Mencken the Nietzschean


This week on Facebook: There are many pdfs available on H. L. Mencken and Friedrich Nietzsche, with both occupying a unique, if ironic place, in the history of American reception. I have chosen the urls that I could find on them, including my only reference¹. Through the first full-length account of Nietzsche in English, Mencken did more to popularize the German philosopher in America than any other writer. Published in 1908, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was widely and (on the whole) favorably reviewed, and for a book of its kind, sold remarkably well. Within a year a “second edition” (actually a second printing) was issued, and a “third edition,” revised and expanded, appeared in 1913. A decade later the book was still selling and its author (now a famous journalist) was honored by Vanity Fair for “contributing more to the popular understanding of Nietzsche than any other American.” Even a few scholars deigned to acknowledge Mencken’s “racily written book” and to praise it as “one of the most valuable Nietzschean commentaries in English.” As late as 1941, a noted intellectual historian called Mencken’s study “still one of the best and liveliest accounts of Nietzsche’s ideas” available.

“The task,” he told Schaff, “is one for a man of ample leisure and thorough scholarship. I have little of the former and make no pretence to the latter.” Mencken’s assessment was accurate on both counts: he was busy journalist not a scholar, and his German was rudimentary at best. Schaff, however, persisted, and Mencken, though “not enthusiastic,” agreed. As a full-time editor at the Baltimore Sun, Mencken had to research and write the book in his spare hours. Its success not only popularized Nietzsche but catapulted the twenty-seven-year-old Mencken into the national spotlight, where he would—with varying degrees of magnitude—shine for the next four decades as America’s most well-known and inveterate contrarian.

Regarding what Mencken referred to as the “booboisie”(1), I share Menken’s views on them but would add his saying about the government:

“The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me.  They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.”

Mencken appealed to the “booboise”, especially to those who did not recognise themselves as being “exactly like you and me”, he clearly shared Nietzsche’s views on the generation of slaves. Whether or not Mencken and Nietzsche both agreed that epistocracy as opposed to noocracy would achieve the best form of government, I have no idea.

Taken from UK — Electoral Naiveté: Every election does — to my mind —point to the fundamental differences between how they are viewed by politicians, the electorate, and the social media. Each may have what they consider to be pragmatic views but they only agree on their own self interest and not on that of the State. This includes the social media (news on the web) which, for the most part, are articles written for publication and intended to appeal to a certain readership. This was also covered (to some extent) in my post on Global Government an Epistocracy  where the author divided the electorate into three categories, which he creatively labels hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. Hobbits have little or no interest in politics, and have very low levels of political knowledge. Hooligans tend to know more than hobbits do. But they are highly biased in their evaluation of information, tending to dismiss opposing arguments out of hand. They also lack any kind of social scientific sophistication. Vulcans, by contrast, combine extensive knowledge and analytical sophistication with open-mindedness. They also don’t let emotion and bias cloud their judgment. But very few of us even come close to being Vulcans. The author may have a point, but in my view all hooligans think that they are really Vulcans and however biased they may be, disenfranchising them portends social unrest. The result of a selectively enfranchised electorate may well suite the rule of the controlling political oligarchy, much as it did (and does) the rule of the  Ba’th Party and the CCP in China.


1. Mencken’s thoughts on the public’s choice: Democracy, as we all know, is a Greek word. Literally, it means “rule of the people.” To a proponent of democracy, then, it is not unfair to ask, “How have the people been ruling themselves?” In these days of election fever (or exhaustion), it is amusing, if not illustrative to remember that one prominent American openly proclaimed that the people stink and that democracy is a joke. I’m thinking, of course, of H.L. Mencken. Surveying the teeming hordes of American citizens, Mencken called them the “booboisie.” The booboisie is composed of idiots and mental children. “Ideas,” Mencken noted, “leave them unscathed; they are responsive only to emotions, and their emotions are all elemental — the emotions, indeed, of tabby-cats rather than of men.”

2. H. L. Mencken: Chief Polemicist and Literary Critic: From the start of H. L. Mencken’s popular career, beginning with his summary of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, Mencken’s ideological roots were obvious to any discerning reader. His ideals required only a basic knowledge of the company he kept and the authors he idolized. While his style is permeated with raw wit and uninhibited ridicule of those he felt were beneath him, Mencken was a force, in more ways than one. He was formative in an early understanding of vernacular American English, a foremost literary critic in his time, and a champion of women’s rights (even while being entirely unsympathetic to suffragists in his news coverage). He also popularized a social-Darwinian reading of Nietzsche that lasted through much of the twentieth century.

3. Mencken on Nietzsche: As for Nietzsche himself, the one firm faith of his life was his belief in his Polish origin. He cultivated a disorderly, truculent, and what he conceived to be Polish façade, wearing an enormous and bristling mustache. He wrote a book, which was privately printed, to prove that the true form of his name was Nietzschy, and that it was Polish and noble. It delighted him when the people at some obscure watering-place, deceived by his looks, nicknamed him ‘The Polack.’ The one unforgivable insult was to call him a German…

4. Nietzsche and Mencken: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was the first book ever to appear in English on the German philosopher, and H.L. Mencken’s second real book. It seems entirely appropriate that the topic of one of the earliest books by the foremost iconoclastic journalist of the first half of the twentieth century was the foremost iconoclastic philosopher of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, this seems a natural match given the many similarities between the two.

5. Mencken On Nietzsche — A Critical Review: Mencken’s chief literary contribution is considered to be The American Language, a study of how the English language is used in the United States, but he was much more than that to Americans in the early 20th century. His syndicated columns for the Baltimore Sun were read across the United States, and he was regarded as one of the preeminent intellectuals of his time. He was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, and he was an early advocate of Ayn Rand. Like Gore Vidal, Mencken was self-educated, did not attend university, and had decided at an early age that he wanted to be a writer.


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.

¹Mencken’s Nietzsche (url & pdf): The role of Nietzsche in Mencken’s rise to fame is clear enough, but what of its role in shaping Mencken’s inimitable style and “sham-smashing” ideas? Students of Mencken disagree but tend to place more weight on Nietzsche’s stylistic influence. According to a study of Mencken’s literary criticism, “Nietzsche showed the young newspaperman how to express himself in a vibrant, muscular manner, employing a metaphoric language that was often outlandish and shocking and that possessed, above all else, the quality of unexpectedness.” Thomas A. Huxley, the British agnostic whom Mencken worshipped, may have “provided a model for Mencken’s style,” but “Nietzsche was to give Mencken the perfect example of a style that was explosively alive.” Menken was certainly a great admirer of Nietzsche’s style: for its power and persuasiveness he ranked it second only to Huxley’s. Just as Nietzsche had praised “the tempo” of Machiavelli’s Prince—with its “boisterous allegrissimo”—so Mencken celebrated the “violent eloquence” of The Antichrist—“beginning allegro, it proceeds from forte, by an uninterrupted crescendo to allegro con moltissimo molto fortissimo.”  (Like Nietzsche, Mencken was a music aficionado and a competent amateur pianist.)

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