Mencken: The American Iconoclast
The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore
by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
Oxford, 662 pp., $35
THIS MONTH MARKS THE 50TH anniversary of H.L. Mencken's passing. Recently described by the New York Times as "the premier social critic of the first half of the 20th century," Mencken poured out more than 70 million words worth of columns, essays, and books over the five decades of his working life. At the height of his influence in the 1920s, Mencken's reputation fatted on the inanities of Prohibition, blue-nosed book-banning, and the Ku Klux Klan, all of which he saw as works of the "boobus Americanus." His broadsides against Prohibition, posturing preachers, and anti-evolutionists made him a hero to generations of college students. But his true quarry was American democracy and the American people, whom he defined as a "rabble of ignorant peasants."
Mencken's mockery of American mores made him, as Walter Lippmann said in 1926, "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." And even now, 75 years after his heyday, Mencken's assaults on the hypocrisy of conventional morality resonate in the political and social debates between red and blue states. He taught his heirs, on both the left and right, how to be narrow-minded with an air of superiority.
Mencken, who was a master of self-promotion even as he mocked corn-fed, 100-percent American "go-getters," made sure that he would not be forgotten; indeed, he saw to it that the controversies around his life would continue well after his death in 1956. In accordance with Mencken's will, the author's extensive literary correspondence was shielded from public view until 1971. His diaries were opened a decade later--again, at his direction--and when a selection from them was published in 1989, they relaunched a longstanding dispute about Mencken's anti-Semitism.
Mencken is a mother lode for biographers. He meticulously kept almost everything he wrote in carefully maintained scrapbooks, along with a trove of personal memorabilia. In 1994 Fred Hobson, a professor at the University of North Carolina, became the first to use the newly available materials in Mencken: A Life, a thoughtful, balanced biography that described him as a "nay saying [Walt] Whitman." Mencken had been an enormous influence on the elitist conservatives of the 1930s and '40s. In 2002, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken by Terry Teachout tried to see if his legacy had something to say to contemporary conservatives. But Teachout found that the sheer "incoherence" of Mencken's bilious outpourings--not to mention his Nietzschean elitism, fondness for German authoritarians, and eugenics--made him, on balance, a dubious inspiration.
Now, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers has also tapped the new material and the voluminous collection of Menckeniana at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore to give us a liberal Mencken meant to inspire progressives in the current iteration of the culture wars. In Mencken: The American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore we get little of the beer-swilling bigot, hypochondriac, and mama's boy who lived at home until he was 45. Rodgers's Mencken is a latter-day Mark Twain, the man whose fights against censorship and for civil liberties were meant to benefit all Americans. The virtue of this book is that, for Mencken's many admirers, it provides a detailed, loving account of their hero as he goes about his life. But Mencken was as shallow as he was amusing. Rodgers's failing is that, unlike Hobson and Teachout, she has very little to say about the substance of his frequent, though failed, attempts to have himself taken seriously as a brilliant stylist, and a thinker as well.
For all of her 662 pages, Rodgers virtually ignores Mencken's World War I writings on behalf of Imperial Germany, that, along with his earlier book on Nietzsche, defined his political outlook. Opposed to American intervention in the Great War on the side of the Allies, Mencken had no objection to war per se: Drawing on Nietzsche's notion of the "will to power," he wrote that "war is a good thing, because it is honest, it admits the central fact of human nature. . . . A nation too long at peace becomes a sort of gigantic old maid." What he opposed were British, and then American, efforts at defeating German militarism.
The war, notes Hobson, "focused his thoughts" and created a clear position. Mencken explained:
I, too, like the leaders of Germany, had grave doubts about democracy. . . . It suddenly dawned on me, somewhat to my surprise, that the whole body of doctrine that I had been preaching was fundamentally anti-Anglo Saxon, and that if I had any spiritual home at all it must be in the land of my ancestors. When World War I actually started I began forthwith to whoop for the Kaiser, and I kept up that whooping so long as there was any free speech left.
