The New Mencken Letters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

ph_0111206380-Mencken.jpg H. L. Mencken Published by Salem Press, Inc.

H. L. Mencken was a giant of American letters who, when a stroke ended his career in 1948, was quietly declared a nonperson. The worlds of literature, journalism, politics, religion, and social commitment all heaved a sigh of relief and, by common consent, agreed to forget him. Their tribute is unjust but understandable. For nearly half a century he had been their conscience, and he was easily the most uncomfortable hair shirt any of them had ever worn.

Mencken was first of all an independent and disconcertingly logical thinker. He was in addition an iconoclast with an outrageous and extravagant sense of humor, who viewed organized man with vast intolerance; and he was too monumental to ignore. His humor is as robust as Mark Twain’s; the two men were similar in many ways. Both rebelled against a Puritan heritage they partially embodied; both saw the human comedy as a farce; both loved exaggeration and practical jokes; both had a keen ear for dialect and for the music of American language; both had an unerring ability to see hypocrisy in places where it was most neatly camouflaged and to give it the ventilation it deserved. Perennial skeptics and acute observers of our civilization, their influence on it has been extensive. That Twain retains his popularity is due to his fiction; his organized admirers tend to disregard much of his social commentary because it makes them vaguely uncomfortable.

As an individualist, Mencken was and is incomprehensible to the group-oriented. To him, as to Twain, the race consists principally of fools manipulated by charlatans; he could see no mystical virtue in either. Group behavior puzzled and fascinated him. Mencken considered it axiomatic that when human beings organize, they automatically discard reason and logic altogether, and he was at his diabolical best when producing evidence that the mob had left its brains at home. For that matter, it is only necessary to view with detachment any committee meeting, rally, crusade, campaign, or convention in order to recognize that Mencken had his point. Involvement in ritualized activity requires acceptance of both its rational and irrational elements; commitment requires blind obedience, and reason is quickly replaced by emotion. Mencken considered such abdication an absolute proof of insanity. He observed that idealism is the great curse of humanity, and government its greatest failure.

Mencken seldom attacked individuals unless they were manipulators and shapers, and he spared the weak and defenseless; but he delighted in taking potshots at idols. Since the group and the idol are often synonymous, he was fond of offhand references to them in the terms they found most irritating. To Mencken, identity based on ethnicity, religion, politics, or social theory is false identity because it does not derive from the person as an individual human being unless that person introduces the concept. And even then, however laudable the idea, it is seized upon by others and—in Mencken’s perception—made the basis of a cult. The priesthood takes over. Since all aggregates of leaders and followers do partake to some extent in cult activity, all have idols they hold sacred and do not question. About these they are sensitive, and in consequence vulnerable to logic and humor. Mencken did not endear himself to any of them.

Liberal critics dismiss Mencken as a bigot and a low comedian because of the ethnic and other slurs he bestowed so casually, and because he characterized their idols as quacks. Ironically enough, they also dismiss him as a hypocrite because, in spite of generalities they consider defamatory, he performed many acts they would normally admire. He defended the rights of unpopular individuals who came from groups he derided; assisted and encouraged others; and fought against prohibition and censorship. He corresponded with various minority figures and was on amiable terms with many of them. He advocated humane treatment outside prison walls for criminals who might be rehabilitated—but he also recommended swift elimination of the incorrigible. To the liberal mind, Mencken is guilty of glaring inconsistency; however, he is not. This impression is merely the reflection of his uncomfortably logical brand of common sense. Mencken respected only the individual, and even among individuals he observed the principle of Twain’s distinction between the two kinds of Christians, professing and professional.

Obviously no liberal, Mencken was not a conservative either. He considered organized religion, patriotism, and the Puritan ethic monstrous aberrations, and he looked upon the world of commerce with cynical disfavor. War was the ultimate lunacy. A person of Teutonic background who enjoyed German life and culture, he remained openly sympathetic to Germany throughout World War I; and although he viewed the Nazi movement as he did all other movements—that is, obnoxious—he found it difficult to accept reports of the excesses...

(The entire section is 2026 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

America. CXXXVI, June 25, 1977, p. 571.

Booklist. LXXIII, February 1, 1977, p. 784.

Commentary. LXIII, April, 1977, p. 784.

New Republic. CLVI, March 12, 1977, p. 31.

New York Times Book Review. December 19, 1976, p. 3.

New Yorker. LII, January 31, 1977, p. 82.

Saturday Review. IV, February 5, 1977, p. 34.