Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

TAC Bookshelf: Journalism’s Rock Stars

State of the Union: Long live Menckenism.
H. L. Mencken Smoking Cigar and Sitting at Typewriter

Jude Russo, managing editor: It is difficult to imagine a journalist in 2024 developing a mass following. Christopher Hitchens maybe is the last rock-star scribbler: a high priest for a certain streak of socially liberal neoconservatism and the New Atheism, which, it is easy to forget now, was a cultural force to be reckoned with in the Bush era, who got his start as a reporter and writer.

The Hitchens phenomenon particularly comes to mind for someone Hitch described in disparaging terms: H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). Mencken is remembered today mostly as the originator of some well-worn bon mots (Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”), and, for some connoisseurs, as a writer of humorous essays. Forgotten is his status as an iconoclastic tastemaker, political and cultural insider, linguistic authority, and, perhaps most strangely, apostle of Friedrich Nietzsche. (In addition to the nickname “the Sage of Baltimore,” he earned the moniker "the American Nietzsche.”) A rash of suicides among New Jersey college students was attributed to “Menckenism”; the state of Arkansas voted a day of prayer for his endangered soul.


We’ve written about his memoirs here before; they are laid back, full of charming anecdotes and tall tales. For the stuff that made Methodists quake, for Menckenism in its self-contradictory, idiosyncratic glory, The Mencken Chrestomathy is the ticket. Selected by the man himself late in his career from his own favorite passages, the Chrestomathy represents a pure example of a certain kind of Americanism. Ours is the only country (of which I am aware, at any rate) whose national character involves thinking the mass of your fellow-citizens are idiots, but agreeable fellows all the same.

Thus my view of my country is predominantly tolerant and amiable. I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.

Various modern critics have tried to saddle cryptofascism and worse on Mencken, but it doesn’t stick—not when you actually read him. The bare fact that the other guys are (as Mencken would say) boobs isn’t to be held against them; you should certainly not bother using the state to make them do anything.

The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle onward, is one which lets the individual alone—one which barely escapes being no government at all.

The Sage of Baltimore is often described as a misanthrope; Hitchens went so far as to call him an “antihumanist.” But, at a remove of decades, he seems far more agreeable toward his fellow man than many a humanist, humanitarian, or advocate of human rights. Long live Menckenism.