Mencken for Conservatives
H.L. Mencken has a conservative problem. The Baltimore journalist became the poster boy for literary modernism thanks to his literary criticism and nationally syndicated op-ed columns, in addition to his work as a magazine editor, most notably at American Mercury. But he ranks well behind the modernist poets T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens as an acceptable literary figure for conservative consumption. The reason has much to do with Mencken’s skepticism and irreverence. He mocked Puritanism famously as the cultural force that gave Americans a moralistic squint. Worse, he recommended the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche as an antidote to Victorian morality and then promoted Theodore Dreiser, whose novels offended censors. Mencken proved his heretical ways at the Scopes Trial, where he mocked the prosecution led by William Jennings Bryan and the “simian faithful” who hung on the Great Commoner’s every word. Everywhere Mencken turned, his mantra seemed to be “just say no” to inherited moral, intellectual, and literary standards.
The most recent conservative complaint about Mencken is that he was an elitist who ridiculed his fellow Americans. Kevin D. Williamson of National Review objected that the debunking mentality prevalent in Mencken’s work represented a “genuine fervor to knock the United States and its people down a peg or two.” For Mencken, “the representative American experience was the Scopes trial, with its greasy Christian fundamentalists and arguments designed to appeal to the ‘prehensile moron,’ his description of the typical American farmer.” Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute registered a similar complaint in his book The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Undermined the Middle Class. He charged that Mencken was part of a company of liberal thinkers who wanted to create an American aristocracy that could “provide the same sense of hierarchy and order long associated with European statism.”
It doesn’t help conservatives who have a soft spot for Mencken that Gore Vidal took inspiration from the Baltimorean. Vidal’s own moralism could be as priggish as any fundamentalist’s, but that did not stop him from recognizing Mencken as another writer who was too good for America. Vidal applauded Mencken’s ridicule of Americans’ intelligence: “The more one reads Mencken, the more one eyes suspiciously the knuckles of his countrymen,” Vidal wrote, “looking to see callouses from too constant a contact with the greensward.” How grass produces callouses is anyone’s guess, but that imagery’s challenge did not stop Vidal from recommending Mencken’s unbelief. Mencken viewed religion, Vidal contended, “as a Great Wall of China designed to keep civilization out while barbarism might flourish within the gates.” Vidal was convinced that only the few, the proud promoters of licentiousness like himself could recognize Mencken’s charms.
Of course, conservatives have saner writers like Joseph Epstein, longtime editor of The American Scholar, to speak on Mencken’s behalf. Epstein grew up at a time when reading Mencken was required by “young men with intellectual interests.” The reason was Mencken’s iconoclasm—his constant deflating of politicians, reformers, moralists, preachers, and “all the habits and attitudes and hidebound views that for him marched under the flag of twentieth-century Puritanism.” But Epstein noticed that as he became older, Mencken’s appeal grew. For starters, “few American writers have been funnier.” And Mencken’s prose was “original and unmistakable”—“strong verbs, exotic nouns, outrageous adjectives, a confident cadence … and wide learning.” Epstein also credited Mencken with an accessible and engaging point of view that relied on basic common sense. “Like Nietzsche, Mencken could be wildly extravagant, but unlike Nietzsche he was always sane,” Epstein wrote. “Like [George Bernard] Shaw, Mencken made a living out of detesting hypocrisy; but unlike Shaw, he was without the pretensions of the pundit.”
One way of putting Epstein’s point is that with Mencken there is more than meets the eye, a truism that registers as scientific fact when measuring Mencken’s literary output. Over his career he authored approximately 10 million words. That works out roughly to 40,000 pages of manuscript. At roughly 350 pages per book manuscript, that leaves Mencken with the equivalent of 115 books. Much more than meets the eye, indeed.
One reason that conservatives struggle to reckon with the whole Mencken is that he is one of the most commonly quoted authors by contemporary writers. Every day a journalist or writer is employing one of Mencken’s one-liners about democracy, politics, or American character, in a way that makes it feel like we know the writer. Mencken was a superbly gifted aphorist. Terry Teachout observes that Mencken started literary life by trying verse (his first book was a collection of poems) but switched to aphorisms because his poems were lousy. Here is a sampling:
A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know.
Misogynist—A man who hates women as much as women hate one another.
The theory seems to be that so long as a man is a failure he is one of God’s chillun, but that as soon as he has any luck he owes it to the Devil.
Christian—One who is willing to serve three Gods, but draws the line at one wife.
Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.
If after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.
Don’t try this at home. Crafting an aphorism sufficiently short, witty, and memorable is not easy. Yet for all the writing that Mencken did, he still took the time to pen hundreds of aphorisms. That care for language also extended to one of his most impressive accomplishments, The American Language, a work that compared British and American usage of English, took up three big volumes, and absorbed Mencken’s attention for almost three decades.
