H.L. Mencken, Where Have You Gone?


At least in the most obvious sense, my title poses a dumb question. Where has H.L. Mencken gone? He’s been dead for more than 50 years. But though he’s long gone, and we won’t see his like again, many of those who cherish liberty wish they could call him back. America could use another like him, perhaps now as never before.

My introduction to the Sage of Baltimore came in my sophomore year of high school. Sharon Morrow, a teacher I wish I could personally thank today, extolled his virtues to our journalism class. To us, he was just an old dead guy. If a teacher liked anybody famous, the poor soul was automatically consigned to the purgatory of the uncool. But to suck up, this aspiring journalist read A Mencken Chrestomathy — a huge anthology of his essays and columns. Read it, and wrote a report.

I expected the project to be a chore, but I’ve seldom enjoyed a book so much before or since. Some of the pieces were dated, lampooning or lambasting people and notions nobody has heard of since the Roaring Twenties. But many could apply as sharply to today’s events as to those of times long past. What wicked and delicious fun Mencken would have had in 2012!

Henry Louis Mencken hated sham. He made mincemeat of hypocrites. He had a curmudgeonly love for this country, and he often spoke harshly to his American audience. But always with a twinkle in his eye. He could bring a reader to vein-popping outrage in one paragraph and pants-wetting laughter in the next.

He was a staunch libertarian before anybody knew what the word meant. “The government I live under has been my enemy all my active life,” he once wrote. “When it has not been engaged in silencing me it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.”

Mencken certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

The young Ayn Rand regarded Mencken as an inspiration, remarking in 1934 that he was “one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.” If anybody ever stood up against Leviathan and refused to blink, it was he. In the feverish days leading up to World War I, he sacrificed his job as a newspaper columnist to denounce President Woodrow Wilson’s manipulation of public opinion in favor of entering the conflict. As Franklin Roosevelt amassed unprecedented power and craftily angled the US into World War II, Mencken earned FDR’s ire by opposing him and, in the process, lost another job.

His bedevilment of Roosevelt started during the Great Depression. “The New Deal began,” he famously observed, “like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.”

What might he have to say about our apparently endless War on Terror? Or — given his merciless mockeries of Prohibition — about our even more interminable War on Drugs?

About the first national crusade for sobriety, he had this to say:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

Mencken was my introduction to libertarian thought. Not only to its thought per se, but to its attitude. I sensed even then, in the Carter years, that if he were to be miraculously resurrected (a notion at which he, a lifelong unbeliever, would cackle), he would give our moribund nation a much-needed kick in the pants. He had no use for whining or victimhood, and the spectacle of a president lamenting our “malaise” would be met with appropriate scorn. He certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

“On some great and glorious day,” predicted the Sage, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

He knew a coverup when he saw one, and made sure it didn’t stay covered up for long. Campaign seasons were sources of neverending merriment to him. Never a partisan cheerleader, he treated his readership to what he saw as the unvarnished truth about both sides. And when a public servant displayed the integrity to do what was right, against overwhelming opposition, Mencken was likely to be the one voice in the press to point it out. Even though, about ambitious office-seekers in general, he remarked that “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

What we lack today, in the mainstream media, is people who simply observe and comment without owing automatic allegiance to either side. Or observe and report with no preconceived agenda. Fox News, billing itself as “fair and balanced,” may see a different angle from its competitors, but it still sees only one angle. Like the blind men in a well-known Buddhist parable, some think the elephant is all trunk, while others reduce it to its giant posterior.

A people fit to govern itself needs to keep its baloney-detectors in keen working order. The people need to know when they’re being duped. They need to know how to recognize their own best interests. This requires sharp thinking on the important issues of the day. In our own day, journalists with the courage and wit to perform this service are in woefully short supply.

From 1899, as a cub reporter, until 1948, when he was felled by a stroke, Mencken did his utmost to help Americans understand the human drama and recognize the players for what they were. I owe him my rambunctious love for liberty, deep appreciation for the written word, and taste for fine cigars. I can’t personally thank him, any more than I can my high school journalism teacher. This essay will need to suffice.

“In every unbeliever’s heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal.” Mr. Mencken, your great soul is immortal indeed. Too bad it can’t drag itself back here and knock some sense into us.

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Richard Massey

Well done. He has always been one of my favorites.

Jon Harrison

Mencken, like many talented and prolific writers, leaves himself open to interpretation. The prejudices and agenda of the interpreter generally determine his or her verdict on Mencken.

In a recent comment in this space, I referred to Mencken as pro-Nazi. That was perhaps a bit too stark. Though prone to anti-semitic statements, Mencken did not endorse the violent anti-semitism of the Germans. Nevertheless, he seems to have believed, even after 1945, that Roosevelt was worse than Hitler. He wrote a sympathetic review of "Mein Kampf". His treatment of Nazi Germany was not what I would expect from a lover of liberty. This is often exused by referring to his German heritage. I can't accept that. My ancestry is half German and (like Mencken) I'm a devotee of Nietzsche, but I don't make excuses for the Third Reich.

