As Gore Vidal wrote his foreword to “The Impossible H.L. Mencken,” he was visited by a temptress – the beck- 0ning spirit of Mencken himself. Did Vidal really believe he could match Mencken’s “Ku Klux Klergy” with his own “United States of Amnesia”? Did he think that his outlandish description of Calvin Coolidge (of all people) as a “gorgeous clown” would convince us that he himself was Mencken reborn? Any fresh reading of Mencken makes the impulse to play with words near irresistible, but lacking his ability, one really ought to resist.
Still, even stern and sober men have been caught in the act. In their reviews of Mencken, we find strange eruptions of words like IIpishposh” and ‘/boobs.” These are Mencken’s words, and it takes a certain type of personality to pull them off; impersonations of him are consistently sloppy and awkward.
But the fact that they are attempted is remarkable in itself, if we consider that Mencken was a pundit – a glorious one, to be sure, but a pundit nevertheless, a writer for his age, America in the first four decades of the 29th century. The quacks he exposed and the events he covered doubtless seemed epic at the time, but they have since
slipped from America’s consciousness into the used book stores. And yet, in several compartments of literature, of which the grandest is calumny, Mencken’s footprints are unmistakable. It’s always worth returning to the scene of the crime, even if the perpetrator has been dead for 50 years (and even if the current collection of his writings has already been with us for four). One always feels that other people need to know about him.
Jacques Barzun, the great literary scholar, has fluently observed that Mencken’s style “reveals its subject and conceals its art.” This proclamation (like many that Mencken made himself) is so good that it almost excuses its flaw: his art, far from being concealed, is the main attraction, illumined by fireworks. It is an art that charms the plebeian and makes an ape of the pontificator.
The art is, quite simply, the transmission of personality. Its power is in the personality it transmits: H.L. Mencken’s. Long after we forget the context and contents of his observations on American life, we still feel that we know – and know intimately – this Mencken fellow. We know his buttons and his appetites and the rocking of his temper. We have a loud, pulsating personality in our midst, a personality whose significance goes far beyond the subjects he reveals. He’s here, the great libertarian journalist, a cigar clenched between his teeth, roaring and dangerous.
The 71 articles in “I-LL. Mencken on Religion,” edited and introduced by S.T. Joshi, give us the chance to rediscover this personality at the crest of its vibrancy, in 300 pages of commentary drawn from the Baltimore Evening Sun, Smart Set, the American Mercury, and other sources.
Between the covers, we find the Holy Terror in eminent mischief. He blasphemes the gods, and curses the pope and the pulpit. He argues that the common cockroach has more dignity than the human being. He takes in a liturgy at St. Peter’s, revels in its “sensuous delight,” then tells us that he prefers a Brahms symphony. He proposes that Christians issue an affidavit of belief and expects it to look something like this: “I, John Doe, being duly sworn do say that … for the high crime and misdemeanor of having kissed my sister-in-law behind the door, with evil intent, I shall be boiled in molten sulphur for one billion calendar years.”
If, as Chesterton wrote, “the test of a good religion [is] whether you can joke about it,” then Mencken was Christianity Holy Proctor. Mencken seems to content himself most with sacrilege. And he gives us sacrilege with all the flourish of a master of diverse genres – parody, sarcasm, irony and (most famously) downright condemnation.
His side may not always be the right side, but it is the winning side. Like Ayn Rand, Mencken is a tremendous argument from authority. When challenged,
His commonsense libertarianism – rooted in skepticism and nourished by everyday observation – is, even now, as good as it gets.
he is capable of erupting and ridiculing the petty objectors, until everyone is forced to laugh. We laugh when he says of the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan that he “was a peasant come home to the dung-pile.” We can be assured that Mr. Bryan did not laugh. In his position, we wouldn’t either. But everyone else has.
It was safer, by all accounts, not to disturb Mencken, and it is therefore natural that the pundits of both his age and ours have claimed him as their ally. Too often, however, as in Vidal’s case, these are alliances that endure only because Mencken is too dead to riot.
This is particularly the case with nonbelievers or, as Mencken affectionately called them, infidels. Pick up an atheist reader or quotationary published in the last half-century and there you’ll find Mencken in the company of disbelievers who, as Orwell wrote, do “not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike him.” You’ll find Vidal, whose own lines (“Christianity is such a silly religion”), if uttered by a civilian without celebrity, would be considered puerile balderdash. And there you’ll find Mencken, ironically defined by association and robbed of context.
Yet you’ll certainly encounter this: “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” And possibly this: “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the same sense and to the same extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”
The irreverence is charming, despite the fact that it’s sure to work only if we recognize (and many don’t) that Mencken’s personality has bested his ideas, that the spirit of his words has possessed and outshone their meaning. This hardly sounds like the man who, when asked what he would say if he found himself, after death, before the apostles’ thrones, replied, “I would simply say, ‘Gentlemen, I was mistaken.'”
We cannot fall into the trap of calling Mencken a cynic, a misanthrope, or even a pessimist. We must not find in Mencken the loveless creature described in St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” His gongs clash and his cymbals clang – his words can move mountains, but we are not dealing with a man without love or “charity.” He might define romantic love as “the delusion that one woman differs from another,” but behind that persona lives a mama’s boy who proposed to a bedridden, dying woman.
We must allow him the cynicism – cynicism is highly fashionable among the literati – but we must be sure to separate the fashion from the fact. We must allow him the certainty – certainty is indispensable for the pundit – but we must search for the doubts, too. Even in regard to religion, which Mencken seemingly detested, the old curmudgeon had a soft spot. One moment, he might deliver a few thumps to Christendom; but soon, after he had earned himself the right to indulge his happier senses, he lavished it with resurrecting flattery.
The volume’s atheist editor is honorable enough to include these warmer attitudes. In Joshi’s selection, we have Mencken’s hearty defense of a fundamentalist scholar, J. Gresham Machen, who “if he is wrong, then the science of logic is a hollow vanity, signifying nothing.” We read·also what are perhaps the most hospitable lines uttered by a heretic:
True or not, this faith is beautiful. More, it is useful – more useful, perhaps, than any imaginable truth. Its effect is to slow down and ameliorate the struggle for existence. It urges men to forget themselves now and then, and to think of others. It succors the weak and protects the friendless. It preaches charity pity mercy. Let philosophers dispute its premises if they will, but let no fool sneer at its magnificent conclusions. As a body of scientific fact it may be dubious, but it remains the most beautiful poetry that man has yet produced on this earth.
The editor’s reliable selection paints for us a character who is far from the deicidal crusader he appears to be on the blogs of his posthumous friends. He is a reasonable man – when we consider the body of his work in full – and by his own description, “a neutral in theology.”
Yet “reasonable” is a word one hesitates to apply; God knows what fate would befall us were we to hurl the accusation in person. Let us content ourselves with the observation that in reading Mencken, we get the sense, beyond the ache or joy he causes us, that we are reading the words of an honest man. There is the unmistakable impression that Mencken writes exactly what he feels. There is no ideological machinery upstairs; no little-minded hobgoblin filters his thoughts. He has actually read the Bible and admires its poetics, especially “the fresh beauties in 1 Timothy 5:23,” the cheekiness of which we would miss had we not memorized the verse: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” Through his
His art, far from being concealed, is the main attraction, illumined by fireworks. It is an art that charms the plebeian and makes an ape of the pontificator.
many tones and styles of humor, his reasoning and motivations remain unguarded.
