Skip to content

H.L. Mencken: The Great Prose Stylist

June 26, 2013

Mencken

The greatest American prose stylist of the twentieth century, if alive today, would be as anonymous as the author of the hieroglyphics at Giza, with one difference: at least the guy chiseling on the Sphinx was allowed a public forum, whereas our guy would never even get into print. If a modern publication ever did allot him a column, it would not be long before he was hanging from the end of a noose, or at least be on the receiving end of a cable TV pundit’s wagging finger. In fact, he always thought that a public execution awaited him even back in the less politically correct times of the Twenties. His name was Henry Louis Mencken.

H.L. Mencken expressed his controversial opinions for fifty very public years as a literary and political critic, as an expert on the American language and as a memoirist, all in prose so outrageous as to be satirical-proof. Walter Lippmann put it best: “He calls you a swine, and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live.” One of our most perceptive literary critics, the late Joseph Wood Krutch, when all was said and done, cast his vote with Mencken as “the best prose written in America during the twentieth century.” Robert Frost seconded that motion. It was a style so original that, however much studied and taken apart, one finds it hard to reassemble it to be used in one’s own literary arsenal. There are many who have tried to duplicate Mencken prose, but all have had to settle with an approximation. For instance, his two primary imitators today are P.J. O’Rourke and Joe Queenan, and even they sometimes have to give a direct quote from Mencken, as if, in the end, they have no choice but to throw up their hands and defer to the master.

He was the editor of two influential magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury, where he was able to publish writers of a similar bent, though less eloquent. That bent was skeptical, unsentimental and, above all, rife with humor. There was no absolute truth (only fools believed in its existence), and thus the game was a matter of style. Criticism should be interesting, not so much right, since he “was skeptic enough to believe that some other fellow’s notions may be quite as sound as my own,” as “there is always a certain amount of truth in every attack, however dishonest.”

H.L. Mencken was a man who, even when young, appeared to be fifty years old. His hair was parted in the middle to form a parenthetical set of cowlicks. He had light blue eyes situated above bags with enough adipose tissue to keep the fat lady at the circus in business till the next show in Des Moines. He was a hearty drinker and eater of Germanic blood food, especially on Saturday nights, with the resulting florid countenance. He had the large ears of a World War II veteran staggering along in a Memorial Day parade. His physique was more Humpty Dumpy than Herculean, the result of a lifetime of sitting at a desk. He was a raging hypochondriac, though a true victim of hay fever each year from August to October, during which time his blue eyes turned a miserable red. He had the aspect of a self-satisfied old German burgher forever amused by the simian masses.

He was born in 1880 in Baltimore and lived there all his life until his death in 1956. His grandfather had immigrated to Maryland from Germany and started a tobacco company, which Mencken’s father inherited with the intention of handing it down to Henry. But the heir apparent seemed more interested in books, starting at the age of nine when he first read Huckleberry Finn – a book he would remain loyal to all his life, taking it off the shelf once a year for the next fifty years. Papa Mencken became alarmed by this artistic trend in young Henry and so sent him to the local YMCA for physical training, which had the opposite effect of making the future Henry despise “all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.” Dad then enrolled him at the Polytechnic Institute for scientific training, where he finished number one in his class. In secret, he continued to dream of a literary career.

At eighteen, one day after burying his father and, with him, the obligation to join the family cigar business, he got a job at the Morning Herald. His first published sentence was simple and to the point, setting the tone for his subsequent career: “A horse, a buggy and several sets of harness, valued in all at about $250, were stolen last night from the stable of Howard Quinlan, near Kingsville.” He would remain a working newspaperman in Baltimore until his last piece appeared in The Sun in 1948.

If the whaling industry served as Herman Melville’s Harvard and Yale, then the same can be said of Mencken and his first “three gaudy and gorgeous years” in the newspaper trade. When he was not “covering Aframerican razor-parties,” there were the political high jinks that were forever going on at City Hall. He saw his first hanging just six months into the job, and what is more, “a hanging of the very first chop.” Then there was his stint as the paper’s dramatic critic, opening up another world, one that ran the gamut between competent artistry and straight up charlatanism. He became acquainted with every stratum of society, drinking one night with the town’s elite and the next with alcoholic pressmen.

