Published May 1, 1995
Mencken: A Life. By Fred Hobson. Random House. 650 pp. $35.
H. L. Mencken, My Life as Author and Editor. Edited with an introduction by Jonathan Yardley. Knopf. 450 pp. $30.
H. L. Mencken, Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work. Edited by Fred Hobson, vincent Fitzpatrick, and Bradford Jacobs. Johns Hopkins University press. 390 pp. $34.95.
H. L. Mencken, A Second Mencken Chrestomathy. Edited with an introduction by Terry Teachout. Knopf. 491 pp. $30.
As an unrepentant son of the Baltimore middle class, I should like to be able to report that I first learned about the old hometown’s most famous writer in a suitably dignified manner; that, say, my father lifted his head from his perusal of the Sun on the morning of 30 January 1956, and announced, with due solemnity, “Mencken is dead”-after which, the import of the occasion would have been explained to an earnest five- year old. Alas for the bourgeois propriety that the Bad Boy of Baltimore nevertheless cherished, my fascination with Henry Louis Mencken and my attempts to unravel the puzzle of his persona began not around the family board but in circumstances uncomfortably close to some that Mencken pilloried over the years.
If memory serves, it was 1971 and I was spending my summer months as a seminarian-intern at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in South Baltimore- a rough part of town that Mencken disdained after covering it during his reportorial hazing in 1899. Even more improbably, the agent of my initiation into Menckeniana was Ab Logan, doctoral candidate in English (and thus in Menckenese, an “academic wizard”) turned community organizer (and thus a practitioner of what Mencken derided as “uplift”), who sublet office space from the parish. It was Logan who left behind, in an office washroom, a copy of The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke. Here, I first read “The Baltimore of the Eighties,” Mencken’s jaunty, evocative re-creation of the world of my grandparents; here I got my first taste of Mencken, perhaps the best newspaper reporter ever, on “The Nomination of FDR”; and here I discovered “The Archangel Woodrow” (as in Thomas Woodrow Wilson), a book review at once brutal and yet wickedly, deliciously funny. Thus I became addicted to Mencken. thanks to a professorially defrocked social worker. There are many ironies in the fire, indeed.
I suppose it is theoretically possible that my interest in Mencken might have flagged after a quarter-century or so. But as more than one Menckenian can attest, the master himself plotted to keep his disciples hooked by a crafty gift to Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library of papers and memoirs placed under a rolling series of time-locks. As these materials have been opened, edited, and published, they have set loose a whole new series of Mencken controversies, decades after his death-just as Mencken, a preternaturally gifted publicist, knew they would.
The first explosion in this postmortem sequence came in 1989, when The Diary of H. L. Mencken, edited by Charles A. Fecher, was published by Knopf. Written between 1930 and 1948, the diary’s end-of- the-day ruminations on persons and events gave considerable aid and comfort to those who had long believed Mencken a pathological personality. Mencken’s own paper, the Baltimore Sun, took the lead in denouncing his alleged sundry bigotries, and editor Fecher himself stated, flatly, that “Mencken was an anti-Semite”-a charge carefully and, I believe, persuasively rebutted by Joseph Epstein in Commentary.
Two years later, two other memoirs were released: My Life as Author and Editor, which Knopf published in 1993 in a volume superbly edited by Jonathan Yardley, and Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work, recently issued by the Johns Hopkins University Press. My Life as Author and Editor covered Mencken’s Smart Set period during the flapper era, the beginnings of his work with George Jean Nathan and Alfred Knopf (which later gave birth to the American Mercury), and his early relationships with Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Willa Cather. In addition to providing a brisk and amusing account of some of his adventures as a political reporter, Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work also chronicles Mencken’s efforts to turn the Baltimore Sun into the country’s most influential paper-a notion that may seem bizarre now (the Sun having been reduced to a small satellite in the orbit of the Los Angeles Times), but one that had real possibilities in the Roaring Twenties and the New Deal Thirties.
The release of Mencken’s long-withheld papers has also energized a bevy of biographers, eager to use the newly available materials to craft a portrait of the Sage more comprehensive than the earlier efforts of William Manchester and Carl Bode. Fred Hobson of the University of North Carolina was first out of the chute in mid-1994 with Mencken: A Life, and books by Terry Teachout and Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (already the editor of a volume of correspondence between Mencken and his wife, Sara Powell Haardt) are promised. (A by-product of Teachout’s biographical research is the Second Mencken Chrestomathy, recently published by Knopf, the contents of which Teachout discovered in five dusty boxes on the top shelf of the closet in the Pratt Library’s Mencken Room.) Cheek-by-jowl with all this new attention, however, have come some of the sharpest attacks on Mencken’s character ever written. The Diary, as noted, led to accusations of racism and anti-Semitism; but perhaps even more damning was Garry Wills’ portrait of Mencken as a brutal Social Darwinist in Wills’ revisionist reading of the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” published in Under God in 1990.
