Saving the Sage of Baltimore from conventional wisdom.
Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By ALEC MOUHIBIAN
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.