The New Mencken Letters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2026

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...

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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 Hitler and his followers were allowed to perpetrate. It was only with the greatest reluctance that he accepted this ultimate proof of his own convictions regarding the gullibility and mendacity of man.

In politics as in other areas, Mencken never criticized from a position of ignorance. Professional politicians, who had come by their evidence the hard way, stated that he knew and understood the American political process more thoroughly than any other person of his time. He attended all the major conventions and found them superlatively entertaining.

A prodigious writer and magnificent stylist, Mencken had scant respect for institutionalized scholarship in general and for literary scholarship in particular. He saw its practitioners as moles grubbing for minutiae which they incorporated unquestioningly into dull prose of no significance whatever. This unflattering assessment was verified by one of Mencken’s most irreverent practical jokes. He concocted a highly authoritative piece of pseudoresearch, replete with convincing annotation, which traced invention of the bathtub to an obscure—and totally fictitious—American craftsman of the last century. Since the bathtub has existed throughout recorded history in one form or another, Mencken did not really expect to fool anybody. One can almost hear him chortle when he found that scholars were solemnly quoting his essay and including it in their bibliographies. His criticisms were of course discounted by those who complained that he was not a scholar himself and therefore unqualified to pronounce judgment; but he squelched them by producing a monumental landmark of genuine scholarship, The American Language, which remains the definitive work of its kind.

Mencken always maintained that he was lazy, but his career belies that characterization. The magazines he edited and published, Smart Set and American Mercury, were preeminent in their category; he encouraged and assisted beginning writers and discovered several of lasting significance, including Theodore Dreiser. He had a sure instinct for what was interesting and readable, and his judgment of literary promise and quality was generally accurate. Aesthetic problems had little interest for him; he was, as he said, “predominantly a reviewer of ideas and the more squarely those ideas are based upon demonstrable facts the better I like them.” He was a voracious reader in a bewildering variety of subjects, and in addition was an indefatigable correspondent; his surviving letters number approximately one hundred thousand. He also supplied editorial and review columns on a regular basis to the Sunpapers and other publications. Along with these accomplishments he produced books on subjects that interested him and labored at The American Language. The average reader will have concluded long since that this human dynamo who combined at least four normal careers lived entirely at his desk and had time for nothing but his work. The conclusion is erroneous.

Fortunately Mencken respected his own privacy and did not succumb to the literary compulsion that grips those who tell all, but his private life as he reveals it in his correspondence was full and satisfying. His evenings and weekends, and many of his afternoons, were spent away from his work except for whatever books he happened to be reading. He was a convivial soul who loved good food, good beer, good company, conversation, and laughter. He was also an accomplished pianist; he and several other musicians met every Saturday night and performed classical music together. He knew many women, loved two, and married one. It was obviously a happy relationship in spite of her poor health, and her untimely death was a great blow to him.

It is through Mencken’s letters, probably, that one can best encounter him as a person. Carl Bode, who has written the standard biography of Mencken and anthologized some of his early work, has assembled and edited the present volume with skill, restraint, and affection. Since the six hundred letters included represent much less than one percent of the total, they are no more than a sample, exuberant and often hilarious though it is. Arranged in chronological order, they cover a wide range of topics, serve to indicate the enormous variety of people from all walks of life that Mencken corresponded with, and form a pungent evocation of the man and his era. This is a much better compilation than that issued by Knopf in 1961, as it has not been sanitized and contains a great deal of material that was not released until 1970. Bode has limited his editorial responsibility to thorough but unobtrusive annotation of each letter and has provided an essential introductory essay that could scarcely be improved upon. His own warmth is evident throughout, and his empathy unmistakable.

Collections of letters, however essential to a truer understanding of their author, are often excruciatingly dull. Mencken inflicted no such punishment on those with whom he corresponded, and his letters include some of the funniest ever written. Dated in some respects, they will make every reader wince occasionally; one way or the other, they are nearly always stimulating. Most important of all, they are supremely alive—so much so that it seems impossible that such magnetic energy could be only mortal after all. One lays the book aside with regret and hopes that Bode will mine the treasury again.

Since Bode obviously appreciates Mencken’s sense of humor, it is not surprising that he quietly included a practical joke of his own. His dedication is followed, on the next page, by a “Micro-Chrestomathy.” This section consists of quotations, chiefly incendiary, from Mencken’s letters. All demand rereading in their own context and all are appropriately cited, but readers who search for them in the present collection are doomed to disappointment.

It is easy to see why Mencken has not been enshrined in the Pantheon. Heroes are enshrined by groups, and no established group is willing to claim him. Even the mildest of liberals and conservatives are uneasy with him and journalism, which is usually one or the other, tends to back away. The world of literary scholarship is reluctant to acknowledge one who demeaned and outperformed it. Education, which he characterized as a monstrous fraud perpetrated upon the innocent, is not likely to be his champion. The other candidates are equally unpromising. Mencken liked to tilt with windmills and windbags, and he was no mean adversary; he challenged cant and hypocrisy wherever he found them, and he was not selective about it. He was his own man, a free spirit, and he fits no convenient pigeonhole.

We are said to live in an age of reform, but reformers, as they eradicate injustice, create injustice of their own. Inevitably, discrimination reappears in other and equally reprehensible forms. One set of bigotries and hypocrisies is ushered out with fanfare only to be quietly replaced by another. Politics changes its clothes from time to time but it seldom takes a bath, and it continues to do business at the old stand. The dream of human perfectibility is part and parcel of the idealism Mencken scoffed at.

Every era, every culture, needs its iconoclast, but few are endowed with one of Olympian stature. Mencken was such; it is to be regretted that no worthy successor to him stands ready in the wings.

In the meantime, he awaits discovery by generations who have never heard of him, and who have thus been denied the laughter and salty independence he might have shared with them. Hopefully, this book will serve to bridge the gap.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 34

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.

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