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Mencken and the Great American Boob

The Dreiser–Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser & H.L. Mencken, 1907–1945

Vol. I and II, edited by Thomas P. Riggio
University of Pennsylvania Press, 843 pp., $74.90 the set

Mencken and Sara, A Life in Letters: The Private Correspondence of H.L. Mencken and Sara Haardt

edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
McGraw-Hill, 551 pp., $22.95

I was too young for the 1920s and what, already in obituary style, was called The Age of Mencken. I began to read him in the 1930s, when I was writing a book on the modern period. I read him as a vanished if pungent figure, and I read him with suspicion, with furtive and guilty delight. The Depression was heavy on the country, in Europe Hitlerism was rising. Unlike Henry Louis Mencken, who with one quarter of the work force unemployed saw no reason to discard his evaluation of himself as one of “the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie, encapsulated in affection and kept fat, saucy, and contented,” I saw great suffering on every street. I entertained the now preposterous belief that here was great social injustice in America, that things could be changed, that they were changing for the better under Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not fast enough.

Mencken saw nothing more in “Dr. Roosevelt” than he did in previous occupants of the White House, whom he invariably derided as “Dr. Coolidge” and “Dr. Hoover.” (“Dr. Wilson,” who was a Ph.D., was the first to be so called—in order to point up the contrast between the hollow men and the office they occupied, to say nothing of the contrast between them and H.L. Mencken, who had disdained the university for a cub reporter’s job.) Although Mencken’s greatest delight as a newspaperman was to report national political conventions, his judgments of “Roosevelt Minor,” starting with his political chances at the 1932 Democratic Convention in Chicago, seemed to me entirely mistaken. In the midst of economic crisis, Mencken wrote, “the only actual issue is Prohibition, and Prohibition, it is very probable, will be carefully concealed by both parties before the campaign begins.” Mencken thought Al Smith to be a powerful contender in 1932, and he so far overlooked the political transformation of the country under economic stress that he thought Hoover could be reelected. Again in 1936 his animus againstFDR led him to overestimate Landon’s chances by nine million votes.

Mencken was so possessed by his own great satiric gifts, the style he cultivated as if it were a musical instrument (the tuba?), and by his “aristocratic” disdain for politicians as a class (he liked to call superior literary types “aristocratic”) that his predilections were unaccountable and his predictions often mistaken. He was positive (Mencken never failed to be positive) that Hoover would be nominated eight years before he actually was, that Al Smith would carry the Solid South in 1928. “It is simply impossible, in most Southern states, for a self-respecting man to be a Republican.” Mencken’s low opinion of Roosevelt’s chances and Roosevelt’s general ability was like his political judgments generally, his cynical judgments of celebrities, and colored by scorn for democracy as a theory of government and politicians as a class. One could relish Mencken’s cleverest paragraphs while recognizing that he knew nothing about economics, cared less, and that Coolidge was right when he said “the business of America is business.” It was just sassy of Mencken to say in 1932, “Running Roosevelt against Hoover would simply be running one pussy footer against another…. One powder puff cannot harm another.”

Mencken never got over the hysterically anti-German attacks to which, like other Baltimoreans of German descent, he was subjected in 1917–1918. He was not the only leading American pundit to minimize the significance of Hitler’s rise to power; Walter Lippmann so hated being a Jew that he could not bring himself to write a single word about Hitler’s terror. But Mencken was simply indulging his habitual contempt for conventional opinion when on a visit to Germany in the mid-Thirties he assured a friend that “Hitler’s New Deal” was working better than Roosevelt’s. It was essential for him to show his independence at all costs. While one respects his voluntary leave from the Sunpapers after Pearl Harbor (he had been excused by his indulgent and admiring employers in 1917–1918), his deliberate refusal to understand the issues created by fascism pointed up the intellectual brutality in Mencken’s makeup and confirmed the general belief that his intellectual usefulness ended with the Great Crash.

In 1926 Walter Lippmann called him “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people.” The New York Times thought him “the most powerful private citizen in America.” Reading him as the Depression ended, I had to admit that much of my unhappiness with Mencken was based on envy, on my longing for a time when the issues were simpler, cleaner cut. In his poem “September 1, 1939” W.H. Auden described the Thirties as a “low, dishonest decade.” It was painfully clear to me, reading Mencken, that by contrast he had had a very good time of it in his great period, the Twenties. In 1942, as my book on the American writers of the past half century was completed, just in time for me to receive greetings from my draft board, it was a jolt to realize that the Twenties had been an exceptionally great period in literature and the arts. Mencken’s aggressive style, his inimitable air of living it up on all occasions, the professionally iconoclastic mind that had seemed to me arbitrary and cruel in the Thirties, were in his heyday a reflection of what he had helped to create.

Since I knew the 1920s only through literature, one principal image of it had been ardently established by Mencken in his own person. Mencken was such a dominating character as well as observer, reporter, critic, satirist, that it now seemed all his period, stretching back to his beginnings in the 1890s as a starting newspaperman of eighteen. Mencken never got over the fin de siècle. It was his flavorsome youth. He recounted it in an autobiography, Happy Days, astounding for its picture of life as one celebration after another—nothing but unalloyed happiness all day long every day of the year. One had to swing in beside Mencken and rejoice; the point of it all was America in a youth just like Mencken’s and unaware of anything but the promise of life. Reading Mencken on the so-called “gay Nineties,” I enjoyed his literary, musical, impressionistic version of the period as all fun and games because Mencken had impressed his personal character on it—the rollicking newspaperman of the period, all skepticism and hell raiser, a bachelor in those palmy days when the very word brought a wink, carried laughing associations with Don Juan rather than suspicions of “abnormality.”

As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers notes introducing Mencken and Sara, the collection of fervent letters exchanged with Sara Haardt before his marriage to her, Mencken “cultivated the image of bachelorhood, and his reputation as a bachelor reached legendary proportions.” Sara was eighteen years younger than Mencken, and like Zelda Fitzgerald a native of Montgomery, Alabama, and a considerable wit (often at the expense of her poor health). In 1923 as a young instructor at Goucher she fell in love when Mencken gave one of his annual lectures. (The underlying topic was always “How To Catch a Husband.”) At their many lunches during Prohibition, Sara particularly enjoyed sneaking Mencken corn liquor in her typewriter case. They did not marry until 1930; Sara died of tuberculosis in 1935.

Mencken and Sara portrays a very tender marriage and is an astonishment after Mencken’s steady portrayal of himself as the world’s most rambunctious hedonist. He was as solicitous of Sara’s determined efforts as a novelist and screenwriter as he was of her health. The letters documenting Sara’s difficulties in Hollywood just before talkies came in are very funny, and others add considerably to our existing knowledge of Mencken at The American Mercury as a supporter of new talent. After her death, Mencken said: “When I married Sara, the doctors said she could not live more than three years. Actually, she lived five, so I had two more years of happiness than I had any right to expect.” He added, “I was fifty-five years old before I envied anyone, and then it was not so much for what others had as for what I had lost.”

Mencken removed from the 1890s everything to do with labor, the great panic of the time, the rise of the imperial brag and strut that led to the Spanish-American War, and the suppression of Philippine independence. He incorporated into his strident literary personality the growing importance of science, the intellectual revolt against established religion, the rising dominance of great metropolitan centers. These worked their way into brave new novels by Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser.

Mencken’s pioneering support of Dreiser was obstinate and prolonged in the teeth of all possible opposition from the pious and genteel (not to forget Dreiser’s impossible personality). The two met in 1907, when Dreiser, altogether recovered from the breakdown following the virtual suppression in 1900 of Sister Carrie by its publisher, Frank Doubleday, had become an important magazine editor. Thomas P. Riggio, editor of the recently published Dreiser–Mencken correspondence,1 notes, “At first Dreiser helped to place his younger protégé in posts that would win him a wide audience and then Mencken, the increasingly powerful critic, hitched his star to Dreiser and realism, and became adviser cum editor cum tactician in a campaign to win the novelist an intelligent reading.”

Mencken’s strategy as a critic, starting in the early-twentieth-century days that saw him pitted against doddering magazine editors and professors still faithful to the genteel tradition, was to concentrate on a few men. “I used Dreiser,” he admitted. Still, everything about Dreiser’s bleak indifference to current literary and religious conventions allied Dreiser to what Mencken (he was its American cheerleader) called “the German camp of violent unbelievers.” Despite the barbarities of Dreiser’s taste and style (Mencken regularly itemized them with glee), Mencken associated Dreiser’s view of life with that of his favorite novelist, Joseph Conrad. He reviewed every one of Dreiser’s books over the years. Though he manfully supported Sister Carrie against its army of detractors (with his usual bossiness he thought the book just “a first sketch, a rough piling-up of observations and impressions”), he preferred Jennie Gerhardt, completely overlooking the sentiment still attached to the “fallen woman” with which Dreiser had deliberately seasoned the book so that this second novel would escape the fate of Sister Carrie.

By 1925, as the many testy exchanges between the two men make clear, Dreiser in his increasing radicalism felt let down by Mencken’s professionally hard heart. Dreiser’s unappeasable insecurities exhausted Mencken’s patience. By 1925, when Dreiser published his masterpiece, An American Tragedy, Mencken, though he admired the powerful “reporting” of Clyde Griffiths’s trial and his end in prison, missed the merciless process behind Clyde’s undoing that Dreiser had so wonderfully laid bare. Mencken was tired of Dreiser and the long fight he had put up for him, and reviewed An American Tragedy with the high, mocking lack of finesse often typical of him.

  1. 1

    All Mencken prefaces to Dreiser’s work are reprinted in The Dreiser–Mencken Letters, Vol. II.

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