H.L. Mencken

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Henry Louis Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956) was an American journalist and author. In the 1920s the New York Times dubbed him "the most powerful private citizen in the United States,"[1] while Walter Lippmann (regarded as “the most influential journalist in American history”)[2] called him “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people.”[3]

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Mencken left school at the age of 15. When his father died, he went into newspaper work at the age of 18, rising to become one of the most famous journalists of the Jazz Age. He became editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury, quintessential iconoclastic American magazines of the roaring twenties. His most successful book was The American Language.

Contents

Religion

As a child, Mencken was sent to Methodist Sunday School (which he defined as “a prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents”)[4] to allow his father, an unbeliever, free time for a nap.[5] “It left me an infidel," he wrote, “as [my father] was, and his father had been before him.”[6] Mencken described himself as “absolutely devoid of what is called religious feeling.”[7] In his view: “Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration—courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth. In brief, it is a fraud.”[8] Mencken singled out Christianity for ridicule:

The notion that [Christianity] differs from the rest [of the world's religions], and is somehow superior to them, is one that seems to me to be very dubious.... What the faithful Christian professes to believe, if put into the form of an affidavit, would be such shocking nonsense that even bishops and archbishops would start laughing.[9]

Darwinism, Social Darwinism and Nietzscheanism

Mencken was a Darwinist; it was he who convinced the American Civil Liberties Union and Clarence Darrow, the greatest trial lawyer of his day, to take the Scopes trial,[10] writing that “the sacrifice of Scopes would be a small thing.”[11] Mencken then covered the trial, his mocking coverage earning him his greatest fame.

Mencken was not merely a Darwinist, but a “confirmed Social Darwinist[12] and Nietzschean.[13] Mencken called Nietzsche's book Thus Spake Zarathustra:

a magnificent statement, lucid, plausible, overwhelming, of the ideas that had been groping for utterance within [Germans]. Here was the sufficient excuse and justification for their racial aspiration.... It had all the essential qualities of a great race-document. It was dramatic, eloquent, persuasive, vigorous, romantic—a mixture of challenge and testament, of code and saga.[14]

Both Nietzsche and Mencken were “confirmed rationalists and materialists... deeply opposed to Christianity,” as well as “firm believers in a 'natural' caste system.... In Nietzsche's case, his belief in a caste system was based on the concept that some individuals are naturally superior to others, and should therefore be in the upper caste. Mencken's idealized caste system was cruder; it was simple Social Darwinism.”[15]

Underlying both men's advocacy of a caste system was an “incomprehension of, and a near-total lack of respect for, the lower economic classes.”[16]

Politics

Mencken was not fond of his fellow Americans. He wrote:

Here the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy.[17]

Nor was he fond of the United States itself. He wrote: “My grandfather, I believe, made a mistake when he came to this country [from Germany].... I have spent all of my 62 years here, but I still find it impossible to fit myself into the accepted patterns of American life and thought. After all these years, I remain a foreigner.”[18] He preferred the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm, which he said had a “superbly efficient ruling caste.”[19]

Mencken's vicious attacks on Republican Presidents Calvin Coolidge (“Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored”),[20] Warren Harding (“he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered”)[21] and Herbert Hoover (“a dud”)[22] made him a favorite of the literati, lionized throughout the publishing world. But when Mencken similarly lampooned the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt (“a fraud from snout to tail”),[23] whom he had supported in 1932,[24] he suddenly found himself a pariah, shunned by the establishment.[25] “[T]he New Deal might appear to offer just the sort of target [Mencken] loved,” wrote Alistair Cooke, but “the New Deal was Mencken's Waterloo, and Roosevelt his Wellington.” According to Cooke, “Mencken had a clear eye for the realities that conceived the Roosevelt period,” yet “it was the Roosevelt era that brought him to the mat." Cooke added that "The decline of his prestige was very swift,” so that by “the middle 1930's he all but abandoned the preoccupation of his palmy days, his self-chosen trade as 'a critic of ideas.'”[26]

Since the publication of Mencken's diaries in 1991, he has been lambasted as anti-Semitic, racist and "pro-Nazi."[27] He wrote:

The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.[28]

In his diary, Mencken referred to “the Jews and whores who hang about the theatres and nightclubs”;[29] his publisher Alfred Knopf, wrote Mencken, “showed a certain amount of the obnoxious tactlessness of his race”;[30] George Jean Nathan, his former co-editor at The American Mercury, he wrote, had “a typically Jewish inferiority complex.”[31] Nathan commented, "I guess it would be right to say that [Mencken] never wholly liked Jews. He respected them, he was amused by them, he was even afraid of them, but he didn't like them. Maybe he even disliked them. I suppose that's anti-Semitism."[32]

Further Material

Mencken was a rabidly anti-Christian newspaper critic and journalist who savaged evangelicals, William Jennings Bryan and, more privately, blacks and Jews.

Mencken was obsessed with social status. He broke off a relationship to his lover, Marion Bloom, because she had not been wealthy or sophisticated enough, as well as his disdain towards her conversion to Christianity Science.

