom.

      Which is exactly why he is “fondly remembered,” at least in the ivory towers and halls of power and other places occupied by our dear leaders and their apologists.

      1. As I recall, Holmes’ dissent in Lochner was an attack on the Supreme Court’s expansive approach to substantive due process. More recent critics of substantive due process include such “activists” as Scalia, Thomas and Rehnquist.


  10. The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

    Certainly nothing relevant, here.

    1. Nothing that hasn’t been said like a hundred thousand times since then either. Yeah, maybe he gets credit for being the first to say such a thing, although I doubt he was. But if you read that today and find it insightful or in anyway new, I have to wonder where you have been and what you have been doing the last 30 years.

      1. Charles H Crist, John, what is your damage? Yes Mencken and the people he wrote about are all dead, but there is still wisdom to be gleaned in the writing of dead men.

        Mencken was a clever writer with libertarian sensibilities. Just because you’re neither doesn’t mean you need to poop on the parade.

        1. Of course there is wisdom from the writing of dead men. I just don’t find Mencken that interesting or find where he said anything that wasn’t pretty damned obvious. Yeah, religious fundamentalists are pretty silly. Jim Crow was bad. The KKK were bad people. Most politicians and business people are shallow crooks. Gee, good thing we had old H.L. around to tell us that. Never would have figured it out otherwise.

          It all falls flat now. You can read someone like Hayak and have it totally change the way you think about and see the world. You have all of these “wow I never thought of that” moments. I never have that with Mencken. I have never gotten the fascination with him.

          1. Can I assume that you feel the same about Mark Twain?

            1. Twain wrote fiction and created interesting characters. He also wrote travel books that captured what it was actually like to be in a time or place. And Twain wasn’t all just bile. He saw the good things in life as well. I don’t think you can compare Twain’s portrayal of the old west in Roughing It or to traveling in Innocents’ Abroad to Mencken. Mencken is much more hard edged and political than Twain ever was.

              I don’t mind Mencken in small doses. But after a few pages it just starts to get old. The guy is so relentlessly negative. It gets old after a while.

              1. Mark Twain also wrote copiously about politics, society, and religion. He was cutting hallowed institutions to ribbons when Mencken was in diapers.

                Great wits will outlive their subjects because people will always want to laugh. People will still be reading Mencken when Sarah Palin is nothing more than a wikipedia footnote.

              2. I disagree:

                http://www.theatlantic.com/pas…..encken.htm

                1. with John, not Hugh (damn nested threads)

            2. That’s what I was thinking. Mencken has a number of similarities to Twain (doubtlessly conscious ones).

              1. As Mencken noted, “The simple fact is that Huckleberry Finn is worth the whole work of Emerson with two-thirds of the work of Whitman thrown in for make-weight, and that one chapter of it is worth the whole work of Whittier, Longfellow and Holmes.”

            3. Mencken is a very important writer. 90% of the political commentators today are children of Mencken. It is his world. We just live in it. But the whole Mencken act. The too cool for school, everyone but me is a stupid rube, all the institutions of man are corrupt and cynical, has been so prevalent over the last 50 years, I don’t see what there is to be gained from reading him today as anything more than a historical artifact. Everything I have ever read of his always reads like conventional wisdom. Now, he deserves a lot of credit for creating the conventional wisdom. That is true. But circa 2010 it is a hell of a lot less interesting than it was the day it was written.

              1. ..and vintage scotch is the same as 1-yr old rotgut

                John, all you’re saying is you have no *taste*

          2. He’s a fun read, and his critiques of the elitist reformers and goo-goos of his day are delicious, but he also comes across as the first incarnation of today’s internet trolls. The “rat-poison” remark demonstrates, to me at least, that he was far less concerned with the principles of individual liberty than he was with simply being a professional contrarian. It certainly doesn’t take much in the way of intellectual rigor to adopt such a position.

            1. That is exactly right. He would have been great in the internet age. The greatest trolling commentator and blogger the world has ever seen.

              1. “The guy is so relentlessly negative…”
                This suggests to me, John, that you actually haven’t read much Mencken, or at least haven’t read him widely.

                1. I have read about sixty pages of Prejudices before I got bored and put it away. It is one of the few books I own but have never finished. After about twenty pages all I could think was yada yada yada. I just don’t get it.

              2. *runs offstage sobbing uncontrollably, arms akimbo*

                1. @ John|11.18.10 @ 12:52PM|#

                  God damn these nested threads.

          3. “I just don’t find Mencken that interesting”

            So why comment? Did someone tell you that HTR requires you to comment on every post?

      2. HLM peed in you cornflakes huh? I’m picking up more weirdly out-of-place bitter vibe from you than I got out reading all of Chrestomathy.

        Speaking of which, how much over lap is there between the Chrestomathy and these “Prejudices”? Anybody know?

        1. A number of pieces in the Chrestomathy did first appear in the six volumes of Prejudices. But Mencken revised — in some instances, quite substantially — almost all of them.

  11. Nothing that hasn’t been said like a hundred thousand times since then either.

    Yeah; Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann say it all the time. Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, too.

    1. If those are your idea of interesting writers, it is no wonder you find Mencken so interesting.

      1. Ok, John. Who is on a par, today, with Mencken?
        I see no one.
        No.
        One.
        If you mixed equal parts P.J. O’Roarke, Hunter Thompson and E. B. White, you might get a homeopathic level of Menckenian flavor. Of course, two of those three are dead, so good luck with your brewing.

        1. In some ways you are right CN. All those guys are rip offs of Mencken. He started the whole thing. But I grew up in a culture that was dominated by those guys. That is why Mencken seems so stale today.

        2. Mencken told a national audience, day in and day out, that the emperor had no clothes. Who is doing that today?
          There are no great iconoclasts in American journalism today.

          1. I would suggest that one of the most Menckenian of figures today (loosely defining “Menckenian”) is Mario Vargas Llosa.
            Llosa has the intellectual heft, the imagination, the sheer writing power, and the ability to piss off the so-called elites while embodying a true –quite noble — elitism that Mencken had.

            1. Oh, and an almost boyish playfulness and joie de vivre. (How do you say “joi de vivre in Spanish?)
              So how the fuck did Llosa win the Nobel? I don’t know, but Mencken would have advised him to turn it down (as he advised Sinclair Lewis).

          2. Lew Rockwell.

                  1. Yeah…that’s about what I expected.

                    1. Yeah…that’s about what I expected.
                      Yeah…me too.

          3. If Mencken were alive today, I would probably read him and enjoy him. But he is not. And I really don’t care about his jibes against an elite in the 1920s that no longer exists.

            And I would say Hitchens is the closest thing to Mencken today. He is the only one who really has an equal nastiness to Mencken.

            1. Matt Taibbi is the closest thing to Mencken today…

          4. I respectfully disagree.

  12. Hasn’t this article been run before?

    1. It’s all been said before. Just ask John.

      1. That was well stated but I find after three seconds it has no resonance for me.

        Oh wait, I’m not John, what am I doing?

  13. The guy is so relentlessly negative. It gets old after a while.

    *sniffs, wipes tear away*

  14. A few years ago, there was a political science professor at the local university who decided to run for the state legislature. He knocked on my door during the campaign and I was curious enough to spend a few minutes talking to him. During the course of the conversation, I mentioned Mencken and how I pretty much shared his opinion of all politicians.

    He had never heard of Mencken! How can you be an American professor with a PhD in political science and not even know who Mencken is!?

    That told me more about the guy than his political views…

    1. Yeah, like econ grads who’ve never heard of the Austrian school…

      1. Whats most deplorable is that those who have… heard first about them from Naomi Klein.

  15. “Our top story: When the head of the TSA went before a Senate committee and said, “I’m going to check for bombs in passengers’ scrotums, because if we don’t the planes will all explode” earlier today, the Senators canceled the hearing, demanded he surrender his identification card and had him escorted from the Capitol by the Sergeant at Arms.”

    After this message from Mellow Fellow marijuana cigarettes, we’ll talk to a representative from the FDA who says drinks made with alcohol and stimulants are a fad, and will go away if we ignore them.”

  16. And that moron will be replaced by another moron, virtually indistinguishable in moronity from his august predecessor.

    It’s morons all the way down.
    (just in case)

  17. If you read The Skeptic by Terry Teachout you’ll get a better idea of why Mencken was important then, and why he’s still relevant now.

    It’s hard to see the value of Mencken from just reading Prejudices, as the book was just a compendium of newspaper columns–like a “Best Of” book on Lewis Grizzard, or reading blog posts from 2000, the content has a sell-by date that’s long past by its very nature.

    Even so, hearing the same kind of complaints we have today going back 40, 50, 60 years is instructive in itself.

  18. For a fresh look at modern society, you just can’t beat Mad Magazine.

  19. Mencken, Rand, WS Burroughs, Socrates, and to some degree a bunch of Frenchies like Celine, Voltaire, Rimbaud (none of whom were classical liberal, AFAIK, just @#)$@# weird as hell) are all partially to blame for my gradual evolution into a libertoidish creature.

    Oh, also Eric Hoffer. And that guy Wycliffe who translated the Bible into English (in your face Pope!)…

    Part of my conversion (nay = evolution) was not in reading many traditional ‘classical liberal’ ideas… but rather being exposed to a wide variety of ‘independent minds’. Some of whom would probably be completely aghast at libertarian thinking… unaware that their own generally anti-institutional postures fostered the very thing.

    [Oh yeah, also shout outs to James Dean, Walt Whitman, Hunter Thompson, Lenny Bruce, and Frank Zappa. There are so many…]

    But Mencken? He probably stands above all others. Even when he’s dead serious, he’s deadly funny. There aint a whole lot of American writers whose prose will live forever…. he is one of those inimitable ones. I will have to save up and get these new editions ASAP. Must-have stuff.

  20. And what am I, chopped liver?

    1. No, sauteed liver under a very weird and sour sauce.

    2. Shit… Sorry Ambrose. Yeah, i missed you. p.s.
      Calling it the ‘devils’ dictionary has not been the best marketing lever in the modern world. Not to put to fine a point on it…

      1. p.s. Tell Dorothy Parker I’ll meet her in hell. We’ll hopefully all have a beer before we get back to the burning-forever thing.

  21. I’m just amazed that more people have responded to this thread than the one with the bikini top and pentagrams.

  22. A few years ago, there was a political science professor at the local university who decided to run for the state legislature. He knocked on my door during the campaign and I was curious enough to spend a few minutes talking to him. ???? ????? ??? ??????? During the course of the conversation, I mentioned Mencken and how I pretty much shared his opinion of all politicians. ???? ????? ??? ???????
    He had never heard of Mencken! How can you be an American professor with a PhD in political science and not even know who Mencken is!?

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