Mencken’s views were clearly inspired by a hatred of superstition, prudery and prohibition, especially when they smothered science and rational politics. Concerning the latter, Hume’s reflection that “the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous” seems to be Mencken’s
It was safer, by all accounts, not to disturb Mencken, and it is therefore natural that the pundits of both his age and ours have claimed him as their ally.
central axiom. Christianity in its most contaminated forms – fundamentalism, Protestantism, Christian Science, and Calvinism – might be damaging to the human psychology, Mencken believed, but when they affect the state, they threaten society. In his own time, the passage of the 18th Amendment, banning alcohol, showed the damage that religion could do. Mencken didn’t much concern himself with the causes of religion: if you needed religion to rationalize your inevitable death, Menck- en wouldn’t object. But if your religion trespassed beyond the boundaries of your cranium, it had gone too far.
The libertarian position on religion is perfected in this passage from Mencken’s “On Christian Science”:
The effort to put down Christian Science by law is one of the craziest enterprises upon which medical men waste their energies. It is based upon a superstition even sillier than that behind the Christian Science itself: to wit, the superstition that, when an evil shows itself, all that is needed to dispose of it is to pass a law against it. This notion is fast making a burlesque of Ameri- can legislation. It is responsible for an endless series of idiotic enactments, from Prohibition amendments to laws against card playing. One and all they are ineffective and ludicrous. One and all they foster an evil ten times worse than the evils they are aimed at.
By now, the argument may seem tired. Between its publication and the present, libertarianism developed through Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, Paterson, and legions of others.
Mencken was not the beneficiary of an ever-sophisticating libertarian movement. But his commonsense libertarianism – rooted in skepticism and nourished by everyday observation – is, even now, as good as it gets.
Mencken often deals with cliches – or what have since become cliches – but his personality seems always to rejuvenate them. His remarks on religion, for example, regularly rehash timeworn outlooks and arguments, from Nietzsche (by whom Mencken
was so impressed that he set his own projects aside to translate the philosopher’s seminal book) to Robert Ingersoll to Thomas Huxley. Mencken writes that he does not fear – that, indeed, he welcomes – death; that immortality, even in the Shakespearean “as long as men can breathe” sense, is an illusion; that the many gods once worshipped are now forlorn ashes of memory; that religion and science are incompatible . . . these are all parroting jobs, uncreative in substance and unoriginal in content. Yet we feel that we are reading it all for the first time – because, really, we are.
Mencken is positively at his worst when he ventures into serious religious philosophy. His essay on Nietzsche is hardly more than a faithful summary of the anti-Christ’s speculations – in essence, that men devise a set of goods and evils in accord with their times and attribute them to deities; then, when the goods and evils change with the times, they refuse to surrender the gods that they have made. But in the case of Christianity, which evolved not to celebrate 1st-century Judaea but to revolutionize it, the analysis seems remarkably off-base.
As does Mencken’s observation that “Christianity will survive because it appeals to [man’s] sense of poetry,” which
proves primitive and counterintuitive, if we consider that the village dunces who, Mencken believed, sustain the faith have no sense of poetry at all.
Mencken is at his best when he reports immediately from Americana. His personality remains, but now the uniqueness of his observations (not just the manner in which he puts them) shines forth; his art and his subject are revealed simultaneously. In his essay “The Schooling of a Theologian,” Mencken recalls the Sunday School of his youth, where his father sent him to make time for afternoon naps. (Elsewhere, he defined Sunday School as “a prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents,” a rendering that matches any entry in the “Dev- il’s Dictionary” of Ambrose Bierce.) We are invited to imagine the child skeptic working through his very first doubts, as he sings along with Methodist tunes like “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?” “It left me an infidel,” Mencken writes, “as [my father] was, and his father had been before him.”
Joshi’s compilation includes the 17 articles Mencken produced in coverage of the 1925 Scopes affair. The trial, which ostensibly pitted evolution against creationism, was covered by more than a hundred reporters – Marquis James of the New Yorker and Philip Kinsley of the Chicago Tribune among them – but only one emerged as immortal. The immortality was cemented by the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind” (and the 1955 Broadway play that preceded it) which features the Mencken-inspired character E.K. Hornbeck, although Hornbeck, like most of the rest of the film, has little to do with reality. Of the 2 million words telegraphed from Day- ton, Tenn., to the nation’s newspapers, only Mencken’s 25,000 have kept their prominence. No other author had the inimitable personality, the infectious sense of life, the transmittable sensibilities of H.L. Mencken.
