Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2120
On November 5, 1930, Henry Louis Mencken, the fifty-year-old “Sage of Baltimore,” began to keep a diary. By the time of his final entry, on November 15, 1948, eight days before the stroke that left him incapable of reading or writing during the final seven years of his life, Mencken’s...
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On November 5, 1930, Henry Louis Mencken, the fifty-year-old “Sage of Baltimore,” began to keep a diary. By the time of his final entry, on November 15, 1948, eight days before the stroke that left him incapable of reading or writing during the final seven years of his life, Mencken’s diary totaled about 2,100 typed, double-spaced pages. Under the terms of his will, the diary was deposited in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, sealed until twenty-five years after his death. It became available to scholars on January 29, 1981, but a label that Mencken affixed to each of the five wooden boxes in which he placed the diary stipulated that, even after twenty-five years, the material was “to be open only to students engaged in critical or historical investigation, approved after proper inquiry by the Chief Librarian.” In a rationalization worthy of Max Brod’s justification for saving the work of Franz Kafka and of the gratitude of any reader, the Pratt trustees authorized trade publication of Meneken’s diary. He had, after all, hired a secretary to transform each day’s scrawl into a typewritten essay. The diary was surely meant to be read, and, as edited by Charles A. Fecher, is a fascinating document of a particular time, place, and sensibility, part of a vast body of memoirs, letters, and essays that led Mencken, with only slight hyperbole, to marvel: “There is, indeed, probably no trace in history of a writer who left more careful accounts of himself and his contemporaries.”
Does it, however, qualify as public discourse? For all his zest for polemic, even Mencken’s published writings were soliloquies—if we are to believe his claim, in a 1939 entry, that he never writes except “to provide a kind of katharsis [sic] for my own thoughts.” The hefty volume culls almost one-third of the more than half a million words that Meneken recorded in the private journal he kept for eighteen years, simultaneous with prodigious activities as author, editor, lexicographer, and bon vivant. By 1945, Mencken estimated that he had published about ten million words, and his unpublished writings were almost as prolific. “Not many American authors will ever leave a more complete record,” claims the entry for June 1, 1942.
Mencken’s diary is a record of the affections and animadversions of one of the era’s most distinctive personalities, the self-anointed scourge of the “booboisie” whose pungent columns in the Baltimore Sun attracted a national following. He edited the influential magazine The American Mercury and undertook the ground-breaking linguistic study The American Language (1919; First Supplement, 1945; Second Supplement, 1948). A voracious and sophisticated reader in several languages, Meneken was also an amateur musician of some talent. For all of his cantankerousness and lifelong hypochondria, he was a very gregarious man, and his wide circle of acquaintances included notable writers, politicians, clergymen, scientists, and businessmen. He was reluctant to leave Baltimore, but his house on Hollins Street became an obligatory stop for many of the illustrious figures of the time. The diary includes trenchant observations on T. S. Eliot (“An amiable fellow, but with little to say”), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“He is a charming fellow, and when sober makes an excellent companion”), Theodore Dreiser (though Meneken championed his fiction when Sister Carrie was roundly reviled, he came to view his comrade as “an incurable lout”), and many others. Mencken remained a bachelor until the age of fifty, and the diary begins three months after his marriage to Sara Haardt. She was to die five years later, and some of the most moving entries express curmudgeon Meneken’s passionate, lifelong devotion to her memory.
“I am never much interested in the effects of what I write,” writes Mencken on November 29, 1939. Yet even he might be bemused by the sensational effect that publication of his diary created, by the hostile reaction to a crankiness that is now as fashionable as uncut pages. The published book seemed to many to authenticate rumors of a sinister private Mencken that had been circulating among scholars. Much of the response to the diary was preoccupied with a pattern of entries that seemed to many critics virulently racist.
In a gesture usually reserved to deplore the detention of a dissident poet, nine of the most distinguished authors in the United States signed a letter published in The New York Review of Books (March 15, 1990). The writers, two of them—Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller—Jewish and one—Ralph Ellison—black, proclaimed their “dismay at the overreaction to the Diary of H. L. Mencken.” Reviewers of the journal had tended to agree with the painful but unequivocal verdict of Charles A. Fecher; the book’s editor: “Mencken was an anti-Semite.” By contrast, the New York Review Nine celebrate Mencken as “a tremendous liberating force in American culture,” a man guilty of discourtesy but not bigotry. At stake is the reputation of the zestful scourge of the booboisie, the icon of American iconoclasm. As with the CBS suspension of Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes for injudicious remarks about blacks and homosexuals, reactions and reactions to reactions to Mencken raise the question of whether candor or decorum is more crucial to public discourse.
If the index to The Diary of H L Mencken had included the category “Jews,” they would have taken over the neighborhood at the back of the book, as scarcely a month goes by without some reference to them. When Mencken, an immensely convivial misanthrope who broke bread and lances with extremely varied specimens of homo boobiens, makes a new acquaintance, often the first, sometimes only, trait he notes is whether or not he is a Jew. Lawrence E. Spivak, who joined the staff ofThe American Mercury in 1933, is introduced in the diary as “a young Harvard Jew.” Philosopher George Boas is summed up as “a brisk, clever Jew,” his wife Simone as “a French Jewess.” The first thing we learn about an actress Sinclair Lewis has taken up with, even before her name, Marcella Powers, is that she is “a young Jewess.” The publisher who wins a lawsuit against Theodore Dreiser is merely “a Jew named Pell,” as though his Jewish identity is all one needs to know. Mencken explains Catholic opposition to the Little Blue Book series published by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius as provoked by a title that attacked the Church, though he himself insists:
“My own objection to Haldeman-Julius is that he is a highly dubious Jew.” He dismisses the Annenbergs, publishers of the Philadelphia Inquirer, as “low-grade Jews.” Of Bernard Smith, sales manager for Alfred A. Knopf, we are told: “He, too, is a Jew, and, moreover, a jackass.”
