H.L. Mencken’s reputation as the “bad boy” of Baltimore might earn him membership in the ranks of intellectuals who advocated a brave new world to replace the timid old one. He was, after all, the first English translator and interpreter of Friedrich Nietzsche. In his book on Nietzsche, Mencken approvingly summarized the philosopher’s point that “what passed for civilization, as represented by Christianity, was making such an effort to defy and counteract the law of natural selection” that it would end in “disaster.” Self-sacrifice, according to Mencken, “was an open defiance of nature, and so were all the other Christian virtues.”
When Mencken wrote on Nietzsche he was still primarily a journalist, albeit one who had larger interests. He had begun his career as a cub reporter but soon ascended the ranks of Baltimore’s newspaper columnists, writing books and literary criticism on the side. That moonlighting led Mencken to great acclaim, first as co-editor of The Smart Set and then as founding editor of The American Mercury.
About a decade after his book on Nietzsche, Mencken made his mark as one of the most vigorous of literary rabble-rousers with an essay that savaged Puritanism as a force in American writing. Puritanism was not merely the “haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy,” it was also responsible for an outlook that produced philistines: “It is not enough that [our fellow men] are headed for heaven, and will sit upon the right hand of God through all eternity; it is also necessary that they be polite, generous, and, above all, trustworthy.” American civilization had suffered for having to bear that impossible burden.
Mencken’s early reputation depended on his willingness to flout conventional Protestant bourgeois morality and cultural expressions. For Marion Elizabeth Rogers, his most recent biographer, the sage of Baltimore’s significance was his courageous fight against cowardice, censorship, hypocrisy, and frauds; he was the herald of greater freedom, honesty, and truth.
But when it came to sex and marriage, Mencken was hardly the prophet of marital liberty, reproductive equality, and sexual fraternity. One of his earliest harvests of thoughts about sex came in his 1918 book, In Defense of Women, a work that mocked traditional sex roles while confirming their advantages. Mencken reveled in the contradictions of American women, at once taking their side and reinforcing stereotypes. For instance, Mencken contended that women were actually smarter than men—smaller brains but bigger as a percentage of body mass—and for this reason were too smart for the trivial tasks that consigned to them in the home. At the same time, he believed that the liberation of women had a direct effect upon the American dinner table.
“Nowhere else in the world have women more leisure and freedom to improve their minds, and nowhere else do they show a higher level of intelligence,” Mencken intoned, but “nowhere else is there worse cooking in the home, or a more inept handling of the whole domestic economy.” That the United States was both “the land of the emancipated and enthroned woman” and the home of “canned soup, of canned pork and beans, of whole meals in cans, and of everything else ready-made” was no “mere coincidence.”
The same result—women as bad cooks—emerged from the way women thought about duty and the dynamics of courting and marriage. On the one hand, women were superior to men because they lacked “the dog-like fidelity to duty which is one of the shining marks of men.” Instead of taking pride in what is “inherently disagreeable,” women “always go to the galleys under protest,” with “vows of sabotage” and a philosophy almost identical to the syndicalists. On the other hand, once a woman had “caught a man”—even if it came at a stage when she had not acquired “a fourth of the culinary subtleties that are commonplace even to the chefs on dining cars”—she had no reason to concern herself with cooking. The woman’s husband needed to eat, “in the last analysis, whatever she sets before him, and his lack of intelligence makes it easy for her to shut off his academic criticisms by bald appeals to his emotions.” The husband thus turns the wife’s indolence into proof “of her fineness of soul.” The man is “abashed” in the presence of “her lofty incompetence.”
The one class of women whom Mencken judged to be inferior because they were more like men than women was the suffragettes. Women, he contended, had a rich history of hard-won battles with men in which they had won great freedom and even power, despite traditional male privilege. But the suffragettes instead sought formal recognition of their equality, if not superiority. Most women, Mencken contended, regarded suffrage of “small value” since they knew “they can get what they want without going to the actual polls for it.” In fact, once women became familiar with the mechanics of democratic politics “and get rid of the preposterous harridans who got it for them and who now seek to tell them what to do with it,” they would abandon the political idealism that was the curse of the average man.