Beyond the smart-alecky nature of Mencken’s aphorisms, a perusal of his corpus will take readers to a range of observations that sound much more Burkean than liberal. Not to be missed are Mencken’s political instincts that ran in the direction of strict constitutionalism and states’ rights. For instance, Mencken’s attack upon FDR and the New Deal cost him his following among intellectuals. For him the New Deal was “pillage and bribery,” a scheme “to uplift the downtrodden and bring in Utopia at home.” Still, he objected not simply to obtrusive government but also to FDR’s suspension of Washington’s checks and balances:
The abdication of Congress is certainly not as overt and abject as that of the German Reichstag or the Italian Parliamento; nevertheless, it has gone so far that the constitutional potency of the legislative arm is reduced to what the lawyers call a nuisance value. The two Houses can still make faces at Dr. Roosevelt, and when a strong body of public opinion happens to stand behind them they can even force him, in this detail or that, into a kind of accounting, but it must be manifest that if they tried to impose their will upon him in any major matter he could beat them easily. The only will left in the national government is his will. To all intents and purposes he is the state. We have thus come to a sort of antithesis of the English system, under which Parliament is omnipotent and the King is only a falseface.
Mencken’s political instincts even ran in paleoconservative directions when it came to the Confederacy and the Civil War. In a remarkable essay on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Mencken conceded that the 16th president of the United States was a gifted orator. “The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history,” he wrote. “Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. … It is genuinely stupendous.” But Lincoln’s famous speech was “oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense.” Its argument was simply that “the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ should not perish from the earth.” Mencken could not imagine anything “more untrue.” The reason: “The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What else was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg … than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States?”
And for conservatives who bristle under the hubris of a foreign policy based on American exceptionalism, Mencken’s comments about the new world order that Woodrow Wilson set out to create are relevant:
The old theory of a federation of free and autonomous states has broken down by its own weight, and we are moved toward centralization by forces that have long been powerful and are now quite irresistible. So with the old theory of national isolation: it, too, has fallen to pieces. The United States can no longer hope to lead a separate life in the world, undisturbed by the pressure of foreign aspirations. … to-day no one seriously maintains, as all Americans once maintained, that the nation may safely potter on without adequate means of defense. However unpleasant it may be to contemplate, the fact is plain that the American people, during the next century, will have to fight to maintain their place in the sun.
When Mencken turned to everyday life, his observations foreshadowed William F. Buckley Jr.’s explanation of the conservative’s duty as standing against history, yelling “Stop.” In a 1922 essay, almost seven decades before cell phones were a gleam in AT&T stockholders’ eyes, Mencken wrote about the pleasures of dining without interruption by phone calls:
The other day a strange thing happened. I sat down to dinner in my own house without any impertinent and imbecile jackass summoning me from the table to the telephone. The thing, indeed, seemed almost miraculous. … There for the first time in years, I wallowed in the luxury of a meal eaten in peace, with no abominable shrilling of a bell to interrupt my engulfing of my victuals, and no choleric conversation with a moron to paralyze my digestion.
Mass media had a similar effect on Mencken. His early impression of cinema was negative. Every film he saw or screenplay he read was “mawkish and maudlin bilge.” The worst movie, in fact, sunk so low “that no other art, not even that of the architect of suburban filling stations, can show a parallel to it.” Radio was not much better. “For hour after hour its customers sit listening to bad music, worse speeches, and other entertainment so dreadful that I cannot be described.” Mencken allowed that the English had better programs thanks to the BBC. “It sends nothing shabby, cheap or vulgar onto the air.” But in the U.S., where radio “costs nothing,” “it is worth precisely the same.” Late in life, however, after suffering a stroke that prevented him from both reading and writing, Mencken went to the movies with his brother to kill time.
The automobile was another nuisance, not so much for disrupting the pedestrian’s life, but for increasing police power. In 1925 he wrote that he read “in the Sunpaper that so many motorists were herded for trial in the Traffic Court that it took three judges to dispose of them.” He deduced, “Obviously, the police … have no need to wait for heaven: they enjoy it here and now. What could be more charmingly to their taste than a body of laws which fills two courtrooms to suffocation every day?” He added, “Time was when the cops seldom got a chance to nab a white woman, and never a respectable white woman. Now they take them by the hundred. It is almost Utopia.”
