H. L. Mencken at Full Throttle

Honeyed and abrasive: the irrepressible journalism of the ‘Sage of Baltimore’ and American Mercury founder

by Michael Dirda

H.L. MENCKEN (1880–1956) is often smilingly referred to as the Sage of Baltimore (especially in Baltimore), but during the first third of the twentieth century he was the most outspoken, irrepressibly contrarian literary and political journalist in the United States. As the scourge of the “booboisie” – his coinage – Mencken produced exuberant, gorgeous prose of such gusto that carnival barkers and fundamentalist preachers might have learnt from him. He could be loud and snide or silkily ironic – but never dull. When Mencken attacked, he left no survivors; when he praised, it felt like Christmas morning.

There can’t be many newspapermen whose work bears rereading after more than eighty years, let alone enshrinement in the Library of America, but Mencken is one. The six volumes of his collected Prejudices – essentially his best essays about American literature, culture and politics – are cocksure about everything, but whether they are right or boneheaded, one hardly cares. Mencken knew that writing had to be fun if you wanted it to be read. Today we turn to his best work as we turn to S. J. Perelman or P. G. Wodehouse – for the pleasure provided by one marvellous sentence after another.

Henry Louis Mencken regarded the monkeyshines and idiocies of Americans with both wonder and gratitude:

“Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly – the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances – is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.”

Throughout his Prejudices Mencken mingles literary appreciation with political broadside and occasional persiflage, but, in general, the early volumes tend to emphasize the man of letters. As a critic, Mencken preferred down-and-dirty social realism in his fiction. He championed Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and James T. Farrell, and he never failed to lambast the least sign of preachiness, “uplift” or didacticism. In the essay entitled “The Late Mr. Wells”, Mencken, an admirer of “the sheer radiance of ‘Tono-Bungay’”, lamented Wells’s decision to forgo art for civic-minded tendentiousness:

“Call the roll of his books, and you will discern a progressive and unmistakable falling off. Into “The Passionate Friends” there crept the first downright dullness. By this time his readers had become familiar with his machinery and his materials – his elbowing suffragettes, his tea-swilling London uplifters, his smattering of quasi-science, his intellectualized adulteries, his Thackerayan asides, his text-book paragraphs, his journalist raciness – and all these things had begun to lose the blush of their first charm.”

As that paragraph demonstrates, Mencken obviously relishes his own bel canto fireworks. Having warmed up, he immediately goes on to mock Wells’s latest novel, Joan and Peter:

“I was at the job of reading it for days and days, endlessly daunted and halted by its laborious dullness, its flatulent fatuity, its almost fabulous inconsequentiality . . . . The book is a botch from end to end, and in that botch there is not even the palliation of an arduous enterprise gallantly attempted. No inherent difficulty is visible. The story is anything but complex, and surely anything but subtle. Its badness lies wholly in the fact that the author made a mess of the writing . . . .”

Why has Wells failed so dramatically? Because, says Mencken, he has fallen victim to the “messianic delusion”: “What has slowly crippled him and perhaps disposed of him is his gradual acceptance of the theory, corrupting to the artist and scarcely less so to the man, that he is one of the Great Thinkers of his era, charged with a pregnant Message to the Younger Generation – that his ideas, rammed into enough skulls, will Save the Empire, not only from the satanic Nietzscheism of the Hindenburgs and post-Hindenburgs, but also from all those inner Weaknesses that taint and flabbergast its vitals, as the tapeworm with nineteen heads devoured Atharippus of Macedon”. (So far as I can determine, Mencken made up the unfortunate Atharippus.) While his formal education stopped after high school, Mencken was surprisingly cultivated and widely read. He played the piano every week as part of a local chamber orchestra. He taught himself German well enough to translate Nietzsche (The Anti-Christ). His home library contained 6,000 books, and he claimed to have read 4,000 novels during his tenure as co-editor of The Smart Set (the self-appointed “Magazine of Cleverness”). His own second book – after a volume of verses – was the first critical work about Bernard Shaw, whom Mencken somewhat resembles as a master of vigorous polemical prose.

As a student of his native literature, Mencken favours writers with the authentic American yawp – Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, the humorists George Ade and Ring Lardner. Huckleberry Finn is the novel he loves most (followed, somewhat surprisingly, by Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim). He judges Emerson to be overrated – “an importer of stale German elixirs, sometimes direct and sometimes through the Carlylean branch house”. He can’t bear the circumlocutions of Henry James and the gentility of William Dean Howells. Edgar Allan Poe he discerns – rare for the time – as “the bravest and most original, if perhaps also the least orderly and judicious, of all the critics that we have produced”.

In his own time, this prolific reviewer welcomed Scott Fitzgerald and rightly maintained that “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one-half so beautiful as [Willa Cather’s] ‘My Antonia’”. Again and again Mencken argued that nearly all “superior fiction” focused on “character in decay” and typically ended with the hero’s defeat or destruction. In light of this tragic sense of life, he believed that poetry’s purpose was to “soothe our agonies with emollient words”. As a result, he preferred those poets who were down to earth, a bit folksy: Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost. Still, he was drawn to Edna St Vincent Millay for her “voluptuousness” and late in life visited Ezra Pound when the poet was incarcerated at St Elizabeths Hospital for the insane. On the whole, though, Modernism was a closed book to Mencken: “Our poets get into print regularly with stuff so bizarre and unearthly that only Christian Scientists can understand it”.

