above: H. L. Mencken working at his typewriter at the Baltimore Sun office in 1913
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) may no longer seem relevant, but that is not his fault. Mencken was a well-read bon vivant with a taste for Teutonic philosophy and a fidelity to what he understood as truth. He was also a brilliant satirist, a longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun, and editor of The American Mercury. His facility with the English idiom and grasp of intellectual history are unsurpassed. How can an aristocratic individualist like Mencken appeal to an age which makes idols out of equality and “democracy”?
He can’t and shouldn’t.
Henry Louis Mencken was a contrarian polemicist and consummate critic, who wrote prolifically and prodigiously from 1899 until 1948. It is inconceivable that he would appeal to our bumper crops of humorless, dour social justice warriors. He couldn’t possibly resonate with those who are afraid to question received opinion, left and right; who cannot conjugate a verb correctly, use tenses, prepositions, and adjectives grammatically and creatively; or appreciate a clever turn of phrase.
How can Mencken, author of The American Language (1919), be relevant in an America that regards the rules of syntax as passé, politicizes and neuters pronouns, and employs “editors” who think nothing of letting mangled phrases and lumpen jargon spill onto the page like gravy over a tablecloth?
Not for nothing did one wag say that the history of ideas is the history of words. Mencken was, first and foremost, a man of ideas (and hence words). No discussion of Mencken’s ideas is complete without a reference to English, the language he deployed with such verve and vim. We might note that although he grew up speaking German and was an unabashed Germanophile, in philosophy and music, it was in the American English language that he distinguished himself as a journalist and literary figure. When other journalists complained about Mencken’s verbal virtuosity, he famously retorted: “Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs and adjectives…are still unfamiliar to such ignoramuses.…Let them…leave my vocabulary and me to my own customers, who have all been to school.”
Written for what Mencken regarded as a prosaic nation that “cannot grasp an abstraction,” some of his essays would not make easy reading for today’s average reader, writer, or editor. Unlike the tracts disgorged by Conservatism, Inc., or its Democratic equivalent, the least complicated of Mencken’s editorial writings would certainly place excessive demands on the untrained or indolent minds of young activists, who are busy running to political conferences or striking a selfie pose for social media. As for college students playing video games in their room—we won’t even go there.
While Mencken’s libertarian acolytes and admirers focus on his disdain for The State as a leitmotif in his polemics, Mencken’s war on the “dishonest, insane and intolerable” U.S. government was, arguably, the least controversial thread in his voluminous oeuvre.
He considered government a predatory, “regimenting” force that fleeces the citizenry without flinching, that could and does safely strip the individual “to his hide,” a “gang well-nigh immune to punishment.” These may now be the least controversial of Mencken’s thoughts.
What would make Mencken more of an outcast, especially among American populists, is his disdain for the “intellectually underprivileged” American electorate, whom he characterized as Boobus americanus. As Mencken saw it, these boobs were too easily and reliably “impressed and enchanted” by political scoundrels. That was the reason why the administrative state more secure in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Americans were simply the “most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages…” Moreover, America’s habitual manner of dealing with “foreign nations, whether friend or foe—is hypocritical, disingenuous, knavish, and dishonorable…” Our country, Mencken thought, should mind its business and let others live as they please. Today’s anti-war right would have a friend in the figure known as “the Sage of Baltimore.”
Whatever the intent of its founder and his dedicated followers, Mencken also believed that Christianity in America was being turned into a “mob religion” that “paves heaven with gold and precious stones, i.e., with money.” Although Mencken defined himself as an agnostic, he found much to admire in the early Church. His complaint was with those who were profiting from gulling others in the name of faith. In any case, Mencken was very much a figure of the first half of the last century, from which it may be hard to dissociate him. In his own time, Mencken was merely following his métier as an acidic critic; today, his heretical words on just about any subject would earn him a rebuke from the prissy legions of the politically correct. On second thought, today, Mencken would have been silenced by “cancel culture.”
Of course, Mencken was not merely politically impolite or incorrect. Rather, he pulverized every politically protected group: soldiers, farmers living off subsidies, Jewish diners with bad table manners, blacks, and even Anglo-Saxons. Mencken might have infuriated lots of people in his time with this withering verdict about the Anglo-Saxon: He is “the least civilized of white men and the least capable of true civilization.” His blood is “running thin,” and “he fears ideas almost more cravenly than he fears men.”
Rest assured, too, that given his indifference to what today would be called PC, the many professional racism-spotters would proceed against Mencken in self-righteous fury. Again, we need historical perspective, not generational chauvinism, to understand this gifted satirist in his own time. According to a 2014 retrospective in the Baltimore Sun, the paper for which he once wrote, Mencken did “more to help black writers—including the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson—get into mainstream print than any other white magazine editor of his day.”
Yes, Mencken helped all talent. That was because he was secure in his own unmatched gifts. Further, although Mencken made fun of his contemporary Americans, he toiled at a time when merit could still be appreciated. Today, however, someone as outspoken as he would be treated as a mortal threat to the gatekeepers of our sterilized and sterile culture. Only in America, ventured Mencken, are such “third-rate men” in full control of the state and the “Kulture.” More so than in Mencken’s day, the mission of these third-rate men, today, is to preserve the status quo by warding off “the menace of ideas.”