Tuesday, December 1, 2009

From the Gallery of Heroes: H.L. Mencken

                                                                 H.L. Mencken in his prime

H.L. [Henry Louis] Mencken [1880-1956], was perhaps America's greatest iconoclast--a muckraker, satirist, critic and editor who came to prominence in the heyday of the popular American press--whose powers to offend, incite, provoke, confound, delight and entertain with his audacious wit and ruthless disdain, are unrivaled in the history of American journalism. Lacking a formal university education, Mencken started out as a newspaperman in Baltimore (his home town), but he read voraciously, and eventually became known, due to his erudition, as "the Sage of Baltimore." Mencken loved to make mischief, to stir things up. In the course of his long writing career, he eventually offended just about everyone--and was at the top of every legion of decency's hit list. A proud German-American, who liked beer halls and big cigars, there is a clear German cast to much of his thinking. His first important book was The Philosophy of Freidrich Nietzsche [1907]--in it, he identified with Nietzsche's signature social Darwinism, a sort of caste system of privilege (what Mencken called intellectual "aristocrats") in which the upper and upper-middle classes are imagined to be superior due to their greater aptitude and effort, rather than through accident of birth or financial good luck. Mencken was unquestionably an anti-semite in philosophical disposition, but he wouldn't have gotten this out of Nietzsche, unless he willfully misunderstood him. It's been noted that Mencken in practice was friendly toward Jews, and lobbied on their behalf during the Nazi persecutions, but this ambiguity does not constitute a salvation. Nevertheless, Mencken displayed a stubbornly contradictory attitude, alternately praising and reviling American Negroes and Jews.  

While his career as a journalist continued full-time, he began to publish collections of serious essays--A Book of Burlesques [1916], A Book of Prefaces [1917], In Defense of Women [1917], and six volumes of Prejudices [1919-1927]. Mencken was preoccupied with the perfectibility of man, and hence much of 19th Century thought regarding fitness and purity and achievement interested him. He was anti-Christian, and spent a good deal of energy heaping amused scorn on its followers. He regarded the American South as backward and provincial.       

                                      H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan by Irving Penn

In the 1920's, Mencken, along with drama critic George Jean Nathan, edited first The Smart Set [under his direction from 1914-1923], and then The American Mercury [founded 1924, until he resigned editorship in 1933]. Both contained fiction, commentary, and humor with subversive and satirical undertones, with by-lines including Eugene O'Neill, Carl Sandburg, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Conrad AIken, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, John Fante, William Saroyan, among others. Ever lusting after a good controversy, Mencken traveled to Boston in 1926 in order to be publicly arrested for the sale of the April issue of The American Mercury (containing an "obscene" article about a prostitute). Mencken was tried and acquitted. 
In the same year, Mencken's articles about the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee, which pitted Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan over the issue of the teaching of evolution in the public schools, became the inspiration for the 1936 play Inherit the Wind, later made into a movie which starred, among others, Gene Kelly as the Mencken-figure E.K. Hornbeck, and Spencer Tracy as the Darrow stand-in Henry Drummond ("We will hang Henry Drummond from the old apple tree!).

My introduction to Mencken was this edition of The American Scene [Knopf, 1965, Edited by Huntington Cairns], which I checked out of the library. Once I'd started it, I couldn't put it down. I recall distinctly sitting on mom's chaise lounge under our fig tree in the afternoon chuckling to myself. As old as the issues and subjects might be that Mencken was talking about, his prose was so boisterous (no other word for it) and fresh that it almost didn't matter whether what he was saying made any sense at all. I also had the distinct feeling--which I suspect was probably something that many of his readers shared--that I belonged in his "aristocracy" of taste and good breeding, an illusion that the tone and address of his writing subtly suggested. Certainly, I didn't think of myself as belonging to the "boob-ocracy"!
The great thing about Mencken was his enthusiasm and skepticism. This combination of appetite and disdain, which was always present in his work, has a particularly American flavor, which has always seemed admirable to me. As much as Mencken despised America's provinciality, its naivite, its hucksterism, its petulant bourgeois presumption, at the same time he loved its energy, innocence and joy. This affection is nowhere more evident than in his monumental three volume study of "American" English, The American Language--I put American in quotation marks, since at the time Mencken began his work, there were no officially recognized divisions among English speakers, but his work is a proof--if any were needed--of the uniqueness of American speech, in all its teeming centers, remote outposts, in all its variations of class, race, region, ethnic and obscure coinage. 
What immediately becomes apparent to anyone who would undertake to study the peculiar flavor of the language of a people of so large a national mosaic, is that to understand it requires that one comprehend just about everything that people does--their industry, their recreations, their habits, their interests--in short, the whole cross-section of their society and endeavor. No one who was not fascinated and intrigued and delighted by his subject, could have brought it off.  

You could with justice say that Mencken was somewhat un-American in his personal philosophy, that he didn't really subscribe to the true democratic ideals that form the basis of our national character. In reading over this quotation--

"Democracy gives the beatification of mediocrity a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world—that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power—which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters—which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy."

