Thursday, August 17, 2006


I just finished reading Marion Elizabeth Rodgers' terrific biography Mencken: The American Iconoclast (Oxford University Press, 2005). The writings of the late H.L. Mencken have enraptured, exasperated and obsessed me since I stumbled across his essay "The Sahara of the Bozart" as a teenager; Rodgers brings the Mencken I knew to vivid life but also reveals many other Menckens as well, Menckens I never dreamed existed.

Rodgers might well have subtitled her book The American Contradiction. Mencken said awful things, publicly and privately, about African-Americans and Jews, things that he genuinely believed; yet he crusaded against the Klan when it was at the peak of its political power, and lobbied on Capitol Hill for an anti-lynching bill when even the Roosevelt administration turned a deaf ear. A thunderous agnostic, he heaped more ridicule upon religion in all its forms than any other public figure in American history; yet he knew more about the Bible than some of his drinking-buddy theologians, and he enjoyed nothing more than a good tent revival, where he sat on the front row and lustily sang every hymn from memory. He prided himself on being, first and foremost, a reporter's reporter, interviewing more people, doing more legwork and churning out more copy than youngsters 40 years his junior; yet he lost all interest in the story of his career, the Scopes "monkey trial," and went home to Baltimore before the verdict even came in. He assailed his fellow Americans as a "timorous mob of goosesteppers" and publicly argued the political and cultural superiority of his ancestral land, Germany, not only during the First World War but during the Second, at serious risk to his career, his freedom and his life; yet the magisterial research project to which he devoted much of that life, The American Language, was a triumphant declaration of independence for his native tongue and a thousand-page tribute to the seething kettle of classes and races that had created it.

Remarkably consistent across his half-century of fame, however, was Mencken's amazing prose style. He idolized Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw, and it shows, as does the influence of Ambrose Bierce; but no one in the English language ever ranted like Mencken. His screeds are their own subgenre. Harlan Ellison, Hunter S. Thompson and Bruce Sterling, to name but three of Mencken's obvious descendants, are timid souls compared to H.L. at gale force.

On each page, Rodgers cherry-picks three or four glorious Menckenisms, for example his assessment of the dumbing-down of American politics: "We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." Mencken may be better served by excerpts than by full reprints; at length, even his most laudable fits of indignation can become exhausting, self-defeating. As I read Rodgers' book, I found myself jotting down the ones that seemed to comment, not on 1916 or 1936 headlines, but on 2006 headlines:
We [Americans] posture as apostles of fair play, as good sportsmen, as professional knights-errant -- and throw beer bottles at the umpire when he refuses to cheat for our side. ... We deafen the world with our whoops for liberty -- and submit to laws that destroy our most sacred rights. ... We play policeman and Sunday-school superintendent to half of Christendom -- and lynch a darky every two days in our own backyard.

Europe sees Americanism, in brief, as a sort of Philistine uprising against the free spirit of man -- as a conspiracy of dull and unimaginative men, fortuitously made powerful, against all the ideas and ideals that seem sound to their betters.

Once the world is made safe for democracy, all that will remain will be to make democracy safe for the world.

The kinds of courage I really admire are not whooped up in war, but cried down, and indeed become infamous. No one, in such times ... ever praises the man who stands out against official balderdash, and seeks to restore the national thinking, so called, to a reasonable sanity. On the contrary, he is regarded as a shabby and evil fellow, and there is not much protest when he is punished in a summary and barbaric manner, without any consideration of the evidence against him. It is sufficient that he refuses to sing the hymn currently lined out. That alone is enough to condemn him.

We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow-citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease.

What becomes of the old notion that the United States is a free country, that it is a refuge for the oppressed of other lands?
We need Mencken today more than ever, and not only medicinally; he is marvelously funny, and his torrential vocabulary and thundering rhythms are a mother lode of inspiration for any writer or speaker. He is also an absolutely American creation, essential to any understanding of our often-invoked, often-ignored national heritage, whatever that turns out to be. Yet I get the impression he's not widely read, and that most of his books are out of print. That no Library of America set of Mencken exists is a serious omission; I hope someone is diligently working on that massive task. Mencken, of course, would have jeered at that sentiment, too. "One civilized reader," he wrote, "is worth a thousand boneheads." Reading Mencken, I'm never quite sure in which category the Sage of Baltimore would pigeonhole me: anointed among the civilized, or cast among the boneheads. That he still can cause such unease, more than 50 years after his death, is the best reason to read him.

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