Mencken, a Curmudgeon for the Ages
Posted on Dec 10, 2010
In his own time, this prolific reviewer welcomed Scott Fitzgerald and rightly maintained that “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one-half so beautiful as [Willa Cather’s] ‘My Antonia’”. Again and again Mencken argued that nearly all “superior fiction” focused on “character in decay” and typically ended with the hero’s defeat or destruction. In light of this tragic sense of life, he believed that poetry’s purpose was to “soothe our agonies with emollient words”. As a result, he preferred those poets who were down to earth, a bit folksy: Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost. Still, he was drawn to Edna St Vincent Millay for her “voluptuousness” and late in life visited Ezra Pound when the poet was incarcerated at St Elizabeths Hospital for the insane. On the whole, though, Modernism was a closed book to Mencken: “Our poets get into print regularly with stuff so bizarre and unearthly that only Christian Scientists can understand it”.
While he might sing the praises of the authors he admired, admonish those who had lost their way, and vigorously defend any censured by prudes and preachers, Mencken could really lay into those he judged to be second- and third-rate. He describes the sentimental novels of Henry Sydnor Harrison as “100,000 word Christmas cards”. Of one novel from the South he wrote, “Here, obviously, is the best that Mississippi can do, in theme and treatment – and it is such puerile, blowsy stuff that reviewing it realistically would be too cruel”. (Happily, the novel’s author was one Harris Dickson and not William Faulkner.) He’s even more damning about the Kansas littérateur William Allen White, whose works still turn up in second-hand bookshops:
“If William Allen White lives as long as Tennyson, and does not reform, our grandchildren will see the Victorian era gasping out its last breath in 1951. And eighty-three is no great age in Kansas, where sin is unknown. It may be, in fact, 1960, or even 1970, before the world hears the last of Honest Poverty, Chaste Affection and Manly Tears. For so long as White holds a pen these ancient sweets will be on sale at the department-store book-counters, and they will grow sweeter and sweeter. … If you yearn to uplift and like to sob, then the volume [In the Heart of a Fool] will probably affect you, in the incomparable phrase of Clayton Hamilton, like “the music of a million Easter-lilies leaping from the grave and laughing with a silver singing.” But if you are a carnal fellow, as I am, with a stomach ruined by alcohol, it will gag you.”
What Mencken particularly loathes is the American tendency to “a highly self-conscious and insipid correctness, a bloodless respectability, a submergence of matter in manner”. Little wonder that he assailed those who would ban Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and James Branch Cabell’s mildly lubricious comic fantasy Jurgen. Great American fiction, Mencken contended, in what might almost be the prescription for a mid-career Saul Bellow novel, should embrace “the whole, gross, glittering, excessively dynamic, infinitely grotesque, incredibly stupendous drama of American life”. Certainly young people in the 1920s found Mencken liberating. He repeatedly denounced and satirized Prohibition, religious mania, the duplicity of politicians, any appearance of the bogus and self-serving, and every sort of do-goodism. He argued for the rights of the people he called “Aframericans”. Yet he also detested jazz, couldn’t perceive any artistic merit in film – though he did once interview a weary-hearted Rudolph Valentino – and he greatly disliked seeing couples wriggling “to the tune of some villainous mazurka from the Mississippi levees”.
More disturbingly, his essays occasionally disparage the immigrant masses, expound on the benefits of racial purity and the dangers of the mixing of blood, and repeatedly make vast generalizations about the Southerner and the New Englander, the Anglo-Saxon and the German. Though there’s no overt anti-Semitism in Prejudices, Mencken’s diaries and some private autobiographical volumes – not published until after his death – do contain offensive remarks about the Jews. It almost goes without saying that several of his closest friends were Jewish, including George Jean Nathan, his co-editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury, and Alfred Knopf, his publisher. For some readers, however, the crude aspersions found in these posthumous volumes discredit Mencken’s entire work.
While H. L. Mencken can be truculent and mouthy in a terribly American way, he always viewed himself as a cut above the common herd, indeed, as a kind of libertarian aristocrat. He felt that most of us really were boobs. “The average American is a prude and a Methodist under his skin.” In one of his most famous pieces, “The Sahara of the Bozart”, he depicts the post-Civil War South as a wasteland, empty of culture, education and literature, where “the arts, save in the lower reaches of the gospel hymn, the phonograph and the chautauqua harangue, are all held in suspicion”.
Though Mencken might look to be nothing but a cigar-chomping pug, his values were those of a noble and proudly independent gentleman. “What ails the beautiful letters of the Republic, I repeat, is what ails the general culture of the Republic – the lack of a body of sophisticated and civilized public opinion, independent of plutocratic control and superior to the infantile philosophies of the mob – a body of opinion showing the eager curiosity, the educated skepticism and the hospitality to ideas of a true aristocracy.” Above all, like any self-sufficient aristocrat, he loathed big government. “All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to police him and cripple him.” Mencken insists that “the ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle to Herbert Spencer, is one which lets the individual alone – one which barely escapes being no government at all”. (Here he sounds like a proto-Ayn Rand.) American history, he notes, is sadly little more than “a history of minorities put down with clubs”.
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