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HL Mencken - the Sage of Baltimore
Q. If you are so critical of America, why do you continue to live here?
The Power of Opinion
This illustrates the mindset of a man who was considered by many to be the most renowned, or infamous, American social critic of his time. The print media were his milieux, and his career coincided with the Golden Age of American journalism, the first half of the 20th Century.
Good editorial columnists would become popular and thus enjoy syndication, and as a rule they would provide to the nation a sense of balance to the strange activities in the 'hallowed halls'. Through good times and bad, the American population could rely upon their regular expositions of wit and wisdom.
There have certainly been circumstances when the contents of the Op-Ed pages were of importance equal to the puzzling facts. Political coverage, in particular, presents the age-old question: Who can de-spin the spew that spouts from the lips of our various panjandrums1?
What sort of newspaperman can winnow and glean through clouds and acres of flapdoodle2? What sort of humour can shine as a beacon of hope amidst the travesty and tragedy? Who has the spine to hold nothing sacred other than wisdom and the English language?
Above all, who has the moxie to challenge the literate segment of the American population to actually think for themselves, and grow?
Ladies and gentlemen: Henry Louis Mencken. Journalist, author, critic, columnist, editor, humorist, and philosopher.
On 12 September, 1880, Henry Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, near to the Chesapeake Bay and very close to Washington DC. Of German blood, he grew up 'a larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie', the son of the owner of the Mencken Cigar Company. Young Henry spurned his filial destiny in the tobacco business, but throughout his adult life he was rarely photographed without a cigar somewhere within the frame.
In 1899, at the age of 18, and on the Monday following his father's death, Mencken presented himself to the Baltimore Morning Herald as a cub reporter. He quickly learned the ways of the world in a prospering American city.
The home offices of the Herald were destroyed by the Baltimore fire of 1904. He worked heroically to salvage the operation, and became city editor in 1905. But the Herald met its demise in 1906. Mencken then moved on to the Baltimore Sun newspaper, with which he was associated for the remainder of his active life.
Mencken was enthusiastic about the earlier works of Shaw. He had been hoping for a correspondence with the playwright, but that never came to pass.
Nietzsche was one of Mencken's guiding spirits. Much that was Teutonic was regarded as seditious during the years of the First World War, and his commentaries on Nietzsche brought him a bit of trouble from the ultra-patriotic reactionaries of the time. He kept his political opinions to himself during the war, and his translation of Nietzsche's The Antichrist was published in 1920.
In Defense of Women was, according to remarks in his preface to the second edition, a work born of deep boredom. Mencken bemoaned the wartime restriction upon his intellect, and essayed a treatise on a topic somewhat less politically volatile than his customary subjects. Publication was restricted at that time to the United States, and the first edition was generally ignored.
The American Language proved to be Mencken's most authoritative work, and an ever-increasing number of contributors helped flesh out several subsequent editions. Two interesting points: the term yankee may well have been an Iroquois transliteration of anglais; and the US Military Academy at West Point consistently produced better writers of good English than other universities.
Prejudices reveals Mencken, the literary critic.
The Treatises are Mencken's true philosophical efforts, but the 'Days' are much more enjoyable reads. These are autobiographies, in which Mencken allowed himself great freedom of style.
Mencken is also credited with millions of words of essays, columns, and commentaries. In 1908 he began contributing to The Smart Set (a literary monthly) as a book reviewer. He shared the Editor's desk with drama critic George Jean Nathan between 1914 and 1923.
The American Mercury, a monthly magazine devoted to literature and socio-political commentary, was Mencken's brainchild, launching in January 1924. He once again shared the editorial helm with Nathan, and from 1925 he had full control. He resigned in 1933 due to continuing harassment by censors.
Mencken Versus Prohibition
Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favourite 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.
Prohibition (1919 - 1933) drove a wedge deeply into the American psyche, polarising public opinion, and perforce engendering political enmity. The prohibitionists faced obdurate resistance, not only from the drinking class, but from everyone associated with the bootleg alcohol industry.
And during that grim debacle of a social experiment, Mencken turned up the editorial heat. By that time, after two decades of honing his skills and acquiring a fine reputation, he had gathered a sizeable loyal audience. The fact that he was unabashedly 'wet' (as opposed to the 'dry' prohibitionists) endeared him to the nationwide 'wet set' as well. He styled himself 'ombibulous' for his friendship with all types of potent drink3. Realising that the prohibitionists were set upon destroying a culture as well as a habit, he took it upon himself to defend that culture.
