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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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“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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