H.L. Mencken, Neo-Confederate

Political correctness has been around for so long that we tend to forget how severely restricted journalistic freedom is today. Contemporary newspaper editors will simply not allow editorial opinions on some issues to deviate beyond certain allowable parameters. In fact, today’s politicized editorial boards would probably censor the columns of the most celebrated newspaper journalist of the first half of the twentieth century.

I’m referring to Henry Louis Mencken, the curmudgeon journalist with The Baltimore Sun. Mencken was a complex and often controversial journalist but usually very perceptive. His views of the South have been characterized as a “Love-Hate Relationship” but this characterization is misleading. The Sahara of the Bozart is always presented as evidence of Mencken’s disdain for the South. In this piece Mencken berates the South for its dearth of cultural attainments: i.e., beaux art. Disdain certainly flows throughout this essay but a thorough reading of Mencken’s other writings reveal a more favorable view of the South, especially the Confederacy.

Although the accusations in The Sahara of the Bozart were a little excessive, they were essentially correct, and Mencken was certainly qualified to judge cultural attainments. As the editor of two major literary magazines, he helped promote the careers of most of the young writers of his day, many of whom wrote novels we are still reading. In addition, Mencken was an avid theater patron and even authored plays himself. He was also an accomplished musician, playing the piano with a classical group called the Saturday Night Club. Because of his Germanic lineage, his favorites were Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Mozart.

The South, he claimed, was “almost as sterile artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert — culturally about as dead as the Yucatan.” After referring to the South as a “gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate” he declaims: “There is not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera-house, or a single theater devoted to decent play.” Mencken goes on to bemoan the region’s paucity of writers, scientists, historians, philosophers and intellectuals in general.

Another reason for Mencken’s aversion to the South was the region’s firm religious beliefs, primarily Protestantism that relied on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Mencken himself was anti-religious but he preferred the term agnostic to atheist because he felt non-belief was as unfounded as belief. In his mind, Protestantism had caused Prohibition, that ill-advised law that made it difficult for him to enjoy his favorite German beer or a pitcher of martinis. And, because there had been a “dry” campaign by Southern Protestants, Mencken held them primarily responsible for Prohibition.

H.L. Mencken’s criticisms were leveled at the South of the early 1900s, a region still recovering from the devastation of the War and Reconstruction. But his opinion of the pre-War South was quite different. Born in Baltimore, Mencken always considered himself a Southerner and from his father he had inherited a strong sympathy for the Confederacy. The Old Confederacy, Mencken felt, was a land “with men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct and aristocratic manner — in brief, superior men. It was there, above all, that some attention was given to the art of living — a certain noble spaciousness was in the ancient southern scheme of things.”

And Mencken readily acknowledged the role Reconstruction had played in destroying that way of life. He said: “First the carpetbaggers ravaged the land, and then it fell into the hands of the native white trash, already so poor that war and Reconstruction could not make them any poorer.”

In his 1930 essay, The Calamity of Appomattox Mencken addresses that unresolved question: What if the South had won the War Between the States? This is a very thoughtful analysis of the subject, especially since it was written decades before journalists were constrained by political correctness. Mencken poses all the pertinent questions and provides reasoned responses to each. Interestingly, he concludes that in the long run, a victory by the Confederates would have been more advantageous to the United States.

Mencken’s findings are at variance with most of the acceptable versions of establishment historians. Also, his bluntness and refusal to moralize offer a stark contrast to contemporary newspaper editorials. He does not accept the argument that the Union would have been unworkable if the South had won the War. He states; “My guess is that the two Republics would be getting on pretty amicably.” In a national crisis, such as a war, they would probably have formed an alliance similar to the one created by the Allies in World War I. On the other hand, counterproductive military excursions might have been avoided. And, of course, the South, as Mencken describes it, would not be “in the clutch of the Yankee mortgage-shark.”

Also, he dismisses the claim that the institution of slavery would have continued if the South had won. His contention is; “No doubt the Confederates, victorious, would have abolished slavery by the middle of the 80s. They were headed that way before the war, and the more sagacious of them were all in favor of it. But they were in favor of it on sound economic grounds, and not on the brummagem moral grounds which persuaded the North.”

And then Mencken makes this curious statement; “In human history a moral victory is always a disaster, for it debauches and degrades both the victor and the vanquished.” This odd claim contradicts the rationale of many of the government’s programs of the last century. But his conclusion would appear to have some merit if we look at two of what should be called “moral victories,” actually social engineering fiascoes, that particularly annoyed Mencken: Reconstruction and Prohibition. Both were overly idealistic and imprudent. Neither lasted much longer than a decade, nor did they solve the problems they addressed. In fact, they are largely remembered for the immense social problems they created.

Now we come to Mencken’s most politically incorrect pronouncement; praise for an aristocracy. Mencken’s premise is that an aristocracy composed of patricians has a civilizing influence on the whole of society. In arriving at this conclusion, he makes a distinction between the gentry (the old South nobility) and plutocrats (industrialists with newly acquired wealth). In his words, the Union victory was “a victory of what we now call Babbitts over what used to be called gentlemen.” But Mencken makes this caveat; “I am not arguing here, of course, that the whole Confederate army was composed of gentlemen; on the contrary, it was chiefly made up, like the Federal army, of innocent and unwashed peasants, and not a few of them got into its corps of officers. But the impulse behind it, as everyone knows, was essentially aristocratic, and that aristocratic impulse would have fashioned the Confederacy if the fortunes of war had run the other way.”

The idea that an aristocracy could benefit society would be anathema to today’s egalitarian advocates. But in Mencken’s time, the belief that everyone was not equally endowed was widespread and had been the predominant concept for centuries. There was also the notion that other strata of society would be inspired to emulate the manners and practices of an upper class. Our contemporary theory that everyone has equal abilities, limited only by circumstances beyond their control, was not a widely held concept in Mencken’s time.

No doubt today this idea would be interpreted as a racial or ethnic slur but that would be a misreading of Mencken. He was simply acknowledging that “inequality” is and always has been a fact of life. Although this statement is factually correct, it is not politically correct and contemporary editors would blue-pencil the column of any journalist who voiced it.

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