He despised Franklin Roosevelt or at least was not an admirer of the president, partly for reasons of general chemistry and partly because he distrusted an omnipotent government that he saw Roosevelt ushering in.
Mencken loved to beat dead horses, rarely contending himself with a single gibe or a single column on the topic. He added, in case anybody didn’t get it the first time, a few more thoughts in a book review:
“The average American newspaper [man] even of the so-called better sort is not only quite as bad as Upton Sinclair says it is, but 10 times as ignorant, 10 times as unfair and tyrannical, 10 times as complaisant and pusillanimous, 10 times as devious, hypocritical, disingenuous, deceitful, pharisaical, pecksniffian, fraudulent, slippery, unscrupulous, perfidious, lewd and dishonest.”
H. L. Mencken — a radical?
May 30, 2020Posted by on
This week on Facebook: My first post in which I specifically mention H. L. Mencken was was eight years ago in 2012 as they They think it’s all over – it is now, since then I have quoted him quite a lot. Does that make me a libertarian? My post last week Letter from an anarchist implied that were I to live in the USA then I would be a libertarian. I would hold the views of H. L. Mencken, often sharing the views of Antonin Scalia but disagreeing with Aaron Ross Powell on more than a number of issues. Mencken saw clearly the fallacy of treating government officials as uniquely motivated by the public weal when he wrote:
These men, in point of fact, are seldom if ever moved by anything rationally describable as public spirit; there is actually no more public spirit among them than among so many burglars or street-walkers. Their purpose, first, last and all the time, is to promote their private advantage, and to that end, and that end alone, they exercise all the vast powers that are in their hands. (1)
Extracted from a review of A Mencken Chrestomathy the author of the article writes, ‘And yet, at one precarious moment in our country’s cultural history, from about the close of the First World War to the end of the Harding administration, it was this American eccentric, or rather half-eccentric, who, almost singlehanded, carried on the valuable critical function of beating America over the head with Europe. The Randolph Bourne generation had either died or fled to the Dome, and the coming crop of critics, the Edmund Wilson-Paul Rosenfeld generation, were still striving towards authority. H. L. Mencken was, for better or worse, the defender on American soil of the values represented by Beethoven, Conrad, Wagner, Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw. And he did quite well at the job, filling in the gap until better-trained, though perhaps not as spirited, assault troops were ready to take over’.
UPON the average American’s bilious ignorance of foreigners I made my lamentation last month—how he assumes, as fundamental axioms of ethnology, that all Frenchmen wear corsets, swill absinthe and swap wives with their neighbours; that all Italians belong to the Black Hand and fear the evil eye; that all Greeks are bootblacks and all Norwegians numskulls; that all Germans keep canary birds, drench themselves with malt liquor and condemn their wives to the washtub; that all Hollanders wear wooden shoes and all Spaniards smell of garlic. H. L. Mencken: The Smart Set/April, 1912
Additional links are provided for those unfamiliar with Franklin D Roosevelt (quoted as ‘Evil Franklin’) or Upton Sinclair (quoted in Mencken’s 1917 letter to him), both of which are included in my only reference to him¹. Incidentally they both held views (political or otherwise) that Mencken disagreed with:
The concluding remarks from my reference are, ‘Mencken has been buried, it seems, because the principles he (and many others) defended in the 1920s are the ones he (virtually alone) continued to extol until he died in 1956. Evil Franklin, on the other hand, has been lionised precisely because the promises he made in 1932 – namely to uphold the gold standard, balance the budget and reduce the government’s payrolls — were abandoned in 1933; and his repeated vow in 1940 (“your boys are not going to be sent to any foreign wars”) was swiftly repudiated in 1941. Today, most Americans would dismiss Mencken’s principles as “radical,” “extreme” and even “heretical.” Not a few would denounce them as “un-American,” and neoconservatives would revile him as a “defeatist” and a “traitor.” How might Mencken answer these epithets? In a letter to Upton Sinclair (14 October 1917) he fired this fusillade:
The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.’