Just as whaling is romantic and instructive as long as it is done when young, so Mencken was smart enough to get off the city beat at twenty-two and move into the editorial side of the business. At twenty-four, he was the youngest managing editor in the country. Meanwhile, he was striking out in other directions as an author. His first book was a study on the playwright George Bernard Shaw, and his second, at the age of twenty-six, on Nietzsche. It was the research and thinking that went into the latter book that would solidify the Mencken style and the ideas that would animate all of Mencken’s future work. Mencken’s take on Nietzsche was that ethical systems are created by people, not gods, to rationalize short-term contingencies, which then outlive their usefulness by becoming religious institutions. Christianity was a religion for slaves to help them feel right about their condition. Now that slave mentality is the cornerstone of America, the strongest and richest nation in the world. Life should not be lived in faraway dreams, but faced head on with no delusions, as a man. People in this country wish for security first and freedom second, being that “liberty puts them on their own, and so exposes them to the natural consequences of their congenital stupidity and incompetence.” To Mencken, aristocracy is natural to man, as some men are better than others – a fact – and thus the elite should be encouraged to flex their power and talent, not be dragged down by Mr. Average Democratic Man.

During World War I, Mencken got a first-hand (and bitter) taste of censorship. He hated the idea of the Christian Crusader of a U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, leading the nation into a fight that was none of our business, and all to save the world for democracy. Also, it was his beloved Germany, the land that spawned Goethe, Beethoven and Nietzsche that was being promoted as the agent of evil, when England was the most sadistic imperialist power since Rome after Marcus Aurelius. Thus the democratic newspaper world shut him down for the duration of the conflict. That is when he put the time to good use and brought out his first edition of The American Language. This would grow over the years to be the main authority on how the English tongue evolved on our side of the Atlantic to become, in some instances, an almost different idiom.

Then, after Versailles, it was back to attacking the American booboisie – and with a vengeance. In 1924, he started his own magazine, The American Mercury, and was its editor and main contributor until 1933. This was the Mencken era when Lippmann called him “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people.” Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises, fretted that so “many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken.” Edition after edition, Mencken rained down upon the republic his unfavorable and stinging opinions concerning Methodists and their love child, Prohibition. His influence began to wan with the ascension of FDR and the end of Prohibition, and then it was back to working on The American Language. There also followed, between 1939 and 1943 during another bout of censorship for his anti-British views, his Days books, three collections of biographical sketches that are considered masterpieces of the genre.

The one constant throughout his adult life, from 1902 to 1950, was the Saturday Night Club. Mencken was an amateur musician, a piano player, who, at the age of twenty-two, began getting together with friends of the same inclination to make music and to afterward repair to the lounge to drink beer. In time, more and more guys began showing up with the instrument of their choice in hand until this weekly event became an institution, a time when professional men could reach catharsis. In the middle of a certain naughty song — while hammered out of their minds — they would yell out the clinching refrain: “Cried the eunuchs, Give us balls!”

One of the reasons that Mencken would now be a voice heard only within his own mind was that he had no problem criticizing three of the major grievance mobs now combing the political hills of America: minorities, women and gays. Blacks would be calling for retribution because Mencken used terms like “Aframerican razor-parties.” Jewish people would be sticking the label of anti-Semite on every inch of his body and thus making him a journalistic pariah for commenting on the Jewish boys from his youth in Baltimore who, “in that innocent era, were still palpably and unashamedly Jews, with Hittite noses, curly hair, and such given names as Aaron, Leon, Samuel and Isaac.” Or imagine the uproar from the ladies on reading Mencken claim that women “take a heavy, unhealthy pleasure in suffering; they like to picture themselves as slaughtered saints.” – or that love “is the delusion that one woman differs from another.” Then there would be the gay marriage fans hurling bile at Mencken for his getting straight to the point about his “loathing for homos…”

These utterances would perhaps have made him at least popular with the conservative majority were it not for the fact that he was much more biting — if not contemptuous of — American patriots, Prohibition era Rush Limbaughs and democratic man in general. There can be no other inference to be drawn when reading that “the United   States is essentially a commonwealth of third-rate men.” – or that, far from this being the home of the brave, “an American army fairly representing the American people, if it ever meets another army of anything remotely resembling like strength, will be defeated, and that defeat will be indistinguishable from rout.” The average American is only “fit for lynching-bees and heretic hunts, but he is not fit for tight corners and desperate odds.” George Bush would be lopping him with the Axis of Evil. As for democracy, it “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” – it is “a form of religion. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.” — which helps explain why “W” was ever allowed to become president in the first place. He even went so far as to promote monarchy as a better system, since born aristocrats would “not have to grimace and cavort before the mob in order to get and hold their offices.”

The extreme rightwing would be even more ready to stand outside his row home at 1524 Hollis Street with torches and rope. To Mencken, such groups as the KKK were so much “wizards, goblins, mastodons and imperial duodenums,” a club that was just another “device for organizing inferiorities into a mystical superiority.” He relegated the entire South to “an almost complete blank” in terms of culture, calling it the “Sahara of the Bozart,” where the people are “imitative…cheap, ignorant, almost idiotic” and regard life through the narrow prism of “moral certainties,” not as the “agreeable adventure” it is to a healthy, skeptical man. The Arkansas Senate twice passed a resolution calling for Mencken to be deported from the country.

As to the American farmer, the sacred cow of hardcore Republicanism, Mencken reserved his heaviest arsenal. He called our average tiller of the land, with his “dung-fork” glittering in the sun, “grasping, selfish and dishonest,” a “prehensile moron,” who took full advantage of his immunity from any kind of criticism to receive every tax break and government handout known in a democratic society, and never, unlike the occasional CEO, being indicted on such large-scale theft.

In today’s America, Mencken would not even be able to find refuge in academia, being that he would sooner hug a politician than join the staff of a college. To him, a professor was someone “devoted to diluting and retailing the ideas of his superiors,” a man who was “not an artist, but almost the antithesis of an artist. He is learned, he is sober, he is painstaking and accurate – but he is as hollow as a jug.” Every Mencken idea started with his knowledge of human nature, which was gleaned not from books on psychology, but rather from those first three years as a reporter in Baltimore. Thus he could no more footnote one of his generalizations than write a stale sentence, both of which would have disqualified him from tenure at a university. Yet his The American Language is a masterpiece in academic scholarship, heavy with footnotes on the objective roots of the native idiom.

In modern America, what would perhaps have united blacks, Jews, woman, patriots, farmers, professors, KKKers, politicians in one big grievance block against Mencken was his opposition to all religion. Amidst the present din of “God Bless Americas,” there would be Mencken, in all his Nietzschian iconoclasm, calling every last good and religious person a child ruled by fear, a slave, a believer in ghosts, someone “devoid of sense and indifferent to common honesty,” with “the delusion that the law of the survival of the fittest may be repealed by an act of Congress.” Imagine the relief Louis Farrakhan and Sam Brownback would feel to be for once in the same camp, strong in their denunciation of this godless man with the German name. They would work to remove him from the public forum, to silence him so that he would never again air such despicable opinions – that is, if he did not first step forth and apologize for his words.

But Mencken would never apologize for free speech. If there was one category in which to fit Mencken, it was that of an extreme libertarian. His credo was that he should be permitted to write or say what he wanted, and so should everyone else, including his worst detractors, “anarchists, Socialists and other such fools.” In fact, in his Monday column, he would on occasion give space to the most virulent of the things written about him, whether from noted public figures or common folk sending letters to the paper. At one point, in 1928, he collected the best (or worst) of the lot and had them published in a book called Menckeniana: A Schimflexicon. His one rule was that debate be conducted in a civilized manner. Thus a man should “fight in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour proper by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest – and perhaps, after all, right.” That was free speech.

His vibrant writing style was a direct result of making hard and direct hits – no yawning qualifiers. Today, Mencken would consider it bad craftsmanship, to say nothing of timid presentation, to preface every statement with a solemn bow to the heroes of 9/11. Journalism 101: say what you mean, and get there via the shortest route. To cut through the cant and cliché that grows like genetically engineered ivy throughout the modern media, it would be necessary to be blunt and use the true meaning of words, regardless of how they may offend this or that splinter group. It is the reader’s job to sift for hidden meaning and intention, and if he disagrees, then he is entitled to answer in language just as concrete. Only in this way does an issue reach clarification.