While he might sing the praises of the authors he admired, admonish those who had lost their way, and vigorously defend any censured by prudes and preachers, Mencken could really lay into those he judged to be second- and third-rate. He describes the sentimental novels of Henry Sydnor Harrison as “100,000 word Christmas cards”. Of one novel from the South he wrote, “Here, obviously, is the best that Mississippi can do, in theme and treatment – and it is such puerile, blowsy stuff that reviewing it realistically would be too cruel”. (Happily, the novel’s author was one Harris Dickson and not William Faulkner.) He’s even more damning about the Kansas littérateur William Allen White, whose works still turn up in second-hand bookshops:

“If William Allen White lives as long as Tennyson, and does not reform, our grandchildren will see the Victorian era gasping out its last breath in 1951. And eighty-three is no great age in Kansas, where sin is unknown. It may be, in fact, 1960, or even 1970, before the world hears the last of Honest Poverty, Chaste Affection and Manly Tears. For so long as White holds a pen these ancient sweets will be on sale at the department-store book-counters, and they will grow sweeter and sweeter . . . . If you yearn to uplift and like to sob, then the volume [In the Heart of a Fool] will probably affect you, in the incomparable phrase of Clayton Hamilton, like “the music of a million Easter-lilies leaping from the grave and laughing with a silver singing.” But if you are a carnal fellow, as I am, with a stomach ruined by alcohol, it will gag you.”

What Mencken particularly loathes is the American tendency to “a highly self- conscious and insipid correctness, a bloodless respectability, a submergence of matter in manner”. Little wonder that he assailed those who would ban Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and James Branch Cabell’s mildly lubricious comic fantasy Jurgen. Great American fiction, Mencken contended, in what might almost be the prescription for a mid-career Saul Bellow novel, should embrace “the whole, gross, glittering, excessively dynamic, infinitely grotesque, incredibly stupendous drama of American life”. Certainly young people in the 1920s found Mencken liberating. He repeatedly denounced and satirized Prohibition, religious mania, the duplicity of politicians, any appearance of the bogus and self-serving, and every sort of do-goodism. He argued for the rights of the people he called “Aframericans”. Yet he also detested jazz, couldn’t perceive any artistic merit in film – though he did once interview a weary-hearted Rudolph Valentino – and he greatly disliked seeing couples wriggling “to the tune of some villainous mazurka from the Mississippi levees”.

More disturbingly, his essays occasionally disparage the immigrant masses, expound on the benefits of racial purity and the dangers of the mixing of blood, and repeatedly make vast generalizations about the Southerner and the New Englander, the Anglo-Saxon and the German. Though there’s no overt anti-Semitism in Prejudices, Mencken’s diaries and some private autobiographical volumes – not published until after his death – do contain offensive remarks about the Jews. It almost goes without saying that several of his closest friends were Jewish, including George Jean Nathan, his co-editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury, and Alfred Knopf, his publisher. For some readers, however, the crude aspersions found in these posthumous volumes discredit Mencken’s entire work.

While H. L. Mencken can be truculent and mouthy in a terribly American way, he always viewed himself as a cut above the common herd, indeed, as a kind of libertarian aristocrat. He felt that most of us really were boobs. “The average American is a prude and a Methodist under his skin.” In one of his most famous pieces, “The Sahara of the Bozart”, he depicts the post-Civil War South as a wasteland, empty of culture, education and literature, where “the arts, save in the lower reaches of the gospel hymn, the phonograph and the chautauqua harangue, are all held in suspicion”.

Though Mencken might look to be nothing but a cigar-chomping pug, his values were those of a noble and proudly independent gentleman. “What ails the beautiful letters of the Republic, I repeat, is what ails the general culture of the Republic – the lack of a body of sophisticated and civilized public opinion, independent of plutocratic control and superior to the infantile philosophies of the mob – a body of opinion showing the eager curiosity, the educated skepticism and the hospitality to ideas of a true aristocracy.” Above all, like any self-sufficient aristocrat, he loathed big government. “All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to police him and cripple him.” Mencken insists that “the ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle to Herbert Spencer, is one which lets the individual alone – one which barely escapes being no government at all”. (Here he sounds like a proto-Ayn Rand.) American history, he notes, is sadly little more than “a history of minorities put down with clubs”.

A mere forty miles south of Baltimore, Washington, DC, inevitably earned Mencken’s finest scorn, and his remarks about its unsavoury denizens are worthy of his friend Ambrose Bierce (author of The Devil’s Dictionary, aka The Cynic’s Wordbook): “Since the days of the national Thors and Wotans, no politician who was not out for himself, and for himself alone, has ever drawn breath of life in the United States”; “All this took place in the United States, where the word honor, save when it is applied to the structural integrity of women, has only a comic significance”; “Ideas count for nothing in Washington, whether they be political, economic or moral. The question isn’t what a man thinks, but what he has to give away that is worth having”; “There are Congressmen, I have no doubt, who regret their lost honor, as women often do in the films. Tossing in their beds on hot, sticky Washington nights, their gizzards devoured by bad liquor, they may lament the ruin that the service of Demos has brought to their souls”.

…In 1948 Mencken suffered a debilitating stroke and thereafter never wrote again. By then, however, the old newspaperman’s reputation had long faded. Nonetheless, he had already published his high-spirited memoirs Happy Days and Newspaper Days – probably his best books – and brought out several editions of his scholarly The American Language. Since his death in 1956 Mencken’s reputation has been kept fitfully alive by a popular paperback, The Vintage Mencken, compiled by Alistair Cooke, and by the fat compendium – edited by the man himself – A Mencken Chrestomathy. This last includes numerous extracts from Prejudices, but hardly enough to give a sense of the range and sustained power of the original six volumes. Now, thanks to this splendid Library of America set, we can again enjoy H. L. Mencken at length and at full throttle.

H. L. Mencken
The complete series
Edited by Marion Rogers
1,408pp. Library of America. $70.
978 1 59853 076 6

Read the full article at the Times Literary Supplement

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