Prohibition was one basis for this prediction. It had passed without the votes of women: “Every normal woman believes, and quite accurately, that the average man is very much like her husband, John, and she knows very well that John is a weak, silly, and knavish fellow, and that any effort to convert him into an archangel overnight is bound to come to grief.”
That estimate of men was at odds, Mencken conceded, with the delusion that the average man “who doesn’t believe that Jonah swallowed the whale spends his whole leisure leaping through the seventh hoop of the Decalogue.”
In point of fact, the “secret scandal of Christendom,” at least among Protestants, was that “most men are faithful to their wives.” He hypothesized: “for one husband of the Nordic race who maintains a blonde chorus girl in oriental luxury around the corner, there are ten thousand who are as true to their wives, year in and year out, as so many convicts in the death-house, and would be no more capable of any such loathsome malpractice, even in the face of free opportunity, than they would be of cutting off the ears of their young.”
If the influence of Christianity was responsible for male restraint, it also accounted for a degree of women’s liberation. Mencken was aware of the psychological literature that concluded that women in Christian civilizations lived lives “heavy with repression and dissimulation,” which in the long run produced “effects … indistinguishable from disease.” The result, at one end of the spectrum, was the suffragette, “with her grotesque adoption of the male belief in laws, phrases and talismans, and her hysterical demand for a sexual libertarianism that she could not put to use if she had it,” and at the other, “the snuffling and neurotic woman, with her bogus martyrdom, her extravagant pruderies and her pathological delusions.”
But Mencken saw through the Freudian challenge to Victorian conventions and recognized that “the glad tidings preached by Christ were obviously highly favorable to women.” As presented in the gospels, Jesus lifted women “to equality before the Lord when their very possession of souls was still doubted by the majority of rival theologians.” Overall the influence of Christianity on women’s status was a mixed bag, however. Christianity both “libelled women and flattered them.”
Mencken claimed that women were “not naturally religious”: their “ordinary” devotion was little more than a convention imposed by “the masculine notion that an appearance of holiness is proper to their lowly station.” If they ever displayed inordinate levels of piety—such as “driven to frenzies by the merits of the saints,” “weeping over the sorrows of the heathen,” or “spending hours on their knees in hysterical abasement before the heavenly throne”—the reason was likely a “fair and toothsome” ecclesiastic who was likely “a good deal more aphrodisiacal than learned.”
Yet for all of his opposition to the moralism and naiveté of Puritanism and Christian moralists, Mencken opposed the open flouting of conventional morality and even challenged—not so much on Christian grounds but on the basis of good taste—the mini-sexual revolution led by the psychologists, flappers, and sex-educationists of his day. He complained in the first series of Prejudices (1919) that the literature on “sex hygiene,” once “timorous,” was now spouting titles such as “What Every Child of Ten Should Know.” Sex manuals assumed one significant pedagogical error:
they are founded upon an attempt to explain a romantic mystery in terms of an exact science. Nothing could be more absurd: as well attempt to interpret Beethoven in terms of mathematical physics—as many a fatuous contrapuntist, indeed, has tried to do. Thy mystery of sex presents itself to the young, not as a scientific problem to be solved, but as a romantic emotion to be accounted for. The only result of the current endeavor to explain its phenomena by seeking parallels in botany is to make botany obscene.
The loss of mystery also resulted in marriages where the bride “knows as much as the midwife of 1885,” an awareness that was highly embarrassing to the sector of romantic men to which Mencken confessed to belong. His objection to the loss of romance in the pursuit of sexual fulfillment was not moral but aesthetic:
In the relations between the sexes all beauty is founded upon romance, all romance is founded upon mystery, and all mystery is founded upon ignorance, or, failing that, upon the deliberate denial of the known truth. To be in love is merely to be in a state of perpetual anaesthesia. … But how can this condition of mind survive the deadly matter-of-factness which sex hygiene and the new science of eugenics impose? How can a woman continue to believe in the honor, courage, and loving tenderness of a man after she has learned, perhaps by affidavit, that his hemoglobin count is 117%, that he is free from sugar and albumen, that his blood pressure is 112/79 and that his Wassermann reaction is negative? … What is neither hidden nor forbidden is seldom very charming.
Mencken was not sure whether books on sex had corrupted American youth, as the censorious postal inspector Anthony Comstock worried. But he was certain that frankness had transformed American novels. The old stories “glossed over” the “Facts of Life.” But after the revelations about sex from the realm of scientific education, the old-time novelists’ sales declined and a new crop of authors who told “it all” had become bestsellers. “The most virtuous lady novelists,” Mencken noted, “write things that would have made a bartender blush to death two decades ago.”
He thought that men were far less interested than women in knowing or talking about the subject. Except for a “few earnest men whose mental processes … are essentially womanish,” men think “they know all about it that is worth knowing.” In point of fact, sex for men was simply “an afterthought and a recreation.” Here the older Mencken was speaking from his perspective as a man with a declining libido rather than from his experience as a cub reporter 20 years earlier. For him, work was more important than the praise and rewards of women, and Mencken believed this was true for all genuine men:
Men work because they want to eat, because they want to feel secure, because they long to shine among their fellows, and for no other reason. A man may crave his wife’s approbation, or some other woman’s approbation, of his social graces, of his taste, of his generosity and courage, of his general dignity in the world, but long before he ever gives thought to such things and long after he has forgotten them he craves the approbation of his fellow men. Above all, he craves the approbation of his fellow craftsmen—the men who understand exactly what he is trying to do, and are expertly competent to judge his doing of it.
Mencken did not mean to discount the enjoyment husbands received from their wives’ respect and admiration. But most intelligent men discovered that a wife’s esteem did not “run in direct ratio to his intrinsic worth, that the qualities and acts that please her are not always the qualities and acts that are most satisfactory to the censor within him.” And at bottom, Mencken confessed, sex belonged “to comedy and the cool of the evening and not to the sober business that goes on in the heat of the day.” That sentiment might explain Mencken’s description of marital bliss:
passion, at least in its more adventurous and melodramatic aspects, is too exciting and alarming for so indolent a man, and I am too egoistic to have much desire to be mothered. What, then, remains for me? Let me try to describe it to you.
It is the close of a busy and vexatious day—say half past five or six o’clock of a winter afternoon. I have had a cocktail or two, and am stretched out on a divan in front of a fire, smoking. At the edge of the divan, close enough for me to reach her with my hand, sits a woman not too young, but still good-looking and well-dressed—above all, a woman with a soft, low-pitched, agreeable voice. As I snooze she talks—of anything, everything, all the things that women talk of: books, music, the play, men, other women. No politics. No business. No religion. No metaphysics. Nothing challenging and vexatious—but remember, she is intelligent; what she says is clearly expressed, and often picturesquely. I observe the fine sheen of her hair, the pretty cut of her frock, the glint of her white teeth, the arch of her eye-brow, the graceful curve of her arm. I listen to the exquisite murmur of her voice. Gradually I fall asleep—but only for an instant. At once, observing it, she raises her voice ever so little, and I am awake. Then to sleep again—slowly and charmingly down that slippery hill of dreams. And then awake again, and then asleep again, and so on.
I ask you seriously: could anything be more unutterably beautiful?
In print Mencken was indefatigably the iconoclast. At home, whether with his mother or his wife, he was entirely domesticated in ways remarkably Christian. That double-sidedness may not turn Mencken into a conservative. But owing to a recognition of nature’s limits and society’s restrains on human folly, Mencken saw through the hollow claim that more freedom led to better societies. Whether he possessed an adequate philosophical or theological foundation for his judgments, Mencken’s brand of skepticism about human flourishing is one that traditionalists might well consider if they want to avoid the easy optimism that has afflicted both the moral censors and libertines.
D.G. Hart is the author of From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism.