The Sage of Baltimore was not always so sagacious
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) is a revered figure in the history of American letters, and understandably so. But after enduring the heavy weather of these two Library of American volumes—a gathering of Mencken essays and journalism originally published between 1919 and 1927 in a series of books called “Prejudices”—I am beginning to have my doubts. I remember Tom Wolfe once telling me that Mencken was one of the greatest stylists of the English language, alongside Malcolm Muggeridge, and George Orwell. Again, it is hard to disagree. But I strongly suggest that Mr. Wolfe purge the “Prejudices” from his library.
H.L. Mencken at his writing desk in the mid-1940s.
Some of the pieces in the “Prejudices” series—there were six volumes in all—are very good, as I had remembered. In particular, Mencken’s essay on William Jennings Bryan, the prairie populist and endless presidential candidate, remains a classic and well worth re-reading. But the vast majority of the pieces in “Prejudices” are tedious and ephemeral, even terrible at times.
Anyone seeking the reasons for Mencken’s high reputation would do better by turning to Huntington Cairns’s “The American Scene” (1965), an anthology that judiciously selects from Mencken’s autobiographical works, his writings on the American language and his various superb efforts at reportage, including his famous account of the 1925 Scopes Trail, in which fundamentalist religion famously butted heads with evolutionary theory.
Cairns, it is true, included some flatulent “Prejudices” essays in his anthology, but with explanations of their origin—either from Mencken or from Cairns himself—along with the dates of the essays’ original publication. There are no dates included in the Library of America volumes and no contextual introductions to the pieces offered. Much of the time we have no idea what Mencken is shouting about. He comes off as a gasbag.
The appendix to the first Library of America volume includes a selection from Mencken’s posthumous “My Life as Author and Editor” in which he comments on the “Prejudices” series. He tells us, quoting himself, that the first series, published in 1919, was “a stinkpot designed to ‘keep the animals perturbed.’ ” But he confesses that the collection contained “light stuff, chiefly rewritten from the Smart Set,” the magazine that Mencken edited with George Jean Nathan from 1914 to 1923. “The real artillery fire,” Mencken wrote, “will begin a bit later.” Where it did begin it was often off the mark—for instance, not 200,000 soldiers dead in the Civil War, as he says, but 621,000.
Mencken admits that the pieces in “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920) are not original. He was still larding up what he considered important essays with “surplus material left out of the 1922 revision of In Defense of Women” and other writings, including, as he put it, “reworkings of my Smart Set reviews and my contributions to ‘Répétition Générale.’ ”
The “Répétition Général” that Mencken mentions was a running Smart Set feature offering facetious definitions of trends and types and brief editorial comments. To take an example not included in the Library of America volumes: “The Bald-Headed Man: The man with a bald head, however eminent his position, always feels slightly ill at ease in the presence of a man whose dome is still well thatched.” Clearly much of the material in the Smart Set was not of great weight.
Mencken continued such rewrites and regurgitations for an additional four “Prejudices.” He is at his worst when he writes on what he considers important topics: the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character.
It is always amusing to call a farmer “a prehensile moron.” Or to compare a politician to “an honest burglar.” But often Mencken simply falls into a gimmick. He strings together absurd similes, preposterous comparisons and long lists, and there is an enormous amount of repetition. After a while, it all becomes tiresome.
H.L. Mencken: Prejudices
In the essay “On Being an American,” he writes that a man who has to make a living in the U.S. must keep in mind that “the Republic has never got half enough bond salesmen, quack doctors, ward leaders, phrenologists, Methodist evangelists, circus clowns, magicians, soldiers, farmers, popular song writers, moonshine distillers, forgers of gin labels, mine guards, detectives, spies, snoopers, and agents provocateurs.” One gets the point quickly, and yet he goes on an on.
Later, after running a sentence for 17 lines, he ends by referring to “thousands [of Americans] who put the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding beside Friedrich Barbarossa and Charlemagne, and hold the Supreme Court to be directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and belong ardently to every Rotary Club, Ku Klux Klan, and anti-Saloon League, and choke with emotion when the band plays ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and believe with the faith of little children that one of Our Boys, taken at random, could dispose in a fair fight of ten Englishmen, twenty Germans, thirty Frogs, forty Wops, fifty Japs, or a hundred Bolsheviki.” There is a lot of padding here.
In the same essay he says that the American belief in the good life or progress or happy landings or something “is not shared by most reflective foreigners, as anyone may find out by looking into such a book as Ferdinand Kürnberger’s ‘Der Amerikamünde,’ Sholom Asche’s ‘America,’ Ernest von Wolzogen’s ‘Ein Dichter in Dollarica,’ W.L. George’s ‘Hail, Columbia!’, Annalise Schmidt’s ‘Der Amerikanische Mensch’ or Sienkiewicz’s ‘After Bread,’ or by hearkening unto the confidences, if obtainable, of such returned immigrants as Georges Clemenceau, Knut Hamsun, George Santayana, Clemens von Pirquet, John Masefield, and Maxim Gorky and, via the ouija board, Antonin Dvorak, Frank Wedekind and Edwin Klebs.” Such strings of slightly ominous names could be seen as part of the “artillery fire” Mencken referred to in his posthumous reflections.
As I say, Mencken was a superb reporter, and when he stuck to reporting he was an original. In “Prejudices: Fifth Series,” he was running out of steam, but then comes his incomparable “In Memoriam: W.J.B.” It begins: “Has it been duly marked by historians that the late William Jennings Bryan’s last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies?”
Mencken takes us to the Dayton, Tenn., monkey trial, reporting on Bryan’s confrontation with Clarence Darrow, and his eyes are wide open: Bryan “liked people who sweated freely, and were not debauched by the refinements of the toilet.” Bryan makes “progress up and down the Main Street of little Dayton, surrounded by gaping primates from the uplands. . . . There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic—there he stood in the glare of the world, uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at! The artful Darrow led him on.”
The next essay in the collection is even better. In “The Hills of Zion,” Mencken actually attends a meeting of locals who speak in tongues and sweat a lot. “The heap of mourners was directly before us. They bounced into us as they cavorted. The smell that they radiated, flooding there in that obscene heat, half- suffocated us. Not all of them, of course, did the thing in the grand manner. Some merely moaned and rolled their eyes.” It is all here, even Mencken’s speculations of a lewd nature.
Mencken was the first celebrity intellectual. Mass communications was in place, and he was present to take advantage of it. He was a brilliant stylist, and when he stuck to reporting, Tom Wolfe had him right. But not in these pieces, and not in his crank diatribes. He flourished in the first quarter of the century, but I doubt there would be room in America for him now. His prose style aside, he was an independent mind. There are only two camps today, and he would be in neither.
Mr. Tyrrell, a syndicated columnist, is editor in chief of The American Spectator. His current book is “After The Hangover: The Conservatives” Road to Recovery,” published by Thomas Nelson.
Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703846604575448493430981972.html