The Diary of H.L. Mencken
A few months ago the National Press Club in Washington, an organization committed, along with much else, to the higher principles of the press, moved to retitle its library. Celebrating as the room did the literary and journalistic eminence of H.L. Mencken, the name was thought to have become a serious source of embarrassment even to journalists accommodated to the current Capitol scene. Mencken, his newly published diary revealed, was anti-Semitic; no one with such views could thus be honored any longer.
Those who so reacted were at least partly right, although it was a sadly belated discovery. Mencken, in the diary and more pertinently in a lifetime of incredibly voluminous written and oral expression, had often spoken insolently of Jews. The problem is that he had also spoken adversely or insultingly of almost every other ethnic group in the United States, his fellow German descendants possibly apart—a condemnation that extended to politicians, scholars, friendly writers, editorialists on The Baltimore Sun with which he had a lifetime association, and almost everyone else. The white workers who came into Baltimore to work in the war plants in World War II he dismissed in an almost kindly way as “lintheads”; in a well-quoted characterization he said that the only pure Anglo-Saxons left in the United States, those of the hills and mountains to the west of Baltimore, were “a wretchedly dirty, shiftless, stupid and rascally people.” (Maybe it was the Anglo-Saxons in the Press Club who should have been sensitive.) There was much more. Negroes, as they were then denoted, he considered, though often with almost gentle condescension, inferior as to intellect, diligence, and color. And his contempt extended on to the great mass of the American people. What I have always thought (and hitherto cited as) his most convincing exercise in denigration he banged out on his typewriter to report, perhaps more precisely to applaud, the death of William Jennings Bryan:
Wherever the flambeaux of Chautauqua smoked and guttered, and the bilge of idealism ran in the veins, and Baptist pastors dammed the brooks with the sanctified, and men gathered who were weary and heavy laden, and their wives who were full of Peruna and fecund as the shad (Alosa sapidissima), there the indefatigable Jennings set up his traps and spread his bait. He knew every country town in the South and West, and he could crowd the most remote of them to suffocation by simply winding his horn. The city proletariat, transiently flustered by him in 1896, quickly penetrated his buncombe and would have no more of him; the cockney gallery jeered him at every Democratic national convention for twenty-five years. But out where the grass grows high, and the horned cattle dream away the lazy afternoons, and men still fear the powers and principalities of the air—out there between the cornrows he held his old puissance to the end. There was no need of beaters to drive in his game. The news that he was coming …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.