- 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.
Reading his work in bulk is like being seated next to a passably clever, deeply narcissistic, slightly over-the-hill and increasingly drunk celebrity at a grand dinner party. You start by being pleased to have been invited, but soon find that you are having trouble keeping your expression in order, and end up leaving the table so as to avoid throwing the contents of your glass in the man’s face. As you are recuperating in the bathroom down the hall, you realise that he has been aiming for this reaction – goading you, provoking you, so that you will make a spectacle of yourself and thereby add to his reputation as a man whose anger can be relied on to fire up a dinner party.
I don’t fully understand the sources of Mencken’s anger, and Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, though she has written a balanced and formidably well-informed biography, does little to elucidate them. ‘Infancy, that nonage Mencken defined as the larval stage of his life, began for him on 12 September 1880,’ she tells us. ‘Of his earliest years nothing more need be said.’ Perhaps nothing more can be said because of an absence of materials, but I feel the need of more, especially since Mencken was to spend his whole life (except the five years of his marriage) in the house where he grew up, at 1524 Hollins Street, Baltimore. Until he was 45, he lived there with his mother, Anna Abhau Mencken, whose death just before Christmas in 1925 for ever poisoned that holiday for him. As to any direct influence Anna may have had on her son’s writing, we have only the evidence of the answer she gave a reporter who’d asked her about one of Mencken’s columns: ‘I haven’t read it. I never read anything he writes. That’s his business.’ But we do know that she shared Mencken’s enormous pride in his German heritage, his antipathy towards the lower-class elements that were bringing down Baltimore property values, and his deep-seated sense that there was something innately superior about him.
From his father, who died when he was 18, came an even more complex inheritance. August Mencken ran a successful cigar factory into which he duly inducted his eldest son, Henry Louis, at the age of 16 – first as a junior employee, eventually as a rising executive. Had his father not died when he did, Mencken would no doubt have suffered many more miserable and wasted years before he could turn his talents to journalism, the career he’d always wanted. August, who was overtly mourned but probably covertly hated, passed down to his son his agnosticism, his worship of Great Men, his pernicious racial attitudes, his sense of being a born aristocrat (the German branch of the family boasted connections to Bismarck), his careless way of dealing with women, and above all his strange but not unusual combination of the authoritarian and the contrarian. The furious individualism the two men had in common prevented the son, at least, from ever aligning himself with the more liberal or radical movements that might have shared some of his iconoclastic views. It was doubtless thanks to his father’s influence that we hear in Mencken’s scolding tones something of the manner, if not always the matter, of a modern-day right-wing radio talkshow host.
Everything that was to define the essential Mencken had been established by 1900, when he was 20. If he loved Nietzsche when he subsequently discovered him (and he did love Nietzsche, much as King Kong loved Fay Wray – brandishing him threateningly before the American public, squeezing all the sense out of him, so that it would take years before Nietzsche could be read as written), it was because he found there what he was determined to find, the confirmation of his own ‘prejudices’. Mencken was immensely fond of that word, and used it as the title of his six successive collections of critical essays, all of which presumed that a critic’s only responsibility was to display himself and his ideas in his writing. It never seemed to occur to this enemy of conformity that one man’s prejudices might be another man’s received ideas. He built an intellectual trap for himself from which it was impossible to escape.
To Mencken, it seemed clear that everything important in a man – or a woman, although he was not interested in Greatness in women – had been there since birth. This was true even for something as seemingly instruction-based as music, the art which Mencken, with his passion for hierarchies, ranked above all others. ‘Of all forms of the uplift, perhaps the most futile is that which addresses itself to educating the proletariat in music,’ he said in a 1919 Smart Set essay. Musical taste, he insisted, cannot be acquired: ‘Either it is born in a man or it is not born in him.’ It was born, apparently, in Beethoven, Mencken’s favourite and most often cited Great Man; and, by implication, it was born in the man who could appreciate Beethoven. It was definitely not born in those who made or appreciated jazz. In Mencken’s view,
the Negroes of our own South, who are commonly regarded as very musical, are actually only rhythmical; they never invent melodies, but only rhythms. And the whites to whom their barbarous dance-tunes chiefly appeal are in their own stage of culture. When one observes a room full of well-dressed men and women swaying and wriggling to the tune of some villainous mazurka from the Mississippi levees, one may assume very soundly that they are all the sort of folk who play golf and bridge.
It is difficult, in such passages, to be sure when Mencken is kidding and when he isn’t. He did, it’s true, despise golf and bridge, which he viewed as the standard recreations of the American haute booboisie. But he also knew that a hatred of golf and bridge had become a kind of flag he could wave in order to amuse his fans (and, no less important, irritate his enemies). Much of his humour is of this flag-waving type: he puts his well-known personality on display and expects us to find it as appealing as he does.
If you compare Mencken’s humour, though, to that of someone who is truly funny (like Mark Twain, a writer he enormously admired), his shortcomings are readily apparent. Mencken’s jokes are always self-serving: they elevate the humorist and those who think him funny at somebody else’s expense, generally a mass of less intelligent somebodies. When he says, ‘I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind,’ he seems to be straining towards Twain’s comedic misanthropy, but the strain is too evident, the whole thing too forced. Besides, whatever his dark views about mankind (and they were legion), Twain would never have descended to such unadorned snobbery; his nastiness was more nuanced, his feelings more ambivalent. When he chose to be venomous, he did so in the guise of a folksy charm – a ploy Mencken would never have used, for fear of seeming stupid and rural. Twain knew how to pick his targets, too. His few brief paragraphs on the self-righteously moralistic Miss Watson, who tried to save Huck Finn’s soul, offer a far sharper and wittier view of the ‘civilising’ female than all the faux-solemnities of Mencken’s grotesquely unfunny In Defence of Women.