All of which has posed some hitherto-unpondered questions for this Menckenian. Why do I find Mencken’s writing so irresistible, even as I become ever more aware of the deep shadows in his personality? Why was Mencken such a spectacularly gifted political reporter and such a singularly inept political prognosticator? How could a man with his legendary capacity for friendship, the scintillating conversationalist who was the center of any group before he was twenty-five, be so ugly toward some of his oldest associates in his private descriptions of them? Why have the attempts at serious philosophy in which Mencken put such stock-his Treatise on the Gods and his Treatise on Right and Wrong-been among his least enduring works, while his entertainments (notably Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days) seem certain to be read and enjoyed a century from now? Was Mencken, with his lusty disdain for both professional politicians-“the clowns in the ring”-and the “quacks” who ran the New Deal’s social engineering shops, a precursor of what would come to be called neoconservatism; or would his libertarian streak, his isolationism, and his eugenics have made him more at home in the farther reaches of the paleoconservative fever swamps?
Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, what about Mencken and religion- which is to say, in the case of this lifelong agnostic, what about Mencken’s general outlook on the human condition, his system of values, his basic character? Was Mencken, for all the felicity of his prose, really the Nietzschean monster drawn by Garry Wills? Or is Mencken another postmortem victim of the idiocies (including the moral idiocies) of political correctness?
As Jonathan Yardley notes in his introduction to My Life as Author and Editor, Mencken’s self-portrait as a man “born with an extraordinary amount of reserve energy” is altogether too modest a description for someone who lived a full, vigorous, and boozy social life while conducting a professional career-as newspaperman, newspaper executive, essayist, book reviewer, book author, magazine editor, philologist, correspondent, and camp counselor to two generations of American writers-“so busy and diverse as to stagger the imagination.” And that fantastic energy, which seems to have derived in part from an insatiable fascination with the human comedy, spilled over time and again into Mencken’s distinctive prose. Thus the irresistibility of Mencken is, to my mind, the easiest part of him to explain: Mencken is irresistible because he is compulsively readable, and he is compulsively readable because his writing is simply a lot of fun to read.
Indeed, I think it not an exaggeration to suggest that, in his maturity, Mencken-a stylist as distinctively American as Mark Twain, his first literary hero-was virtually incapable of writing a dull sentence. Even when composing a rather straightforward historical narrative like Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work, Mencken let fly with exhilarating regularity on almost every other page.
Thus, in 1920, the various aspirants to the Presidency were “the candidates then preparing in their paddocks” for the race ahead. A few months later, after her husband had grabbed the brass ring, reporters noticed a dramatic change in the self-presentation of Mrs. Warren G. Harding: “The last time most of us had seen her she looked like the president of the Christian Endeavor Society of Middletown, but now she almost suggested the Whore of Babylon.” Hiram Johnson, who had loftily disdained an invitation to become Harding’s running mate in 1920, thereby botching his best shot at the presidency, “became a sort of walking boil” in consequence. At the 1928 Republican Convention, Herbert Hoover, taking no chances, “had all the delegates he needed bought, paid for, and safe in his pens”; at the same Republicanfest, Mencken ran into Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the Nation, who was “sweating his usual moral indignation.” During the Scopes Trial, the prohibitionists in Dayton, Tennessee, drank a corn whiskey “fermented in tubs set far back in the mountains, and all sorts of wild creatures, including squirrels, bats, and snakes, took nips of it, got drunk, and were drowned. The locals distilled the ensuing mess without removing the carcasses.” At the 1936 convention of the Townsend old-age pensioners, Gerald L. K. Smith, formerly Huey Long’s factotum in Louisiana, was much in evidence at the top of Townsend’s “hierarchy of attendant wizards and visionaries.” Compared to FDR and his “associated quacks,” Alf Landon looked “like an honest horse-doctor beside Lydia Pinkham.” In 1940, Mencken recalled, Wendell Willkie had been “put up to speak at the annual dinner of the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association [and had] made a big hit with the assembled Barabasses”-perhaps by contrast with the insufferable “crooning” of FDR, Mencken’s bete noire.
The multiple editions and supplements of The American Language, Mencken’s pioneering philological investigation of the distinctiveness of spoken and written English in the United States, are similarly enlivened page after page by the vivacity of his prose. Take but one brief example: imagine the stultifying drivel you will read in such recent Modern Language Association convention papers as “Embodied Metaphor as a Cultural Construct: The Cultural Scene as Circle Metaphor in Jane Austen’s Emma” (or, perhaps, “Redressing the Female Subject: Transvestite Saints’ Lives and the Benedictine Reform”), and then savor the breezy yet historically precise way in which Mencken, opening the American Language’s eight-hundred-page Fourth Edition, describes the beginnings, and the ultimate futility, of the British assault on the Americanization of English.
