by Gore Vidal
AFTER POLITICS, JOURNALISM has always been the preferred career of the ambitious but lazy second-rater. American exceptions to mediocrity’s leaden mean: From column A, there was Franklin D. Roosevelt. From column B, H.L. Mencken.
Although Henry Louis Mencken was a magazine editor (The Smart Set, The American Mercury), a literary critic, an expositor of Nietzsche, and a school of Samuel Johnson compiler of The American Language, he never ceased to be a journalist for the Sunpapers in his hometown of Baltimore, where he was born in 1880 and where he died in 1956. From 1906 to 1948, he was connected with the Baltimore Sun, as a columnist, feature writer, editor. He was the most influential journalist of his day; he was also the wittiest.
As a working journalist, Mencken took as his lifelong subject nothing less than Freedom’s land and Bravery’s home, the (not so very) United States, where flourished such gorgeous clowns as Calvin Coolidge; “The Great Croon of Croons,” Franklin D. Roosevelt; the not-so-great Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan; and many, many others. But if only God could have invented such a cast, it was Mencken who proved to be God’s most attentive and appreciative drama critic. It was Mencken who described the show. He reveled in absurdity; found no bonnet entirely bee-less. He loved the national bores for their own sweet sake.
As he contemplated the meager lives of our dull presidents, he wrote: “There comes a day of public ceremonial, and a chance to make a speech…. A million voters with IQs below 60 have their ears glued to the radio. It takes four days’ hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next a dam must be opened somewhere. Four dry Senators get drunk and make a painful scene. The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.”
American journalism’s golden (a kinder adjective than “yellow”) age coincided with Mencken’s career; that is, from century’s turn to mid-century’s television. During this period, there was still a public educational system and although Mencken often laughs at the boobs out there, the average person could probably get through a newspaper without numb lips. Today, half the American population no longer reads newspapers: plainly, they are the clever half.
For Mencken, the old-time journalist, or “newsie,” was a combination of François Villon and Shane. He was “wild-cattish.” He was free-lance, a knight for hire. In 1927, Mencken was already looking back nostalgically to the time when a journalist “used to make as much as a bartender or a police sergeant”; now “he makes as much as the average doctor or lawyer, and his wife, if he has one, maybe has social ambitions.” Today, of course, the “journalist” is often paid movie-star prices for movie-star appearances on television or along the lecture circuit, and he needs no wife to inspire him to a cozy lunch à deux with Nancy Reagan or Barbara Bush.
Mencken did acknowledge that, even then, some journalists liked to mingle with the wealthy and the powerful but, for him, there was always a greater fascination in those lower depths where dwell bartenders and police sergeants.
Mencken’s ideal popular paper for that vast public which “gets all its news by listening” (today one would change “listening” to “staring” — at television) would be “printed throughout, as First Readers are printed, in words of one syllable. It should avoid every idea beyond the understanding of a boy of ten” on the ground that “all ideas are beyond them. They can grasp only events.” But they will heed only those events that are presented as drama in “the form of combat, and it must be a very simple combat with one side clearly right and the other clearly wrong. They can no more imagine neutrality than they can imagine the fourth dimension.” Thus, Mencken anticipated not only the television news program but the television political campaign with its combative thirty-second spot commercials and sound-bites. Movies were already showing the way, and Mencken acknowledged the wisdom of the early movie magnates whose simpleminded screened agons had made them rich. Unfortunately, once rich, they pined for culture, against which Mencken sternly warns with his famous injunction: “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
Today, Mencken’s boisterous style and deadpan hyperboles are very difficult even for “educated” Americans to deal with, and Sanskrit to the generality. Although every American has a sense of humor — it is his birthright and encoded somewhere in the Constitution — few Americans have ever been able to cope with wit or irony, and even the simplest jokes often cause unease, especially today, when every phrase must be examined for covert sexism, racism, ageism.
American character (which does and does not exist) fascinated Mencken, who observed, in 1918, that the universal image of Uncle Sam the money-grubber was mistaken. “The character that actually marks off the American is not money-hunger at all; it is what might be called, at the risk of misunderstanding, social aspiration.” For the American, money plays only a part in moving upward “to break down some barrier of caste, to secure the acceptance of his betters.” Unlike Europe, “no one has a station” (so far as he knows, of course: class is a national dirty secret) “unless he makes it for himself.” Of course Mencken lived in simpler times. For the American of 1918, “there is always something just behind him and tantalizing him, menacing him and causing him to sweat.”
