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The Irrepressible Mencken

The bad boy of Baltimore has lost none of his punch—or relevance.

For a man dead 50 years this month, H.L. Mencken remains remarkably prolific. No fewer than three volumes of wholly original Mencken material have seen print since 1989—first The Diary of H.L. Mencken, published against his explicit instructions, and more recently the memoirs Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work and My Life as Author and Editor. With this trove of fresh Menckeniana have come, inevitably, new biographies, beginning in 1994 with Fred Hobson’s Mencken: A Life. Terry Teachout followed eight years later with The Skeptic. And last November brought a third, touted as the most comprehensive yet, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’s Mencken: The American Iconoclast. Between these books and their contrails, Mencken has not been this much a public figure since the stroke that ended his career in 1948.

And what a career it was. Starting in 1899 at the tender age of 19, Mencken was a newspaperman for nearly five decades, working—usually for one or another of the Baltimore Sunpapers—as reporter, drama critic, city editor, columnist, Sunday editor, and editor in chief. At the same time, he led a parallel life in magazines, first as book editor of The Smart Set and soon, with George Jean Nathan, as its co-editor from 1914 to 1923. For a decade thereafter he helmed The American Mercury, a political and cultural monthly he founded with Nathan and publisher Alfred Knopf. Along the way, he and Nathan had launched three lucrative pulp magazines simply as cash cows.

All that, and Mencken still found time to write a half-dozen original books, including the first American works on Shaw and Nietzsche, and to revise and edit collections of his own journalism and essays amounting to about a score more. His tremendous output, as much as his vituperative talent and fortitude in assailing any eminento he thought a fraud or poltroon, led Walter Lippmann to acknowledge him in 1926 as “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people.” The New York Times went one better, calling him “the most powerful man in America.”

But his reputation flagged in the 1930s, as the old broadsides against Rotarians and Baptists failed to amuse in the depths of the Depression. The Mercury’s circulation slumped, owing to Mencken’s diminished appeal and the magazine’s suddenly steep cover price of 50 cents. Sniping critics took to calling its editor “the late Mr. Mencken,” while former friends like Nathan and Theodore Dreiser, launching their own magazine, took cheap shots at him.

Worse was to come. With the approach of World War II, Mencken recalled the Hun-bashing of the last great war. He felt no love for the English and no hatred of the Germans—quite the opposite—and above all he valued his freedom to speak his mind. Rather than submit to censorship, he resigned from the Sunpapers, retiring from journalism to write his memoirs, including the two that would be published posthumously and three volumes of youthful reminiscences—Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days—that would prove his most popular works yet.

Their success came at price. In the ’20s, Mencken had seemed radical; in the ’30s, hidebound. In the decades that followed, he was something else again —quaint. By 1955, the year before his death, friend and fellow journalist Alistair Cooke could suggest that Mencken was no serious writer at all but rather “a humorist. He helped along this misconception by constantly reminding people that he was a critic of ideas, which was true only as the ideas were made flesh. He was, in fact, a humorist by instinct and a superb craftsman by temperament.” That verdict stood for a quarter of a century, even after Charles Fecher’s seminal re-evaluation of his political and literary ideas in Mencken: A Study of His Thought.

But beginning in 1981, when Mencken’s diary was released from the time-lock he had placed it under for 25 years after his death, all of that changed. By then, the sort of language he used in describing Jews and racial minorities was no laughing matter. Moreover, the diary and the memoirs released from 35-year time-locks in 1991 could not be dismissed as japes; here were Mencken’s considered reflections for posterity on his life and times. Humorist gave way to controversialist once more, and the critics who bristled at his racial and political heterodoxies soon exhumed Mencken’s other works to pronounce them duds, too. If friends like Cooke had unwittingly damned him with faint praise, his enemies now paid the compliment of taking him seriously—even if only to excoriate him.

