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H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and the “Progressives”

Published by on April 18, 2010

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by A. Helian

GIVEN THE number of links Instapundit posts every day, it should come as no surprise if he hits an occasional sour note. A recent specimen thereof turned up an article that convinced me that Prof. Reynolds made a good choice when he favored law over American literature in his choice of academic careers.

The article in question gathers up a batch of famous American authors, bowdlerizes them and strips off their individuality in the process of mashing them all together to create a strawman that they all are supposed to represent, and then uses the strawman to “demonstrate” that all these great thinkers were really just the intellectual forefathers of today’s “progressive” left. The author, Fred Siegel, represents the rather counter-intuitive point of view that this process of distorting the work and denying the individual relevance of a whole cohort of the greatest writers America has ever produced is to be understood under the rubric of fighting “anti-Americanism.”

Siegel cites a little known American critic, Bernard DeVoto, as the godfather of this notion that most of the great American authors of the early 20th century were really just a bunch of anti-Americans, as similar to each other as so many peas in a pod. As he puts it in the article,

Weaned on the work of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw and their loathing for conventional mores, Lewis and his confreres became the dominant force in American letters, and their views went largely unchallenged in the literary world. It was left to a critic named Bernard DeVoto to issue the first serious and meaningful challenge to their worldview—the opening salvo in a brave and lonely battle that still resonates, even though DeVoto and the book in which he took up arms for the United States against its own intellectuals are both forgotten.

I won’t take issue with Mr. DeVoto here, because I’ve never read his work, but the sketch of the man presented by Prof. Siegel is unattractive enough.  He condemns the authors in question for, among a host of other sins, claiming that “the prosperity of the 1920s had invalidated capitalism,” for presenting “the Puritan and the Pioneer,” as villains, “whom they believed were the source of America’s dreary commercial culture,” and whose ”supposed individualism was one of the coterie’s bêtes noires,” for glorifying Europe as a utopia for writers, artists, and the rest of the gentry of culture, for portraying businessmen as “impotent, barely able to reproduce,” and even “inferior to animals,” and, in a word, being generally “vitriolic in their criticisms of the United States.”

The article concludes with the observation that,

Today that spirit can be found in precincts both high and low—from the hallways of academe to late-night infotainment comics such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who traffic in a knowing snarkiness that confers an unearned sense of superiority on their viewers. Now, as then, angered by the impertinence of the masses in their increasing rejection of the hope and change promised them in 2008, liberals, as in the title of a recent article in the online magazine Slate, raise themselves up by shouting, “Down with the People!”

With that, the process of rendering a whole generation of American authors into a uniform soup and serving them up as the precursors of today’s liberals is complete.  Apparently we are to understand that we can simply dismiss them all without taking the trouble to read them because we already “know” where they stand, none of them had anything worthwhile to say, and, in any case, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.  By taking this attitude we demonstrate that we ourselves are just and good, and free of the taints of arrogance, impertinence, and “an unearned sense of superiority.”

Again, DeVoto may be an interesting and worthwhile writer in his own right.  However, the notions Siegel ascribes to him are pure bunk.  To see why, let’s take a closer look at Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, the two authors he singles out for special criticism as archetypes of the evil American authors of yesteryear.  Both of them are well worth reading.  They will certainly rub many modern readers the wrong way, but they were both interesting, entertaining, and thought provoking.  Both of them were harsh in their criticisms of various aspects of American life, but to describe them as “anti-American” is ridiculous….

As for DeVoto’s specific criticisms, he is supposed to have claimed that the authors on his literary blacklist believed that “the prosperity of the 1920s had invalidated capitalism.”  In response to that claim in the case of Mencken and Lewis, I can only reply, “read their work.”  Mencken was a libertarian to the core.  Nothing could be more absurd than the claim that he somehow resembled the “progressive” liberals of today.  He rejected anything associated with what he called the “Uplift,” and today’s liberals are quintessential representatives of what he meant by the term; those among us who are constantly engaged in striking ostentatious poses as saviors of mankind.  Far from being in any way their intellectual precursor, his response to them would have surely been allergic.  Mencken believed in Liberty, and specifically those liberties set forth in the Bill of Rights.  In keeping with that belief, he opposed suppression of the points of view of Communists, anarchists, or anyone else.  He was one of the greatest editors this country has produced, and the “American Mercury,” which he edited from 1924 to 1933, included essays by capitalists and anti-capitalists as well.  However, Mencken himself finally rejected Communism at a time when many American intellectuals were embracing it, likening it to a form of religious fanaticism, whose leaders were akin to so many popes, bishops and priests.  Coming from a staunch atheist, this hardly seems an “invalidation of capitalism.”