'The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.' - Section One of the 21st Amendment. Mencken was present in the hallowed halls on that day in 1933, and as the votes rolled in, his report carried the metaphor of a gang of misanthropic curmudgeons, dispersing and crawling back under their rocks. Due to his vantage point at this event, Mencken was amongst the first Americans in fourteen years to enjoy a legal drink. He heard the news slightly before the rest of the population and legend has it that he 'scooped' President Franklin D Roosevelt, who was eagerly waiting, highball glass at the ready.
The Scopes 'Monkey' Trial
In July of 1925, John T Scopes, a Tennessee schoolteacher, was tried for heresy in the town of Dayton. He suggested to some pupils that humans evolved from lower primates, as hypothesized by Darwin and propounded by Huxley. The trial was a test case, and generally acknowledged to be a sop to the local fundamentalists, whose pious rage was excited by this ghastly deviation from 'God's Truth'.
Scopes was fined $100.
The trial itself was pure theatre, and Mencken was there to provide coverage. He found fuel for his ironic (and often sarcastic) wit, everywhere in and about Dayton, during those midsummer weeks. He painted a picture that leaves us wondering, first, how it is possible for some humans to be so gullible and credulous, and second, how intelligent people could refrain from howling with laughter during the proceedings.
Warning! Politically incorrect!
I am wholly devoid of public spirit or moral purpose. This is incomprehensible to many men, and they seek to remedy the defect by crediting me with purposes of their own. The only thing I respect is intellectual honesty, of which, of course, intellectual courage is a necessary part.
If you merely touch upon the broad spectrum of his quotations, it will quickly become apparent that Mencken would not mince a single word. He had been accused of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, arrogance, elitism, churlishness and blasphemy. In short, he covered all the bases. His favourite targets would remain the absurd and incomprehensible US government, and the common Americans who neglected, nay refused, the exercise of their God-given intellects.
Mencken understood the power of controversy. He was more than merely impatient with the arrogant and hypocritical aspects of American culture. He would audaciously jab at the sensitivities of the self-righteous, batter the bastions of 'booboisie', and snipe at their sheep-herding institutions of faith, all the while displaying his characteristic mordant humour4.
And humour was the leavening of his opinions. Mencken would apply crudeness with brio, whenever the circumstances warranted. He was fond of shaking the tree to see what fell out. Truth was his goal, and what we now call 'political correctness' mattered little to him. He propounded in the best editorial prose, with sparkling irony and devastating rhetoric. The force and elegance of his opinions often carried the day against his naysayers.
At the end of the day, there were very few people in his acquaintance, from any possible race, creed or organisation, who would say that Mencken was an evil man5. Churlish and arrogant perhaps, but not evil. He valued the individual, he valued liberty, and he cherished the gumption of any one who could rise out of the ruck and contribute something meaningful to the world of humans.
As a literary critic, he was generous with his support and encouragement to the deserving, and as for the unredeemable:
...he6 writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
A Small Collection of Quotations
We live in a land of abounding quackeries, and if we do not learn how to laugh we succumb to the melancholy disease which afflicts the race of viewers-with-alarm... In no other country known to me is life as safe and agreeable, taking one day with another, as it is in These States.
...the American Republic, the envy and despair of all other nations...
Congress consists of one-third, more or less, scoundrels; two-thirds, more or less, idiots; and three-thirds, more or less, poltroons.
It is of the essence of democracy that it remain a government by amateurs, and under a government by amateurs it is precisely the expert who is most questioned - and it is the expert who commonly stresses the experience of the past. And in a democratic society it is not the iconoclast who seems most revolutionary, but the purist.
The kind of man who demands that government enforce his ideas is always the kind whose ideas are idiotic.
...Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood, and that is what happened to those of Jesus.
We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.
...there is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong.
In 1948, Mencken suffered a stroke which left him in possession of most of his normal capabilities, but tragically rendered him functionally illiterate. He spent the remainder of his life at his home in Baltimore, enjoying his friendships and his beloved classical music. During this time, his journals and letters were organised for posthumous publication. He died on 29 January, 1956.
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