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A Genius for Contempt

Prejudices

by H.L. Mencken
Library of America, 1,222 pp., two volumes, $35.00 each

The material that H.L. Mencken published in a series of six volumes under the title Prejudices was a collection of his journalism written between 1914 and the late 1920s. Most of it, he told a good friend on publication of the first volume in 1919, was “light stuff” with an occasional “blast from the lower woodwind” that would “outrage the umbilicari, if that is the way to spell it.” Such books, he added, were “mere stinkpots, heaved occasionally to keep the animals perturbed.”

Most of the pieces in the first volume—or “series,” as it was called—had originally appeared in The Smart Set, the magazine he had edited since 1914, but they also included articles published in newspapers, as well as material written especially for the book. A painstaking editor of his own work, Mencken also did a good bit of rewriting; stinkpot or not, this was not to be a quick harum-scarum hustling of secondhand goods but a high-quality piece of prose from a master.

Its commercial success surprised him as well as his friend and publisher, Alfred Knopf, who seemed to realize for the first time that Mencken had a promising future, or, as he expressed it to his author, “that H.L. Mencken has become a good property.” The book was quickly followed by Prejudices: Series Two, Series Three, and so on to a final Series Six in 1927, by which time Mencken had developed from a good property into the most exciting literary figure in the country.

The complete Prejudices has now been issued by the Library of America in two volumes of more than 1,200 pages total, including extensive notes and a useful chronology of Mencken’s life and career. All the material here was selected from the journalism composed in the most triumphant and perhaps the happiest years of his life. In this thirteen-year span between 1914 and 1927 he emerged from the obscurity of Baltimore newspaper work to become editor of two of the country’s most influential magazines and eventually a national figure with immense influence in American intellectual society.

In those years everything he tried seemed to succeed, and he tried a great many things and, oddly, tried them without ever really leaving his Hollins Street house in Baltimore, except to commute to the New York offices of the magazines he ran. In Baltimore he retained close bonds to the Sun papers as a valued local columnist, friend and adviser to the publisher, and for a while editorial page editor of their new afternoon paper. In addition to editing The Smart Set with the aid of the theater critic George Jean Nathan, he was working on a scholarly study of the English language’s development in the Americas, which would eventually be published in three volumes as The American Language; he was also compiling a dictionary of quotations that eventually ran to more than 1,300 pages.

It was his journalism, however, that made him a celebrated figure. In modern jargon he would have been called a “personality,” a man as well known in Hollywood as on college campuses and in European intellectual circles. Prejudices, bringing together much of the journalism he had published in scattered papers and magazines, provided America its first exposure to the Mencken persona in concentrated dosage and can probably be taken as a fair illustration of what made him an important force in American letters.

It was obviously not the intellectual weight of his work, which is occasionally trivial, sometimes overstated for comic effect, and sometimes just plain malarkey of the sort desperate newspaper columnists churn out when deadlines are demanding satisfaction and the mental cupboard is bare. Even when his content seems a bit flimsy, however, the pleasures of the language and sparkle of the style can be irresistible.

It is a style entirely alien to the modern fashion for understatement and genteel silences, which has characterized American prose since Ernest Hemingway and The New Yorker began in the 1920s to purge it of clutter, Victorian furbelows, and hyperactive language. Mencken had fully mastered his own prose style by that time, and it was the voice of a writer who had no interest whatever in understating anything or filling his reader’s head with silences heavy with vague significance. The Mencken style glorified overstatement, sometimes burst out in bombastic invective, reveled in unpronounceable words, and was almost always a pleasure to read if only for the sound it made on the page.

He was fully aware that the sound words make when carefully assembled will win more readers than reasoning can. “Two-thirds of the charm of reading Chaucer,” he writes in Prejudices: Third Series, “comes out of the mere burble of the words; the meaning, to a modern, is often extremely obscure, and sometimes downright undecipherable.” Much of the pleasure of reading Mencken also comes from the “burble of the words,” even when the content is trivial or annoying.

And of course he is almost constantly trying to annoy somebody, a goal he sometimes achieved too cheaply by applying words like “boob,” “yokel,” imbecile,” and “moron” to his targets. At other times he musters such an array of outrageous abuse that he seems to be laughing at his own excess, and turns assault into a joke.

He despised the farm lobby, for example, for its mastery over a supine Congress that in the early days of the past century regularly enacted costly favors for farmers while extolling special virtues it attributed to tillers of the soil—submerging them “in rhetorical vaseline,” as he put it. He opens a five-thousand-word blast with some sport at the expense of the Congressional Record:

I have encountered in its dense and pregnant columns denunciations of almost every human act or idea that is imaginable to political pathology, from adultery to Zionism, and of all classes of men whose crimes the legislative mind can grasp, from atheists to Zoroastrians, but never once, so far as I can recall, has that great journal shown the slightest insolence, direct or indirect, to the humble husbandman, the lonely companion of Bos taurus, the sweating and persecuted farmer. He is, on the contrary, the pet above all other pets, the enchantment and delight, the saint and archangel of all the unearthly Sganarelles and Scaramouches who roar in the two houses of Congress. He is more to them day in and day out, than whole herds of Honest Workingmen, Gallant Jack Tars and Heroic Miners; he is more, even, than a platoon of Unknown Soldiers….