Rather than merely holding his nose among America’s “booboiesie,” Mencken advocated a manner of life much more akin to the one promoted by New Urbanists and cultural conservatives than New Atheists or liberal cosmopolitans. He enjoyed a modest life and ridiculed pretense. His determination to live in Baltimore instead of New York City was indicative of the implicit conservatism that informed Mencken’s observations and activities:
For twenty-four years I have resisted almost constant temptation to move to New York, and I resist is more easily today than I did when it began. I am, perhaps, the most arduous commuter ever heard of, even in that town of commuters. My office is on Manhattan island and has been there since 1914; yet I live, vote and have my being in Baltimore, and come back here the instant my job allows if my desk bangs at 3 P.M., I leap for the 3.25 train. Four long hours follow, but the first is the worst. My back, at all events, is toward New York! Behind lies a place fit only for the gross business of getting money; ahead is a place made for enjoying it.
Mencken could eat and drink with the best of them, even during Prohibition. But any eating, drinking, or playing music with his company of friends was best:
The men I know and esteem in Baltimore are, on the whole, men I have known and esteemed a long while; even those who have come into my ken relatively lately seem likely to last. But of the men I knew best when I first began going to New York, twenty-five years ago, not one is a friend today. … What I contend is that in Baltimore, under a slow-moving and cautious social organization, such contacts are more enduring than elsewhere, and that life in consequence is more charming. Of the external embellishments of life we have a plenty—as great a supply, indeed, to any rational taste, as New York itself. But we have something much better: we have a tradition of sound and comfortable living.
Mencken seemed to understand what made life worth living (apart from answering ultimate questions). It did not come from consumption or status but from hard work followed by simple pleasures enjoyed with friends.
This outlook situated Mencken firmly in the bourgeoisie, a status that no doubt accounts for his politics and disdain for the New Deal. It also explains the professoriate’s failure to take Mencken seriously. When the cultural historian T.J. Jackson Lears commented on a Mencken revival in the Reagan era—a context that always made university professors nervous—he located the Baltimore writer’s intellectual inferiority firmly in his family’s middle-class identity:
Both [Mencken and Twain] were artists of language rather than ideas; both reached wide middle class audiences through outrageous humor and vigorous colloquial style. … Without that style, neither man’s reputation would have survived a generation. Both men sustained ambivalent relationships with majority culture: they mocked it, exploited it, made literary capital out of it, but they never dismissed it.
With these sensible—even admirable—qualities going for him, why has Mencken not fared better with conservatives? The answer has to be religion. For whatever the reasons, conservatism has become the political preference for (most of) the faithful. Here, Mencken committed the unpardonable sin of siding with the scientists, progressives, eugenicists, and liberals who descended on Dayton, Tenn., during the Scopes Trial. It was the performance for which he is best remembered, at least if the 1960 Hollywood movie Inherit the Wind is any indication. Mencken inspired the character of the cynical reporter E.K. Hornbeck, played by Gene Kelly. For Mencken’s debunking of Bryan and fundamentalists, American conservatives have been unwilling to grant absolution. Although Mencken’s reporting at the trial showed insight and wit, his obituary for Bryan, who died in Dayton only five days after the affair, was arguably the most vicious piece he ever wrote:
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. … It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.
Yet that was not Mencken’s last word on faith. His 1930 book, Treatise On the Gods, was in his own estimation his most important. In it, Mencken reduced religion to a host of psychological and cultural causes but resisted utter dismissal. In his introduction he explained that people who wrote about religion fell into one of two classes, “those who are fanatical, and believe in it too much,” and “those who hate it, and abuse it too much.” Mencken claimed to belong to neither. He was a self-declared “amiable” skeptic, “quite devoid of the religious impulse.” That did not mean his aim was to savage faith or believers:
no matter what may be said against [religion] on evidential grounds, it must be manifest that [it has] conditioned the thinking of mankind since the infancy of the race. … dismissing the thing itself as a mere aberration is a proceeding that is far more lofty than sensible. What has been so powerful in its effects upon human history deserves sober study, whether it be an aberration or not.
If conservatives need their favorite writers to be Christians, then Mencken fails. But surely the right is not so devout that it refuses to read the naughty bits of John Updike, avoids watching shows like The Wire, or subscribes only to First Things. As Joseph Epstein put it, Mencken never claimed to know “the truth,” but he did “know a thing or two”—honor, craftsmanship, “phonies,” literature, music, and language. But above all, Epstein adds, Mencken “knew what he did not know.” That agnosticism did lead to attacks on “those people who claimed to know the unknowable and to have solutions to the unsolvable.” But not knowing also “bred a certain humility.” That is always a desirable trait for those who, according to Russell Kirk, are supposed to be “chastened by their principle of imperfectability.” If conservatives want a thinker who understood, according to Epstein, that the promised “perfection of man and society” had consigned “a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell,” Mencken should be (one of) their guy(s).
D.G. Hart teaches at Hillsdale College and is the author of Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H.L. Mencken.