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.
From the end of World War I until the Great Depression, Mencken reached an audience unmatched by any other political or cultural figure in American history. Walter Lippman, James Reston, George Will—none of them came close to Mencken’s impact on the world of letters. During that decade and half, the years of “wonderful nonsense” that we call the Jazz Age, Mencken turned his scathing wit and rhetoric of ridicule on the political elite of American society with a sense of humor missing from today’s political journalism. President Wilson was “the archangel Woodrow,” Harding “that numskull Gamaliel,” Hoover “Lord Hoover.” William Jennings Bryan was “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany with no sense of dignity. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses.” Electing Calvin Coolidge, he wrote, was like being presented with a sumptuous banquet and “staying your stomach by plucking flies out of the air.” When once asked why if he despised politics so much he wasted his time writing about it, Mencken answer was simple: “why do people go to zoos.”
Mencken’s influence extended beyond the world of politics into the larger literary scene, again something no present journalist approaches. He had a keen, if idiosyncratic, eye for good literature. Early in the 20th century, he wrote a keen appreciation of George Bernard Shaw’s dramas, and championed Theodore Dreiser when the literary establishment had no time for the crude realism that characterized his best works, Sister Carrie and An AmericanTragedy. He published the young F. Scott Fitzgerald in the literary journal The Smart Set, which he and his friend George Jean Nathan edited. He was, however, dubious about Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, believing it well written but trivial. Mencken was an early booster of Joseph Conrad in America, published a couple of short stories by James Joyce, and helped launch the career of Sinclair Lewis with an enthusiastic review of Main Street in the pages of Smart Set. Not a bad record.
In 1923, Mencken’s and Nathan’s influence peaked with the founding of The American Mercury. For a decade, The American Mercury, with its famous green cover, would be a sign of intellectual respectability on college campuses throughout the nation. It was there that Mencken published many of his most famous essays while running some of the most influential literary-cultural figures of the time that have since been largely forgotten: Max Eastman, Sherwood Anderson, and Joseph Wood Krutch, among others. With the onslaught of the Great Depression and the rise of Franklin Roosevelt, who Mencken never really understood and seriously underestimated, the popularity and importance of The American Mercury and Mencken himself waned. Mencken continued writing but his work in the face of the Depression and especially World War II seemed irrelevant.
What explains Mencken’s decline in popularity? Part of the problem is that the kind of raw cynicism that he expressed is no longer acceptable. It may be true that, as he wrote, the “cynics are right nine times out of ten,” but that doesn’t make them likable or even tolerable. Also the topics and issues he wrote about with so much gusto during the 1920s no longer seemed relevant or important afterwards. For instance, some of Mencken’s best and funniest literary blasts were aimed at Prohibition, the backwardness of the American South, organized religion, and small-town businessman. His main foil in the 1920s was Puritanism, which he defined with typical gusto as the “haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy.” Who cares about Prohibition or Puritanism in this age of raging pornography?
There was also a “Court Jester of American Democracy” quality about Mencken that enabled readers to enjoy his barbs without taking him seriously. And at least in one area, his views weren’t retrograde: he was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage before it became law in 1920. Yet in many ways he resembled the 19th-century village atheist railing against God, whom everyone tolerated and laughed at.
On a more important level, the ridicule of American democracy became increasingly out of place in a world faced with the rise of totalitarian movements. Mencken was a Germanophile and never really understood Nazism. He had been virtually silenced during the First World War when a ferocious anti-German feeling spread throughout the nation, and that may have blinded him to the brutal ugliness of Nazism when it emerged in the 1930s. For a long time he regarded Hitler as just another German nationalist, like Bismarck, and not the modern monster that he was. While he wasn’t gagged during World War II, nothing he wrote about that conflict bore the talent and insights that he’d displayed in the past.
The publications of Mencken’s diaries—he was an inveterate record keeper who, according to his best biographer Terry Teachout, wrote over 100,000 words a year—didn’t help his reputation. They revealed that his humorous blasts hid anti-Semitic and racist views. It is true that he had many Jewish friends—Nathan and the publisher Alfred Knopf among them—but that only makes his crude anti-Semitic remarks all the worse. While Mencken campaigned loudly against the lynching of the 1920s and 1930s and published a number of African-American writers, he still held typical racist views about blacks. That’s enough to damn a writer today.
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.”
John Rossi is professor emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.