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.