A brush with the Sage of Baltimore.
For better or worse, I am a child of the Plains, and so my first experience with H. L. Mencken was less an introduction than a confrontation. I first learned of the Sage of Baltimore during his cameo appearance in a Great Plains history course, at the University of Nebraska. Henry Mencken considered us part of a large and ever-growing species he called homo boobiens, my professor explained. Wedged between the Omaha race riots and the Agricultural Marketing Act of ’29, Mencken showed up during the Scopes Monkey Trial to wield his pen against William Jennings Bryan, whom he described as “one of the most tragic asses in American history.” What a dick, I thought. I liked him immediately.
I liked him so much that I bought The American Language, the pillar of his bibliography, and never touched it again. Unaware of my purchase, my girlfriend gave me a copy of the same book as a gift, but not before gluing the pages together and carving out the middle to camouflage my secrets. Later I purchased a used copy of The New Mencken Letters and schlepped that 635-page tome around wherever I went, reading a letter or two here and there, recklessly quoting from it in term papers.
From the letters, I became smitten with Mencken’s verbal gymnastics, his apparent refusal to say something plain when it could be said with the cocksure verbosity of a Southern lawyer. Perhaps, too, I was charmed by that most convenient of facts: he was dead. Had Mencken still been alive, I have no doubt I’d have raised my guard, but that is the gift of hindsight. Instead I accepted him the way he accepted himself, disregarding the imperfections—of which, I would later find out, there were many.
By the time I stumbled upon Prejudices, a selection of Mencken’s essays, at a used bookstore in Lincoln, Nebraska, I felt as if I’d known the cigar-chomping wise guy for years, even though I hadn’t read a word of his professional canon. My respect for him was hardly reciprocated. About Nebraska, my home state, he had made himself very clear: “I don’t give a damn.” Mencken judged me with the smirk of a haughty equestrian, spun me around, tied my shoelaces together, and encouraged me to walk with him. He called me a boob, said it was okay, said that we children of the corn couldn’t be expected to understand the rich intellectual life along the Potomac, or better yet, across the Atlantic.
Flipping eagerly among the essays, I was aware that Mencken, like the Boobus Americanus he lampooned, had never attended college himself. In fact he rarely left the confines of Baltimore, and spent much of his adult life living with his mother and eating her sandwiches. In 1928, Irving Babbitt accused Mencken of “intellectual vaudeville,” and more recent critics have labeled him a philistine, but it didn’t matter to me. The show had already started, and his ridicule, in a way, seemed a privilege. I felt like the drunk at a comedy club, asking to be called out.
It’s not that I always agreed with him. His essays were often filled with half truths that were at once poignant and utterly pessimistic. Mencken once wrote that he drank exactly as much as he wanted, “and one drink more.” A similar doctrine seemed to animate his writing: Mencken always takes the argument one step further, always lobs another one-sided anecdote, always takes another jab at this politician or that writer. For every quip that strikes the bull’s-eye, there’s another that falls short, skews right, or misses entirely. Often you find yourself searching for his thesis beneath piles of contradiction and qualification. Walter Lippmann, writing for The Saturday Review of Literature in 1926, may have put it best:
You have to judge him totally, roughly, approximately, without definition, as you would a barrage of artillery, for the general destruction rather than for the accuracy of the individual shots. He presents an experience, and if he gets you, he gets you not by reasoned conviction, but by a conversion which you may or may not be able to dress up later as a philosophy.
I had spontaneously responded to Mencken’s style, but I also felt that I was walking on thin ice. I worried that if I were called upon to defend certain of his arguments, I’d fall short, or worse, find myself forced to disagree. (His belief in social Darwinism terrifies me.) And yet I was wont, as many fans are, to defend Mencken anyway. I was taken by his disregard for authority and mediocrity, and by the ballistic energy with which he denounced them. He may have been wrong, but, damn, it sounded right. The ride was everything.
Meanwhile, the world marched on without me. In China, prodemocracy activists rallied outside Hong Kong’s legislative buildings. Closer to home, protesters flooded the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager. A grand jury failed to indict. The protests multiplied: Berkeley, Brooklyn, D.C., even here in Lincoln, less than a mile from my apartment.
Looking to catch my breath, I cracked Mencken’s Prejudices once again. In truth, it felt good to focus on something else, something I wasn’t expected to have formed an opinion about already. In “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism,” a comic essay—one of his most focused—first published in 1917, Mencken argues that the critic should serve as a “catalytic” between the artist and the spectator. If the spectator were “spontaneously sensitive” to a work of art, he wrote, “there would be no need for criticism.”
Mencken’s vaudeville act sustains itself throughout the collection, but the further I read, the less removed I began to feel. Past his antiquated literary critiques and his roast of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the essays seemed relevant to the rallies I’d just returned from. Looking for an escape, I instead found a searing commentary on contemporary affairs, a voice every bit as righteous as the Sunday reformers flooding my news feed.
“Every time an officer of the constabulary, in the execution of his just and awful powers under American law, produces a compound fracture of the occiput of some citizen in his custody, with hemorrhage, shock, coma and death, there comes a feeble, falsetto protest from the specialists in human liberty,” he wrote in “The Nature of Liberty,” a bitter Juvenalian satire. “Is it a fact without significance that this protest is never supported by the great body of American freemen, setting aside the actual heirs and creditors of the victim? I think not.”
