H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken on 'Numskull' Presidents, the Spanish Flu, and the Depression

Thought during an epidemic from a defender of freedom


Throughout the autumn of 1918, while the infamously acerbic Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken was completing The American Language, the Spanish flu pandemic took hold of the country. Laws were passed against spitting; streetcar tokens were bathed in antiseptic solution; but nothing could quell the advance of the flu. Few treatments were available. The influenza vaccine did not exist; antibiotics had not yet been invented. Each day columns of obituaries filled the papers. More American civilians died of the virus than American troops died fighting World War I. "All that could be seen from our house were funerals," Mencken's brother recalled. Outside their home on Hollins Street in West Baltimore, the mournful sound of wagons could be heard on nearby Lombard Street, carrying the day's dead to the outlying cemeteries.

Mencken's literary partner, the theater critic George Jean Nathan, had lost his brother to the flu; so had more than 20 of their other friends. It was not uncommon for Mencken to see more than 50 coffins piled in a shed at Union Station in Washington, D.C. He kept working on his book yet felt muggy, suspecting he may be fighting off illness himself, though in his case it was probably hay fever.

Reporters were told to write positive stories to boost public morale. Thanks to President Woodrow Wilson's newly created Committee of Public Information, the press took a strong nationalistic stand in their tone and subject matter, leaning towards the upbeat. Of great support in this task was the Espionage Act, which contained some of the most restrictive sanctions against publications in American history. There were penalties of $10,000 and 20 years in prison for negative coverage. The committee's focus was the war, but flu coverage was affected too.

For Mencken, a champion of the Bill of Rights, such restrictions were outrageous. Most of his focus was spent writing on neutral subjects, but he often was able to insert "a few licks for free speech" and civil rights. A great admirer of the medical establishment, Mencken had written about public health issues years before; he followed the maxim set by the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley, who fought for "the truth as it could be discovered and established—the truth that sets men free." A few editors were too afraid to print his columns.

"We have had so many Presidents who were obvious numskulls that it pleases everyone to contemplate one with an active cortex," Mencken once complained. In the future, "The country will remain safe enough for all practical purposes so long as it is in the hands of a man of character, honest, gallant, and mellowed and moderated by a sense of humor." Character is what we look for in leaders, wrote Mencken: "the assurance that they will act in a certain way in any new situation, and that it will be an honest, resolute and unselfish way."

But Menken lived to see yet another president fail to meet that standard in a crisis. For Mencken, the "Hoover bust" was "one of the most curious phenomena" ever seen in American politics. At first, he observed, President Herbert Hoover had been viewed as "a sort of super-politician," even an "anti-politician," able to handle the country's business "in a more frank and competent manner than the professionals," belonging "to a class of shiny, shallow go-getters who were much esteemed" during the Gilded Age. Then came the Depression, along with Hoover's repeated denials of its existence and then assurances that it would soon go away. Before long, Hoover's assertions began to be seen as "disingenuous, devious and unconvincing….No wonder [the public] distrusts him now. They have sized him up, and got his measure. They know by hard experience he is not to be trusted…they see before them only a shifty and shabby politician, his back to the wall."

The president's apologists "try to make it appear that the right hon. gentleman is suffering unjustly at the hands of the plain people—that he is being blamed for calamities that he is no more responsible for than the policeman on the beat." Presidents usually get the blame when things go badly, just as they get too much of the credit when things go well. But Hoover's inability to be transparent about the economic doom facing the country meant, for Mencken, that he deserved "much more of the damning than any ordinary President would have to face."

"The word principle seems to have no meaning for him," Mencken wrote. "The only thing he appears to think of is his job." What happens to such leaders is inevitable: "Their essential vacuity is plain to all. Facing genuine difficulties they have gone to pieces unanimously." This was true whether a president was conservative or liberal—Mencken was against FDR's New Deal policies. What he wanted was "a competent pilot, able to win and command the crew."

Our current coronavirus quandary is troubling but hardly unprecedented. The country has been there before, and somehow it has always emerged out the other end; our system offers no sure guarantee, but it is what we have. "The science of government is really very simple, else the world would have gone to pot long ago," Mencken once observed. Voters can pin what remains of their trust on leaders who show real character, or they can continue with the rank and file of the sub-par. "Then for the whirlwind!"

NEXT: Stop Looking for ‘Leadership’ During the COVID-19 Outbreak

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  1. Didn’t you get the memo, we’re not allowed to refer to it as the “Spanish flu” anymore! Why are you so racist against Spanish people?

    1. Is this why we’re not supposed to use “African-American” anymore?

      1. Nigger please!

      2. Is this why we’re not supposed to use “African-American” anymore?

        Blame Elon Musk. What’s the new and improved and mandatory appellation BTW?

        1. When did that happen? “Black” seems to work. I’ve never had anyone object.

      3. The census form asks not just your race now, but your national origin. I put “American”, since I was born here. My parents were born in the USA. Their parents were born in the USA. Before that, who knows? Who cares? Somewhere in Europe (but not exactly where I’d been told, since the DNA ancestry test had some interesting tidbits.) How far back do they expect us to go? We’re all from Africa if you want to get technical about it.

        1. I’m going to start filling in ‘kryptonian’.

    2. Wow, Mikey with a good point. The world really IS ending.

    3. Just want to point out that the Spanish Flu had its origins in China as well, and one of the first known cases was in a US Army camp. Ot was known as the Spanish Flu because Spain was one of the few countries whose medical professionals could openly discuss what was happening as they were neutral in WWI and therefore did not regard the epidemic as a wartime secret.

    4. She’s obviously a disciple of WrongThink. A *positive* article on Mencken is sin. He’s the original Deplorable.

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  2. antibiotics had not yet been invented


    1. ^ Obviously an Unreason sock account.

  3. You missed a chance to highlight Mencken’s famous observation:

    “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.”

    And another:

    “The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.”

    1. “A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar”

      1. and “Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods”

        1. Plundered goods. Elections are a substitute for civil war.

    2. with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary

      There is only one hobgoblin, but he has lots of socks.

      1. I think it’s actually a HihnGOOBlin

    3. Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

      H. L. Mencken

  4. One of my own favorites is over at Ace’s place – “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

  5. Let’s call this one The Wuhan Flu. Most people will get it with minor consequences. The vulnerable class, seniors and those with immune disease, will protect themselves with mixed results. The social mob and media will drive us to the brink of total destruction.

    1. The death rate for known cases is very high compared to that of the average flu. Like by orders of magnitude. Notice I said “known cases,” because we don’t know how many people get it and write it off as a nasty cold.

    2. And it’s not influenza or remotely close to influenza, so it shouldn’t be called Flu. It’s a cousin of the common cold.

      I do agree that the reaction will cause much more harm than the sickness.

    3. Mu Gu Gai Pandemic

    4. Wuhan flu ain’t nothin’ to fuck with!

    5. #ChinaziVirus

  6. The pandemic is nicely shifting attention away from the February FATF meeting in Paris triggering another asset-forfeiture stock crash. Republicans get elected, pass sumptuary laws with asset-forfeiture “teeth” to appease religious and looter fanatics. Their agents raid banks, others notice the weakening and withdraw their deposits and in a fractional-reserve banking system there’s a liquidity crunch and crash. Voters then fire religious fascists and vote in libertarians communists.

  7. Luckily, we have Trump as the best President in US history at the helm during this hysteria.

  8. My favorite HL quote is: “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution that won’t work.” That’s the essence of politics in our era.

    1. “For every complex problem there is a solution that is neat, simple, and wrong.” IIRC

  9. I think the jury is still out on the coronavirus. I know a half-dozen people who have been tested, and they have all tested negative. A few had the flu, another had a bad cold, another had low-grade pneumonia. Maybe the virus isn’t all that bad. Or maybe it’s still too early, and when it does strike, it will be devastating.

  10. Author has 1 article at Reason in each of the last 3 years, all of them about Mencken.

    Can she switch article frequency with Shikha?

    I could take a Mencken article every week.

  11. Numskull?

    I always thought it was numbskull. Makes more sense.

  12. Mencken’s first book introduced Nietzsche to Americans, and he was a bit of an elitist. (eg, Democracy = the people getting what they want good and hard)

    But when it came to Prohibition Mencken discovered his inner populist.

    Juries were more likely to acquit Prohibition defendants than when (evading the Constitution) judges tried these cases without juries.

    The plebes were more likely than the designated elites to be on the right side of this one issue, at least. Mencken noticed this. And appreciated it.

    But in other situations, it was back to mocking the masses of the plain people.

    1. Also, The American Language can be construed as a populist project. English as it’s actually talked.

    2. Prohibition was populist, anti-prohibition was libertarian.

  13. Replace “Hoover” with “Cuomo” to modernize things.

    Yes, he’s been pretty good in the clutch, but when the fire dies down he’ll go back to being the same ethically-flexible control freak he’s always been.

    Also, call it “wet market bat disease.” Gets precisely to the point without hurting any precious feelings – except for the batmongers of Wuhan.

  14. My heart takes a little leap each time I see a new Mencken piece by Ms. Rodgers.

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