The Jay Treaty of 1794 gave notice that there was still some life left in the British lion, and during the following years, the troubles of the Americans, both at home and abroad, mounted at so appalling a rate that their confidence and elation gradually oozed out of them. Simultaneously, their pretensions began to be attacked with pious vigor by patriotic Britishers, and in no field was the fervor of these brethren more marked than in those of literature and language. . . . [Yet] Americanisms are forcing their way into English all the time, and of late they have been entering at a truly dizzy pace, but they seldom get anything properly describable as a welcome, save from small sects of iconoclasts, and every now and then the general protest against them rises to a roar.
Mencken’s effortlessly energetic prose is at its most dulcet in his Days books, written during the early 1940s under the urging of Harold Ross and Katherine White of the New Yorker. Happy Days, the memoir of HLM’s boyhood in bourgeois German West Baltimore during the 1880s, begins with this fetching caveat emptor, which might with justice apply to the entire trilogy: “These casual and somewhat chaotic memoirs of days long past are not offered to the nobility and gentry as coldly objective history. They are, on the contrary, excessively subjective, and the record of an event is no doubt often bedizened and adulterated by my response to it. I have made a reasonably honest effort to stick to the cardinal facts, however disgraceful to either the quick or the dead, but no one is better aware than I am of the fallibility of human recollection. . . . As Huck Finn said of Tom Sawyer, there are no doubt some stretchers in this book, but mainly it is fact.”
With Mencken, though, what you get is fact related through that inimitable prose, as when HLM is introducing us to (and gently defending) his parents and their world:
My early life was placid, secure, uneventful, and happy. I remember, of course, some griefs and alarms, but they were all trivial, and vanished quickly. There was never an instant in my childhood when I doubted my father’s capacity to resolve any difficulty that menaced me, or to beat off any danger. He was always the center of his small world, and in my eyes a man of illimitable puissance and resourcefulness. If we needed anything he got it forthwith, and usually he threw in something that we didn’t really need, but only wanted. I never heard of him being ill- treated by a wicked sweat shop owner, or underpaid, or pursued by rent-collectors, or exploited by the Interests, or badgered by the police. My mother, like any normal woman, formulated a large program of desirable improvements in him, and not infrequently labored it at the family hearth, but on the whole their marriage, which had been a love match, was a marked and durable success, and neither of them ever neglected for an instant their duties to their children. We were encapsulated in affection, and kept fat, saucy, and contented. . . . I was a larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie, though I was quite unaware of the fact until I was along in my teens, and had begun to read indignant books. To belong to that great order of mankind is vaguely discreditable today, but I still maintain my dues- paying membership in it, and continue to believe that it was and is authentically human, and therefore worthy of the attention of philosophers, at least to the extent that the Mayans, Hittites, Kallikuks, and so forth are worthy of it.
And so it continues for 313 singularly winsome pages of reminiscence, in which a small boy’s life in the Golden Age of American cities is chronicled under such typically Menckenian headings as “The Caves of Learning,” “Recollections of Academic Orgies,” “Memorials of Gormandizing,” “First Steps in Divinity,” “In the Footsteps of Gutenberg,” and “Recreations of a Reactionary.”
The tempo changes from andante to allegro con brio in Newspaper Days, as the scene shifts from the row houses, alleys, and back yards of Union Square to the raucousness of the newsroom, and Mencken memorializes his adventures as police reporter, city hall reporter, and Wunderkind editor on the old Baltimore Herald. It was, Mencken believed, “the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth. At a time when the respectable bourgeois youngsters of my generation were college freshmen, oppressed by simian sophomores and affronted with balderdash daily and hourly by chalky pedagogues, I was at large in a wicked seaport of half a million people, with a front row seat at every public show, as free of the night as of the day, and getting earfuls and eyefuls of instruction in a hundred giddy arcana, none of them taught in schools.” The narrative of that experience, in which, as Mencken put it, he laid in “all the worldly wisdom of a police lieutenant, a bartender, a shyster lawyer, [and] a midwife,” is one of the greatest invitations to journalism ever issued; it also includes, en passant, the social and political history of a major American city at the turn of the century, including an account of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 that is as uncannily accurate as it is amusing.