Such phrases concede the existence of “high-grade Jews” who are neither dubious nor jackasses, just as the reference to Simon E. Sobeloff, Baltimore city solicitor and later solicitor general of the United States, as “a smart Jew” implies that there are stupid ones. What is remarkable about Mencken’s attitude, however, is not whether he despised or adored Jews in general or individually but rather his acute sensitivity to whether or not someone was a Jew. He mentally dressed every Jew he met in a Star-of-David patch, not for purposes of extermination but simply classification. Thus, foreign correspondent H. R. Knickerbocker is a challenge to Mencken’s categorical filter: “He was born in Texas and is the son of a Protestant preacher, but he looks decidedly Jewish.” Richard E. Danielson is identified by negation: “R E. Danielson, who is not a Jew, now appears as associate editor of theAtlantic and as president of the publishing company.” Neither was Danielson a Mafioso, a marsupial, nor a Mohawk, but Meneken is mum about that.
Though he declined induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and other honors, Mencken, who had a voracious appetite for good beer, savory food, and congenial company, was a clubbable man, during an era in which no aspiring politician feared embarrassment over membership in a club that refused blacks, Jews, or women. Meneken explains, without censure, how the Maryland Club, to which he belonged, excluded Jews. Yet Jews were also included within his circle of friends, among them Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Felix Frankfurter, and George Jean Nathan. Some of his best friends were indeed Jews, though he was not above vile ethnic epithets, as when he refers to two Baltimore businessmen as “dreadful kikes.” Yet Mencken seems genuinely offended by Theodore Dreiser’s anti-Jewish remarks and repulsed by evangelist Gerald L. K. Smith’s preparations “to get aboard the great anti-Semitic movement now rolling up in New York.”
Over the years, the Saturday Night Club, which met weekly at a Baltimore restaurant in order to eat, drink, make music, and—Mencken’s favorite synonym for talk—“palaver,” admitted a few Jews. “We had two Jews among the members, a Czech, and Americans of widely varying views,” states Mencken, as though “Jew” and “American” were mutually exclusive categories. For Meneken, Jews were an alien species and not necessarily an odious one, in fact not nearly as repulsive as “the only pure Anglo-Saxons left in the United States”—the rural poor whom he encounters on vacation in Roaring Gap, North Carolina, and whom he reviles as “wretchedly dirty, shiftless, stupid and rascally people.” By the relativity of rant, Mencken might almost qualify as a Judeophile, and, in a 1919 essay, he even bloviates that “the Jew, intrinsically, is the greatest of poets.”
He is certainly more favorably disposed toward Jews than toward the ocean, about which he complains: “When it is not menacing it is banal,” or Moby-Dick, which he dismisses as “an extremely overblown and windy piece of writing.” His inexhaustible venom toward Franklin D. Roosevelt—“He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes,” writes Mencken the day after the president’s death, adding that Roosevelt “was the first American to penetrate to the real depths of vulgar stupidity”—is more virulent than anything he ever directs at a Jew. Though some anti-Semites blamed World War II on the Jews, Mencken held Roosevelt—“a fraud from snout to tail”—personally responsible for duping the United States into entering an abhorrent conflict.
For Mencken, a Jew, jackass or genius, is the Other, and liberal, universalist Jews will probably be more offended by that stigma than proud Semitic tribalists. For better and worse, Mencken was unable or unwilling to assimilate the many Jews he met to the category of “American.” But neither was he able or willing to do that for himself. Of German descent, Mencken suffered through two world wars in which Germans were vilified as dangerous aliens in the United States. Jews were also outsiders, but, heirs as well to the European culture that Mencken, too, cherished, they were the Other whom Mencken probably recognized as his Doppelgdnger. One of the most telling and poignant passages among all of the diary entries is the one for August 27, 1942. In the depths of World War II, a conflict he ridiculed as “the great effort to save humanity and ruin the United States,” an opinion that further estranged him from the American public, Mencken speculates about what his life would have been like if his grandparents had not immigrated to the United States:
I believe my chances in Germany would have been at least as good as they have been in America, and maybe a great deal better. I was bom here and so were my father and mother, and I have spent all of my 62 years here, but I still find it impossible to fit myself into the accepted pattems of American life and thought. After all these years, I remain a foreigner.
That is an extraordinary confession of Verfremdung from the man who, even if now unread, even if—like fellow lexicographers Samuel Johnson and James A. H. Murray—remembered more for a quirky personality than any particular text, remains unchallenged for the title of greatest journalist in the United States. His acute sensitivity to Jews reflects Mencken’s own sense of marginality. The acute sensitivity of critics, many of them Jews, to the many Jewish references in his posthumously published diary might have provoked him to declare, as he did, in fact, in an April 24, 1934, letter to attorney and painter James Rosenberg: “I begin to believe that the whole world is mashuggah.”
Sources for Further Study
American Heritage. XL, December, 1989, p.14.
Chicago Tribune. December 17, 1989, XIV, p.1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 14, 1990, p.3.
The Nation. CCL, February 19, 1990, p.242.
National Review. XLII, February 5, 1990, p.47.
The New Republic. CCII, February 19, 1990, p.31.
The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, June 28, 1990, p.41.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, December24, 1989, p.3.
Newsweek. CXIV, December 18, 1989, p.66.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, December 1, 1989, p.45.
Time. CXXXIV, December 18, 1989, p.49.
The Washington Post Book World. XIX, December 10, 1989, p.3.