--it occurred to me that this could serve as a very prescient comment upon the political career of George W. Bush, especially that part about a "glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done" which seemed to characterize Dubya's Alfred E. Neuman smirk at the end of each of his speeches. Mencken saw in the typical American populist office-seeker the "man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum." 
Mencken published three volumes of his memoirs during the early 1940's, but much of his colorful biographical writings had to wait several decades to be published, due to their inflammatory content. Mencken's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, recalled his Author's "brightly colored pajamas, his devotion to his mother, his gusto at the piano, his fear of air travel." He praised Mencken's taste in books and chuckled over his blatant disregard for Prohibition and despite his reputation "of being a burly, loud, raucous fellow, rough in his speech and lacking refined manners, as [he] learned a little later, displayed the most charming manners conceivable in talking with women. His public side was visible to everyone: tough, cynical, amusing, and exasperating by turns, but everlastingly consistent. The private man was something else again: sentimental, generous, and unwavering—sometimes almost blind—in his devotion to people he liked." Mencken's articles over the course of a long career suggest that his dislikes were many: Christians, Jews, President Roosevelt, the American public itself. If Mencken had any moral principle at the base of his prickly prose, it was a brand of libertarianism that, for him, was close to a religion. Nothing seemed to matter more to him than uncensored self-expression--an attitude which may explain my own peremptoriness in print! He did not always win friends, nor did he set any standards for politically correct journalism. But he remains a legend among American writers, and his words are unlikely to be forgotten. 


J said...

Well done, sir.

I am not sure, however, that either Nietzsche or Mencken affirmed social Darwinism. Mencken does seem to agree with Nietzsche's praise of the strong, the will to power (a concept that Nietzsche does not always consistently uphold), and Nietzsche's naturalism. Yet Mencken also praised Dreiser, as you are aware, and was not supportive of robber baron capitalism across the board. He may have made a few anti-semitic or slightly racist comments, but he wasn't blessing eugenics, as some of the social darwinists were.

Some Menckenisms I enjoy--like his bon mots contra-democracy. As with Nietzsche, however, his writing often suggests a certain crass egotism that's a bit offensive, if not ...slightly maniacal. Yet however offensive Mencken did not lack a Diogenes-like insight. (I think he took much of his schtick from Ambrose Bierce, really--another eloquent American Diogenes--in ways scarier and "mo' authentic" than HLM, or Osiris forbid, even Nietzsche. Ambrose lived the life, and walked the talk as they say).

Steven Fama said...

Oh how I wish that H.L. were still somehow here, and writing another supplement to The American Language, just so I might enjoy his vivid prose laying out the genius-gems brought to the language via the constantly changing lingo of hip-hop, including in particular those minted by Earl Stevens, aka E-40, from Valley Joe (ha, there's one right there!).

Those terms would include, "smokin' that broccoli," "yayo," and "ghost ride the whip." Stevens has come up with dozens of others, a whole dictionary of his invented words / terms is due out any year now....

Curtis Faville said...

Steven: I suspect that we wouldn't have found Mencken to be a very pleasant fellow to talk to. He seems to belong to a time and a place that is separated from us by real changes not only in the ways people once thought and acted, but in the ways people saw their world (as in ontology).

Mencken was a mixture of so many things: Outdated fashion and fresh insight, intelligence and boorishness, insight and opacity, geniality and crass disdain, sympathy and viciousness, love and hate. Trying to write a coherent post about him is a challenge, since his interests and accomplishments cover such a wide range. It's difficult to say anything specific about his opinions, because you can often find conflicting quotations about the same issue.

I'm with you about the new slang. Eric Partridge is another figure--more specifically a lexicographer (of slang) than Mencken was. I like especially the "gangster" slang from the 1920's and 1930's--which seems to originate from a more genuine imaginative place. Hip-hop stuff seems less about that than simply fumbling in a slightly uncontrolled way, extemporaneously, with energetic language, though the ghetto side of it is often interesting. Never having been a fan of rap or hip-hop myself limits my apprehension, but as objects of study, it's all quite fascinating.

jh said...

When he turns to the cradle Catholicism of his native Baltimore, Mencken finds something different to praise. The good of Catholicism is not in the Bible but in its keeping the Bible away from people, and keeping people away from the technical theological disputes that occupy only a small segment of the learned clergy.

What keeps the Catholic in the pew Mencken thought was not theology or lectures on doctrine but spectacle. The Catholic church exceeds the Protestant as he saw it “because it has always kept clearly before it that religion is not a syllogism but a poem.” “A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive to a man with any genuine religious sense…as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God.”

i stole this from a blog called
new american mercury


Kirby Olson said...

Did he ever say something constructive that anybody remembers?

jh said...

he whispered in his lover's ear before she died
i love you


J said...

the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God.

That's constructive, not to say ...phunny (unlike Kirby's ham-fisted moralistic rants). HLM on the Kalvinist-klown show! His words still apply to any televangelist wheezebag.

Wheeze on, dewdies

Curtis Faville said...

"Constructive" is a loaded word, or--to be more accurate--an ambiguous word.

Construction versus de-construction. Often the most constructive thing to be done is to take something apart, in order to see how it's made, how the pieces fit together--or to see what part is flawed or not functioning properly.

Which is NOT to say that a deconstruction itself is better than the sum of the parts of a whole work (of art, or structure, whatever).

Many of Mencken's targets were sitting ducks, so it's more like enjoying watching him knock them off, than seeing a fair fight. But American "boobs" do tend to be credulous and naive, and we need to be reminded that blind belief and lazy thinking aren't acceptable in a democracy. No?

jh said...

aren''t acceptable??
is not the media replete
with mediocre thinking at best
lazy brains is the way of education
sports commentators are the
gurus of public expression

need i say more

lazy thinking indeed
the whole house is full of it

is it just me or are most all the funny people dead
or just not funny

we may be revulsed by the blind faith of evangelical christianity
but they are part of the democracy
just ask them

you're an aristocrat
in the true sense of the word curtis
and you can be in america too
we do in fact
need aristocrats
the best thinkers
but they get drowned (drownded) out by the endless babble of the amplified horde
que sera sera