I've never been a fan of the late Christopher Hitchens; his brother Peter is, I think, a better thinker and writer. However, Chris wrote an interesting review of Terry Teachout's bio of Mencken ("The Skeptic"), which was published in the New York Times on Nov. 17, 2002. I think it treats Mencken fairly. The last sentence in particular sums up the meaning of Mencken for today.

John Rush

Mencken's Mein Kampf review was of an abridged and translated version titled My Battle that had sanitized the anti-Semetic remarks. Replying to Knopf's concerns about it, Mencken wrote, "If any customer takes it for a defense of Hitler, then I can only say that I must give up trying to write plain English. It is actually an attempt to disentangle the facts from the blah of both sides, and present them as objectively as possible." In other private correspondence, Mencken predicted that the Germans would overthrow Hitler, but that didn't happen. (Sources: The American Iconoclast by Marion Rogers, The New Mencken Letters, edited by Carl Bode)

Lori Heine

My “agenda and prejudices” do not determine my verdict on Mencken. I am one quarter German, but as I was unaware of the writer’s views on Jews when I began to appreciate him I hardly find it credible that I could have been motivated by anti-Jewish bias. Moreover, I think it odd to assume that any American of German extraction might feel any special allegiance to the Third Reich.

Mencken’s views on Hitler and the Nazis were, in any case, too nuanced to be easily categorized as totally pro-German. As Gore Vidal noted, “Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent.”

While the Nazis were taking over vast portions of Europe, Mencken took FDR to task for his refusal to accept Jewish refugees into the U.S. It seems odd, to me, that a hardened anti-Semite would say “There is only one way to help the fugitives, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn’t the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?”

I don’t need to revere Mencken as a god in order to thoroughly enjoy his wit, his candor or his insights on politics and human nature. I accept him as a mere mortal, flawed like all the rest of us. If we’re only to appreciate the contributions of perfect people, we’ll be stuck with a pretty short list to choose from. We are indeed fortunate that we have you, Mr. Harrison, to point out our flaws. As we strive for perfection, you are a tremendous help.

Jon Harrison

Oh, Mencken was completely pro-German. But you're quite right that his views on the Nazis specifically were more complex. I actually used your piece as a vehicle to back off a bit from the pro-Nazi characterization of Mencken that I posted some time ago in this space. To the best of my recollection, I don't believe I was thinking of you when I mentioned agendas and prejudices.

Did you happen to read the Hitchens' review in the Times? It really sums up the meaning of Mencken for our day. His intellectual importance has shrunk almost to the vanishing point. He's an historical figure who will probably be all but forgotten in another 20 or 30 years.

We all have multiple flaws. I don't attempt to point out all of them on display in this space, as it would be too time consuming. That is not to say, of course, that there isn't very good and interesting writing posted here as well.

Lori Heine

I did get around to reading Hitchens’ “A Smart Set of One” in the Times. It seemed an altogether balanced look at Mencken.

The thing I had difficulty with early on, in my reaction to Mencken, was not his ardent love for the land of his ancestry, but his agnosticism. Most particularly, his hostility toward the Christian faith. I have the same difficulty with Ayn Rand, though at least I enjoy reading Mencken. I was an English major and generally pride myself on getting through every book I read, no matter how it may fail to engage me, but I must confess I have never been able to make it all the way through either Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. I suppose I’m one Christian who doesn’t like being preached to.

YouTube offers an in-depth audio interview of Mencken – the only one known to have been made. It was recorded in 1948, only months before his stroke. He comes across as an amiable old man, somewhat congested by hay fever, who holds forth on every subject pitched to him with the relish of one who loves nothing better than holding forth. It was fun to listen to, and gives a voice (rather like a cross between Jimmy Stewart and W.C. Fields) to the printed words.

I suppose he was a sexist. Though I think most men of his generation probably were. He is said to have loved his wife, with whom he was able to enjoy only a few years before her untimely death. He encouraged and promoted her writing. Which, I suppose, indicates that he was basically a good fellow in addition to a great journalist.

I will probably always enjoy reading him. I like reading about him very nearly as much. Thanks, Mr. Harrison, for recommending the Hitchens piece.

Jon Harrison

Thanks for bringing the YouTube interview to my attention; I wasn't aware of it. I plan on listening to it soon.

One of the things I like best about Mencken is his attitude toward Christianity, which I share. You show commendable broad-mindedness in liking him despite his negative attitude toward your religion.

He was of course an excellent stylist who remains a pleasure to read, at least on some subjects. Quite the opposite of Rand, who in addition to being a rather loathsome human being was an awful writer. Her ability to turn turgid prose into great (indeed, worshipful) popularity tells us a lot about the state of late Western culture.

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