The way Mencken followed an idea to its end, with no remorse, though it often led to unflattering comments on blacks, Jews and women, also resulted in flat out praise for these groups. The last article that Mencken ever wrote was on the injustice of the Baltimore public tennis courts being closed to black citizens. He once called out the elitist Baltimore City Club because it had ejected the black poet Countee Cullen from a hotel due to skin color. In The American Mercury, he gave a national forum to black writers like James Weldon Johnson and George Schuyler. The great black novelist Richard Wright was inspired to overcome Jim Crow on the day he came upon a Southern editorial calling for the death of one H.L. Mencken. The seventeen-year-old Wright thought that anyone so denounced by the white man must be a champion of the Negro. This prompted him to seek out Mencken’s books, which, in turn, guided him to the NaturalistSchool of literature and onward to a new and better life.

The cliché that “some of my best friends are Jews” really did apply to Mencken, as the two most important male relationships in his life were with Jean Nathan (his longtime co-editor and literary twin) and Alfred Knopf (whom he helped get started as a publisher). More important, he was urging democratic nations as early as 1938 to give refuge to Jews from Nazi Germany – this at a time when FDR would not even acknowledge the problem.

As for women, he once wrote a book entitled In Defense of Women. The brunt of it was that women are harder to fool than their “weak, silly and knavish” male counterparts, and this has to do with a woman’s “superior intelligence.” It was Mencken who championed the young lady novelist Willa Cather and helped bring her to international renown. He was a noted bachelor who, at fifty, surprised the world by marrying Sara Haardt, also a writer of superior talent (no domestic slave for this gentleman), a woman he worshipped and nursed and who died five years later. But all this was just one more facet to a brilliant, complex mind – and nothing confuses modern man more than the gray areas of a man’s gray matter.

Two of Mencken’s immediate disciples, Gore Vidal and Alistair Cooke, grew into old men allowed to maintain their contrary stance for the same reason that senile Uncle Frankie can voice his pigheaded opinions at family reunions – they became institutions rendered harmless through time. Both men, in their dotage, agreed that if the master were still alive and writing, he would not be permitted the same respect. Vidal said that, in politics, Mencken “is often right but seldom correct by today’s stern standards.” Vidal lamented that publications had begun calling Mencken to the carpet for things he confided in his diary (“HE DID NOT LIKE JEWS”). We live in an era when “private irritability is of no consequence when compared to what really matters, public action.” Cooke believed that since Mencken had the unique talent for pissing off both sides of any issue, nobody “knew where to have him.” This was bad enough in the open society of the Twenties, but now such all-purpose thrashing would be taboo in the corporate-owned media. What demographic would be left to foot the advertising bill?

The newest biography of Mencken is by Washington Post journalist, Terry Teachout. He says that those who comment nowadays on Mencken fall into two camps, either “frankly hostile critics or those admirers who find his philosophy sympathetic but shrink (often quite properly) from its implications in the real world of action and ideas.” He says further that however much the long dead Mencken has faded into becoming a classic, “he has not lost his sharp corners and jagged edges.” In other words, one of my best friends is Henry Mencken, but…he will not be writing for my publication…and I hope he understands, what with our not wanting to upset the Moral Majority, the NAACP and Nashville.

In 1948, Mencken suffered the ultimate cruelty – a cerebral thrombosis that left him unable to read or write. But he stuck to his principle to treat life with serene joviality and never uttered a word of bitterness. He would even provoke conjecture among friends about the exact day when he would sprout wings. That day came in 1956. Everyone could finally agree on one thing – that there would never again be another H.L. Mencken.

Mencken, in a 1921 issue of The Smart Set, had written his own epitaph. It reveals him in all his mischievous generosity, and reads: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.” On another occasion, when asked what he would do if there really was a God and, worse, a Judgment Day, Mencken answered that he would stand before the Throne, toss back his head, and say: “Gentlemen, I was wrong!”

(Check out my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: