Why They Hate Mencken

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The Capuchin Mencken

by Daniel McCarthy

H.L. Mencken was a stylish writer — up to a point — but he clearly never knew what he was talking about. He put Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill under the same rubric as Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, calling them all "transparent quacks" and demagogues. As a critic Mencken had poor taste and worse judgment: he hated jazz and was utterly incapable of appreciating modernism in literature or the visual arts. Worst of all, he was a terrible human being, full of prejudice and ambition. A racist, an anti-Semite, reviler of democracy and a boor – Mencken was all that and more. But, yes, he could write reasonably well.

That’s the Capuchin Mencken, the Mencken of the neoconservatives. Like the organ-grinder’s monkey, this Mencken is a parody of a human being and little more than a sideshow to the fellow cranking out the music, or in this case, cranking out the party line. Mencken is so far removed from that party line, so politically incorrect even to those who think of themselves as opponents of p.c., that his critics (especially those on the putative Right) can hardly take him seriously.

Reviews of Terry Teachout’s recent biography of Mencken, The Skeptic, have been a case in point. My own thoughts on the book can be found in the current issue of the American Conservative (March 24, 2003 — with Pat Buchanan’s important essay "Whose War?" on the cover), so I won’t elaborate upon them here. Instead, however, I’ll call attention to what other reviewers have said, and how they have generally marginalized Mencken in the same way.

A good place to begin is with Russell Baker’s piece from the New York Review of Books. It’s one of the better and more detailed reviews, and one relatively even-handed in its treatment of Mencken. At least it doesn’t make him out to be a monster or a total buffoon. Baker instead simply discounts Mencken’s beliefs and emphasizes the indisputable quality of his style. So, for example, Baker writes, "Though [Mencken's] political pieces sometimes seem repetitious and occasionally silly, much in them is still a pleasure to read for the quality, even the beauty, of the prose." And after quoting a few lines from Mencken, Baker writes:

This paragraph adds nothing to our grasp of political philosophy, but wouldn’t we feel blessed nowadays to have even one solitary journalist capable of subjecting the world’s Bushes and Gores, Cheneys and Liebermans to frankly prejudiced prose as gorgeous as this?

This is fair enough; one would never expect to find the New York Review of Books endorsing political views like Mencken’s anyway, no matter how rigorously or systematically they may have been laid out. Mencken certainly wasn’t systematic and had never intended to be, in any event. A review in the Atlantic by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley makes that very point: "Mencken’s u2018conservatism’ was more a state of mind than an ideology. It had, and has, little in common with what now passes for conservatism, and diehard ideologues of that persuasion will find small comfort in his claim that he was “constitutionally unable to believe in anything absolutely.” Yardley’s review, in fact, is excellent; he notes that he himself had been planning to write a Mencken at one point, but never got around to it. It’s a shame, because Yardley evidently has both enthusiasm for Mencken — although not uncritical enthusiasm — and an insightful appreciation for his literary and critical accomplishments.

But then there are, as Yardley says, those diehard ideologues now passing for conservatives. Enter Hilton Kramer and his New Criterion essay, "Who Reads Mencken Now?" Kramer’s answer to his own question is: virtually no one. But this, he suggests, is not to be lamented, for Mencken possessed "a philistine outlook" and his work was "thin in intellectual substance and woefully lacking in a sense of history." Kramer elaborates:

What really separates us now from Mencken’s eager acolytes in the 1920s — and, for that matter, from Mencken himself — are precisely the horrors as well as the achievements of the twentieth century that he missed or dismissed or otherwise chose to regard as beneath serious notice. Among them, alas, were the two World Wars, the Leninist revolution and the spread of Communist totalitarianism, Hitler’s rise to power and the Nazi conquest of Western Europe, the Holocaust, and virtually all of the principal currents of modern thought in literature, philosophy, and the arts. While he busied himself demolishing the pretensions of yahoo preachers, Rotarians, prohibitionists, and sundry writers and public figures with little claim on the attention of posterity, Mencken remained cheerfully oblivious to the political and cultural earthquakes that were irreversibly altering the very civilization he claimed to represent. That, I believe, is the fundamental reason why Mencken is so little read today.

And lest it seem as though Mencken’s sin was borne of ignorance and perhaps only venial, Kramer concludes by asserting that

He is now too much of a period piece to be revivable. And the really ugly aspects of Mencken’s mentality — the vicious anti-Semitism, the total identification with German superiority and moral authority even in the face of Hitler’s criminality, and his unflagging contempt for democratic institutions in a period when fascism and communism loomed as the leading alternatives — all of this, combined with a cocksure confidence in his own virtue, is finally unforgivable.

Mencken was no supporter of Hitler, and even Kramer doesn’t dare suggest that he was, but his love of German culture and his contempt for mass democracy are bad enough. Unforgivable, in fact.