The detractors insist that Mencken was wrong, spectacularly so, about every major issue to confront the United States since Prohibition: the Depression, which he refused to acknowledge in print until 1931; Hitler’s aggression and the plight of Europe’s Jews, concerning which he was conspicuously silent; and even, in the realm of pure literature, the merits of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Joyce. Behind the particulars looms a broader indictment: that Mencken was a complacent and incurious bourgeois, blindly faithful to 19th-century notions of laissez faire and social Darwinism. Even his agnosticism was conservative in the worst sense, a patrimony from his cigar-merchant father.

Mencken’s defenders have an easy time refuting these charges—or at least mitigating them. However uncharitable his words, Mencken’s actions toward Jews and blacks were never less than fair and frequently far more: he published black writers in The American Mercury when few other respectable journals would do so; he mocked the Ku Klux Klan and denounced segregation at every turn; and while he refused to be browbeaten into drumming up war with Germany, he aided Jews trying to escape the Reich in every way he could, signing affidavits to help refugees emigrate to the United States. When he did write about Jewish persecution, he went further than most journalists of the time—and considerably further than the Roosevelt administration—in asking why the U.S. shouldn’t “take in a couple of hundred thousand” German Jews, “or even all of them?”

As for intellectual laziness, it is a curious complaint to level against a man whose professional works, to say nothing of his private interests, included books devoted to philosophy, linguistics, political theory, comparative religion, ethics, literary criticism, journalism, and even, in collaboration with a pediatrician, child care. If he dissented from what has come to be the academically correct opinion of Hemingway and Faulkner, he was far ahead of the academicians in recognizing the genius of Mark Twain and the sterility of the genteel tradition. It is true, though, that Mencken’s views evolved little over the course of his life. His beliefs had ossified by age 25, as he readily admitted.

That the controversy over his reputation continues to burn despite both sides having said about all there is to say would not have surprised Mencken. But he might have been amused to see who is in his corner. Unusually, this literary quarrel cuts across ideological lines, with Mencken’s defenders including such strange bedfellows as Joseph Epstein and Gore Vidal, George Weigel and Jack Shafer. His critics run the narrower gamut from Hilton Kramer to Garry Wills. Both camps have representatives among the latest crop of biographers, though not necessarily the ones you might expect. Fred Hobson describes himself as many of the things Mencken most despised—“a southerner, a professor of literature, a political liberal, and an admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt”—yet Mencken: A Life is supremely objective, even to a fault. Hobson finds Mencken a product of his times and wastes little energy condemning him for it. Terry Teachout, on the other hand, nominally the most conservative of Mencken’s Boswells, plainly disapproves of his subject, who emerges from The Skeptic a sub-Nietzschean jerk.

Which brings us to Marion Elizabeth Rodgers and Mencken: The American Iconoclast. Hype notwithstanding, her book is no more comprehensive than Hobson’s, though it draws upon more sources. But where Rodgers—a lay scholar of Mencken since the day she tripped over a bundle of his love letters in the Goucher College library—shines is in giving us the most recognizably human Mencken to date. Her book can even be judged by its cover, a shot of Mencken the bon vivant downing Baltimore’s first glass of post-Prohibition beer. The contrast with the dour photo adorning the jackets of the Hobson and Teachout books is revealing.

Rodgers provides the best, as well as the liveliest, up-to-date biography of Mencken—though it would be better still without the abundant typographical errors: caveat lector. Where the bad boy of Baltimore is concerned, biographers can be forgiven for emphasizing the negative; Mencken himself believed “the iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing”—no need to raise another to take its place. Rodgers, however, shows that Mencken stood for something after all. Certainly he loved German culture and held firm to an old-fashioned code of honor. But what unified and animated his journalism and criticism alike was his radical devotion to liberty. As he put it in 1922, “My literary theory, like my politics, is based chiefly on one main idea, to wit, the idea of freedom. I am, in brief, a libertarian of the most extreme variety, and know of no human right that is one tenth as valuable as the simple right to utter what seems (at the moment) to be the truth. Take away this right and none other is worth a hoot…”

His political and literary thought cannot—or at any rate should not—be divided. Today, whether as a source of amusement, controversy, or insight, the political writings overshadow his earlier work as a critic. But it was in that capacity that he first made his mark beyond the newsrooms of Baltimore. In his monthly reviews for The Smart Set and his 1917 Book of Prefaces, Mencken waged a one-man culture war against the regnant school of thought that held the purpose of literature to be moral edification. For Mencken, always skeptical of higher values, the purpose of literature was simply to show life as it is, in all its amorality. He championed writers who seemed to share this belief, most notably Theodore Dreiser, who by the standards of the day was considered risqué—indeed, his books were subject to being banned from the mails and suppressed by the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice. Such measures forced Mencken to carry his campaign beyond the review pages and into the courts. On both fronts, he won.

His most famous victory came in the “Hatrack” case of 1926, with which Rodgers opens her biography. The incident, which put Mencken himself in the dock, concerned a nonfiction story by Herbert Asbury—since more famous for writing The Gangs of New York—that ran in the April issue of The American Mercury. Asbury related the tale of a small-town prostitute shunned by the local churches who took her clients to graveyards for their trysts—Protestants to the Catholic cemetery and Catholics to the Masonic one, so as not to cause scandal. The story was cheap and vulgar, and Mencken, as editor of the Mercury, thought little of it. But, hard up for copy, he published it anyway.

Once he did, the New England Watch and Ward Society—whose leader, Rev. Franklin Chase, had long been a butt of Mencken’s derision—pounced, warning newsdealers in Massachusetts that the story contravened state obscenity laws and threatening anyone who sold the magazine with prosecution. When Mencken received word of this, he resolved to go to Massachusetts himself—both on principle and, no doubt, with an eye toward publicity—and sell a copy on the Boston Common. A circus ensued. Chase himself was soon on hand to buy the magazine and have Mencken arrested. Editor traded Mercury for 50-cent coin—which he bit, for good measure—and was promptly hauled off to the police station and booked.

He expected a protracted legal battle, and stakes were high not only for the Mercury, which stood to be prohibited in other jurisdictions and barred from the mail, but also for Mencken, who faced jail time. But in the event, the judge, after reading the magazine for himself, threw out the case. Boston’s intelligentsia feted Mencken as a hero of free speech, and symbolically at least the victory helped bring down Comstockery and censorship laws nationwide. Mencken did not emerge from the episode entirely unscathed: the Mercury had lost some $20,000 in court costs, perhaps ten times that much in today’s money, and the Post Office did indeed suppress the April issue. But the Watch and Ward was discredited, and before long Chase was dead, killed, as legend has it, by the strain of the battle.

The “Hatrack” affair was a cause celebre on the order of the Scopes trial of a few years before—in which Mencken had also played a role, not least by christening it the “Monkey Trial”—and afforded Mencken an outright triumph. But what he might have made of the long-term consequences of his victory over Comstockery is open to question. Years before publishing Asbury’s story, he had lamented that “The American puella is no longer naive and charming; she goes to the altar of God with a learned and even cynical glitter in her eye. The veriest school-girl of today knows as much as the midwife of 1885.” He objected to this, he wrote, not on moral but aesthetic grounds. All the same, his personal views were more conservative than his political and literary principles might suggest.

To his enemies, Mencken was “the idol of the earthly, sensual, devilish elements of our country,” as the Anti-Saloon League of Virginia once declared. And in fact, he did have a dash of the lothario about him: not for nothing was he known to a few friends as “the German Valentino.” Hobson and Rodgers devote considerable room in their biographies to his many lady friends—actresses, aspiring writers, Follies girls, and more. But Mencken was no libertine and had little patience with those who were. His friendship with Sinclair Lewis was strained to the breaking point by Lewis’s dipsomania and shabby behavior. And he found repugnant Dreiser’s adulteries and prodigious womanizing—while she lived with her husband, hardly a day went by that Mrs. Dreiser did not come home to find lipstick prints here and discarded brassieres there. The married Mencken, by contrast, was impeccably faithful to his wife in their five years together.