Mencken quotes Wendell Phillips. “More than any other people, we Americans are afraid of one another.” Mencken acknowledges this truth, and he puts it down to the desire to conform, which means howling with the rest of the mindless pack as it careens from nowhere to nowhere in pursuit of such instant enemies of the week as Qaddafi, Noriega, Saddam, put in place by our packmeisters, successively, like that mechanical rabbit used to keep racing dogs on course. For this sense of collective security, the individual must sacrifice himself in order “to belong to something larger and safer than he is,” and he can “work off his steam within prudent limits. Beyond lie the national taboos. Beyond lie true independence and the heavy penalties that go therewith.”
A century earlier, that shrewd passerby Tocqueville also noted the force of the majority on the individual to conform. But Mencken was obliged to live a lifetime in such a society and so, unlike the French penologist, he could present data from inside the stammer: “The taboos that I have mentioned are extraordinarily harsh and numerous. They stand around nearly every subject that is genuinely important to man: they hedge in free opinion and experimentation on all sides. Consider, for example, the matter of religion. It is debated freely and furiously in almost every country in the world save the United States,” but here the critic is silenced. “The result is that all religions are equally safeguarded against criticism, and that all of them lose vitality. We protect the status quo, and so make steady war upon revision and improvement.”
In August 1925, Mencken meditated on how Europeans view Americans, and how they noted “our growing impatience with the free play of ideas, our increasing tendency to reduce all virtues to the single one of conformity, our relentless and all pervading standardization…. Europe doesn’t fear our military or economic prowess, rather it is Henry Ford that gives them the shivers…. By Americanization it means Fordization — and not only in industry but also in politics, art and even religion.” Nor is this simply the spontaneous power of public opinion; it is the deliberate power of the state brought into play. “No other nation of today is so rigorously policed. The lust to standardize and regulate extends to the most trivial minutia of private life.”
At the time that Mencken wrote this, alcohol had been prohibited by law to the American people, as well as almost every form of sex, disturbing reading matter, and so on. Mencken also adverted to the Scopes Trial of that year, whose verdict forbade the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in the schools of Christian Tennessee. This trial convinced thoughtful Europeans that Americanism was “a conspiracy of dull and unimaginative men, fortuitously made powerful, against all the ideas and ideals that seem sound to their betters,” leading the Europeans to suspect “that a nation cherishing such notions and feelings, and with the money and the men to enforce them, deserved to be watched very carefully.”
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As a first-generation American, Mencken liked playing the vaudeville German, with a passion for beer, Brahms, German culture. “My grandfather made a mistake when he came to America, and I have always lived in the wrong country.” Like so many echt Americans, Mencken deeply resented the British. Not only did he share in the tribal dislike of Teuton for Anglo but he resented the ease with which the Brits manipulated American politics in their favor at the time of the two World Wars. During the First World War, Mencken’s pro-Germanism got him banned from the Sun. But despite Mencken’s somewhat stagy dislike of Brits, socialism, radicals, the “Anglo-maniacal” Woodrow Wilson, and the reformers Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, he tended to make very good patriotic sense of American politics.
Mencken notes that from the start of the republic, “setting aside religion, [politics] was literally the only concern of the people. All men of ability and ambition turned to it for self-expression.” This is wondrously wise and an echo of Pericles’ comment that the man who thinks politics not his business has no business. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, politics drew “the best literary talent into its service — Franklin, Jefferson and Lincoln may well stand as examples — it left the cultivation of belles lettres to women and second-rate men.” Now, of course, the second-raters have taken over politics. As for beautiful letters …
Mencken’s alarm at our system’s degradation was in no way based upon a starry-eyed notion of the revered but always circumvented Constitution. Although that long-ignored primer says that only Congress may declare war, President Bush has only recently confided to us that “we have fought 204 wars of which only five were declared,” so put that in your peace pipe and smoke it! Mencken would not have been startled. For him, “all government, in its essence, is organized exploitation, and in virtually all of its existing forms it is the implacable enemy of every industrious and well-disposed man.” This must have got a good chuckle from the Baltimore burgher over his breakfast of chipped beef and scrapple.