After almost a thousand words spent warming up, he comes to the point:

Let the farmer, so far as I am concerned, be damned forevermore! To hell with him, and bad luck to him! He is, unless I err, no hero at all, and no priest, and no altruist, but simply a tedious fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite, the eternal Jack of the human pack…. No more grasping, selfish and dishonest mammal, indeed, is known to students of the Anthropoidea.

A final shot at the farmer—“this prehensile moron”—and Mencken is off to abuse what he truly despises: Congress and presidents. Not every object of his contempt was accorded such lovingly phrased abuse as the farmer. Calvin Coolidge, though a president, could be disposed of without finesse: a “third-rate, small-town attorney, stuffed with copy book platitudes” and “a cheap, sordid and grasping politician, a seeker of jobs all his life, willing to do almost anything imaginable to get them.”

In today’s jargon, Mencken, eloquently proclaiming views certain to offend so many, would be called a “polarizing” figure. Whereas today’s polarizers, however, are professional well-poisoners who spend vast sums for opinion polls to determine how best to inflame the masses for political advantage, Mencken did the trick by simply writing what was on his mind.

In the years that produced Prejudices it was a mind bubbling with contempt for the national culture, including American politics and politicians; on campuses and in the cities there was a large chunk of the population whose discontent with that culture matched his own, but without a voice to express it. They were an audience waiting for a prophet, and they found one in Mencken. The American Mercury, which he founded with Nathan in 1924, became the gospel of the new age, and the voice of Mencken spoke for so many that The New York Times called him “the most powerful private citizen in America.” Walter Lippmann wrote that he was “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people.”

When he was older and vulnerable to melancholy and fame had tired of him, he looked back on the days of glory and told himself that he had been misunderstood. A diary entry for November 1939, when he was in his late fifties and quite a different man from the exuberant Mencken of the 1920s, states that he had never been interested in the powers he supposedly exerted in the 1920s. In the Mercury‘s early days it was widely assumed that he had “some aspiration to lead the so-called opinion of college students,” he wrote. This was utterly wrong, his diary says:

I have, in fact, almost no interest in the ideas of college students. They seem to me to be simply immature men. They are always following fresh messiahs. That I served for a short while as one of those messiahs was not only surprising to me, but extremely offensive.

Nor had he ever written with a political, moral, or pedagogic purpose. He had always written, he said, simply to find out what he was thinking. Those who assumed that he had “some deep-lying reformatory purpose” were wrong:

My one purpose in writing I have explained over and over again: it is simply to provide a kind of katharsis for my own thoughts. They worry me until they are set forth in words. This may be a kind of insanity, but at all events it is free of moral purpose. I am never much interested in the effects of what I write.

This seems less a private diary reflection than a statement written for posterity, an exercise perhaps in historical revision, but if so what are we to make of it? That he was not emotionally swept away—not swept away at all back then by the thrilling onset of fame? That he had never had any tolerance for that sort of thing? One can only guess, but it is hard to believe that the young Mencken who seemed capable of doing anything he wanted to, and exulted in the fun and mischief of it, wrote that carefully phrased and painstakingly self-edited prose merely to discover what he had in mind.

The irony of Mencken’s influence in colleges, whether he sought it or not, is that he himself did not have a college education. His formal education ended with graduation from an excellent public high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. It is now said that he had the best academic record of any student in its long and distinguished history, and perhaps he did, for he was extraordinarily gifted for the rigors of scholarship.

He read extensively in English and American literature on his own initiative while still in school. How he learned to write like H.L. Mencken is a mystery; writing of that quality does not flower naturally out of the skills learned in composing newspaper accounts of fatal accidents, summer storms, and the annual apple blossom festival. His vocabulary was astonishing, and he was not modest about using it. While reading Prejudices, I jotted down the following list of words that sent me to Webster’s Third but soon gave it up for fear of wearing out the dictionary:

Confutation

Fantee

Usufructs

Punctilio
Bedizenments
Laparotomy
Enharmonic
Endoneurium
Corpora quadrigemina
Hypermetropic
Mariolatry
Haruspices
Oedematous
Gerousia
Hunkerous

Socinianism

Struthion

He was a phrasemaker of very high ability, capable of praising Emerson’s “mellifluous obscurity,” scowling at the “suave and oedematous Chesterton,” or defining the “Christian notion of immortality” as “an eternity to be spent flapping wings with pious greengrocers and oleaginous Anglican bishops.” In an obituary still famous for its cruelty, he could become lyrical in describing the sway of William Jennings Bryan:

…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 corn-rows 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 was enough. For miles the flivver dust would choke the roads.