As for salacious literature, while he defended Dreiser’s controversial novel The “Genius” and fought against the censorship even of such works of dubious worth as Asbury’s story, he did not believe all things permissible in the name of art. He was dismayed when Dreiser sent him a play he had written about—in Hobson’s words—a “sexually depraved murderer.” “I say the subject is forbidden, and I mean it,” he wrote to his friend. “It is all very well enough to talk of artistic freedom, but it must be plain that there must be a limit in the theatre, as in books.” Where certain subjects were concerned, “The very mention of them is banned by that convention on which the whole of civilized order depends.”

In other respects, too, there could be a surprisingly traditionalist side to Mencken, one little remarked upon in his biographies. This was a man, after all, who lived his entire life in the city of his birth and spent most of it in his childhood home, 1524 Hollins Street. Even his garish attitude toward religion had its limits—though he would have no truck with any theology, he spared older, more liturgical churches much of the invective he heaped upon relatively recent, enthusiastic denominations. Critics accused him of being soft on Catholicism—he withheld the brunt of his fury from his family’s ancestral Lutheranism, too—and, like Santayana, he could enjoy the charm of old Christendom. In 1920, he concluded an appreciation of the high Middle Ages with the observation that “Religions … like castles, sunsets and women, never reach their maximum of beauty until they are touched by decay.”

Mencken’s longtime friend Philip Goodman offered another interpretation of Mencken’s apparent weakness for liturgical faiths, if we can trust the account of the embittered Charles Angoff, Mencken’s former assistant on The American Mercury. “Mencken is a lickspittle, like all Germans. He loves authority. The more authority an institution has the more he likes it,” Goodman purportedly told him. Angoff’s motives notwithstanding, there is probably some truth in the remark. Mencken did adore Germany and did indeed respect certain kinds of authority—in part because of his low opinion of democracy. His libertarianism was unabashedly of the elitist variety, concerned with the freedom of the noble man as much as with the nobility of the free man, as Michael Wreszin observed in relation to one of Mencken’s contemporaries.

“All government,” he once wrote, “in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man.” In a democracy, that was doubly true. “I can be only an indifferent citizen of a democratic state,” he confessed in 1922, “for democracy is grounded upon the instinct of inferior men to herd themselves in large masses, and its principal manifestation is their bitter opposition to all free thought. In the United States, in fact, I am commonly regarded as a violent anti-patriot.” He hardly exaggerated—during the First World War, Mencken came under suspicion of being an agent of the kaiser. He wasn’t, and unlike many German-Americans Mencken endured little harassment. But the spectacle of a putatively free press truckling to George Creel and the proliferation of patriotic groups like the Boy Spies of America and the American Protective League sickened him and served to confirm his beliefs about the place of liberty in a democracy. “The kinds of courage I really admire are not whooped up in war, but cried down, and indeed become infamous,” he wrote.

Fifty years after his death, Mencken’s journalism still entertains and provokes; his literary criticism—once avant-garde, now rather old-fashioned—holds up well; and his life retains enough interest to warrant a few more biographies beyond the ones we already have. But in the midst of a perpetual war on terror, with critics of the president once again branded unpatriotic, Mencken’s timeliest quality remains his bedrock principles, particularly his commitment to civil liberty in times of hysteria—and regardless of popular opinion. Would that we could bargain with Hades and trade him for a Judy Miller or a David Frum. But as it is, we can content ourselves with Mencken’s works, and be thankful that Marion Rodgers has reminded us of a time when at least one journalist held to an unswerving commitment to liberty, Comstocks and Creels be damned.