As for Lewis, I suggest the novel “Dodsworth” to the interested reader.  It’s hero is one of the captains of American industry.  Anyone who thinks that he was portrayed as “impotent and barely able to reproduce” or “inferior to the animals” is in for a big surprise.

Next let’s take up the charge that the two presented “the Puritan and the Pioneer” as villains.  While Mencken may have been an atheist, he is often quoted as having said, “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”  He generally took issue, not with religion or “Puritans” per se, but with those who exploited religion to justify the usurpation of the liberties of others, or to attempt to use the power of the state to police their morality, or to suppress freedom of thought.  Therefore, he reserved his special ire for Methodist bishops, who he blamed for foisting Prohibition on the American people, figures like Anthony Comstock, who wanted the state to police morality, and evangelical politicians like William Jennings Bryan, who sought to suppress the teaching of evolution and other scientific theories.  As for the notion that he harbored an animus against the pioneers, nothing could be more absurd.  Just read a few copies of the American Mercury and you’ll generally find fulsome praise of the pioneers’ spirit of liberty, creativity, and resourcefulness.  Mencken may not have written these articles, but he was a very careful editor, choosing, for example, pieces that lauded the founding fathers of old El Paso, the remarkable quality of the writing in some of the earliest periodicals to appear in San Francisco, and the spirit of freedom among the American loggers who worked the forests at the fringe of advancing civilization.

As for Lewis, the type he pilloried in “Elmer Gantry” might certainly be described as “religious,” but only in the sense that televangelists like Robert Tilton and Jim Bakker are “religious.”  Where, exactly, in his work DeVoto finds any condemnation of pioneers as such I can’t imagine, unless one considers the citizens of Gopher Prairie in his novel Main Street “pioneers.”

Nothing could be more far-fetched than the idea that individualism was a bête noire for either Lewis or Mencken.  The struggle of individuals to assert themselves against the social forces of conformity is a constant theme of Lewis’ novels.  Whether Carroll Kennicott in Main Street asserting her right to organize parties and furnish her house as she pleases, regardless of how “everyone else” does it, Martin Arrowsmith pushing back against the medical and scientific establishment, or Dodsworth promoting automobile designs that stood out from the pack, individualism was always one of his highest virtues.  As for Mencken, ultimate individual that he was, the idea that he rejected individualism doesn’t pass the “ho ho” test.

Prof. Siegel would have us believe that Devoto “issued the first serious and meaningful challenge to their worldview.”  To the extent that he’s referring to Mencken and Lewis, anyone who takes the time to read the contemporary literary criticism will quickly realize this claim is nonsense.  We are told that he fought “a brave and lonely battle” in opposing them, but whether Siegel is referring to the past or the present, that claim doesn’t hold water either.  One of the most important biographies of Lewis, Mark Schorer’s “Sinclair Lewis; An American Life,” which appeared shortly after Devoto’s heyday, damned him with faint praise.  The most significant reference I’ve seen to Mencken in the popular media in the last decade or so referred to the “racism” supposedly exposed in some newly discovered letters.  Given the fact that Mencken was probably the most effective opponent of racism in this country in the first half of the 20th century, hardly ever failed to hammer the Ku Klux Klan and related excrescences in a single issue of the American Mercury, and provided a mainstream forum for W.E.B. Dubois and many other African American intellectuals that put him head and shoulders above the rest of the editors of his day, one can but shake one’s head when reading such stupidities.

There can be nothing more anti-American than gathering a host of America’s best authors, stripping them of their originality, and then accusing them of anti-Americanism, associating them in the process with a modern ideology with which they have nothing in common.  Take a look at the list of best sellers, whether fiction or non-fiction, and it may occur to you, as it does to me, that it’s a wasteland out there.  Do yourself a favor and read some of the authors on DeVoto’s blacklist.  They’ll surely rub many of you the wrong way, but they’ll make you think in the process.

Read the full article on Helian Unbound

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