- Mencken: The American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
Oxford, 662 pp, £19.99, January 2006, ISBN 0 19 507238 3
‘We posture as apostles of fair play, as good sportsmen, as professional knights-errant – and throw beer bottles at the umpire when he refuses to cheat for our side,’ H.L. Mencken wrote of his fellow Americans. ‘We deafen the world with our whoops for liberty – and submit to laws that destroy our most sacred rights . . . We play policeman and Sunday-school superintendent to half of Christendom – and lynch a darky every two days in our own backyard.’
A few years later, after attending a national political convention dominated by ‘intellectual jellyfish’, he predicted that ‘on some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.’ Later still, as America stood on the verge of involvement in a foreign conflict, he warned against the ‘demagogues’ who would suppress dissent in order to push their war agenda:
Any argument against the war itself, and any criticism of the persons appointed to carry it on, will become aid and comfort to the enemy. The war will not only become moral over all, it will become the touchstone and standard of morality . . . It is not long afterward that anyone ventures to inquire into the matter more particularly, and it is then too late to do anything about it. The dead are still dead, the fellows who lost legs still lack them, war widows go on suffering the orneriness of their second husbands, and taxpayers continue to pay, pay, pay. In the schools children are taught that the war was fought for freedom, the home and God.
If you think you can hear in these passages the ringing tones of the progressive tradition extending from Mark Twain and William Dean Howells through Norman Mailer, Murray Kempton and beyond, you are mistaken. Mencken also wrote this:
The educated Negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a Negro. His brain is not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort; his ideals, no matter how laboriously he is trained and sheltered, remain those of a clown. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilisation. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.
The Jews could be put down as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilised man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom.
All progress goes on on the higher levels . . . This, indeed, is at once the hallmark and justification of a genuine aristocracy – that it is beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.
A little Mencken goes a long way. He was meant to be taken in the bite-sized pieces of a newspaper editorial or a magazine think-piece: in the Baltimore Herald and the Baltimore Sun, for which he wrote during the first forty years of the last century; or in the pages of Smart Set, which he edited with George Jean Nathan during the 1910s and early 1920s; or its successor, the American Mercury, which he founded with Alfred Knopf’s backing in 1923. In that mode, and on that scale, he became one of the most influential writers in America, hated by some readers but loved by many and known to just about all. Certain of his sayings (‘Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence,’ for instance, or ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public’) have become so well known as to be frequently unattributed. Terms such as ‘the Bible Belt’ and ‘booboisie’ have entered the language – The American Language, as he called the successive editions of his most famous book. He was proclaimed ‘the late Mr Mencken’ by his detractors as early as 1933, when he still had more than two decades and many second acts ahead of him, and since his death in 1956 he has been repeatedly resuscitated by a series of champions.