The Magazine

Mencken’s Afterlife

Saving the Sage of Baltimore from conventional wisdom.

Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By ALEC MOUHIBIAN
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"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.

Mencken’s Afterlife

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 His outdated status as a youth sport is only one example.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.

I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weakness of people, mocking God, authority.

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.”

I cite these not as evidence of complexity. What they signal, before all else, is a stage far higher than the one we’re used to. Attacking from an institutional cushion—whether of the smirky liberal or comfy conservative variety—our current iconoclasts typically serve up their targets as villains of some kind of obvious truth. They know the answer to every question they ask. Their audiences know, too, and need no applause sign to make their knowingness known. Mencken never colluded with an audience: He always squared up man-to-man, his own soul equally at stake, because he recognized that his opponents were actually fellow contestants in the vain human aspiration to finish first in a race of one.

The result could still be a bloodbath. It could also be a joyous dance. There is a satire that destroys its targets and another, subtler kind that makes them more interesting than they began. Mencken’s magic was to do both at the same time. Facing a distinctively honest or original mind, he rarely failed to notice and sing its praises, no matter where it came from or how deeply its biases differed from his own. He elegized priests, businessmen, wives. He could spot a “peasant touched by the divine fire” and support writers of vastly disparate style and purpose. What sophisticated literatus alive would promote to publishers such a blunt instrument as Ayn Rand, as Mencken did when the young immigrant sent him her first manuscript in 1934?

Honest failures, too, were treated with sympathy. Writing of (the now largely forgotten) Hamlin Garland, Mencken captured the tragic case of a displaced writer who sees and smells the divine fire with no hope of feeling its flames: “An awareness of beauty is there, and a wistful desire to embrace it, but the confident gusto of the artist is always lacking.” And his obituary of Calvin Coolidge expressed a prescient appreciation of our last limited governor. After years of lampooning, one might even think Mencken came to like Silent Cal. But “like” is such a strong word. Let’s go with “unhate.”

Frauds, of course, deserved no peace. Pedantic frauds, political frauds, artistic frauds, and their earnest enablers—to observe the Turkish funeral Mencken gave them is to have the pleasure of watching them die all over again. But his efforts always aimed at identifying the permanent, perennial form of fraudulence at their core. At this he succeeded repeatedly, and his lasting character studies of ideas surely amount to more than a stylistic achievement. His trenchant critique of the welfare state, and its essential criminality, comes to mind.

But take a lesser known example, such as Thorstein Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, coiner of “conspicuous consumption.” Whole industries of sociology and fiction have sprouted from the repressed materialism of Professor Veblen’s anti-consumerist theories, whose anatomy Mencken described as “the self-evident made horrifying, the obvious in terms of the staggering,” sustained by that special talent “to take what every one knows and pump it up to such proportions that every one begins to doubt it.” Reading Mencken precisely and hilariously neuter such dogma makes you sense the evaporation not only of Veblen but also John Kenneth Galbraith, Noam Chomsky, and most award-winning fiction of the last half-century.

Style was partly to blame for Mencken’s shortcomings, or at least his confused legacy. Mencken wrote and wrote and overwrote, no doubt relishing his sole opposition to taboos that no longer exist. Some of the rhetorical excess clouded his subtler thoughts and inspired countless anti-Americans—unable to imitate his wit or courage or lucky frown—to absorb only his contempt. Introducing an anthology called The Impossible H. L. Mencken, Gore Vidal offers the phrase “United States of Amnesia” several times. And yet, in a curious way, these faults refute the deeper charges against Mencken, for they resulted not from too much cynicism but too little. Confronting our politics in full color, every day, the reporter was too caught up in all its visible weaknesses to notice its hidden strengths. Nor was he detached enough to treat professed opinions with the proper perspective.

“You cannot gauge the intelligence of an American by talking with him,” Eric Hoffer observed, “you must work with him.” Judging an American by his words is like judging a basketball player by his words, but Mencken was often too sincere to do otherwise. Critics of his assaults on American democracy note that, while they were usually true enough, enough isn’t quite enough: not in the 20th century, not after Mencken’s praise of, say, Wilhelmine Germany. Does it not behoove a lover of liberty, even a satirist, to present a better system for its preservation if he finds the most stable one on record to be doomed? The point is fair, but it deserves a counter. If liberty could never survive on Mencken’s arguments, neither could it survive on the proper arguments alone without unscripted tributes to the vitality and grace of the true Individual. Heir of no group, parcel of no trend, Mencken was original, and his originality was his greatest and ultimate contribution.

My favorite Mencken story features his conversion of a friend to Catholicism. One day, as Mencken told it, his friend came to him shaken by doubts about papal infallibility. Mencken had no trouble affirming the concept from biblical premises, and a crisis was averted: 

Some time later, when this man was on his death-bed, I visited him and he thanked me simply and with apparent sincerity for resolving his old doubt. .  .  . He died firmly convinced that I was headed for Hell, and, what is more, that I deserve it.

The perfect ending for a man who mocked our values, destroyed our hopes, and gave us faith.

Alec Mouhibian is a writer in Los Angeles.

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