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Defending Mr. Mencken

Unrestrained glee: Yesterday I got my hands on the Library of America’s handsome two-volume edition of H.L. Mencken’s complete Prejudices series. Barely able to contain myself until getting home from work, I sat down at home with a good light and a drink (Pilsener would have been the natural accompaniment, but bourbon sufficed), and was barely five pages into it when I heard the true Menckenian note:

“We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow citizens, usually by force. …” Henry Mencken’s implacable resistance to the Uplift is one of his most endearing qualities. It was his slaughter of the American sacred cattle — and his energy, his gusto, his brio as he wielded the sledgehammer — that charmed me when I was eighteen and pleases me still.

I know already what some of you are going to say; somebody already dismissed Mencken as an anti-Semite in a comment on a previous post. And I will not dispute that he wrote anti-Semitic things, among other statements offensive to blacks, women, Southerners, and nearly any other class of human beings you can identify.* I will, further, not dispute that many of those statements are ugly and that I cringe on reading them. But consider that there is more to him than that.

The hard thing for people to stomach in our egalitarian age is that Mencken was a Nietzschean libertarian. That is, he held deep convictions that there were superior human beings and inferior human beings, that each human being has a natural right to participate in the scramble of existence, and that nature sorts out the strong and the weak.

He was not, like some professed conservatives today, some mere apologist for corporate rapacity; he despised Harding and Coolidge and their Babbittry as heartily as he despised Franklin Roosevelt’s conviction that the job of government is to comfort and protect the populace from poverty and affliction.

The charge of anti-Semitism, which came out mainly after publications of his diaries, was answered then by someone who said that not only were some of his best friends Jewish, that nearly all of his best friends were. And as a commenter on the “Moronia” post wrote, he published articles urging the United States to rescue European Jews from the Nazi persecution.

He liked individuals but scorned classes of people, and this is reflected throughout his life. He may have had a low opinion of many blacks, but he published black writers. One of his last published articles condemned a lynching on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He may have entertained a retrograde view of women in general, but he championed female writers.

Despite his many and glaring imperfections, which were especially heighted in his bitterness after the death of his wife and the shift against him in the political climate of the New Deal, he did worthy things throughout his career. He sneered at cant. He campaigned against Prohibition. He championed American English with scholarship. He wrote with bravura, in a style that leaves his imitators looking merely dyspeptic and bombastic. He battled censorship. He stood up for human liberty.

You who dismiss him, have you done half as much?

 

*A short diatribe: The Uplift seems to have yielded a generation of uncommon moral purity. Henry Mencken can be dismissed as an anti-Semite. We can discard Thomas Jefferson because he was a slaveowner and, moreover, fathered children on one of his slaves who was his deceased wife’s half-sister. Senator Robert Byrd’s body was scarcely cool before he was swept aside as a mere windbag who had been in the Ku Klux Klan (as had Justice Hugo Black), his formal apologies and repudiations apparently counting for nothing. Sweep away all those hegemonostic and patriarchal dead white authors like Milton and Johnson.

I am unwilling to chime in with these condemnations, having myself uttered foolish and regrettable statements and having done things that harmed people I care about, the memory of which regularly bathes me in shame in the small hours of the morning; I am thus not qualified to occupy a seat among the smugly satisfied and the morally superior.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:05 PM | | Comments (11)
        

Comments

At first glance, I thought you wrote that Mencken was "a Nietzschean librarian."

I should hate to look up a book in that card catalog.

The Darwin awards might have amused Mr. Mencken.

As a librarian who has cataloged many of Mencken's books (many with his own charming dedications to the recipients), I can say that I was very surprised to discover a man who loved life and loved women. He was very much a man of his times, but in some ways he transcended those times.

John, your pieces always educate and usually amuse me. This one challenges at surprisingly (even embarrassingly) profound levels. Thank you.

While I could certainly appreciate his active voice and strong condemnation of - well, virtually anything he wrote about - I cringe at his use of statistics. "Every third" - that's a pretty strong statement.

Surely he couldn't have been privy to that much statistical data. Then again, 43.5% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

A man who liked individuals but wasn't keen on groups - a man after my own heart. Today's pandering to groups of all types would elicit many splendid, literate outbursts. Where are the likes of Mencken among the mealy of mouth?

"Virtually anything he wrote about"?

Go read his essays on Beethoven, or Conrad, or Valentino, or Baltimore, or beer.

(Or, for that matter, on Mencken.)

Hi,

As a reader from a different generation, I'd some recommendations for getting started with Mencken since a quick look at Amazon has too many offerings to choose from blindly.

Thanks in advance.

Hi,

As a reader from a different generation, I'd some recommendations for getting started with Mencken since a quick look at Amazon has too many offerings to choose from blindly.

Thanks in advance.

The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, is a representative selection and a good start.

Thanks, I would not have picked that one first because of the cover.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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