Twenty-five years after Mencken's death, the publication of his diary revealed him to be a complete bigot towards almost anyone other than his own German ethnicity, including his remark that "There is no other Jew in Baltimore who seems suitable" to belong to a private club in Baltimore, after its only Jewish member passed away. Of blacks Mencken said in 1943, "it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman."[33] But during his life, Mencken was lionized by his fellow liberal journalists as the "Sage of Baltimore," and to this day evolutionists are grateful to him for how he ridiculed (and misrepresented) the facts that transpired at the Scopes Trial.

Mencken had contempt for religion and faith, such as:[34]

Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.
Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.

H.L. Mencken had this to say about moral victories: "In human history a moral victory is always a disaster, for it debauches and degrades both the victor and the vanquished."[35]

H.L.Mencken's extraordinarily bigoted obituary of Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential nominee and Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, concluded with the following:[36]

Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.
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. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.
The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails, they will devour it.

Notes

  1. Ben A. Franklin, "Mencken Monument Spurs 'Frenzied Piffle'," The New York Times, June 9, 1984, Sec. 1, p. 9
  2. Jacqueline Foertsch, American Culture in the 1940s (Edinburgh University Press, 2008) ISBN 0748624139, p. 56
  3. Walter Lippmann, “H.L. Mencken,” The Saturday Review of Literature December 11, 1926
  4. H.L. Mencken, “The Jazz Webster,” in A Book of Burlesques (New York: Knopf, 1920), p. 208
  5. Doug Linder (2004), H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), Tessenssee vs. John Scopes: The Monkey Trial, 1925. Famous Trials in American History
  6. Henry Louis Mencken , Happy Days, 1880-1892, Volume 1 (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1940), p. 188
  7. H.L. Mencken, “Confession of a Theological Moron,” in S.T. Joshi, ed., H.L. Mencken on Religion (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2002) ISBN 1573929824, p. 32
  8. Charles A. Fecher, Mencken: A Study of his Thought (New York: Knopf, 1978) ISBN 0394413547, p. 81
  9. H.L. Mencken, A Treatise on the Gods (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2006), Preface, pp. x-xi
  10. Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, Mencken: The American Iconoclast (Oxford University Press, 2005) ISBN 0195072383, p. 1
  11. Henry Louis Mencken, Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir by H. L. Mencken (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2006) ISBN 0801885566, p. 137
  12. Mark Lewis, “Mencken Vs. The Red Menace,” Forbes, April 2, 2009
  13. Cf. Henry Louis Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908)
  14. H.L. Mencken, “The Mailed Fist and its Prophet,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 1914
  15. Charles Bufe, “Introduction,” H.L. Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Tucson, Ariz.: See Sharp Press, 2003) ISBN 1884365310, pp. iii
  16. Charles Bufe, “Introduction,” H.L. Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Tucson, Ariz.: See Sharp Press, 2003) ISBN 1884365310, pp. ii
  17. H. L. Mencken, "On Being an American," Prejudices: A Selection (JHU Press, 2006) ISBN 0801885353, p. 92
  18. Charles A. Fecher, ed., The Diary of H.L. Mencken (New York: Knopf, 1989) ISBN 039456877X, p. 215
  19. H.L. Mencken, “The Mailed Fist and its Prophet,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 1914
  20. Vincent Fitzpatrick, H.L. Mencken (Mercer University Press, 2004) ISBN 0865549214, p. 66
  21. H. L. Mencken, On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2006) ISBN 0801885558, p. 42
  22. H. L. Mencken, On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2006) ISBN 0801885558, p. 272
  23. Charles A. Fecher, ed., The Diary of H.L. Mencken (New York: Knopf, 1989) ISBN 039456877X, p. 131
  24. Vincent Fitzpatrick, H.L. Mencken (Mercer University Press, 2004) ISBN 0865549214, p. 108
  25. Terry Teachout, “Editor's Introduction, in H. L. Mencken, A Second Mencken Chrestomathy: A New Selection from the Writings of America's Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2006) ISBN 0801885493, p. xiii
  26. Alistair Cooke, “An Introduction to H.L. Mencken,” in The Vintage Mencken (New York: Knopf, 1955), p. vi
  27. "Mencken Was Pro-Nazi, His Diary Shows," Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1989
  28. Henry Louis Mencken, Treatise on the Gods (New York: Knopf, 1930), pp. 345-346
  29. Henry Louis Mencken, My Life as Author and Editor (New York: Knopf, 1993) ISBN 0679413154, p. 203
  30. Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (New York: HarperCollins, 2002) ISBN 006050529X, p. 137
  31. Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (New York: HarperCollins, 2002) ISBN 006050529X, p. 88
  32. Charles Angoff, “George Jean Nathan: A Candid Portrait,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 1962
  33. The Diary of H. L. Mencken, published by Alfred A. Knopf.
  34. http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/H._L._Mencken
  35. http://www.lewrockwell.com/jarvis/jarvis34.html
  36. http://www.peeniewallie.com/2005/06/h_l_menckens_ob.html
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