Rodgers devotes a number of pages to the ill-conceived Defence, and reprints a long passage in which Mencken celebrates the charming effect of a woman’s conversation. The lady in question has ‘a soft, low-pitched, agreeable voice’ that talks of anything and everything, but ‘No politics. No business. No religion. No metaphysics. Nothing challenging and vexatious.’ The female chatter is so gentle and soothing that the male listener eventually falls into a light sleep, from which he intermittently wakens to hear her still talking. This is Mencken’s idea of heaven: ‘I ask you seriously: could anything be more unutterably beautiful?’ Needless to say, this was meant to provoke, and Rodgers duly quotes one of the feminist responses, a rather ponderous satire by Helen Jerome. But Rodgers herself remains silent on the subject.
In fact, Rodgers’s silences are the strangest aspect of this biography. Sometimes they are speaking silences, for example, when she uses one short sentence to end a chapter about Mencken’s passionate love affair with a Hollywood actress: ‘In Hollins Street that summer, Mencken took a page of Sun copypaper, put it in his typewriter, and began to write about “the sweet and dreadful passion of love. It is as tenderly personal and private as a gallstone.” Then he crossed it out.’ But more often they are just silences, in places where another biographer would have let us know what she thought. Whether this is a matter of literary inexperience or clever tactics is something I haven’t been able to figure out.
Rodgers is clearly fond of the old curmudgeon, but she doesn’t let this prevent her from seeing him clearly. The racist comments I quoted come mainly from her pages; on the other hand, she goes out of her way to describe the friendships he had with Jewish and African American journalists, and she documents in detail the extent to which he promoted fiction by black and female writers in the pages of Smart Set and the American Mercury. She is eager to let us know about his strong position against censorship and in favour of the Bill of Rights; his solid support for Sacco and Vanzetti; his brave opposition to America’s excessive religiosity, particularly in its fundamentalist forms; his championing of the pro-Darwin position at the time of the Scopes trial; his powerful attacks on lynching, especially when it took place close to home. Mencken was against patriotism, against Prohibition, against Mother’s Day – so far, an excellent hater.
But he was also duplicitous, and Rodgers catches him out. He faked the news at least twice, in ways that were so blatant and unprofessional they make Jayson Blair look like a rank beginner. He two-timed his girlfriends. He lost old friends thanks to his often despicable opinions, and he inspired vengeful hatred in at least one much exploited employee. When he was editor, the American Mercury failed to discover many of the best writers of his day, even as it failed to cover most of the political movements of his time. He misread Hitler completely, spoke in support of Germany long after it was tenable to do so, and persisted in discounting all reports of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. He despised labour unions, engaged in ferocious Red-baiting, and waged a monumental, unremitting, nearly maniacal campaign against Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal – a retaliatory act set off, at least in part, by what he perceived as a presidential slight to his self-regard. In sum, Rodgers presents him as a petty man as well as a brilliant and powerful one, a charmer beset by a multitude of flaws that often made him quite uncharming.
Rodgers is among the very few women who have written at length about Mencken; she is also one of the first Mencken biographers to come from a generation born after he died. Both of these factors might have been expected to lend detachment, not warmth, to her portrait. What counters that detachment is her evident identification with Sara Haardt, the woman Mencken liked enough to marry. ‘In 1981,’ Rodgers tell us in the acknowledgments,
two weeks before my graduation from Goucher College, while I was researching the papers of alumna Sara Haardt, I literally tripped over a box of love letters between her and H.L. Mencken. Taped to the top of the collection was a stern command, written by Mencken, that it was not to be opened until that very year. To say that my life changed course at that moment would be an understatement.
Rodgers went on to edit and publish these letters as Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters, and the project gave her an unusual perspective on this notoriously unregenerate bachelor who married for the first time at the age of 50. Her biography is strongest when it deals with Mencken’s love-life and she is particularly good on the marriage (it ended, after five years, with Sara’s death from tuberculosis and meningitis – when he married her, the doctors had given her only three years), but she is also attentive to the way Mencken both drew women close and held them off over the years.
One benefit that accrues to us from this special, almost wifely feeling about Mencken is that the account of his last years, the period between his devastating stroke in 1948 and his death in 1956, is quite moving. For a man who valued words and work above all, to be prevented from reading or even speaking properly was hell. He was sent the proofs of his final collection, but ‘when the galleys arrived, it was clear that though these were his words, try as he might he could not understand them.’ He continued to have his longtime secretary, Rosalind Lohrfinck, come to the house every day, but the only dictation she could take was a few broken sentences: ‘Whatever is printed in the newspaper I pass it quite easily.’ ‘My intellectual has gone completely, and it is a terrible thing.’ ‘I don’t seem to borrow much when I am sitting reading – that is to say, I don’t care ordinarily what the result of my decision is.’ He doesn’t mean ‘sitting reading’ but ‘sitting thinking’, Rodgers tells us, because he was unable to read at all after his stroke; and even his thinking was, by his own report, limited. So it is not surprising that he broke off to say to his secretary: ‘The doctors should have let me die in November. I’d have been much better off.’