Mencken continues. Government “invades his liberty and collars his money in order to protect him, but in actuality, it always makes a stiff profit on the exchange. This profit represents the income of the professional politicians, nine-tenths of whom are professional rogues.” That was then. The rogues are smoother now and often endearing on television. They are also no longer paid for by such chicken feed as kickbacks on city contracts. Rather, they are the proud employees of the bankers and the military industrial procurers who have bought them their offices, both square and oval. But though we are worse off than in Mencken’s day, he was at least able to give one cheer for the Constitution, or at least for the idea of such a document, as a kind of stoplight: “So far you may go, but no further. No matter what excuse or provocation, you may not invade certain rights, or pass certain kinds of laws.”
Inevitably, Mencken’s journalism is filled with stories of how our enumerated rights are constantly being evaded or struck down because it is the reflexive tactic of the politicians “to invade the Constitution stealthily, and then wait to see what happens. If nothing happens they go on more boldly; if there is a protest they reply hotly that the Constitution is worn out and absurd, and that progress is impossible under the dead hand. This is the time to watch them especially.”
Mencken also notes that in the first decade of this century there was “a sudden change…. Holes began to be punched in the Bill of Rights, and new laws of strange and often fantastic shape began to slip through them. The hysteria of the late war completed the process. The espionage act enlarged the holes to great fissures. Citizens began to be pursued into their houses, arrested without warrants, and jailed without any form of trial. The ancient writ of habeas corpus was suspended: the Bill of Rights was boldly thrown overboard.”
Although the extent of the decadence of the democratic process at our end of the century was unknown if not unsuspected, to Mencken, he knew enough of history and its engine, entropy, to declare that “no government, of its own motion, will increase its own weakness, for that would mean to acquiesce in its own destruction … governments, whatever their pretensions otherwise, try to preserve themselves by holding the individual down…. Government itself, indeed, may be reasonably defined as a conspiracy against him. Its one permanent aim, whatever its form, is to hobble him sufficiently to maintain itself.” As a self-styled “Presbyterian Tory” (with Manichean tendencies), Mencken regarded attempts at reform as doomed, while the thought of any Utopian system bettering things caused him deep distress because to create Utopia you would have to enslave more and more people in order to better — while worsening — their lot.
Curiously enough, of all those good and bad Americans who shuddered at the sudden sharp wind from the east known as communism, Mencken, as early as 1930, figured that there was no way that communism could ever set up shop within our alabaster cities much less take sickle to our fruited plains. Mencken’s reasoning is exquisitely sound: “That Americans, in the mass, have anything properly describable as keen wits is surely far from self-evident. On the contrary, it seems likely that, if anything, they lie below the civilized norm.” Incidentally, for several decades I have been trying to convince Europeans that Americans are not innately stupid but merely ignorant and that with a proper educational system, etcetera. But the more one reads Mencken, the more one eyes suspiciously the knuckles of his countrymen, looking to see callouses from too constant a contact with the greensward.
Mencken believes Americans to be more gullible than most people, dwelling as we do in “the home of freak economic schemes” (often, alas, contagious) and “the happy hunting ground of the most blatant and absurd sort of charlatans in politics.” From this intimate knowledge of the American “mind,” Mencken thinks that Americans, as lovers of “the bizarre and the irrational would embrace communism with joy, just as multitudes of them, in a previous age, embraced free silver. But, as everyone knows, they will have none of it.” Mencken concedes the attraction of Utopias to the foreign-born and educated Americans, but “two-thirds of the native-born Communists that I have encountered are so plainly mashuggah that it would be flattery to call them stupid.”
Mencken gives two reasons for the failure of communism/socialism to take root in the United States. The first is that Americans had long since been vaccinated by the likes of Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt against this sort of virus: In effect, the folks had been there before and they were aware of so “gross” a social and economic solution. Mencken’s second reason strikes me as not only true but inspired. Americans were more sensitive to “the concrete debacle in Russia” because “they probably felt themselves, in a subtle and unconscious way, to be nearer to the Russians than any Europeans. Russia was not like Europe, but it was strangely like America. In the same way the Russians were like Americans. They, too, were naturally religious and confiding; they, too, were below the civilized average in intelligence; and they, too, believed in democracy, and were trying to give it a trial.”
For Mencken, communist literature was “as childish as the literature of Christian Science,” while communism itself “will probably disappear altogether when the Russian experiment comes to a climax, and Bolshevism either converts itself into a sickly imitation of capitalism or blows up with a bang. The former issue seems more likely.” This is not bad for 1930.
As Mencken thought all government bad, it follows that he was a Jeffersonian who believed that the least we had of a bad thing the better. As “an incurable Tory in politics,” he was congenitally antiliberal, though “I always give heed to them politely, for they are at least free men.” Surprisingly, he has respectful words for Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, victims of federal persecution (it is not taught in our schools that once upon a time, at the behest of the Secretary of Labor, foreign-born Americans could be deported, without due process). Mencken finds the two radicals “extremely intelligent — [and] once their aberrant political ideals are set aside they are seen to be very sharp wits. They think clearly, unsentimentally and even a bit brilliantly. They write simple, glowing and excellent English.” Mencken confesses that he cannot understand how they can believe so childishly in the proletariat, but “the fact that a human brain of high amperage, otherwise highly efficient, may have a hole in it is surely not a secret. All of us, in our several ways, are illogical, irrational, almost insane.” Mencken’s tolerance for the bees aswarm in the bonnets of others was very great if the swarm be honest and its honey pure.
The state as hostile tropism is Mencken’s central philosophic notion as a journalist. Whether the state is used to deport or imprison people for their ideas or the color of their skin (as in the case of the Nisei) or simply to harass citizens who drink whisky, he was that malevolent state’s hard critic. He illuminates our marvelous Bill of Rights, no sooner promulgated than struck with the first of those sets of alien and sedition acts that continue, in one form or another, to this day. He is very funny about the Noble Experiment to prohibit alcohol (1913-33), which made the United States the world’s joke-nation, a title still unceded.
As for America’s once triumphant mass-production of the automobile, he notes that this achievement promptly became a pretext for the persecution of the citizenry by creating “a body of laws which fills two courtrooms to suffocation every day (in Baltimore), and keeps three judges leaping and tugging like fire-engine horses. The situation is made more intoxicating by the fact that nine-tenths of the criminals are persons who would not otherwise fall into their toils — that the traffic regulations tap whole new categories of victims…. The ideal of the Polizei, at all times and everywhere, is to get their hands upon every citizen at least once a day.” Today the tobacco smoker is at risk. Tomorrow, who knows who will fall victim to the state’s endless sense of fun.
* * *
Like all good writers, Mencken is a dramatist, at his best when he shows us the ship of state in motion on high seas while his character studies of the crew of this ship of fools still give delight, though every last one now lies full fathom five. Ding dong dell.
As a reporter, Mencken covered many political conventions from 1904 to 1948. As a Baltimore Sun columnist, he wrote about national politics whenever the spirit moved or, indeed, shoved him. In 1925 he was amused, as always, by the collapse yet again of the Liberals and their journals: “The Nation gradually abandons Liberalism for libertarianism. The New Republic hangs on, but is obviously not as vigorous and confident as it used to be.” Mencken delighted in “Dr. Coolidge,” Liberalism’s natural enemy. But then “a politician has no actual principles. He is in favor of whatever seems to him to be popular at the moment.” Even so, Coolidge “believes naturally in Law Enforcement — by lawful means if possible: if not, by any means at hand, lawful or lawless … he actually got his first considerable office … by posturing as a fascist of the most advanced type.” This was in 1919 when Governor Coolidge of Massachusetts broke the Boston police strike and became famous.
But Coolidge is only an engaging character actor in a drama whose star throughout is William Jennings Bryan (Democratic candidate for President 1896, 1900, 1908 — spokesman or -person for free silver and the common person — or man). Bryan had become famous and popular and dangerous to the status quo when he put together a huge coalition of poor farmers and poorer laborers and, in their interest, spoke against the rich and their gold standard. Bryan gave the country’s ownership its first big scare since the rebellion of Daniel Shays. Alas, Mencken was not at the convention in ’96, when with a single speech (“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”) Bryan got the nomination at the age of thirty-six. As his friend and ally, my grandfather, used to say, “He never learned anything else ever again in his life.”
As much as Mencken despised Bryan, the demagogue, he is moderately touched by Bryan’s appearance at the 1904 convention “in his familiar alpaca coat and his old white string tie,” looking “weak and haggard” (he was suffering from pneumonia) until he started to speak and brought down the house, yet again. Four years later he would be the doomed nominee: four years after that, Wilson made him his Secretary of State, a post he resigned when he saw that the Administration was moving toward war, an act of principle that Mencken rather meanly does not credit in a man he calls “the magnificent job-seeker.”
At the end, Mencken was present in Dayton, Tennessee for the Scopes Trial, where the old man seemed “maleficent” to Mencken when he spoke for superstition and the literal interpretation of the Bible. Bryan and the Bible won the day, but Bryan himself was dead a few weeks later, killed, my grandmother always said, by an ungovernable passion for “chicken and rice and gravy.”
For Mencken, Bryan is the id — to use Freudian jargon — of American politics: the ignorant, religious, underclass leader whose fateful and dramatic climax came in the trial to determine whether or not we are descended from monkeys. Herbert Hoover is the ego; he also represents the British interest, forever trying to draw the great stupid republic into their wars and combinations. Calvin Coolidge is a near-fascist clown whose career is “as appalling and as fascinating as a two-headed boy.” Warren G. Harding is the master of a glorious near-English in which “the relations between word and meaning have long since escaped him.” Harding’s style “reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.” Mencken’s descriptions of these wondrous clowns are still a delight because, though the originals are long since erased from the collective “memory” of the United States of Amnesia, the types persist. “I am not,” Mencken observes demurely at one point, when blood is on the walls, “a constructive critic.”
For Mencken, “the best of [politicians] seem to be almost as bad as the worst. As private citizens they are often highly intelligent and realistic men, and admirable in every way.” But because of the superstitious mass, they are not allowed to make sense. “When they accomplish anything, it is usually by accident.” Even of his sometime hero, Al Smith, he deplored his speeches but then, “like all habitual orators, he plainly likes to make speeches, no matter how dull the subject or hot the hall.”
Mencken is quite aware that behind the diverting spectacle of our politics stands the ownership of the country, Business. He understands the general preference of the Business-boss for the Lawyer-employee in politics. Partly it is because “a lawyer practising his craft under Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence becomes a pedant almost inevitably. The system he follows is expressly designed to shut out common sense,” which is just as well because “Big Business in America, is almost wholly devoid of anything even poetically describable as public spirit. It is frankly on the make…. Big Business was in favor of Prohibition, believing that a sober workman would made a better slave than one with a few drinks in him. It was in favor of all the gross robberies and extortions that went on in the [First] war,” and profited by the curtailment of civil liberties and so on. Coolidge was their man; so was Herbert Hoover, “the perfect self-seeker…. His principles are so vague that even his intimates seem unable to put them into words…. He knows who his masters are, and he will serve them.”
Mencken is also aware that there is a small but constant resistance to the “masters,” but he gives the resistance little aid or comfort. Essentially, he is on the side of Business if not Businessmen because “business is the natural art of the American people.” He pities those with “believing minds” who would follow this or that demagogue, and he lived long enough to attend the 1948 convention of the Progressive Party, where Henry Wallace picked up the banner marked Nay; but Mencken was put off not so much by the poignant, plaintive “nay” as he was by the coloring of the letters, red.
Even so, the Tory Mencken understands the roots of radicalism. Although “it is assumed that men become radicals because they are naturally criminal, or because they have been bribed by Russian gold,” what actually moves them “is simply the conviction that the Government they suffer under is unbearably and incurably corrupt…. The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.” But Mencken himself is no radical because “I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time. But that is certainly not the common American view…. When they see an evil they try to remedy it — by peaceful means if possible, and if not, then by force.” Yet, paradoxically, Mencken can also write that “history … is the upward struggle of man, out of darkness and into light,” presumably a struggle with ooze alone.
Eventually, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would appear to be the answer to the radicals’ dream and Mencken regarded him, at the beginning, with a cold but not disapproving eye as FDR metamorphosed from a John the Baptist for Al Smith to the Christ himself, or the national super-ego. With some pleasure, Mencken described the Democratic convention that nominated FDR for Vice President, largely because he bore the name of a famous Republican President. Also, he was chosen to “perfume the ticket.” As “leader of the anti-Tammany Democrats in New York,” he could be counted on “to exorcise the Tammany split from the party.” Finally, “he is a civilized man and safely wet.”
When FDR’s turn came at Chicago in 1932, Mencken wrote, “I can recall no candidate of like importance who ever had so few fanatics whooping for him.” But Mencken allowed that FDR was good on radio, and he smiled a lot. By the 1940 convention, Mencken was hostile not only to the New Deal but to the approaching war. To Mencken, 1940 looked like a rerun of 1916, when Wilson had campaigned as “the man who kept us out of war.” Politics being nothing if not imitative of what has worked before, he glumly observed that “Roosevelt himself has promised categorically, on at least a dozen occasions, to keep out of the war, and with the most pious and eye-rolling solemnity” even though “his foreign policy … has been unbrokenly devious, dishonest and dishonorable. Claiming all the immunities of a neutral, he has misled the country into countless acts of war, and there is scarcely an article of international law that he has not violated.” But Roosevelt won the election. And the war came.
Roosevelt’s opponent in the election of 1940 was Wendell Willkie, an eloquent “barefoot boy,” as they called him, “from Wall Street,” with a Hoosier accent and considerable demagogic skills. Just before he was nominated, I shook his limp hand, and he glared at me with blind eyes in a white sweating face and croaked, “Ah’d be a lah-er if ah said ah diduhn wanna be Prez Nigh Stays.” The only occasion where I gazed as Mencken gazed upon the same political spectacle was the Republican convention at Philadelphia where Willkie was nominated. This was in June 1940 and I was guide to my blind grandfather, former Senator T. P. Gore. A Democrat, TPG was not about to miss any convention that might be fun. On a hot evening, we rode to the convention hall in a streetcar with former Vice President Charles G. Dawes, a bright, crickety little man, wearing a white straw hat. At the hall, the heat was dreadful. Young women gave out palmetto fans with “Fan for Van” written on them; thus, the great moose of Michigan, Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, majestically hurled himself into the ring. Senator Robert A. Taft was also a candidate. He was, even then, known as “Mr. Conservative.” Twelve years later, when he was denied the nomination in favor of D.D. Eisenhower, he let slip a terrible truth that no Republican can be nominated for President without the permission of the Chase Manhattan Bank.
We sat in the bleachers to stage left of the podium, where stood the former President, Herbert Hoover, face like a rosy marshmallow. Carefully, I described the scene for my blind grandfather; he had entered political history not only as the first senator from the new state of Oklahoma but as the orator who had started the longest demonstration ever recorded at any convention (for Bryan, at Denver, 1908). TPG was one of the few speakers that Mencken could endure, noting that in 1928, when he “rose to second the nomination of his old friend, Senator Reed, there was humor in his brief speech, and also a very impressive earnestness. He won the crowd instantly and got a great round of applause. No other rhetorician came near his mark.”
Hoover “stood before the mike like a schoolboy reciting a piece, and seldom varied his intonation or made a gesture.” Mencken brings it all alive to me a half-century later, though he finds Hoover paler than I did but then I had never seen the President before — or since. I was deeply impressed by Hoover’s rigid gravitas. But my grandfather, whose wit and politics were not unlike Mencken’s, after listening to the ovation for the ex-President, said, “Hoover’s the only man here who doesn’t know that he’s finished.”
As the galleries chanted, “We want Willkie,” I became addicted to the convention as then practiced and it is ironic that in 1968, thanks to some television “debates” with a right-wing publicist, I should have helped preside over the transformation of the party conventions from the comings-together of the nation’s tribes to a series of low-rated TV specials. No one can now say, with Mencken, “Me, I like [conventions] because they amuse me. I never get tired of the show … so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”
Currently, any use of the word “race” in the United States is considered an a priori proof of the user’s racism. Abstract nouns are now subject to close scrutiny to make sure that the noun’s deployer is not a racist or sexist or ageist or bigot. Meanwhile, any word or phrase that might cause distress must undergo erasure while euphemism (the E- — or is it U- or Eu- — word?) is the order of the day, as “body bag” suddenly becomes, in Pentagonese, “human remains pouch” since “pouch” is a resolutely cheery word, suggesting cute marsupials Down Under, while “bag” is a downer, as in “bag lady,” Munich, appeasement, Hitler. A babble of words that no one understands now fills the airwaves, and language loses all meaning as we sink slowly, mindlessly, into herstory rather than history because most rapists are men, aren’t they?
Mencken is a nice antidote. Politically, he is often right but seldom correct by today’s stern standards. In a cheery way, he dislikes most minorities and if he ever had a good word to say about the majority of his countrymen, I have yet to come across it. Recently, when his letters were published, it was discovered that He Did Not Like the Jews, and that he had said unpleasant things about them not only as individuals but In General, plainly the sign of a Hitler-Holocaust enthusiast. So shocked was everyone that even the New York Review of Books’ unofficial de-anti-Semitiser, Garry Wills (he salvaged Dickens, barely), has yet to come to his aid with An Explanation. But in Mencken’s private correspondence, he also snarls at black Americans, Orientals, Britons, women, and WASPs, particularly the clay-eating Appalachians, whom he regarded as subhuman. But private irritability is of no consequence when compared to what really matters, public action.