A white police officer had killed an unarmed black man. The man’s name was Michael Brown. The man’s name was Eric Garner. Reading Mencken’s essays, it seemed time had finally caught up—or maybe circled back around—to him. Who wouldn’t picture Darren Wilson, the police officer in Ferguson, with his close-cropped hair, his blue uniform, and silver badge? Who wouldn’t consider the tens of thousands of Americans who took to the streets toting hand-drawn signs and chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
Mencken, po-faced, called these protesters radicals and Bolsheviks, “men standing in contempt of American institutions and in enmity of American idealism.” They protest alone, he wrote, because—and here’s the first hint of his satirical intentions—most Americans aren’t foolish enough to believe that the Bill of Rights were meant to be taken literally. Through “legislative science” and “the even more subtle and beautiful devices of juridic art,” the document lost its spine and saw its guarantees diluted. It evolved into something much more malleable, less a legally binding document than a set of ten rough ideas. Should you disagree, Mencken said, you reveal your ignorance of the basic principles of American jurisprudence, which are demonstrated time and again in our nation’s highest courts.
Never breaking from this tongue-in-cheek routine, he condemned human-rights protests as “florid appeals to sentimentality.” Instead, he advocated for the very corruptions he had just exposed, “the checks and remedies superimposed upon the Bill of Rights by the calm deliberation and austere logic of the courts of equity.”
Injustice in America, he seemed to say, is systemic. The corruption of law is so engrained in our culture that only the perversely idealistic and monomaniacal would care to object. After the grand jury failed to indict Wilson, that word—systemic—dominated the national conversation. So germane did this essay and so many others in the collection feel that, despite their original context, I couldn’t help but read them with a contemporary lens.
The irony wasn’t lost on me, though I admit—taken as I was with the Mencken Show—that it took me a beat to catch on. Though Mencken routinely defended the civil rights of minorities in print, his diaries, which were only unsealed in 1981, exposed a man who was both patronizing toward African Americans and unthinkingly anti-Semitic. In an entry dated September 23, 1943, for example, Mencken complains that Emma Ball, his black maid, had a tendency to overpolish his hardwood floors. “It is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment into a colored woman,” he wrote. “They are all essentially child-like, and even hard experience does not teach them anything.” As for his anti-Semitism, Mencken routinely identified his peers as “clever” Jews or “highly dubious” Jews or, in the case of the Annenbergs in Philadelphia, “low-grade Jews.” Easier to blame an entire people than diagnose the individual, he seemed to think. “Mencken rose above many—even most—of the common prejudices and stereotypes of his day, and ought to have been able to rise above this one too,” writes Charles A. Fecher, the editor of The Diary of H. L. Mencken. “When all is said and done, there probably is no defense. One cannot ask that he be forgiven, or even excused. About all one can do is ask the reader simply to accept the fact and pass on.”
I did not forgive Mencken. I did accept him. And in acknowledging his many flaws, I was able to move past them, stirred by a bigot to rejoin the movement against bigotry.
When I finished Prejudices, I knew a few things for sure: that Mencken was greater than the sum of his parts, that my first impression was right—he was a dick—and that his essays still smolder today. I read through a few more of his letters, but eventually I moved on, and placed Mencken back on the shelf.
This should have been the end, but then, in January of last year, two masked gunmen forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly often accused of bigotry itself, and opened fire in the name of Allah. Twelve deaths. Eleven injuries. Because Charlie Hebdo relentlessly satirized the prophet Muhammad, because the magazine routinely practiced its right to offend, and because both shooters were Islamists, the first wave of pundits called the massacre an attack on free speech. The second wave agreed, though less resolutely, questioning the moral efficacy of a publication that would intentionally print sacrilege in the age of extremism. Regardless, millions worldwide raised their pencils in solidarity. Je suis Charlie.
Watching protesters march through the streets of Paris, with the unrest in Ferguson still fresh on my mind, it occurred to me that Lippmann was only half right. Mencken’s real significance did not lie in his “individual shots.” Nor was it in his ideas themselves. It came, rather, from his absolute and unwavering commitment to the First Amendment. Much like Charlie Hebdo, Mencken never abstained from the opportunity to lampoon, to ridicule, or to offend—even when he knew the result would be condemnation and disparagement. Spurred by tragedy, the masses had marched for one day in Paris. Mencken marched for a lifetime, at a rate of at least 100,000 words per year. Stubbornly, sometimes stupidly, he stood by them all.
Readers often wondered why Mencken stayed in America, disgusted as he claimed to be with its third-rate inhabitants. Mencken answered that question in the most Menckenian way:
Human enterprises which, in all other Christian countries, are resigned despairingly to an incurable dullness … are here lifted to such vast heights of buffoonery that contemplating them strains the midriff almost to breaking.
To be clear, he probably meant it. But I suspect that Mencken also knew, in a deeper manner than most, just how rare freedom of expression really is, and what it would mean to lose it. In the most American way, Mencken criticized his own country without the slightest hint of self-censorship, refusing to let that freedom atrophy.
In a review of The Skeptic, Terry Teachout’s 2002 biography, Hilton Kramer declared that Mencken’s many prejudices and historical blind spots made him “finally unforgivable.” He’s right, of course. There is no justifying the anti-Semitism and racism that his diaries so clearly reveal. But those who question the efficacy of satire often do so on the grounds that its target will invariably miss the point in a way that reinforces existing stereotypes. That assumes a certain degree of engagement to begin with. More than once, Charlie Hebdo and H. L. Mencken have missed the mark. So have most comics. (Most critics, too.) Nevertheless, it seemed to me that much more significant than Mencken’s bigotry—which he kept to his private letters—is what his published works provided the country in his prime, and what those today who choose to read him can still find.
The critic, Mencken writes in “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism,” “makes the work of art live for the spectator. He makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment—and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.” In Menken’s view, democracy was nothing if not a performance art. In that sense, he was a consummate critic, one who was perfectly equipped to wake the citizenry from its slumber. He made democracy live for the spectator; he made the spectator live for democracy.
Carson Vaughan is a freelance writer from Nebraska whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Slate, Smithsonian, and Travel + Leisure.