We Need Another Mencken

Destroying an Institution

by Doug French by Doug French


Imagine an America when a writer occupied the rarified air in the public consciousness that movie stars and athletes do today. A man who believed first and foremost in freedom, writing: "I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty."

It was the 1920s and H. L. Mencken was both America’s favorite pundit and literary critic. He was a journalist, satirist and social critic, a cynic and a freethinker, known as either the "Sage of Baltimore" or the "Bad Boy of Baltimore." While he is often regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the early 20th century, sadly, many people today, even those considered educated, have never heard of Mencken.

One of the great joys in life is to read Mencken. Although he was writing about politicians of 80 years ago, his work is timeless, with insights still relevant today, maybe even more so. Mencken knew where America was headed long before it got there.

Ah, but to have Mencken weighing in daily about the Bush Administration. How much fun would he have skewering The Patriot Act? And what would he say about the sanitized reporting of the War on Terror? Mencken described journalists working for the early 1940s pro-war propaganda machine as a profession of "public office seekers, title hunters, social pushers, dollar diddlers, mountebanks and cads." Things haven’t changed.

Mencken left this world in 1956, creating a gap that has yet to be filled. But author Marion Elizabeth Rodgers has provided us the most complete look into Mencken’s life yet with Mencken: The American Iconoclast.

Rodgers has devoted her adult life to the study of the Sage of Baltimore and her book is the culmination of that effort. Rodgers stumbled on to a box of love letters between Sara Haardt and Mencken while doing research on Haardt. "Suddenly," writes Rodgers, "a door was swung open into Mencken’s life through the tender route of romantic correspondence." It is this attention to Mencken’s social life that makes this Mencken biography special. Recent biographers have liberally quoted Mencken to show off his brilliance, but then dehumanize him by casting him as a bigot, misogynist and tyrant.

Mencken was as complex and full of contradictions as any human being, but as William Manchester wrote of the post-stroke Mencken he read to in the mornings: "I have never known a kinder man. But when he unsheathed his typewriter and sharpened its keys, his prose was anything but kind. It was rollicking and it was ferocious."

Mencken was a constant and outspoken defender of freedom of conscience and civil rights. He attacked America’s preoccupation with fundamentalist Christianity and opposed the persecution and injustice that Puritanism imposed. "Puritanism," he wrote, is "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy." Assailing the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes, Mencken wrote: "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American middle class."

He heaped scorn not only upon self-serving public officials but the contemporary state of American democracy itself. "They realized the essential weakness of democracy," Mencken wrote of the founding fathers, "and predicted some of its worst excesses – now unhappy and inescapable realities. They warned that giving the vote to incompetent, despairing and envious people would breed demagogues to rouse and rally them, and that the whole democratic process would thus be converted into organized pillage and plunder."

The Arkansas state legislature even passed a motion to pray for Mencken’s soul in 1931, after he had raised that state to the "apex of moronia." "My only defense is that I didn’t make Arkansas the butt of ridicule," Mencken said. "God did."

Mencken stirred controversy at the 1948 Democratic convention when the Maryland progressive party made a motion to censure him after he described black keynote speaker Charles P. Howard as "a tall, full-bodied barrister of the color of a good ten-cent cigar" with "an African roll in his voice that is far from unpleasant." The motion was denied, which disappointed Mencken, but caused him to complain about "the growing sensitiveness of politicians. Nobody denounced me as a white-baiter when I wrote that Herbert Hoover had a complexion like unrisen dough."

What describes Mencken best is how he described his hero Mark Twain – a "curious mixture of sentimentality and cynicism," the "mingling of romanticist and iconoclast." Rodgers sums it up nicely: "Beyond his brilliant writing style, Mencken’s great contribution was his courage to write what he thought."

Another Mencken can’t come fast enough.