Of the presidents who held office in the early 1900s, only Theodore Roosevelt seems to have puzzled him. He obviously viewed Harding and Coolidge as small-bore political hacks not worth full-force assaults. Woodrow Wilson, however, was special. Wilson he simply hated.

Wilson: the self-bamboozled Presbyterian, the right-thinker, the great moral statesman, the perfect model of the Christian cad,” he called him. To Mencken, Wilson was a cold and treacherous moralizer, a sponsor of laws under which people were imprisoned for dissenting against American participation in World War I. Wilson had won reelection in 1916 with a boast that he had kept the country out of the war and, once the election was won, expeditiously took it into the war in alliance with England and France. Mencken, a grandson of German immigrants, detested England and detested Wilson for taking the country into the war on England’s side. Why the United States was in the war on any side is not entirely clear even now; indeed, historians often have trouble explaining what the war itself was about.

Mencken’s interest in Theodore Roosevelt may have been rooted in aspects of the Roosevelt character that suggested a minor-league Kaiser. The America of Roosevelt’s dreams “was always a sort of swollen Prussia, truculent without and regimented within.” Even his manner betrayed a touch of Kaiser-envy. “There was always the clank of the saber in his discourse; he could not discuss the tamest matter without swaggering in the best dragoon fashion,” Mencken wrote.

He cited several other characteristics that Roosevelt and the Kaiser had in common: “both dreamed of gigantic navies,” believed in keeping potential enemies intimidated by heavy armament, and constantly preached the citizen’s duty to the state but soft-pedaled the state’s duty to the citizen.

Both delighted in the armed pursuit of the lower fauna. Both heavily patronized the fine arts. Both were intimates of God and announced His desires with authority.” The Kaiser was probably the milder and more modest of the two, Mencken said. In his training for exalted position he had cultivated “a certain ingratiating suavity,” and so could be “extremely polite to an opponent,” whereas Roosevelt, Mencken wrote, “was never polite.”

One always thinks of him as a glorified longshoreman engaged eternally in cleaning out bar-rooms—and not too proud to gouge when the inspiration came to him, or to bite in the clinches, or to oppose the relatively fragile brass knuckles of the code with chair-legs, bung-starters, cuspidors, demijohns, and ice-picks.

In addition to politics, other elements of early-twentieth-century American culture that received Mencken’s irritated attention in Prejudices included “Baptist and Methodist barbarism”; the entire American South (a “Sahara of the Bozart”); college professors; the Ku Klux Klan; Prohibition; Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer; socialists (“I admire successful scoundrels and shrink from Socialists as I shrink from Methodists”); Billy Sunday; social and moral uplift movements; the American Legion; all clubby brotherhoods and lodges but especially the Knights of Pythias; and of course “the plain people,” as he called the vast majority of the American population that voted for Prohibition, drank bootleg whiskey, and chose to be governed by “morons” and “imbeciles.”

He pronounced them a “third-rate” branch of a declining Anglo-Saxon strain that, despite its victory in World War I,

somehow looks shabby—England trembling before one-legged and bankrupt France, the United States engaged in a grotesque pogrom against the wop, the coon, the kike, the papist, the Jap, the what-not—worse, engaged in an even more grotesque effort to put down ideas as well as men—to repeal learning by statute, regiment the arts by lynch-law, and give the puerile ethical and theological notions of lonely farmers and corner grocers the force and dignity of constitutional axioms.

He and his admirers seem to have had little effect on their compatriots. In 1944, Edmund Wilson, reviewing The Robe, a best-selling novel about Jesus by Lloyd C. Douglas, wrote:

That seven and a half million Americans should not find it in the least distasteful to devour five hundred and fifty pages of Dr. Douglas’ five-and-ten-cent-store writing is something to give pause to anyone who may have supposed that the generation of Mencken had lifted American taste a little above the level of Gene Stratton-Porter and Harold Bell Wright.

Lest those not familiar with Mencken go away with the impression that he was all abuse and dyspepsia, let a gentle word of admiration be said about his love of literature and music and his respect for the artists who create it. There was a good Mencken as well as a bad Mencken; and Prejudices contains a generous selection of the work produced when the good Mencken was at the typewriter. They include a memorable and delicate essay on the pleasures of living in Baltimore. Especially notable are the sweet-tempered, almost tender appreciations of writers and critics not so widely read nowadays as once they were. The pieces on James Huneker, Frank Harris, Havelock Ellis, and Jack London are especially good.

So too is his account of a sweaty evening spent in a New York restaurant with Rudolph Valentino shortly before the silent-movie star’s fatal illness, a classic piece of writing that, appropriately, is used as the closing piece of this fine collection.

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