Given the state of American culture, it is doubtful that Mencken’s reputation will ever recover or that interest in him will be revived. That’s too bad because he was a brilliant stylist and changed American journalism much in the way that Hemingway transformed American fiction. For all his flaws, Mencken had a keen insight into the American political scene. If you doubt that, finish by pondering this observation: “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.” (5)
State is not force alone. It depends upon the credulity of man quite as much as upon his docility. Its aim is not merely to make him obey, but also to make him want to obey. H. L. Mencken: Minority Report
My opening remarks implied that were I to live in the USA then I would be a libertarian, whereas in reality I would still like to be an anarchist and be free of statism. However I have to consider that being an anarchist requires me joining a modern political class and that holding anarchistic views relies, to my mind, on humanity having an innate regard for the wellbeing of others that is not confined the realms of socialists. There is little indications that globally humanity can function in anarchy and no indication at all that the modern political class can.
The modern political class thinks it can override these discreditable constitutional conventions because it has been elected, albeit by an ever-diminishing proportion of eligible voters. Dishonourable members
1. H. L. Mencken Loved to Cover Political Conventions but Had Little Faith in Voters: Mencken (1880–1956) was many things. In addition to his political reportage, he launched the American Mercury magazine, tirelessly advanced a great flowering of American letters in the 1920s, coined the term “Bible Belt” to describe the religiously conservative South, and authored The American Language, a mammoth philological study. Despite his vast national influence and varied career, Mencken remained, at heart, a hometown newspaper man, filing acerbic columns for the Sun papers in his native Baltimore.2. H. L. Mencken — The Joyous Libertarian*: It is typical of American Kultur that it was incapable of understanding H. L. Mencken. And it was typical of H. L. Mencken that this didn’t bother him a bit; in fact, quite the contrary, for it confirmed his estimate of his fellow-countrymen. It is difficult for Americans to understand a merger of high-spirited wit and devotion to principle; one is either a humorist, gently or acidly spoofing the foibles of one’s age, or else one is a serious and solemn thinker.
3. The H. L. Mencken Show: From the letters, I became smitten with Mencken’s verbal gymnastics, his apparent refusal to say something plain when it could be said with the cocksure verbosity of a Southern lawyer. Perhaps, too, I was charmed by that most convenient of facts: he was dead. Had Mencken still been alive, I have no doubt I’d have raised my guard, but that is the gift of hindsight. Instead I accepted him the way he accepted himself, disregarding the imperfections—of which, I would later find out, there were many.
4. On Being an American: The United States, to my eye, is incomparably the greatest show on earth. It is a show which avoids diligently all the kinds of clowning which tire me most quickly — for example, royal ceremonials, the tedious hocus-pocus of haut politique, the taking of politics seriously — and lays chief stress upon the kinds which delight me unceasingly — for example, the ribald combats of demagogues, the exquisitely ingenious operations of master rogues, the pursuit of witches and heretics, the desperate struggles of inferior men to claw their way into Heaven.
5. The Strange Decline of H. L. Mencken: Seventy years ago, one of the most influential American journalists and critics was silenced forever. H.L. Mencken suffered a massive stroke in 1948 that left him unable to write, the thing he did best and that defined his life. He lived eight more years but could no longer write with any degree of facility and could read only with difficulty. It was a savage fate for a man who literally lived to put his ideas on paper. Today Mencken is largely forgotten. That wasn’t always the case.
Referenced Articles Books & Definitions:
- A bold text subscript above and preceding a title below (¹·²·³), refers to a book, pdf, podcast, video, slide show and a download url that is usually free.
- Brackets containing a number e.g. (1) reference a particular included article (1-5).
- A link (url) includes the title references and source, a long read (or video exceeding 10 min)) url* is often indicated as shown.
- The intended context of words, idioms, phrases, have their links in italics.
- Occasionally Open University (OU) free courses are cited.
- JSTOR lets you set up a free account allowing you to have 6 (interchangeable) books stored that you can read online.
¹H. L. Mencken On Governments and Politicians (url*) The voluminous writings (nineteen books and thousands of essays, articles and reviews) of H. L. Mencken, one of America’s finest writers and perhaps its greatest journalist and chronicler of American English, are a virtually-forgotten treasure trove of sparkling wit and deep wisdom. Like knowledge of their own history and respect for their own Constitution, decades ago most Americans consigned him to the dustbin. To peruse his pearls about government, democracy, politicians and elections, as well as socialism and capitalism, is to perceive something of what America once was and now merely claims to be. “Government is a broker in pillage,” Mencken said in Prejudices: First Series (1919), “and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” In that book he added “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule,” and defined the socialist as “a man suffering from an overwhelming conviction to believe what is not true.”