Saturday, 05 December 2015 05:10

Writers for Conservatives: H. L. Mencken, 40

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Writers for Conservatives: H. L. Mencken, 40

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I tried to imagine a title for this piece, one that would neatly embody the significance of this man whose flow of millions of words had, in the first half of the 20th century, amused and inspired a certain class of Americans, loosely described as sophisticated youth, while annoying and scandalizing their straitlaced elders, but he is too multifarious, too contradictory a figure to be embodied in a phrase. A recent biography is called The Skeptic, and while Mencken was certainly far-famed for his skepticism, it was, to a great extent, an unconscious pose: he was actually very credulous.

He was also a very hardworking, talented newspaperman who developed a brilliant, racy style, a perfect vehicle for his bumptious opinions, a style that gradually took shape in his newspaper columns, the two magazines he edited, and his many books. His purpose, the reason he wrote, as he admitted, was to air his opinions to as wide an audience as possible (a reason that impels a lot of writers, whether they know it or not), and the decade of his greatest prominence was the 1920s, when his iconoclastic opinions - condemning provincialism, the Bible Belt, Rotarians, puritans, evangelists, Prohibition, and Babbitry - matched those of the postwar generation, supposedly disillusioned, our first "adversary culture."

Mencken had only the sketchiest high school education when he went into the newsroom at 18, but, great reader as he was all his life, he had more culture than his confreres, and his convictions about life were substantially settled - unfortunately, because this meant that he had already blocked out of his vision large areas of life: religion, politics, national and international affairs, and much of artistic culture. He wrote about all those subjects, but too often what he wrote was shallow and stupid. His mind was already made up: the people involved were all pious frauds. I do not mean he was not entertaining on these subjects - after all, they are often pious frauds, but that is usually the least important observation to make about them.

You see, as an autodidact he lacked what the educated man has (or used to have), acquaintance, in a systematic way, with at least the surface of the great body of knowledge. Missing that, the autodidact will often be surprised by knowledge, will be astonished by the commonplace. We know that hypocrisy is a universal human failing, hardly confined to Congressmen and the clergy, and are Rotarians really deserving of our scorn?

When he got a job as a reporter on the Baltimore Herald, he was so talented and so diligent, on a mediocre staff, that he was a city editor by the time he was 23. A year later he was managing editor, turning out editorials and unsigned columns. At the age of 25 he wrote the first book published anywhere about George Bernard Shaw's plays. The Herald folded, and he switched to the much better Baltimore Sun, where he remained for the rest of his life. Before long he had his own column on the editorial page where he honed his inimitable style and voiced most of the opinions he would express down the years. He began writing a book review column for a New York monthly, The Smart Set, a magazine he co-edited from 1914-24, when he became the founding editor of The American Mercury for another 10 years.

If I say that many of his books were quarried from his newspaper columns (remember that he was writing a weekly Sun column all this time), I mean that the newspaper would be the first place an idea would be articulated, but then it would be refined in the magazine, and refined again in a book - nothing was bodily lifted from one genre to another. And this was a real refining and expanding exercise, as study of the various forms an argument went through show. Mencken was a remarkably conscientious writer.

His first significant book was A Book of Prefaces (1917), a collection of Smart Set columns on Dreiser, Conrad, "Puritanism as a Literary Force," and so on. As he boasted, it was "the most headlong and uncompromising attack upon the American culture ever made up to that time." Two years later, Knopf brought out Prejudices: The first Series, a collection of his book reviews from the Smart Set, whose effect, gathered in one volume was cumulative, helping to establish him as the champion of new writing. His attacks on the genteel tradition would be his hallmark (there would be six Prejudices in all, now collected in the Library of America).

In 1918 he wrote The American Language, an examination of the uniqueness of our language and how it has evolved from Standard English, a genuine contribution to scholarship and a fascinating book. It went through four revised editions with two Supplements. He also compiled A New Dictionary of Quotations, historically based and organized by subject. In the early 1940s he wrote a series of reminiscent essays for The New Yorker, which finally became books: Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, which may be, along with the other books mentioned in this paragraph, his most enduring writings. I cannot recommend the Days books highly enough.

I would have to quote at greater length than I have space to show you the full range of Mencken's style, a style that reflects the joy he took in contemplating what he saw as the circus of American life, but here are a few examples.

I believe that the Old Testament, taught to children, has sent more Americans to hell than even necking or the cigarette.
Have you ever examined carefully the speeches made by candidates in a presidential campaign? If so, you know they are of bilge and blather all compact.
There are whole areas in the South - areas quite as large as most European kingdoms - in which not a single intelligent man is to be found. The politics of the region is vapid and idiotic - a mere whooping of shibboleths. Its literature is that of the finishing school. Its philosophy is the half supernaturalism of the camp meeting, the wind-music of Chautauqua. It has no more art than Liberia.
The delegates, herded about like cattle at the stockyards, show the faces and manners of children on holiday from a home for the feeble-minded. And the so-called leaders, at the highest points of their leading, seldom get beyond the average sense and dignity of the speakers at a luncheon of the Kiwanis Club. Here democracy is making its lowest recorded dip. If it gets any lower it will cease to be human.

Mencken's grandparents emigrated from Germany, and his father, a solid bourgeois (as his son characterized him), was a strong influence on the boy, who took so much pride in his ancestry that he looked up to Germany as a superior culture all his life. He carried this opinion so far that he stopped writing for the Sun during both world wars, knowing his opinions - he wished for English defeat in both wars - would be unpublishable. He consistently underrated Hitler, thinking him only a fool, and he defended the Nazi racial laws on the same grounds the Nazis did: Jews were taking over Germany (the "pushy" argument). Like Lindbergh, he warned American Jews not to agitate for war against Hitler, for fear of igniting a wave of anti-semitism. He was an inveterate anti-semite, but that is merely a sign of his ignorance and credulity; his silence about the Holocaust, however, is utterly damning - and also revealing. What is significant is that he could not say a word about it, even in the confines of his diary, sealed for 35 years after his death. He could still bluster (but only a couple of times) about the "dishonorable and ignominious" role of America in the war, but he daren't say more. He, the prolific wordsmith, was struck dumb, traumatized by the horrendous Nazi crime. His stupidity and prejudice and obstinacy had brought him to a cowardly pass, and he knew it. We should be able to read and enjoy Mencken's writing - we shall never encounter such a consummate stylist in the modern idiom - at the same time that we can see how his character created a moral hazard, finally making this fearless challenger of conventional option an abject coward when faced by the great moral challenge of those years.

In addition to the Days books and The American Language, I can recommend The Impossible H. L. Mencken, a selection of his best newspaper work, and A Modern Chrestomathy, his own selection of his choicest writings. The Skeptic, an excellent biography, is by Terry Teachout. *

Read 2917 times Last modified on Saturday, 05 December 2015 11:10
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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