Every age and nation has its characteristic absurdity. In turn-of-the-(20th)-century America, it was an earnest, officious, lower-middle-class, frequently Southern or Midwestern, mostly white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant respectability, whose exponents frowned on drinking, dancing, fornicating, freethinking, and many other forms of fun. H. L. Mencken was rather fond of fun. Above all, he was fond of baiting “Puritans,” as he (not altogether accurately) labelled his more pious and censorious countrymen. They were not amused, but a great many other, more open-minded and easygoing Americans were. Mencken’s omnidirectional iconoclasm was so successful that eventually he himself became highly respectable. The early decades of the century became known to historians as the Age of Mencken; in 1926 Walter Lippmann pronounced him “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people.”
Henry Louis Mencken, the son of a prosperous Baltimore cigar manufacturer, was born in 1880. His solidly bourgeois German-American parents gave him a comfortable, conventional, affectionate childhood; and young Harry liked Baltimore enough to spend his whole life there, nearly all of it in the same house. In his teens he was attracted by journalism – then a more hardboiled and romantic profession than it is now – and left his father’s cigar factory to become a cub reporter. By his mid-20s he was running the newsroom, and for the rest of his life he was connected with the Baltimore Sun in one capacity or another.
Mencken loved the police-and-city beat, which introduced him to a full cast of urban characters: cops, crooks, bartenders, prostitutes, clergymen, politicians, and hard-drinking, tough-talking fellow newsmen. The varieties of human greed, hypocrisy, venality, stupidity, bigotry, and sheer oddity fascinated and delighted him. Here were the main roots of his lifelong cheerful cynicism.
There were literary roots, too. Mencken was always a voracious reader. From
Twain he picked up a garrulous, slangy, mock-solemn style, as well as the harsh misanthropy that lay underneath. From Shaw (about whom Mencken wrote the first book by an American, published in 1905) he learned the rhetorical extravagance and rhythmic exuberance that drew the sting from outrageous opinions. And Nietzsche convinced him of the hollowness of most ideals and the futility of most people. All this might have made a sour brew but for Mencken’s antic good nature and the general sunniness of American life in the first decades of the 20th century. So instead of a great vituperator, he became a great entertainer.
Mencken stepped onto the national stage in 1908 as a columnist for the Smart Set, a forerunner of the New Yorker. In 1915 he took over the magazine, along with the legendary drama critic and man-about-town George Jean Nathan. Much of the Smart Set was amusing fluff, but Mencken’s criticism was substantial as well as lively, ranging over every aspect of American and European culture and politics (except World War I – he would have been prosecuted for his pro-German opinions). At the same time – Mencken was fabulously prolific – he was writing regular columns in Baltimore and New York newspapers.
In 1924 Mencken started another magazine, the American Mercury, in order to “attempt a realistic presentation of the whole gaudy, gorgeous American scene.” For ten years the magazine flourished, and then he and his readers grew tired of it. As Time said: “Its angry crusadings against provincialism, the Bible Belt, Rotarians, evangelists, puritanism, Prohibition and Babbitry in general became sufficiently successful to seem a little antiquated and unnecessary.”
From all these thousands of columns Mencken quarried several widely read and influential books: two large anthologies called “Chrestomathies,” six essay collections called “Prejudices,” and a further half-dozen volumes on ethics, religion, politics, literature, and women. His three-volume autobiography was immensely popular. Perhaps his greatest achievement was The American Language,” an encyclopedic treatise on the evolution of American English. Quantitatively speaking, he was a prodigious success.
And qualitatively? There is a sharp difference in quality between Mencken’s style and his thought. The style remains a marvel. Mencken’s prose cascades along like a force of nature: the verbal equivalent of the Columbia River before it was dammed. It has formal qualities, too: delicate balance, delicious inventiveness, and flawless comic timing. Here is a classic specimen, one of his most famous sentences, explaining why he was glad to be an American: “Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly – the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances – is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.”
Mencken as thinker is another matter. Edmund Wilson, though an admirer, acknowledged that “his ideas are not many, nor subtle.” Even Terry Teachout, whose splendidly judicious and discriminating biography is mainly sympathetic, calls him a “poseur” and a “philistine,” who “lived to exaggerate.” Mencken was a peerless debunker. But not everything he jeered at was bunk. Ridiculing Henry James, Isadora Duncan, Stravinsky, and Joyce, for example, only made Mencken seem ridiculous.
Ridiculing democracy and social reform made him something of a nuisance. Rulers don’t usually mind being made fun of by people who, at the same time, warn that no change for the better is possible. Mencken, the skeptic, had no patience with “democratic sentimentality.” “At the bottom of democracy … one always finds envy of the fellow who is having a better time in the world.” “The downtrodden … usually have their own follies and incapacities to thank.” Reformers are all charlatans, peddling one or another “sovereign balm for all the evils of the world.”
The distinction between a sovereign balm for all evils (i.e., quackery) and an adequate remedy for substantial evils (i.e., reform) should not have been, one would think, too difficult for someone of Mencken’s intelligence. But he was rarely serious or scrupulous enough to make it. Which may be why, as Teachout (a neoconservative) notes approvingly, “Mencken’s social and political views, long thought irreversibly outdated, have become a resurgent strain in American thought.” Yes, it’s true: Skepticism about the possibility of helping the less well off – especially if any significant expense to the better off is involved – does seem once again to be a keynote of American “thought.”