But it is when Mencken is “writing at the top of his lungs,” as the editors of Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work put it, that he is most, well, Menckenian. Our age fancies that it invented the newspaper op-ed page and the celebrity columnizer, but for more than forty years, Mencken was a columnist in the Sun and elsewhere, and some of his most irresistible prose is found in these gems of daily and weekly journalism.
Thus Mencken on “Gamalielese,” the dotty language of Warren G. Harding’s inaugural address:
On the question of the logical content of Dr. Harding’s harangue of last Friday, I do not presume to have views. . . . But when it comes to the style of the great man’s discourse, I can speak with . . . somewhat more competence, for I have earned most of my livelihood for twenty years past by translating the bad English of a multitude of authors into measurably better English. Thus qualified professionally, I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is, he 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 . . . of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
(The New York Times, serenely unaware-as ever-of its terminal pomposity, countered editorially that “Mr. Harding’s official style is excellent. Its merits are obvious. In the first place, it is a style that looks presidential. It contains the long sentences and big words that are expected. . . . In the President’s misty language the great majority see a reflection of their own indeterminate thoughts.” To which Mencken replied, “In other words, bosh is the right medicine for boobs.”)
Or, in a more mellow vein, try Mencken on Al Smith in 1928:
It is difficult to make out how any native Marylander, brought up in the tradition of this ancient commonwealth, can fail to have a friendly feeling for Al Smith in the present campaign. He represents as a man almost everything Maryland represents as a State. There is something singularly and refreshingly free, spacious, amiable, hearty, and decent about him. Brought up in poverty, and educated, in so far as he got any education at all, in the harsh school of the city streets, he has yet managed somehow to acquire what is essentially an aristocratic point of view, the habit and color of a gentleman. He is enlightened, he is high-minded, he is upright and trustworthy. What Frederick the Great said of his officers might well be said of him: he will not lie, and he cannot be bought. Not much more could be said of any man.
Or Mencken on the sorry life of Presidents:
All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening solemnly to quacks who pretend to know what the farmers are thinking about in Nebraska and South Carolina, how the Swedes of Minnesota are taking the German moratorium, and how much it would cost in actual votes to let fall a word for beer and light wines. Anon a secretary rushes in with the news that some eminent movie actor or football coach has died, and the President must seize a pen and write a telegram of condolence to the widow. Once a year he is repaid by receiving a cable on his birthday from King George V. . . . There comes a day of public ceremonial, and a chance to make a speech. Alas, it must be made at the annual banquet of some organization that is discovered, at the last minute, to be made up mainly of gentlemen under indictment, or at the tomb of some statesman who escaped impeachment by a hair. A million voters with IQs below 60 have their ears glued to the radio: it takes four days hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Four dry Senators get drunk and make a painful scene. The presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.
Or Mencken, declaring himself for Al Landon in 1936 (and anticipating the circumstances of many Democrats forty-four years later):
Nevertheless, and despite all Hell’s angels, I shall vote for the Hon. Mr. Landon tomorrow. To a lifelong Democrat, of course, it will be something of a wrench. But it seems to me that the choice is one that genuine Democrats are almost bound to make. On the one side are all the basic principles of their party, handed down from its first days and tried over and over again in the fires of experience; on the other side is a gallimaufry of transparent quackeries, puerile in theory and dangerous in practice. To vote Democratic this year it is necessary, by an unhappy irony, to vote for a Republican. But to vote with the party is to vote for a gang of mountebanks who are no more Democrats than a turkey buzzard is an archangel.
Or Mencken, firing back at the Eastern Shoremen who were threatening a business boycott of Baltimore because his Evening Sun column had condemned the lynching of a black prisoner in Salisbury, Maryland, as “a public obscenity worthy of cannibals”:
A third item I lift from the celebrated Marylander and Herald of Princess Anne, a leader in the current movement to bust Baltimore by boycott: “One member of the mob took his knife and cut off several toes from the Negro’s feet and carried them away with him for souvenirs.” What has become of these souvenirs the Marylander and Herald does not say. No doubt they now adorn the parlor mantelpiece of some humble but public- spirited Salisbury home, between the engrossed seashell from Ocean City and the family Peruna bottle. I can only hope that they are not deposited eventually with the Maryland Historical Society.
Or Mencken, celebrating the rhetorical powers of the aforementioned Gerald L. K. Smith at the 1936 Townsend pensioners’ convention:
His speech was a magnificent amalgam of each and every American species of rabble-rousing, with embellishments borrowed from the Algonquin Indians and the Cossacks of the Don. It ran the keyboard from the softest sobs and gurgles to the most ear-splitting whoops and howls, and when it was over the 9,000 delegates simply lay back in their pews and yelled.
Or, finally, Mencken on the culinary differences between barbaric New York and epicurean Baltimore, c. 1918:
No civilized man, save perhaps in mere bravado, would voluntarily eat a fried oyster. . . . Down in Maryland, where the dish originated among the Negro slaves, it is to be had only in cheap lunchrooms and at what are called oyster-suppers, usually held in the cellars of bankrupt churches. The first-class hotels would no more serve it than they would serve pig liver. . . .
In New York, however, there is no such refinement of palate and dignity of feeling. I have seen fried oysters served in one of the most expensive hotels of the town, and the head waiter didn’t even put a screen around the table-which would have been done in Baltimore had a United States senator, a foreign ambassador, or some other untutored magnifico insisted upon having them. And in the so-called seafood eating houses, so I hear, they are dished up without the slightest question, and all the year ’round. Imagine a Christian eating a fried oyster in the summer!
Well, the people of New York do even worse; they eat Chesapeake soft crabs fried in batter! What is cannibalism after that? I’d as lief eat a stewed archdeacon.
In terms of sheer technical virtuosity, though, Mencken was arguably at his most impressive as a political reporter working under extreme deadline pressure during the “carnival of buncombe” of a national political convention. Thus HLM would look up from the press box in 1948, note the presence on the platform of the “uniquely slim and smartly clad” Mrs. Dorothy Vredenberg, secretary of the Democratic National Committee, murmur to his colleagues, “This is unprecedented,” and write that she had triumphantly defied the tradition that “lady politicians shall resemble British tramp steamers dressed up for the King’s birthday.” But my personal favorite is “The Wet Wets Triumph,” the dispatch Mencken sent to the Sun on June 30, 1932, describing the victory of the anti-Prohibitionist forces at the Democratic National Convention-a splendid piece of raillery (and a wholly accurate account of what actually happened) that only Mencken’s dourest enemies could resent:
Since one o’clock this morning Prohibition has been a fugitive in the remote quagmires of the Bible Belt. The chase began thirteen hours earlier, when the resolutions committee of the convention retired to the voluptuous splendors of the Rose Room at the Congress Hotel. For four hours nothing came out of its stronghold save the moaning of converts in mighty travail. Then the Hon. Michael L. Igoe, a round-faced Chicago politician, burst forth with the news that the wet wets of the committee had beaten the damp wets by a vote of 35-17. There ensued a hiatus, while the quarry panted and the bloodhounds bayed. At seven in the evening the chase was resumed in the convention hall, and four hours later Prohibition went out the window to the stately tune of 934 3/4 votes to 213 1/4, or more than four to one. So the flight to the fastnesses of Zion began.
But even down there where Genesis has the police behind it, and an unbaptized man is as rare as a metaphysician, the fugitive is yet harried and oppressed. Only two States, Georgia and Mississippi, showed a solid dry front on the poll, and in Georgia there were plenty of wets lurking behind the unit rule. All the other great commonwealths of the late confederacy cast votes for the immediate repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act, led by Texas with its solid forty-six, and South Carolina with its solid eighteen. Even Tennessee, the Baptist Holy Land, went eighteen dripping wet to six not so wet. Taking all the Confederate States together, with Kentucky thrown in, they cast 165 votes for the forthright and uncompromising plank of the majority and only 123 for the pussyfooting plank of the minority. In the Middle West the carnage was even more appalling. Kansas voted 12-8 for the minority straddle, but Iowa went the whole hog with loud hosannas, and so did North Dakota, and so did Indiana and Illinois. Even Ohio, the citadel of the Anti-Saloon League, went over to the enemy by 49-2, and Nebraska, the old home of William Jennings Bryan, voted nearly two to one for rum and rebellion.
All of which suggests that Alistair Cooke was right that Mencken, hunched over his battered Corona typewriter with an Uncle Willie’s cigar jammed into his mouth, was “the master craftsman of daily journalism in the twentieth century,” and that Mencken would be best remembered as a great American humorist.
Critics have argued for decades over the source of Mencken’s distinctive imagery, rhythms, viewpoint, and vocabulary. Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick, and Bradford Jacobs, three Mencken scholars who edited Thirty-five years of Newspaper Work, suggest that HLM’s principal inspirations and models were Mark Twain, Finley Peter Dunne (of “Mr. Dooley” fame), George Bernard Shaw, and Will Rogers. But, ultimately, Mencken’s irresistibility is a function of the fact that he was, and remains, a stylistic original. Nothing that came before him was ever like him; and no one since has been able to pull off the “Mencken style” quite like the master. The impossibility of successfully imitating him (as demonstrated, for example, by R. Emmett Tyrrell) is the best posthumous evidence for Mencken’s striking creativity as a writer.
Fred Hobson begins his Mencken: A Life by suggesting that Mencken, the man, has “never been adequately explained.” The author’s hopes notwithstanding, I fear that this remains the case even after Hobson’s book. As noted before, Hobson had an advantage over such earlier biographers as the historian William Manchester and the University of Maryland’s Carl Bode, for he had full access to the personal papers, diaries, and memoirs that Mencken put under time-lock; but Hobson most frequently deploys these materials not to give us a more capacious and pyschologically complete picture of the many facets of HLM, but to lift the window shades on Mencken’s extracurricular love life.
Hobson does advance our understanding of Mencken’s demons (and energies) in one crucial respect: he explores in sympathetic detail the adolescent struggle with his father that Mencken let fall through the autobiographical cracks between Happy Days and Newspaper Days. August Mencken, a successful cigar manufacturer, was determined that his eldest son Henry should follow him into the family business-a trade for which HLM, who desperately wanted to be a newspaperman, was singularly ill-equipped. Hobson reports that the seventeen-year-old Mencken once contemplated suicide in despair of ever breaking free of his father’s will. (It seems to me more likely that he would eventually have rebelled, confronted August, and gone his own way-a possibility made moot by August’s sudden death at age forty-four, when young Henry was eighteen.) But that Mencken’s relationship with his father, whose basic political, social, and religious attitudes he shared, was a volatile compound of affection and deep resentment, Hobson seems to have established rather persuasively. It is an interesting commentary on Mencken’s sense of familial propriety that one gets no sense of the drama that had just unfolded, nor the struggle that had preceded it, from the breezy opening lines of Newspaper Days: “My father died on Friday, January 13, 1899, and was buried on the ensuing Sunday. On the Monday evening immediately following, having shaved with care and put on my best suit of clothes, I presented myself in the city-room of the old Baltimore Morning Herald, and applied to Max Ways, the city editor, for a job on his staff. I was eighteen years, four months, and four days old, wore my hair longish and parted in the middle, had on a high stiff collar and an Ascot cravat, and weighed something on the minus side of 120 pounds. I was thus hardly a sight to exhilarate a city editor.”
Hobson adds another intriguing piece to the puzzle when he suggests that a pronounced class-consciousness was a mainspring of Mencken’s personality. As we have seen, Mencken could poke fun at his own roots as a “larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie.” But for all the good humor about his extended family that permeates Happy Days, Mencken had a deep-set family pride (especially in the academic accomplishments of his noble German forebears); and he was painfully aware of his own lack of formal education at the hands of “the brethren who expounded literae humaniores,” as he once put it. Moreover, and for all the china that got broken in his writing, Mencken was determined to make his mark as a man of solid accomplishment in the world-and thus he took satisfaction in later life from becoming a member of the boards of directors of both the Sunpapers and the Knopf publishing house.
Professor Hobson drives the class analysis a bit too hard when he locates Mencken’s antipathy toward FDR in HLM’s alleged belief that Roosevelt was a class traitor; Mencken’s libertarianism, and Roosevelt’s slipperiness, were sufficient reason for Mencken to loathe the New Deal, its politics, its moral pretensions, and its sundry coercions and propaganda campaigns. Still, the notion of Mencken as a man convinced that the proprieties of the middle (and, indeed, upper-middle) class were all that lay between him and chaos is an intriguing one, and may even help us understand some of the paradoxes that Hobson posits as distinguishing Menckenian characteristics: the anti-Victorian who in many respects led a decidedly Victorian life; the anti-American who defended the singularity (indeed, upper-middle) class were all that lay between him and chaos is an intriguing one, and may even help us understand some of the paradoxes that Hobson posits as distinguishing Menckenian characteristics: the anti-Victorian who in many respects led a decidedly Victorian life; the anti-American who defended the singularity (indeed superiority) of American speech; the author of that blistering critique of the South, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” who did more than any other editor to foster the Southern literary renaissance during the 1920s.
But even here, important elements of Mencken’s complexity seem to elude Hobson’s analysis. For if we are to understand the essential Mencken primarily in class terms, as a self-made bourgeois determined to preserve his hard-won respectability, then what are we to do with what Murray Kempton once called Mencken’s “social outrage,” which was captured in his 1924 column endorsing Progressive Party candidate Robert W. LaFollette over against John W. Davis and Calvin Coolidge?
There remains the Wisconsin Red, with his pockets stuffed with Soviet gold. I shall vote for him unhesitatingly and for a plain reason: he is the best man in the running, as a man. . . .
Suppose all Americans were like LaFollette? What a country it would be! No more depressing goosestepping. No more gorillas in hysterical herds. No more trimming and trembling. Does it matter what his ideas are? Personally, I am against four-fifths of them, but what are the odds? They are, at worst, better than the ignominious platitudes of Coolidge. . . .
The older I grow the less I esteem mere ideas. . . . There are only men who have character and men who lack it. LaFollette has it. . . . He is devoid of caution, policy, timidity, baseness-all the immemorial qualities of the politician. He is tremendous when he is right, and he is even more tremendous when he is wrong.
Similarly, Hobson’s prism of class does little to illuminate what Joseph Epstein describes as Mencken’s exuberant iconoclasm and its appeal to the young across the barriers of class, race, and ethnicity. Thus, in his 1979 Mencken Day lecture at the Pratt Library, Epstein reminded his audience of HLM’s impact on the young Richard Wright, as recounted in his autobiography, Black Boy.
That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that?
. . . Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. . . . Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon. No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.
Mencken liked to describe his distinctive vocation as that of a “critic of ideas,” and it is perhaps the greatest of the paradoxes of Mencken’s literary life that his more formal philosophical, theological, and political speculations have worn poorly, though he believed them to be among his finest efforts. In a letter to James Branch Cabell explaining his intellectual scheme for the American Mercury, Mencken wrote that the new magazine would espouse “an educated Toryism,” of the “true Disraelian brand.” But how does Toryism, of any sort, square with Mencken’s unmitigated belief in the inevitability of progress, especially scientific progress? Why did a man so preternaturally skeptical of all other claims to puissance (as he might have put it) maintain such a positivist cast of mind? And how did his positivism square with the gentler side of Mencken’s religious agnosticism?
These may be questions of interest to only a few, however, and their lack of resolution need not interfere with anyone’s enjoyment of Mencken’s writing. After all, do we care all that much about Mark Twain’s anti-Catholicism, Finley Peter Dunne’s theory of the virtues, or Will Rogers’ epistemology? Mencken’s lasting reputation is built on his reporting, his philology, his skills as a memoirist, and his work as an editor-a role in which he had, arguably, his greatest influence on American letters.
Here, too, alas, Hobson is something of a disappointment. He skips very lightly indeed over the surface of Mencken’s literary criticism (where, according to Kempton, we find the “best Mencken,” the first American critic to win the respect of Joseph Conrad); and there is nothing in Hobson to match the detail of Carl Bode’s analysis of Mencken’s two great magazine projects, the Smart Set and the American Mercury, in Bode’s 1969 biography, Mencken. Nor does Hobson sufficiently explore Mencken’s incapacities as a political prognosticator.
On a more personal level, Hobson hints at, but never finally resolves, the puzzle of what appears to have been Mencken’s essential loneliness. Why did he work so obsessively? Why did he party so hard, or struggle so assiduously to keep his friendships green? Why did he fall so quickly and completely into the pattern of the happy bourgeois husband during the brief five years of his marriage to Sara Haardt? One need not delve into what Mencken himself once described as “Freudian sewage” to detect a lonely man whose boisterous good spirits, iconoclastic public personality, and inimitable style of writing were in some part strategies to keep the demons of loneliness at bay. Perhaps loneliness is, in some measure, every writer’s burden: no matter how wide one’s circle of friends and colleagues, one is all alone when one picks up the pen or strikes the first letter on the keyboard. (I think it was another felicitous stylist,
E. B. White, who said that before he sat down to write, he always had one dry martini, “for courage.”) But however ubiquitous the problem may be among the scriveners, Mencken seems to have suffered it to a painful degree.
The question of Mencken’s religious views-indeed, the question of whether he was in fact an anti-Christian bigot-was raised anew when Garry Wills defended the progressive, populist Bryan against the elitist, Social Darwinist Mencken in Wills’ revisionist reading of the celebrated Scopes “Monkey Trial.”
It may help, in assessing these charges, to remember that Garry Wills has been perfectly happy to use, indeed celebrate, Mencken when it suited his political purposes. Wills’ contemptuous blast at the suburban-bourgeois Spiro Agnew, in Nixon Agonistes, is built around citations from Mencken’s 1933 obituary column, “The Coolidge Mystery.” Moreover, in his discussion of the Scopes affair, Wills failed to inform the readers of Under God that Mencken actually defended the right of the State of Tennessee to pass a law prohibiting the teaching of Darwinism in state-funded classrooms. Indeed, one suspects that what really cobs Garry Wills is that the Scopes Trial, and the interpretation of it that Mencken helped fix in the American mind, marked the end of the alliance between evangelicalism and “progressive politics.” (Bryan’s campaigns, Wills writes approvingly, had been “the most leftist mounted by a major party’s candidate in our history.”) For Garry Wills, such current enemies of civilization as Ralph Reed are thus to be blamed on Mencken.