We journey with him, because we think of ourselves as the first and closest outlet of his impressions. A t the beginning of the trial, Mencken observes that “the Evolutionists and anti-evolutionists seem to be on the best of terms, and it is hard in a group to distinguish one from another.” But Mencken’s spirits wane and plummet to this remark a few installments later: “The Fundamentalist mind, running in a single rut for fifty years, is now quite unable to comprehend dissent from its basic superstitions, or to grant any com- mon honest)’, or even any decency, to those who reject them.” We are sharers in this plummet. Often, it seems as if we were in correspondence with Mencken; that the articles are, in fact, private letters and we are the recipients. It agitates our prejudices to know that someone can be so honest, not just about what he thinks, but about who he is. When we are offended by his rudeness, we are simultaneously enchanted by his honesty.
The honesty is encouraged, it seems, by the fact that Mencken is a master and practitioner of assertion, not persuasion. His specialty is to flog, slam, and blast – not to decorate reasons with reasonability. Ironically, Mencken’s actual private letters contain more philosophical and convincing (and painfully sober) discussions of religion. To a lady friend on the frontier of Christian Science, he wrote: “The God business is really quite simple. No sane man denies that the universe presents phenomena quite beyond human understanding, and so it is a fair assumption that they are directed by some understanding that is superhuman. But that is as far as sound thought can go. All religions pretend to go further.” This is Mencken as persuader (perhaps the real Mencken) – the Mencken wary of his threatening personality. We are pleased to find that in this anthology, Mencken exercises no such caution or temperance.
In his autobiography “Heathen Days,” Mencken playfully describes his own reporting on Scopes as “somewhat displeasing to local susceptibilities.” We read the damning indictments of the “yokels” of Tennessee’s “ninth-rate country town” with eyes agaze. Menck- en writes:
They believe, on Bryan’s word, that they know more than all the men of science and Christendom. They believe, on the authority of Genesis, that the earth is flat and that witches still infest it. They believe, finally and especially, that all who doubt these great facts of revelation will go to hell. So they are consoled.
But beyond the impish reporter, we glimpse the real-life prankster in Mencken. We are taken by his monkey business, which sent Dayton’s residents into spasms over his counterfeit story about a herd of bolsheviki on their way to kidnap the southern hero Bryan. The prank, ultimately, may be played on us – in the golden age of Hearst newspapers, the scoop was more important than the fait accompli – and Mencken has, in his memoirs, taken much credit for cooked-up stories.
But at Dayton, the scene was fantastic enough. The epic battle between Bry- an and Clarence Darrow was carried on with the vitality of a cosmic circus. On
Mencken’s gongs clash and his cymbals clang. His words can move mountains, but we are not dealing with a man without love or “charity. “
Bryan’s side, ignorant, vulgar peasants. On Darrow’s, the civilized world. So Mencken thought. He battled diligently for the second and visited some of the harshest words ever penned in the English language on the first. On July 27, 1925, the day after Bryan’s death, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Bryan is eulogized, even by his opponents.” On the same day, the Baltimore Evening Sun headlined Menck- en’s obituary – the most demoralizing, dehumanizing postmortem one could imagine:
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses…. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything he was not.
Mencken assumed that”condemnation through silence” is merely an excuse of critics too inept to ridicule and too cowardly to make enemies. Silence had no home in his personality; he wrote always, and loudly. He wrote on religion, sometimes with admiration, often with spite, but always in assertive honesty. He asserted both his conviction and his character. More than any other writer he lingers, at least for now, through the distinctive self he stuffed into his words. Read this volume and you will discover Mencken again, snoring thunderously, well into his afterlife.