Mencken the Great

Shawn Lyttle, a colleague at Spy Briefing Books, did a very dangerous thing yesterday. He shoved into my hand a little book called Three Early Works, by H.L. Mencken. I opened it and felt that whooshing sound of my brain being sucked into the delirious world of the greatest American sociologist.

For anyone who loves liberty and ideas, Mencken is impossible to put down. As you read, you feel your internal constitution change. It is exhilarating and transforming. You sense that you are thinking hard for the first time in a long time. With him as your guide, you throw off conventions that surround us. You feel liberated, prepared for new things, renewed in spirit, defiant, courageous.

So there went my evening. I had a thousand other things to do, but instead, I couldn’t stop reading this material written almost 100 years ago. The writing is fresh and wonderfully reckless, like a banned document newly come to light.

On culture, Mencken was a highbrow elitist who understood lowbrow tastes like no one else. On politics, he was an anarchist in spirit who regarded democracy as the world’s most idiotic political system. On religion, he considered the whole thing to be hokum designed to sustain myths we want to believe, yet he maintained deep and lasting friendships with high church officials. On life in general, he loved liberty with a deep and burning passion, and it is this point that makes his work so inspiring.

If you were not both delighted and outraged as you read anything he wrote, he would consider himself a failure. How did Mencken do it? How did he write so much dazzling prose that holds up so long after it was written? Where did he get his insight? How did he manage to write so well? One more telling question: In our times of hypersensitivity and opinion conformism, how does it come to be that it is still legal to read this stuff?

The three early works in print in this one book here are A Book of Prefaces (1917), Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918) and The American Credo (1920). The first shows that he was a first-rate literary critic, probably the greatest ever. This man was a genius scholar, even though he never taught in a university. He was a journalist at a time when there were high standards attached to that word.

In this first work, he writes about Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, James Huneker and “Puritanism as a Literary Force,” which set the whole literary tone of the next decade. These are the works that caused a whole generation to fall down in awe. He didn’t attract fans by saying what people wanted to hear. He never curried favor. He never bowed to convention. Quite the opposite. He is alarming, unsettling, unexpected, outrageous. In this way, he pioneered what came to be called literary criticism.

The next book is hilariously subtitled A Book of Calumny. A calumny is an unflattering comment that is false but passed on anyway. By calling these 49 essays in this book calumnies, he immediately evades the criticism that what he is saying is untrue and wicked. In truth, most of what he is saying is both true and wicked. The essays are about a page long, sometimes only a paragraph. They are so rich and pithy that you nearly have to stop after reading each one — stop just to absorb his point, arguing with him in your mind, contemplating the implications of what he is saying.

The final section is his book called The American Credo. It consists of 488 small sentences that Americans believe about the world. There is no way to read even a few without laughing out loud. In fact, I disturbed a roomful of quiet lounge patrons in this very nice hotel by involuntarily emitting loud yelps of delight. After even the servers started glaring at me, I realized that if I was going to keep reading this, I was going to have to move to another venue.

I’ll just offer some of his whimsical musings completely randomly. Americans believe:

  • That when one takes one’s best girl to see the monkeys in the zoo, the monkeys invariably do something that is very embarrassing
  • That something mysterious goes on in the rooms back of chop suey restaurants
  • That oil of pennyroyal will drive away mosquitoes
  • That the old ladies on summer hotel verandas devote themselves entirely to the discussion of scandals
  • That every circus clown’s heart is breaking for one reason or another
  • That a bullfighter always has so many women in love with him that he doesn’t know what to do
  • That the music of Richard Wagner is all played fortissimo, and by cornets
  • That the Masonic order goes back to the days of King Solomon.

And so on through all 488 of them. From them, you get a great picture of the American mind as it stood in 1920. Mencken poked fun constantly and uproariously at Americans — while at the same time absolutely loving American culture. It is an interesting balance. He helps us understand ourselves and laugh at ourselves, while inspiring a discomforting level of internal criticism.

Readers should not skip the introduction to this third section. Here is a brilliant contribution to understanding the big picture. Read the following and remember that we are talking about 1920:

The American of today, in fact, probably enjoys less personal liberty than any other man of Christendom, and even his political liberty is fast succumbing to the new dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious. Laws limiting the radius of his free activity multiply year by year: It is now practically impossible for him to exhibit anything describable as genuine individuality, either in action or in thought, without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty. It would surprise no impartial observer if the motto “In God we trust” were one day expunged from the coins of the republic by the Junkers at Washington, and the far more appropriate word, “verboten,” substituted. Nor would it astound any save the most romantic if, at the same time, the goddess of liberty were taken off the silver dollars to make room for a bas-relief of a policeman in a spiked helmet. Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.

Please permit me to quote his observation on the core of the American spirit, a point that explains the total disorientation that has affected the young generation today:

But what, then, is the character that actually marks the American — that is, in chief? If he is not the exalted monopolist of liberty that he thinks he is nor the noble altruist and idealist he slaps upon the chest when he is full of rhetoric, nor the degraded dollar-chaser of European legend, then what is he? We offer an answer in all humility, for the problem is complex, and there is but little illumination of it in the literature; nevertheless, we offer it in the firm conviction, born of 20 years’ incessant meditation, that it is substantially correct. It is, in brief, this: That the thing that sets off the American from all other men, and gives a peculiar color not only to the pattern of his daily life but also to the play of his inner ideas, is what, for want of a more exact term, may be called social aspiration. That is to say, his dominant passion is a passion to lift himself by at least a step or two in the society that he is a part of — a passion to improve his position, to break down some shadowy barrier of caste, to achieve the countenance of what, for all his talk of equality, he recognizes and accepts as his betters. The American is a pusher. His eyes are ever fixed upon some round of the ladder that is just beyond his reach, and all his secret ambitions, all his extraordinary energies, group themselves about the yearning to grasp it…The American is violently eager to get on, and thoroughly convinced that his merits entitle him to try and to succeed, but by the same token, he is sickeningly fearful of slipping back, and out of the second fact, as we shall see, spring some of his most characteristic traits…Such a thing as a secure position is practically unknown among us. There is no American who cannot hope to lift himself another notch or two, if he is good; there is absolutely no hard and fast impediment to his progress. But neither is there any American who doesn’t have to keep on fighting for whatever position he has; no wall of caste is there to protect him if he slips. One observes every day the movement of individuals, families, whole groups, in both directions. All of our cities are full of brummagem aristocrats — aristocrats, at all events, in the view of their neighbors — whose grandfathers, or even fathers, were day laborers; and working for them, supported by them, heavily patronized by them, are clerks whose grandfathers were lords of the soil.

Do you see, then, how much Mencken truly loved this country? He loved this country and hated its government, especially because he saw what the government was doing to the American culture and to the core spirit of his times.

His times are our times. Mencken speaks as powerfully to us as he did to his generation. That is why it is a good idea to read as much Mencken as possible — before doing so is made illegal.

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