Commentary Magazine

Rediscovering Mencken

I wondered where Cohn got that incapacity to enjoy Paris. Possibly from Mencken. Mencken hates Paris, I believe. So many young men got their likes and dislikes from Mencken.

The Sun Also Rises



The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926, and thus this passage came to be written at a time when H. L. Mencken, two years into his ten-year stint (1924-34) of editing the American Mercury, was at the zenith of his fame. People with intellectual interests of an age to remember the American Mercury recall even today the special excitement with which they awaited each new monthly issue. Writers who felt spiritually at odds with what they took to be the reigning values of the day bowed down to the magazine, manuscripts in hand, as the Mecca from which their own true values were most stentoriously cried. Agnostic in spirit, catholic in interest, and urbane in outlook, the American Mercury never presented its readers any problem in discovering precisely where it stood. It was against the genteel tradition in literature; it was against Prohibition and puritanism generally in social life; it was against the banal pretensions of organized religion, of politicians, and of businessmen. As Hilton Kramer has neatly put it, during the 1920’s H. L. Mencken “served his readers as a sort of intellectual counterpart to the neighborhood bootlegger.”

While every magazine is in some sense an extension of its editor’s personality, the impress of H. L. Mencken on the pages of the American Mercury was not merely clear but complete. At the height of its popularity the magazine’s circulation never rose above 60,000, but the number of its subscribers belied its influence. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the number of the American Mercury’s subscribers belied H. L. Mencken’s influence, for, though he dominated the magazine, it was only one of several of his activities. During his years as editor of the American Mercury, Mencken turned out his own books (some years as many as three of them), wrote a regular weekly column for the Baltimore Evening Sun, kept up a fairly vigorous social round in Baltimore, Washington, and New York, and maintained a personal and professional correspondence (usually answering letters on the same day that he received them) that his biographer estimates at roughly 100,000 letters.

As may be imagined, H. L. Mencken was exceedingly well organized, but more than organization was involved. Ornate and melodious though his prose was, he seldom required a second draft of anything he wrote. Philip M. Wagner, a colleague of Mencken’s on the Sun papers, has said: “Mencken thought in prose, and spoke in prose. The transfer onto paper was easy for him, and must have been from the beginning.” He also had the gift of innate energy—energy furious, inexhaustible, inexorably buoyant. Walter Lippmann connected Mencken’s energy directly to his influence: “When you can explain the heightening effect of a spirited horse, of a swift athlete, of a dancer really in control of his own body, when you can explain why watching them you feel more alive yourself, you can explain the quality of [Mencken’s] influence.”

That he wrote so entertainingly did nothing to retard his influence. If the aim of poetry is to instruct and delight, Mencken would have claimed as much for the kind of intellectual journalism he practiced. He held that the first order of a book review was to be entertaining. “In journalism,” he wrote, “it seems to me, it is far better to be wrong that to be timorous.” In the more than six hundred pages of The New Mencken Letters1 few are the letters that do not have some inventive phrase, play of high spirits, or touch of charm in them. (“All the usual hypocrisies” is the ending salutation to one.) To a lady friend he wrote: “My motto is that of Swift: ‘the chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it.’ ” But the truth was that he was able to vex the world at all only because he had first been able to divert it.

So successfully did he divert the world that his fame during his lifetime rivaled that of the three foremost celebrity-writers in our national literary history: Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer. But where they are chiefly novelists, he was a critic, who himself once described criticism as “no more than prejudice made plausible.” Although not so blatant in his pursuit of fame as Twain, Hemingway, or Mailer, neither was Mencken oblivious to its allure. In his biography, Mencken,2 Carl Bode informs us that as early as 1903, at the age of twenty-three, H. L. Mencken subscribed to a clipping service. When the American Mercury was censored in Boston in what became known as the Hatrack case—after the title of a short story about a prostitute that ran in its pages—photographers and reporters, by pre-arrangement, waited at Brimstone Corner of the Boston Common as Mencken sold a copy of the banned magazine to the secretary of the Watch and Ward Society; an act that, because of the publicity, resulted in his brief arrest and lengthy enshrinement as a champion of free speech. After Mencken had written something controversial—which might, in his early and middle years, include almost everything he wrote—he made certain that copies were sent out to newspaper editors in different sections of the country. Hot copy always, he was often referred to in the press as the Baltimore Bad Boy. Even rumors of his marrying—leaving, as he termed it, “the celibate aristocracy”—made many papers; the actual event, in 1930 at the age of fifty, made them all.

H. L. Mencken thrived in a world which, despite the appearance of a brief revival under the Kennedys, no longer exists today in anything like its old form: a world in which serious literature, show business, and journalism did not seem far distant from one another. Thus, F. Scott Fitzgerald, near the end of his life, could write to his daughter: “Sometimes I wish I had gone along with [Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart and the rest], but I guess I am too much a moralist at heart, and really want to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than entertain.” Mencken himself seems not to have drawn so firm a line between preaching and entertaining; nor, for that matter, between intellectual work and show business. In his day-to-day life the two merged easily enough. George Jean Nathan, his co-editor on the Smart Set, however sophisticated he may have been, was essentially a Broadway figure. Several of Mencken’s letters in the new collection are to the actresses Lillian Gish and Aileen Pringle. Most distinctly an uptown figure, Mencken found nothing in Greenwich Village or in the bohemian life generally that held appeal. Although he was far and away the most important literary influence of his time—Edmund Wilson, going further, wrote that he was “without question, since Poe, our greatest practicing literary journalist”—there was little that was consciously “literary” about Mencken or about the way he lived.



Was H. L. Mencken a man whose time had come and is now irretrievably gone—a man for a single season? Is he, like the boobus Americanus of his invention (“the moral Americano—the 100 per-cent Methodist, Odd Fellow, Ku Kluxer, and Know-Nothing”), himself finally no more than a period piece? Why, despite the light flurry of publication about him in recent years, have we ceased to regard Mencken as a figure of any true significance, except to his own time? The current wisdom on Mencken holds that of all his works only The American Language and its Supplements and his three autobiographical volumes (Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days) retain any interest.

Edmund Wilson, writing in 1950, entered a demurral to this opinion, but an odd one. In a New Yorker piece Wilson cited Mencken’s courageous achievements against censors, Tennessee fundamentalists, and others, and remarked that it was astonishing that “one independent critic, writing mainly in newspapers and magazines, should have fought so many successful fights and grown to be so powerful a figure.” But earlier in this essay, scoffing at the “line” on Mencken, Wilson noted that his “miscellaneous writings, too, hold up well—not as doctrine (Mencken as a thinker is brash, inconsistent, and crude) but for a personal rhythm and color that have their dignity as well as their humor. Mencken can be brutal, obtuse; he almost always oversimplifies; but these articles and essays and squibs are none the less literature.” What is being said here is that H. L. Mencken once had enormous influence, was involved in some good causes, and wrote, if one is prepared to disregard his ideas, some splendid prose. This is very selective criticism, in which Edmund Wilson finds in H. L. Mencken those things he finds attractive or agreeable to him, and lets drop away all that is neither. Although generous in impulse, Wilson on Mencken reads like an instance of Mencken on criticism—“no more than prejudice made plausible.”

Mencken produced an enormous body of work: several collections of essays, small books on Shaw and Nietzsche, political journalism, literary criticism, autobiographies, works on general subjects (among them Notes on Democracy, Treatise on the Gods, Treatise on Right and Wrong, and In Defense of Women), a book of writings on music, a dictionary of quotations, the three volumes of The American Language, and much fugitive journalism besides. Although the quality varies widely, the range is impressive, and the spirit is generally of a piece. Mencken’s ideas, his vision, his tone, his style, his battles, each is a strand woven inextricably into the fabric of his work. Mencken was a writer who was fully formed young and changed scarcely at all over his active career. The influence of Nietzsche and Shaw combined in him. “As for Nietzsche,” he wrote, “I think his value lies in the fact that he is never quite sane, but always wildly extravagant. The truth always lies between: neither party is ever right.” Shaw he called “the Ulster Polonius.” Mencken was something of a Social Darwinist into the bargain, and a devoted reader of the social scientist William Graham Sumner. One could cite other influences, but the chief point is that Mencken, from his earliest maturity, distrusted efforts of uplift and reform, advocated personal liberty, and staunchly adhered to the comic perspective. He sorely felt the absence in America of what he termed a “civilized aristocracy,” which would be “secure in its position, animated by an intelligent curiosity, skeptical of all facile generalizations, superior to the sentimentality of the mob, and delighting in the battle of ideas for its own sake.” Like Nietzsche, he could be wildly extravagant; but unlike Nietzsche, he was always sane. Like Shaw, Mencken made a living out of a detestation of hypocrisy; but unlike Shaw, he was without the pretensions of the pundit.

He was also a man whose life was not reducible to his ideas. Although he gave the American language the term “booboisie,” Mencken was himself as thoroughgoing a bourgeois as can be imagined; and not a high-bred bourgeois either, but one of the rather more common variety. Till the age of fifty Mencken lived at home with his mother, leaving only for the five-year span of his marriage, then returning there to live out his days with his brother August. He was one of the boys, meeting for decades with old friends in a group calling itself the Saturday Night Club, which played classical music—Mencken banging away at the piano—and drank beer. While he advocated personal freedom for others, he appears not to have gone far beyond the bounds of advocacy in his own life. His wife, whom he married knowing she had but a few years to live, once said: “Henry is Victorian, though he won’t admit it.”

If the bourgeois habits were Mencken’s, so, too, were the bourgeois virtues: punctuality, orderliness, loyalty to friends, considerateness. Mencken did not hide his bourgeois origins or mode of living, but neither did he feature them, though in Happy Days he wrote:

I was a larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie, though I was quite unaware of the fact until I was along in my teens and had begun to read indignant books. To belong to that great order of mankind is vaguely discreditable today, but I still maintain my dues-paying membership in it, and continue to believe that it was and is authentically human, and therefore worthy of the attention of philosophers, at least to the extent that the Mayans, Hittites, Kallikuks, and so on are worthy of it.

In the confirmed bourgeois manner, Mencken even set out to go into his father’s business—the manufacture of cigars—but at his father’s death, when Mencken was nineteen, he went instead to work for a now defunct Baltimore daily. He was almost immediately hooked for life on what, in another context, he called “the writing insanity.” He was also spared going to college, which might have ruined a talent of his particular kind by overrefining it. As with so many other writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser most prominent among them—Mencken’s education came through working on newspapers. His first assignment as a reporter was to write up a hanging. Reporting put him in touch with crime, politics, religion, vice, commerce—with, in short, the common life as it is lived in a large city. His knowledge of the common life—conjoined to his disdain for those aspects of it, religion and politics in particular, most thickly papered over with pretensions—provided Mencken with an inexhaustible subject as a writer. Although they shared a subject matter, Mencken was nearly the reverse of Walt Whitman. Viewing the democratic common man Mencken found little to sing about; he, Mencken, came out of the cradle endlessly laughing. “The boobus Americanus,” he noted with unconcealed exuberance, “is a bird that knows no closed season.”



Although most famous for his excoriations of democratic man—who, in his reading, was a less malevolent yet more comical version of the Yahoo, pathetic in his lack of culture but tyrannical in his narrow-mindedness—Mencken nonetheless achieved a great deal more than (in Edmund Wilson’s words) to make “Americans feel the menace of this super-boor [his democratic man] and repudiate their fellowship with him.” On the literary front, he was a great force: more than any other single critic, he knocked the pins out from under the genteel tradition, which then held literary taste hostage in the United States. While they still lived, and while their work was still very much in the flux of controversy, Mencken wrote in support of the writing of Shaw, Ibsen, Dreiser, the early Sinclair Lewis (whose novels Main Street and Babbitt were no doubt directly inspired by Mencken’s journalism), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, H. G. Wells, John Millington Synge, and Joseph Conrad. (The nature of his support was, predictably, of a polemical kind: “When I have to praise a writer,” he explained, “I usually do it by attacking his enemies.”) He tended to overpraise his friends, Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell among them. Yet by and large he possessed a broad disinterest, which did not cut him off from literary work of importance. As an editor, for example, he published stories by James Joyce, though he could not be said to be any great champion of modernism in its more formal aspects. (“Aesthetic problems interest me only mildly. . . .”)

Mencken judged writers singly and, for whatever it is worth, his judgments tally with those of our own generation. He was not much taken by Edna St. Vincent Millay, thought D. H. Lawrence overrated, called Hemingway in many respects “a quack but he has a sharp ear and reports the vernacular accurately,” spotted Malcolm Cowley as “a yearner who has failed to come off.” His support of a particular writer did not preclude awareness of that writer’s shortcomings, literary or personal. “He was fundamentally a very foolish fellow,” he remarked of Scott Fitzgerald, “and he seemed doomed to be in trouble eternally.” In the middle of a tribute to Dreiser, in whose career Mencken himself had provided a crucial helping hand, he noted: “For one thing, he came into the world with an incurable antipathy to the mot juste; for another thing, he had an insatiable appetite for the obviously not true.” Yet there was a winning modesty about Mencken’s view of his own literary judgments. When a biographer queried him about his and Nathan’s role in publishing early in their careers so many famous writers in the Smart Set, Mencken commented: “The most that can be said for us is that we recognized the good ones when they popped up.”



But it is not because of his literary taste that H. L. Mencken was first elevated to national prominence and later relegated to the status of a historical curiosity. His contributions to literature are almost all of a positive kind, judged by any standard: he raised the reputations of many writers now recognized to be of the first rank; he fought, consistently and courageously, against censorship; he cleared the air of the professorial stuffiness nearly suffocating literature perhaps even more than did the early (and still much admired) Van Wyck Brooks. No, it is the other Mencken, the political commentator and social theorist, who has proved unacceptable. Remarking in 1926 on Mencken’s “extraordinary cleansing and vitalizing effect,” Walter Lippmann wrote: “How else can you explain the paradox of his popularity, and the certainty that before he dies, he will find himself, like Bernard Shaw today, one of the grand old men, one of the beloved patriarchs of his time?” No prophecy could have been wider of the mark. What happened?

The Depression, in a word, happened. While it is correct to say, as Carl Bode does in his biography, that “from 1920-29 Mencken captained the educated minority of Americans,” from the beginning of the Depression till his death there is an unrelieved diminution of influence. For one thing, the Depression caused or accelerated the disappearance of a number of his favorite targets: Prohibition soon ended, the spirit of Babbittry lost its aggressiveness, and reminding Americans of their deficiencies ceased to be a flourishing trade. Nothing in Mencken’s stock of ideas quite prepared him to understand the momentousness of the Depression. He had no kind words for the plutocrats that capitalism had floated to the top of American society—he had earlier referred to them as “in the interior-decorator and country-club stage of culture”—and he knew life at the bottom too well to idealize the working class. Yet as a Darwinist who expected the fittest to survive, he was shocked to see that the Depression seemed to mow down nearly everyone alike.

If at first Mencken failed to comprehend the Depression, he next detested what was being done about it—which is to say, he detested Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mencken was fond of boasting that he had never praised a President of the United States, but FDR he particularly loathed: “A demagogue pure and simple,” he called him. “Even when he is advocating some relatively sensible things he does so in terms fit for a fire.” One could speculate on the reasons for Mencken’s distaste for Roosevelt—they might run from personal affront to a feeling of class disappointment—but perhaps it is enough to record that Mencken greatly distrusted government, which he held to have “always been the great failure of mankind,” and FDR stood chiefly for the extension and expansion of government on every front.

Sometimes a writer will change his principal ideas—John Dos Passos is in America the most prominent case—and as a consequence lose his audience. Sometimes a writer does not change his principal ideas at all yet becomes peripheral because his audience has changed its ideas. This, precisely, is the case of H. L. Mencken, whose politics, social theories, and prose style did not seriously change from the 1920’s, when he was the premier intellectual figure in the United States, till his death in 1956, when (and for many years before) he was no longer deemed other than a back number.

In part, as I have noted, many of the issues upon which Mencken had risen to prominence had changed, if not evaporated—Puritanism in life and literature is a prime example—but the problem goes beyond discrete issues. As a writer, Mencken was of the plague-on-both-your-houses school. “I am against Puritanism to the last gasp,” he wrote to Dreiser in 1919, “but when anti-Puritanism comes to a program and a theory I find myself against it almost as strongly.” He also specialized in knocking off two birds with one sentence; thus, of the Palmer raids of 1919-20, he wrote: “Never did it [the plutocracy] function more revealingly than in the late pogrom against the so-called Reds, i.e., against humorless idealists who, like Andrew Jackson, took the platitudes of democracy quite seriously.” Mencken did not believe that one had to take a side, not even in the search for truth: “It is just as creditable,” he notes in a letter, “to hate injustice and dishonesty as it is to love the truth.”

As Mencken himself knew when he turned from writing chiefly about literature to writing about society and politics, America was entering a political age. The Depression set the seal on that age. To announce a plague on both houses was less likely to succeed once the Depression had sent nearly everyone in the country scurrying off into one or the other of the two houses. (“All right,” John Dos Passos famously declared, “so we are two nations.”) The great trick of Mencken’s style, that which in the past had always worked for him so well, was that, no matter how fierce his attack on how cherished a man or idea or institution, he always somehow managed to get the reader on his, Mencken’s, side. But now these readers had irrevocably chosen sides. The brand of imperious disinterestedness which he had so lavishly dispensed and on which his fame rested was no longer winning.

A thoroughgoing skeptìc, Mencken held firmly to his belief in the imperfectibility of the human race. “I think,” he wrote to a Baltimore reformer, “your fundamental error lies in the assumption that the human race can be made good.” As early as 1917 he wrote to Upton Sinclair: “So long as there are men in the world, 99 per cent of them will be idiots. . . . The stupid man, even after he has been convinced that Jonah did not actually swallow the whale, still remains a dunderhead. Today he is on his knees; tomorrow, emancipated, he snorts with the Bolsheviki.” Given his belief in imperfectibility, Mencken felt that the “great curse of humanity . . . is idealism.” “The two greatest intellectual possessions of modern man,” he noted, “are the idea of personal freedom and the idea of the limitation of government.” With most intellectuals having been swung leftward by the winds of the Depression, opinions such as Mencken had long held could scarcely hope to earn him new readers, or even to let him retain those he once had.

While H. L. Mencken was one of those writers who have very little good to say for mankind, he was incapable of being hard on men. He suffered fools, if not gladly, then always with consideration. He was perhaps the most famous agnostic of his day—many of his letters to friends are signed “Yrs. in Xt.” and endless are those of his quips that turn on a touch of irreverence—yet he treated clergymen with great courtesy, including a nun, one Sister Miriam, with whom he met to discuss what he believed to be her misguided thesis on James Huneker. In the same way, he had no use for Communism or Marxism—“since Marxism came in,” he wrote to Dreiser, “the race has produced nothing above the level of a book by Waldo Frank”—yet one discovers him, in his letters, arguing against the deportation of Emma Goldman, defending the rights of an alleged Communist professor at Columbia, staunchly supporting the American Civil Liberties Union. His personal qualities are very impressive: he had a fine sense of fair play; he seems to have been without envy or indignation or malice.

The stereotypical view of Mencken as the great debunker is perhaps overdone. Not that he wasn’t quite marvelous at the job; in top form he was better at it than any other American and a rival of William Hazlitt. But there was little of the bully in Mencken in his debunking role. He took on big targets—Presidents and Senators—or impersonal ones—the boobus Americanus, the Com-stocks, democracy. When he went after another writer, he generally did so with a sense of fair play. Toward the close of a spirited go at Paul Elmer More, for example, Mencken wrote: “More has a solid stock of learning in his lockers; he is armed and outfitted as none of the pollyannas who trail after him is armed and outfitted; he is, perhaps, the nearest approach to a genuine scholar that we have in America, God save us!” Walter Lippmann, who felt a few of Mencken’s blows in his own lifetime, and thus knew whereof he spoke, remarked: “His blows have the clean brutality of a natural phenomenon,” later adding: “The Mencken attack is always a frontal attack. It is always explicit. The charge is all there. . . . And when you have encountered him, you do not have to wonder whether you are going to be stabbed in the back when you start to leave and are thinking of something else.”



If not lining up for the great left-wing causes of the 1930’s cost Mencken a large part of his earlier following, his late recognition of the true intent of Adolf Hitler cost him the rest. Mencken had a German problem. That is to say: as a journalist of German ancestry and anti-British feeling, he suffered greatly during World War I for being viewed as insufficiently patriotic. American participation in World War I brought with it a state of frenzied hatred unmatched in our subsequent national history: the German language was barred from many public and private schools, German-Americans were ridiculed and sometimes attacked on the streets, sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage. With this history of American anti-German hysteria in mind, Mencken was most hesitant to believe the worst about Hitler, though it cannot really be said that he was neutral on the subject, as the following letter of 1936 to an acquaintance in Frankfurt testifies:

. . . Some time ago Stürmer listed me as a Jew, thus adding one more to its immemorial repertoire of false reports. I should add that I am entirely out of sympathy with the method used by Hitler to handle the Jewish question. It seems to me that the gross brutality to harmless individuals must needs revolt every decent man. I am well aware that reports from Germany have been exaggerated, but am also well aware that intolerable brutalities have been practiced. I don’t know a single man of any reputation in America who is in favor of the Nazi scheme. As it stands, Germany has completely lost the sympathy it had during the years following 1920.

In the vague way that such things get started, and once started prove difficult to quash, the story has taken hold that H. L. Mencken was an anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism was not uncommon among the writers of the 1920’s—touches of it are in E. E. Cummings, in F. Scott Fitzgerald, more than touches in Pound and Eliot and Hemingway—and comments can be found in the new collection of Mencken letters that will satisfy those in search of confirmation of Mencken’s anti-Semitism: in particular, one about traveling aboard ship with a large number of Jewish passengers and another about Dreiser’s anti-Semitism being “simply a reaction against Jewish Communists. They are such God-awful swine that he simply can’t stomach them.” Against the charge one can bring to bear evidence of Mencken’s distaste for Father Coughlin or for Gerald L.K. Smith, the professional anti-Semite, who, Mencken said, “never stoops to talk sense.” Or one could argue that some of Mencken’s best friends were Jews, which they were.

But the greatest argument against the charge of anti-Semitism is the evidence, displayed throughout Mencken’s writings, of the degrading things he had to say about all American ethnic groups, including, one hastens to add, his own, the German-Americans: “The Germans, taking one with another, are on the cultural level of greengrocers.” And elsewhere: “They have all the unpleasantness of really efficient people. I am, in a way, one of them myself, but I have become Americanized enough to dislike their cocksureness.” Chinks, wops, japs, micks, niggers, kikes—Mencken found the whole ethnic carousel of American life wildly comic. All groups were fair game. One might accuse Mencken of prejudice, perhaps, but of discrimination, never.

Before the stroke that, in 1948, put an end to his active career (though he would live eight years longer, dying at seventy-five in 1956), Mencken recognized, with a remarkable absence of resentment, that he was no longer of much interest to the intellectual life of the United States. “The life of every man who dissents from the prevailing ideas is bound to be more or less lonely,” he wrote. He also saw his writing as of a unity. “All my work hangs together. Whether it appears to be burlesque, or serious criticism, or more casual controversy, it is always directed against one thing: unwarranted pretension. It always seeks to expose a false pretense, to blow up a wobbly axiom, to uncover a sham virtue.”

Toward the end of his life Mencken had no complaints. “I approach senility,” he wrote to one of his correspondents, “without feeling I have been deprived of anything I really deserved.” And yet one wonders if his reputation doesn’t deserve to stand higher than it now does. The “extraordinary cleansing and vitalizing effect” Walter Lippmann found in Mencken’s prose more than half a century ago is still to be found in it. Lippmann may have been right, too, in attributing this wondrous effect to the fact that Mencken’s blows “are directed by a warm and violent but an unusually healthy mind which is not divided, as most minds are, by envy and fear and ambition and anxiety.”



Certainly we have no one like him today, though the literary forest be filled with men toting axes. Too often, one discovers, these hatchet men—Gore Vidal and Garry Wills come to mind—are intent less on making a clean kill than on honing their blades on the grindstone of politics. When the hatchet men are not so overtly political—as in the case of the movie and drama critic John Simon—they are specialists in overkill, reminding one of that now obscure attacker of Lord Macaulay, a man named Rogers, of whom it was said that he wrote to murder Macaulay but ended in committing suicide (a mistake Mencken never made). Tom Wolfe is sometimes referred to as the H.L. Mencken of our age. No other writer, surely, is more in touch with the status life in America, where the subjects of Wolfe’s most telling devastations—the rich, the upper-middle-class bohemians, the yearning intellectual class—have their abode. Nor can one accuse Wolfe of not having a style. What sometimes seems missing from Wolfe’s writing is a quality of magnanimity that shines through Mencken’s essays, especially those that are unalloyed by polemic.

Opinions shift and shuttle back and forth every ten years or so, but Mencken’s prose retains a buoyancy that remains Unchanged over more than half a century. He believed it was the duty of everyone who could reflect and write to speak out on the issues and questions of his day. On the issues and questions of his own day Mencken could scarcely be said to have been impartial, but neither was he in the least petty. Toward the end of his active life he wrote: “The country swarms with quacks and swindles that ought to be done in the grand manner.” The quacks and swindles have given no evidence of abating, but the grand manner with which they so richly deserve to be dealt requires a certain generosity of spirit and largeness of heart. Mencken had both, and it is sufficient to show how rare these qualities are by noting sadly that there is no one writing today who even faintly resembles him.

As for the influence of Mencken, it is of a kind best caught by George Eliot in a brief essay of 1855 on Thomas Carlyle, another writer of “objectionable” opinions:

The influence of such a writer is dynamic. He does not teach men how to use sword and musket, but he inspires their souls with courage and sends a strong will into their muscles. He does not, perhaps, enrich your stock of data, but he clears away the film from your eyes that you may search for data to some purpose. He does not, perhaps, convince you, but he strikes you, undeceives you, animates you.

H. L. Mencken is such a writer.


1 Edited by Carl Bode, Dial, 635 pp., $19.95.

2 Southern Illinois University Press, 452 pp., $10.00.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

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