Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Birthday: No one could- or can- speak for H.L. Mencken


“The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
“The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. 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.”

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)
Journalist, Editor, Critic, Lexicographer
Recipient, American Academy of Arts & Letters Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism

He spent his life in Baltimore, and lived in the same house for sixty-seven years. After high school, he went to work in his father’s cigar factory for three boring ones. He didn’t like being read to; he wanted to be the author.
When his father died, Henry took a course in writing at a local college and got a part-time job with The Baltimore Morning Herald. Within a year he was full-time; in 1906 he joined The Baltimore Sun, where he had a byline until a stroke crippled him in 1948.
At 28 he was literary editor of The Smart Set, a hip new magazine now continued, online, by Drexel University. At 33 he co-founded The American Mercury, and spent the 1920s becoming one of the most influential writers, literary stylists and critics of the first half of the twentieth century. His 1921 rewrite of the Declaration of Independence, in the breezy post-war argot of America, is one of his satiric triumphs.
A racist who opposed lynching; a champion of science who excoriated chiropractors (“This preposterous quackery flourishes lushIy in the back reaches of the Republic, and begins to conquer the less civilized folk of the big cities. As the old-time family doctor dies out in the country towns, with no competent successor willing to take over his dismal business, he is followed by some hearty blacksmith or ice-wagon driver, turned into a chiropractor in six months, often by correspondence”) and osteopaths; a eugenicist and anti-Semite who called for President Franklin Roosevelt to admit all of Europe’s Jews as refugees before World War II, an atheist who defended the radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Mencken was a man who embodied Whitman’s line, “Do I contradict myself? I am large; I contain multitudes.”
His scathing criticisms of both marriage and life in the American South- summed up by the withering article, “The Sahara of the Bozarts”- in 1917 didn’t stop him from spending seven years courting a suffragette from Alabama eighteen years his junior: “Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one." He was heartbroken when she died five years later.
As a literary critic, he was first-rate: he championed Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Nietzsche and Conrad as literary stylists, and Nietzsche as a political philosopher. Mencken considered American democracy the proof of Nietzsche’s theories, a land in which inferiors- the Booboisie- governed their betters. Late in life, he praised the young Ayn Rand, who sent him mash notes.
Today he is a darling of paleoconservatives like John Derbyshire and Patrick J. Buchanan, both prominent members of The Mencken Club. His reputation took a major hit with the 1989 publication of his diaries, which revealed a deep-seated collection of bigotries he cherished all his days.
Mencken won a certain immortality when he decamped to Dayton, Tennessee for eleven days in July 1924, to cover the Scopes Monkey Trial. His bombastic style was syndicated nationally; he became a character in the hit 1950s play, Inherit the Wind.
In between trial sessions, Mencken floated one of his few unsuccessful hoaxes, attempted to perpetrate a hoax, “distributing flyers for the "Rev. Elmer Chubb", but the claims that Chubb would drink poison and preach in lost languages were ignored as commonplace by the people of Dayton” (vastly more successful was his 1917 article, “A Neglected Anniversary,” in which he claimed President Millard Fillmore popularized the bathtub by installing the first one in the White House in 1850; it is still cited as truth from time to time today).
After he referred to Arkansas as "the apex of moronia," that state's Legislature passed a resolution declaring they were praying for his soul in 1931. They didn't say which way.
An ardent pacifist, Mencken opposed US involvement in both world wars, and mocked the American imperialism of his youth in the hilarious 1943 article, “Gore in the Caribbees.” He came to loathe Franklin Roosevelt and railed against The New Deal, and- like many writers popular in the flashy ‘20s- found the audience for his work diminished in the crisis-ridden 1930s.
He devoted himself to other works, most a series of memoirs and a three-volume work, The American Language, a study of English as it is spoken around the nation.
He made a comeback as a political reporter in 1948, the year of four presidential nominating conventions. Shortly after the election in November, he suffered a stroke that robbed him of the ability to read or write and, for a time, speak. He spent the last years of his life living with his brother, listening to classical music, and being read to by young proteges like Alistair Cooke and William Manchester.

Related sites:

Letter to Charles Garfield, “The human race is incurably idiotic,” December 12, 1927, in Letters of Note

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