This wasn't a brief episode, but the very core of Mencken's political being. He proudly proclaimed in his columns for the Baltimore Sun papers that, in the battle between autocracy and democracy, he wanted to see democracy go down. Mencken was enamored not only of the Kaiser's autocratic rule, but with "the whole war machine." He mocked Allied outrage over German killings of Belgian civilians, as well as the sinking of the S.S. Lusitania, which brought the death of 124 Americans. Hobson tells us that he advised Theodore Dreiser, a fellow German-American, that "there can never be any compromise in future men of German blood and the common run of 'good,' 'right thinking' Americans. We must stand against them forever, and do what damage we can do to them, and to their tin-pot democracy."
During the course of the war he was censored by the Sunpapers, but wrote three revealing articles for the Atlantic. The first, "The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet," celebrated Nietzsche as the inspiration for the new Germany, which was "contemptuous of weakness." Germany, as he admired it, was a "hard" nation with no patience for politics because it was governed by the superior men of its "superbly efficient ruling caste." "Germany," he concluded, "becomes Nietzsche; Nietzsche becomes Germany." Mencken approvingly quotes Nietzsche to the effect that "the weak and the botched must perish. . . . I tell you that a good war hallows every cause."
The second Atlantic article, based on Mencken's own reporting from the Eastern front in 1917, was a piece of hero worship that exalted General Erich Ludendorff as Germany's "national messiah." Mencken treasured the kaiser, but he thought Ludendorff was worth "40 Kaisers," and was the man to lead German Kultur in its total war against Anglo-Saxon civilization. According to Mencken, the general's greatness was to be found in the way that he had stamped out people's individuality so that "the whole energy of the German people [could] be concentrated on the war."
The third, and most intriguing, essay--"After Germany's Conquest of the United States"--talked about the benefits to America of being ruled by the hard men of a superior Kultur. Known only because of the exchange of letters between Mencken and the editor of the Atlantic, the article was withdrawn and never published. Interestingly, despite Mencken's extraordinary efforts to document his own life, the manuscript, according to Vincent Fitzpatrick, curator of the Mencken collection, cannot be found. Mencken's reputation, it seems, was saved by wartime self-censorship--in Boston, home of the Atlantic.
Mencken had genuine cause for bitterness during World War I, when the excesses of zealous Americanism left him fearful for the safety of his family. But neither Rodgers nor his other biographers have noted the context of that hostility. While Mencken was touting the genius of Teutonic militarism, German saboteurs blew up the munitions depot at Black Tom Island off Manhattan. That strike, until 9/11 the most violent action by a hostile force in the history of the city of New York, caused $40 million of damage, sinking the island and its contents into the sea. The Kaiser's plans to invade America might never have come off, but Germany plotted to bring Mexico into the war against the United States.
The Sage of Baltimore needs to be placed in a broader intellectual context. The man who is still selectively celebrated by people like Rodgers, as if he were nothing more or less than an American iconoclast, was one of a number of anti democratic thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of them, like D.H. Lawrence, were proto-fascists; others, like H.G. Wells, were apologists for Stalin. But they all denounced democracy in the name of vitalism, eugenics, and a caste system run by an elite of superior men.
Part of the reason it's so hard to make sense of Mencken is that he was, paradoxically, an anarcho-authoritarian. He agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union on the importance of free speech. But while that organization, under the influence of principled men such as Felix Frankfurter, argued for such freedoms on the grounds that "a marketplace of ideas" (to use Justice Holmes's term) was the best method of arriving at the truth, Mencken supported it in order to shield superior men like himself from being hobbled by the little people. For the same reason, Mencken was a near anarchist when it came to America, but an authoritarian when it came to the iron rule of the Kaiser and General Ludendorff. We are more familiar with anarcho-Stalinists such as William Kunstler, who had a parallel attitude toward the United States and the Soviet empire, but it was Mencken who blazed the trail down which Kunstler and his ilk would travel.
Mencken was disappointed by the response to Notes on Democracy (1926), which went on for 212 pages to argue that democracy was impossible and undesirable. Kaiser Wilhelm II, by then dethroned, praised it highly, but a friend sighed that he wished Mencken hadn't written the book, "because it reveals too much about him." It was a tedious performance by an intellectual vaudevillian whose writing never rose above his resentments.
Fred Siegel is the author, most recently, of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life.