As it happens, even Hilton Kramer’s own readers were not prepared to accept this. Two letters in response to the article are published on the journal’s website, each refuting the notion that Mencken isn’t much read today (and, implicitly, the notion that he shouldn’t be read). The one letter points to the fairly high ranking of the Mencken Chrestomathy on the Amazon.com sales chart, and asks how well Mencken’s contemporary peers are selling (answer: not nearly as well). The other suggests to Kramer that "Generation X" is reading Mencken, and finds in him a kindred spirit. This second letter, by Scott Locklin, is worth quoting in part:

As far as Mencken’s various political ideas (his alleged "vicious anti-Semitism" is too absurd to bother refuting; c.f. Alfred Knopf’s comments) Mencken was no political proselytizer; that’s one of the things which makes him so refreshing. He was a critic. If he had ideas contrary to modern felicity, so did most of the people who made their livings as actual political rabble-rousers in his day. Nobody seems to fault GBS for his actual fawnings over Mussolini and Stalin (which have no parallel in any of Mencken’s writings). I don’t see how this and similar ethical torts of the intelligentsia of that day could be considered acceptable when Mencken’s mere elitist libertarianism "is . . . unforgivable."

One suspects, of course, that that’s the real point: elitist libertarianism is precisely what Kramer finds unacceptable. Russell Baker can afford simply to pooh-pooh Mencken’s politics but Kramer has to worry about the ideological competition; he has to draw a firm line and declare Mencken completely out-of-bounds. Atheism is one thing, but preaching the virtues of the Germans and disbelief in "democracy" is a real heresy, one well deserving of harsh punishment.

Kramer is the most forceful of Mencken’s critics on the Right, but he’s hardly alone. Others include, surprisingly or not, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., founder and editor of the American Spectator, and a man who has made a career out of aping Mencken’s prose (Tyrell cites approvingly Paul Greenberg’s description of Tyrrell himself as "the closest that 1995 America can come to its own H.L. Mencken"). Tyrrell wrote the cover story for the November/December 2002 American Spectator, a piece called "The Dark Sage: Reconsidering H.L. Mencken." For the most part, Tyrrell is simply dismissive of Mencken as a thinker: "while Mencken was laughing on the outside, almost nothing was going on on the inside"; "when he endeavored to pronounce authoritatively on great events, he usually spoke from ignorance"; "there was actually less to him than met the eye"; "He missed every art movement of his time save American fiction’s realists. He also missed the rise and fall of dictatorships." That last is especially significant; for Tyrrell, Mencken was "as oblivious to the drama of evil’s rise and fall in his lifetime as he was to the irenic force of American democracy."

For Tyrrell no less than for Kramer, it is Mencken’s rejection of democracy that marks him out as a defective thinker, and indeed a defective human being. Tyrrell the imitator of Mencken’s style prefers the democratic socialist politics of Sidney Hook to the Mencken’s libertarianism; as Tyrrell says, "Had Mencken shared Sidney’s belief in democracy he might have made greater contributions to the life of the mind." At issue here is not that Tyrrell simply disagrees with or doesn’t accept Mencken’s beliefs, but that Mencken’s rejection of democracy proves him to be a fool, just as for Kramer Mencken’s politically incorrect attitude toward democracy proves him to be a villain. Mencken’s rejection of democracy is illegitimate.

There are a great many valid criticisms that can be leveled against Mencken the thinker, but the sorts of criticisms that come from Kramer and Tyrrell are ideological rather than intellectual. He was no idiot, and if he was not a systematic or particularly academic thinker, it’s nonetheless worth remembering that he was at root a journalist. As such he was no more dense than his contemporary colleagues, and indeed he outshone more than a few academics, as proven by his pioneering study The American Language. But really Mencken’s intelligence is not in any doubt. It’s his judgment, taste and conscious beliefs that have put him beyond the pale of acceptable opinion today, even — or especially — in "conservative" circles.

If Mencken were alive today, who would publish him? For all the acknowledged power of his style, Mencken’s politics wouldn’t make the grade for the New Criterion or the American Spectator, or presumably any of the other major (neo)conservative publications that toe the same line. The Left would, by and large, have nothing to do with such a man either, and even many libertarians would balk at him (and he, who styled himself a Kaiserliche-Konigliche Tory, would no doubt have had little use for the average "modal" libertarian). It’s hard to imagine Mencken making a monkey out of himself for anybody, but with the political spectrum as constricted and muddied as it is today, what’s left? The American Conservative, for one thing, whose co-editor Taki Theodoracopulos has more than a little of what Mencken had — Taki once wondered in print why the vote of a doctor who saves lives should count for exactly as much as a welfare bum who does nothing. Of course, there is also at least one other place where Mencken would certainly fit right in, someplace rather close to home. There might be rather few people now who can appreciate Mencken for both his style and his thought, but one suspects that Mencken, inveterate foe of the booboisie and the simian masses, would have liked it that way.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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