It seems almost too easy to write about H.L. Mencken. Not to mention unnecessary. I mean, well, duh, who doesn't already know?
Lots of people, no doubt. And besides, awareness is not the issue. Even the most ardent fan, aka me, can benefit from the occasional prod, a reminder to dive back into the oeuvre. The fact is, that Henry Louis Mencken is one of those rarest of writers whose work defies time or place, someone worthy of constant study, whose life and work merits continual contemplation. I'd say if I had to list my favorite authors, I'd rank them as 1. Samuel Johnson; 2. Dante Alighieri; 3. H.L. Mencken, and those three alone could easily occupy me between retirement and the grave.
The Mencken books I use most often are not his most popular: "The American Language" plus its two supplements are valuable and unique reference works, true acts of scholarship, providing a deep dive into our nation's language and, by necessity, history and rituals. They are joined by Mencken's "A New Dictionary of Quotations" which I find useful when I am trying to find thoughts on subjects beyond the commonplace bruited about in Bartlett's and online.
I could have revisited his marvelous trio memoirs, "Happy Days," "Heathen Days" and "Newspaper Days," the latter consisting of the best illustrative story that a budding journalist could receive. (Applying to the city editor of the Baltimore Morning Herald the day after his father's funeral, Mencken, 18 and with no newspaper experience whatsoever, is told to go away, but looks so crestfallen that the editor has pity on him and tells him he may return the next day to see if anything is needed. He does, every day, for the next two weeks, with no result, until the 14th day, when he is told "Go out to Govanstown, and see if anything is happening there. We are supposed to have a Govanstown correspondent, but he hasn't been heard from for six days." And so his career began.
But for our purposes today I decided to flip open "Prejudices: Third Series." A handsome book, published in March of 1923, making it nearly a century old. Which would make it dated, for most other writers, who have trouble offering up something relevant the moment it's published, never mind a thought that rings true 96 years later.
I did so, I should add, without any preconception of what is in it. I wasn't looking for a particular passage, just began on the first chapter, "On Being an American," confident that my efforts would not be in vain. Mencken's genius is such that his direct, sharp, pointed prose is certain to offer up gems in the first shovelful.
He did not disappoint; I never made it past the first chapter. I didn't have to.
Are you puzzled by the Paul Ryans and Lindsey Grahams of our country? Once moral men who abandoned every one of their supposed values in order to service the liar, bully and fraud currently occupying the Oval Office? Not to forget all the Chris Christies and the other bootlickers and lackeys who traded whatever reputation they might have once had for a brief bask in the orange glow? How could that happen? Mencken explains that on page 18:
Here is a country in which all political thought and activity are concentrated upon the scramble for jobs—in which the normal politician, whether he be President or a village road supervisor, is willing to renounce any principle, however precious to him, and to adopt any lunacy, however offensive to him, in order to keep his place at the trough.In that first chapter, "On Being an American," Mencken makes observations which even today's band of TV fireballers are too narrow to imagine and too timid to articulate even if the could. Yes, we are a nation of immigrants, Mencken agrees. But who were those immigrants who established our country?
Third-rate men, of course, exist in all countries, but it is only here that they are in full control of the state, and with it of all the national standards. The land was peopled, not by the hardy adventurers of legend, but simply by incompetents who could not get on at home, and the lavishness of nature that they found here, the vast ease with which they would get livings, confirmed and augmented their native incompetence....Mencken was not perfect, but a man of his era, and therefore prone to the same faults—his own prejudices, a leaning toward the eugenic claptrap popular at the time. And he certainly suffered from pro-German myopia that kept him on the sidelines when Mr. Hitler arrived. But even a man given to contempt took the spin that Donald Trump puts on immigration now—that Mexico is not sending her "best people"—and gave it a novel twist that seems a far more accurate shade of reality: that none of our forebears of any nationality or race were the best people:
The truth is that that majority of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants since the Revolution, like the majority of Anglo-Saxon immigrants before the Revolution, have been, not the superior men of their native lands, but the botched and unfit: Irishmen starving to death in Ireland, Germans unable to weather the Sturm und Drang* of the post-Napoleonic reorganization, Italians weed-grown on exhausted soil, Scandinavians run to all bone and no brain, Jews too incompetent to swindle even the barbarous peasants of Russia, Poland and Romania...the average newcomer is, and always has been simply a poor fish.PC? No. An intriguing and possibly spot-on observation? I suspect so. That's something of the attitude embraced by Australians—"We're ALL dregs!"—and it's a shame that Americans, so desperate to scrape together some shred of self-respect by elevating themselves above any random stranger, can't do the same.
I could go on quoting Mencken all day, claiming that we need him now more than ever. Then again, we always do. One more example, from the same essay the previous quotes are taken from. He is arguing that the traditional attitudes of the European peasant "are, with a few modifications, the habits of mind of the American people." Enjoy:
The peasant has a great practical cunning, but he is unable to see any further than the next farm. He likes money and knows how to amass property, but his cultural development is but little above that of the domestic animals. He is intensely and cocksurely moral, but his morality and his self-interest are crudely identical. He is emotional and easy to scare, but his imagination cannot grasp an abstraction. He is a violent nationalist and patriot, but he admires rogues in office and always beat the tax-collector if he can. He has immovable opinions about all the great affairs of state, but nine-tenths of them are sheer imbecilities. He is violently jealous of what he conceives to be his rights, but brutally disregardful of the other fellow's. He is religious, but his religion is wholly devoid of beauty and dignity....He exists in all countries, but here alone he rules—here alone his anthropoid fears and rages are accepted gravely as logical ideas and dissent from them is punished a a sort of public offense.I don't want to minimize the danger or crisis of the Trump administration, and certain aspects are, I believe, developments new and unwelcome in the wide sweep of American history: a president openly courting our enemies while glibly alienating our friends, a president consciously whipping up hatreds in a bald, brainless, shameful attempt to bolster his own popularity among his duped followers, a president suffering from a blend of staggering ignorance bolstered by bottomless self-regard. That is all true, an enormous magnification of whatever corollaries can be found in past presidents, and an augury of worse to come. But still, in many respects, the Trump tragedy is not so much a new disaster as a reversion to past patterns of operation, as Mencken so vividly reminds us. We've had this Carnival of Cretinism before. There might be some small comfort in that: as bad as this is, we have endured it in the past and survived. Maybe we can do so again.
* Sturm und Drang = storm and strife