Far from being an anti-Semite, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent. On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), “It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them.” He then reviews the various schemes to “rescue” the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution.
To the British proposal that the Jews be admitted to British Guiana, Teutonophile Mencken thinks that the Ostjuden might hack it in British Guiana but not the German Jews, as “they constitute an undoubtedly superior group…. Try to imagine a German-Jewish lawyer or insurance man, or merchant, or schoolmaster [in] a place where the climate is that of a Turkish bath. Tanganyika he thought marginally better but still pretty bad, at least “as good as the worst parts of Mexico.” He then suggests that Canada could “absorb 100,000 or even 200,000 with ease, and they would be useful acquisitions, especially in the western prairie populations, which are dominated today by a low-grade of farmers, without any adequate counterbalance of a competent middle class.” Today Mencken could not write this because the Farmers Anti-Defamation League of Saskatchewan would be offended, and his column banned in Canada. “Australia, now almost as exclusive as Sing Sing, which it somewhat resembles in population, could use quite as many [Jews] as Canada and New Zealand.” The Australian Government would, today, file a protest; and Mencken’s column would be banned.
Then Mencken gets down to business: “The American plan for helping the refugees is less openly brutal than the British plan, but almost as insulting to them, and even more futile.” After many official and unofficial condemnations of Germany, including “the Hon. Mr. Roosevelt’s” declaration that “he could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a Twentieth Century civilization,” the President is still not willing to relax the immigration laws or do anything “that might cause him political inconvenience.” Mencken finds such “pecksniffery … gross and disgusting … and I hope that American Jews will not be fetched by it.” Mencken also notes how the “Aframerican press” found amazing Roosevelt’s solicitousness for German Jews, so unlike his complaisance to the ongoing crimes against black Americans.
Mencken concludes: “There is only one way to help the refugees, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn’t the United States take in a couple of hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?” He notes two popular objections. One, there is already a lot of unemployment in the United States, to which he responds that it is unlikely the Jewish immigrants will either loaf or be incompetent. Two, there is anti-Semitism of the sort then being fanned by the Ku Klux Klan but, as he observes, “not many Jews are likely to go to Mississippi or Arkansas.”
I am certain that those who wish to will be able to find anti-Semitism in Mencken’s proposal to admit all Jewish refugees. Certainly he generalizes about Jews. (How does he know that they don’t all want to go to Mississippi?) But then perhaps the whole message is code; certainly the remark about Jewish “efficiency” is a classic blood libel.
As of 1934, Mencken was moderately impressed by Eretz Israel and agreeably condescending to the Arabs, who “breed like flies but die in the same way.” Mencken was generally approving of the European Jewish settlers, though he predictably cast a cold eye on the collectivist farms and kibbutzim. Of one of them, he wrote, presciently, “It was founded in 1921, and is still in the first flush of its success. Will it last? Probably not. As soon as its present kindergarteners grow up they will begin to marry outside, and then there will be quarrels over shares, and it will no doubt go the way of Brook Farm, Amana and all the other predecessors.” Mencken thought that there was only a fifty-fifty chance of the Jewish plantation in Palestine enduring. “On the one hand (Ere[t]z Israel) is being planted intelligently and shows every sign of developing in a healthy manner. But on the other hand there are the Arabs — and across the Jordan there is a vast reservoir of them, all hungry, all full of enlightened self-interest. Let some catastrophe in world politics take the British cops away, and the Jews who now fatten on so many lovely farms will have to fight desperately for their property and their lives.” The catastrophe came right on schedule in the form of Hitler and of such professional Jewish terrorists as Begin and Shamir.
One of the few groups that Americans are fairly free to denounce, after the Arabs, are the Japanese. Mencken was most alert to “the yellow peril.” (I used quotes to forestall the usual letters accusing me of hating all Orientals along with Mencken, when neither did nor does.) In 1939, Mencken was thinking seriously about Japan. As there is no public memory in the United States, let me remind the reader that since the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905, the United States had been preparing for a war with Japan in order to establish who would be numero uno not only in the Pacific but in Asia.
By 1939, Japan was busy conquering China, having acquired Korea and Manchuria, and the Nipponese imperial eye was set on the Southeast Asian oil fields, at that time in the hands of two local Asiatic powers, the British and the Dutch.