Certainly more generous, and I believe more balanced, is Joseph Epstein’s defense of Mencken against the charge of callous elitism:
In an odd way it was the common man, so regularly bilked by his clergymen, journalists, professors, politicians, in whose defense Mencken wrote. . . . Homo boobiens was, well, boobien, precisely because he fell-time and again, and yet again-for shoddy mental goods that made his life less good than it might have been, even under the restrictions of the tragic view. . . .
What is more, whenever Mencken registers what might be construed as an objectionable or cruel opinion, one can count on discovering . . . acts of particular kindness that contradict that opinion. He attacks religion, for example, then enters into friendships with nuns and ministers; he relentlessly mocks the pursuit of men by women, then, in middle life, himself marries a woman whose death within a few years is certain. No evidence of envy or unseemly ambition is to be found in the record of his life. Although he did his best to hide it, The Holy Terror, the Bad Boy of Baltimore, appears to have been a very good man.
Perhaps Mencken’s most succinct, and yet most telling, discussion of religious conviction comes in a letter he wrote to Marion Bloom, whom he came close to marrying on several occasions in the 1920s. In the wake of her experiences as a nurse in World War I, Marion had become a devotee of Christian Science, a choice of sect guaranteed to set Mencken’s teeth on edge. In trying to pry her loose from the shackles of “Ma Eddy,” Mencken wrote, in a letter in 1921:
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. That is, they pretend to explain the unknowable. As I said long ago, they do it in terms of the not worth knowing. . . . Anyone who pretends to say what God wants or doesn’t want, and what the whole show is about, is simply an ass. . . .
In other words, the objection to religion is that it represents an effort by ignorance to account for a mystery that knowledge simply puts aside as intrinsically impenetrable.
Throughout his mature life, Mencken insisted that he was not an atheist (for such a judgment would require a knowledge that was beyond “sound thought”) but rather an agnostic. Asked once what he would do if on his death he found himself facing the twelve apostles, he answered (and in this instance we may be sure that beneath the humor lay deep convictions about intellectual honesty), “I would simply say, ‘Gentlemen, I was mistaken.'” Imagine Carl Sagan saying such a thing about the possibility of his encounter with a postmortem minyan, and you begin to understand the difference between the agnostic Mencken and the true village atheist.
None of this is to deny that Mencken regularly made mock of religious convictions and practices. But he did it with a deftness and, in most cases, a good humor in which was rarely found the arrogance of sheer contempt. Moreover, Mencken was not insensible to the allure of religion or to religious contributions to what he regarded as the world’s meager stock of decency. Thus Mencken on Roman Catholicism in 1923 (and in what some will regard as virtually a prophetic mode): The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astonishing imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem. . . . Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry in Christianity; it has made capital additions to that poetry-for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, and of the liturgy itself. A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermons ever roared under the big-top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone. . . .
[But the Roman] clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. . . . If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that the faithful may be convinced by it.
Any serious analysis of Mencken’s religious views must also contend with his deep disdain for theological liberalism, his intuition (subsequently vindicated) that the quest for “relevance” would make a wreck of mainline Protestantism, and his defense of the dignity of the anti- modernist position articulated for years by J. Gresham Machen, whom he memorialized as “Dr. Fundamentalis” in the Evening Sun of January 18, 1937:
The Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D.D., who died out in North Dakota on New Year’s Day, got, on the whole, a bad press while he lived, and even his obituaries did much less than justice to him. . . .
What caused him to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.
Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. . . .
It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. . . .
What the Modernists have done . . . [is] to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. . . . Religion is something else again-in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mud-upbringing. Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Muhammad. He failed-but he was undoubtedly right.
According to his own explicit instructions, Mencken had but the barest of agnostic funeral rituals, with merely a few friends and relatives gathered to bid him farewell before he was cremated and his ashes deposited next to Sara’s in Baltimore’s Loudon Park cemetery. But his sister Gertrude, with whom he had lived for years and for whom he retained a considerable (if occasionally exasperated) affection, was a pious lady of Episcopalian persuasion, and in her brother’s memory she gave a gold chalice and paten to her parish, the Little Church of the Ascension. Some will regard this as an utterly quixotic gesture. I think Mencken would have appreciated it as an act of authentic familial piety, and perhaps as something more.
For if Mencken was the intrinsically lonely man suggested by Fred Hobson’s biography, then his incapacity for, but appreciation of, the poetry of faith was doubly tragic. And this Menckenian, who believes that the old man did meet the twelve apostles in the early hours of January 29, 1956, would like to think that they-understanding the tragedy full well, honoring his frank acknowledgment of an invincible ignorance, and knowing his history-invited him in for a beer.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.