Saving the Sage of Baltimore from conventional wisdom.
Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By ALEC MOUHIBIAN
"So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises. Go ahead. Go to your nearest campus and find a single English major who’s heard of the Sage of Baltimore. You will sooner find a virgin who hates vampires. They might even be the same person.
Photo Credit: George Karger/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Records are made to be broken, but the variety of reputations achieved by H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) in the century since he first hit the presses is truly out of reach. His outdated status as a youth sport is only one example. Who else will ever manage to be blacklisted three times by three vastly different administrations of thought police so many decades apart? The first, for ethnic reasons, came during World War I. The second, for political reasons, came during World War II—by which time the man whose journalism had been the jazz of American letters became a little too purist for the smart set. They were lining up at the bakery of half-baked ideas; Mencken wouldn’t touch those ideas if he had to live on capitalism the rest of his life. Resented for his isolationism and fierce opposition to the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, Mencken resigned from the Baltimore Sun in 1939, forced to finish his life as a relic—good for a morning chuckle, perhaps, but not much else.
And then, 33 years after his death, came crown number three. It followed the 1989 publication of Mencken’s diary. According to some very good people, these diaries proved two things: one, that their author was a racist and anti-Semite; and two, so was anyone who continued to read him. Far from sanitary, way short of okay, Mencken swiftly joined the fraternity of forbidden minds, where he (along with recent inductee Philip Larkin) could be kept from corrupting the young. Even at his most popular, however, Mencken wore multiple masks.
“He was using words as a weapon,” reflected Richard Wright in Black Boy.
Yet this same destructive critic worked a night job as the most important literary champion in our history, persuasively elevating Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Ring Lardner, and many another native artist in the process of fortifying American literature on its own terms against Anglophilia and Eurolust. This same deep-frier of philistines was ready to trade “the whole Acropolis for one American bathroom.” The contradictions perplexed his strongest admirers, even then. Which brings us to the question of how, precisely, Mencken is comprehended today.
The question matters, not only for his sake but for our own. Satirical journalism is now the chief source of news and taste for people under 40, and all satirical journalism in America—filtered one way or another through generations of imitators—flows from the tradition of Mencken. So many young men, after all, get their likes and dislikes from Jon Stewart. In September, the Library of America reissued the complete set of Mencken’s Prejudices (1919-1927), the six-volume series containing his best essays. The release suggests that, after 20 years, the hysteria over the diaries may have faded. The suggestion is most welcome. But I’m afraid the contemporary view of Mencken still sells him short. At best, he is largely considered a master stylist who offers little more; at worst, he’s a bigot or a cliché—a multiple-choice answer to an exam on the Scopes trial. Cliché being the homage ignorance pays to pretension, the originality and substance of his thought go frequently unnoticed.
Everyone knows Mencken the blasphemer, but which living atheist star could write a line like the following, from an article on the fundamentalist Rev. J. Gresham Machen: “If he is wrong, then the science of logic is a hollow vanity, signifying nothing.” Everyone knows Mencken the skeptic, but which professional skeptic would realize that “the happiness of any given skeptic is always to be found, not in his doubts, but in his surviving delusions.” Everyone knows Mencken the literary expert, but what proud wordsmith would so readily admit that “complete honesty, intellectually, seldom expresses itself in formal words: its agents of notification are rather winks and sniggers, hip flasks and dead cats.”