As a “racist,” Mencken blithely generalized about race, a real no-no in today’s world, where each and every one of the five billion people on our common crowded planet is a treasured and unique creation, sharing nothing at all with anyone else except, maybe, the Big Fella in the Sky. But generalize he did, something no longer allowed in freedom’s land. Mencken wrote: “The Japanese, judged by Western eyes, are an extremely homely people, and no doubt the fact has a good deal to do with their general unpopularity.” Mencken thought that they look both “sinister and ludicrous,” not an encouraging or likable combination. “They look, talking one with another, like Boy Scouts with buck teeth, wearing horn-rimmed spectacles…. I have never met a Caucasian who professed any affection for the Japs, though there are not a few white fans for the scenery,” etc. Already guilty of Racist Generalizing, Mencken proceeded, sickeningly, to grade all Japanese: “They are a people of very considerable talents, and will have to be reckoned with in the future history of the human race. They have long since got past the stage of sitting respectfully at the feet of the West…. In all the fields of human endeavor save theology, politics and swine justice they are showing the way to their ofay mentors. They have made important and durable contributions to knowledge in each and every one of the exact sciences, and they have taken such a lead in trade and industry that the only way left to beat them is to murder them.” But even this solution, particularly favored by England, won’t be easy because they have “a considerable knack for war.”
As “nearly all white men dislike the Japs and like the Chinese,” Mencken tried to give an accurate impression of our soon-to-be great adversary and, as I gaze out over the Hollywood Hills toward Japanese Universal Pictures, our eventual conquerors. But accuracy in reporting on Pacific matters is always difficult because the American press have always given us a view of the Japanese that “is seldom accurate and not always honest,” to say the least. As of 1939, China and Chiang Kai-shek were, as always, on the brink of victory; but, somehow, Japan always won and, as Mencken remarked, “The Japs, in truth, had as sound a mandate to clean up China as the United States have had to clean up Cuba.” Or Mexico, Nicaragua, Salvador, Panama, Grenada, not to mention Korea, Cambodia, Iran, and Iraq.
Three years later, the Japs, heavily provoked, sank the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and the great race war was on, with Round One (with guns) going to the white race (1945) and Round Two (with computers) going to the yellow race (1990). Mencken was particularly good — that is, prophetic — on American skullduggeries south of the border, where he often visited and duly noted our eerie inability to do anything honest or even intelligent, whether in Cuba or Haiti or in dealing with Nicaragua’s Sandino.
Like Puck, Mencken found most mortals fools. He showed us odd glimpses of the vacuous Duke of Windsor and his Baltimore lady as well as of Rudolph Valentino, whom he once entertained in what must have been an unusually alcoholic session for a young Italian. Mencken commiserated with the assault by the press on the lad’s manhood and he shed a public tear at the beauty’s demise not long after.
In literary matters, Mencken was a shield to the meat and potatoes of naturalism-realism, a sounder diet than one of, shall we say, frozen fish? He was a champion of Dreiser; a foe of censorship. He was good on Conrad but at sea with James and insensitive to Wharton. He knew cooking and provided a sound recipe for “shore soup,” the crab-based glory of the eastern shore of Maryland. He was passionate about music. Disliked jazz but admired “Aframerican” musicians. Interested in architecture, he was appalled by the ugliness of American cities except for San Francisco, where “there is nothing European about the way life is lived; the color is all Asiatic” because it is so happily cut off from “the rest of the dun and dour Republic.” He described the average person’s way of life in New York as that of a “sardine in a can,” while “the grass in the so-called parks looks like embalmed sauerkraut.” He hated chiropractors. He was amazed, as an editor, to find that graduates of West Point wrote the best English. He took a bitter pride in “the love of ugliness [that] is apparently inherent in the American people. They cherish and venerate the unspeakable.”
Matthew Arnold wrote that a “style is the saying in the best way what you have to say. The what you have to say depends on your age.” Mencken certainly said what he had to say about the age that he had been assigned to. When asked why, if he could find nothing to “revere” in the United States, he lived there, he replied, “Why do men go to zoos?”
Religion as generally practiced by the Americans of his day, he saw as a Great Wall of China designed to keep civilization out while barbarism might flourish within the gates. He himself was a resolute breacher of the Great Wall, and to the extent that some civilization has got through, he is one of the few Americans that we can thank. Plainly, so clear and hard a writer would not be allowed in the mainstream press of today, and those who think that they would like him back would be the first to censor and censure him.
As for Mencken himself, he wrote his own epitaph in 1921 for The Smart Set: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.” I realize that he has, viciously, used the G-word and, even worse, the long-since-banned H-word. But there he is. And there we are, lucky we.