H. L. Mencken
H. L. Mencken; drawing by David Levine

A Choice of Days and On Mencken make up Knopf’s testament to Henry L. Mencken on the hundredth year since his birth. We should, of course, be grateful to have any memorial less degrading than those essays of R. Emmett Tyrrell through which Mencken’s ghost now and then flickers like some damned soul in hell. All the same these garlands, though altogether worthier and more scrupulously worked, seem somehow not quite up to their subjects.

But then there are subjects that fairly prohibit adequacy. Whales are the only mammals that the museums have never managed to stuff and mount in their original skins. The great whale in New York’s Museum of Natural History is a styrofoam reproduction; and the museum’s orca, despite its more modest proportions, is only a compound of burlap and plaster. These counterfeits are the best the taxidermists can do, because, they have found, something in the very nature of the whale’s original skin makes its preservation impractical.

Mencken is a very great whale and can stove all boats that sail too close too soon. The careful sailor begins at a respectful distance and looks for what the creature is not before grappling with what it might be.

The first sight is the spouting, and who cannot be forgiven for coming upon such a spectacle and henceforth and forever deciding that this sportive play in the warm waters is most of what whales are about? Alistair Cooke, who knew him well and read him keenly, settles for defining Mencken as “a humorist in the classic American tradition, about halfway between Mark Twain and Woody Allen.”1

Even those of us least satisfied with the notion that his spout is all there is to the whale have to concede that any geyser is a joyous sight indeed. Here, as an instance, is the thirty-six-year-old Mencken on Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:

In this grand complex of tunes, indeed, Tschaikowsky tells all his troubles—how he was forced into marriage against his will; how he lost three thousand roubles on Russian government bonds; how his pet dog Wolfgang was run over by the Moscow-Petersburg D-Zug and lost an ear; how the concert-master was in liquor at Dresden and spoiled his Romeo and Juliet; how ill he was after eating that gekochter Schellfisch at Prague; how the wine merchant, Oroshatovich, swindled him with synthetic Burgundy; how he lost his baggage between Leipzig and Berlin, and had to conduct in borrowed cuffs; how the summer boarders at Maidanovo played “Monastery Bells” on their tin-pan pianos; how that Schuft of a critic at Köln accused him of borrowing his Capriccio in G sharp minor from Offenbach; how his friend Kashkin won a hundred roubles from him at yeralash; how he cut his hand opening a can of asparagus; how melancholy it was to come to fifty-year.

This is, of course, pure sport with no destination except the disposable tissue that is any day’s newspaper, and we would not even know this flight existed if it were not for Carl Bode’s exemplary efforts at retrieval in The Young Mencken. Such stuff goes about as far as Woody Allen has ever contrived to go. But, after the mockeries of all self-seriousness, there comes the note of appreciation of the serious that lifts the man of true sensibility above the one who merely jests for the ostentation of the cap and the bells:

And yet, for all that maudlin confidence, a great work of art. A work to torture and delight the sentimentalist, but at the same time a work to interest and edify the musician. In the midst of all its mawkishness it is written superbly.2

The point of Mencken is not just the ear for those elements of the ridiculous that are pretension’s close companions but the eye for those elements of genuine feeling that can redeem the worst pretension. He knew that what deserves to be esteemed lives very often with what deserves to be laughed at. It is this ability to render justice and what he would have scoffed to hear called his capacity to love that separate him from so many of those who mistake him for their model.

Cooke’s judgment that Mencken’s claim upon posterity resides mainly in his place among classic American humorists is, I am afraid, one more example of the trouble we have accepting ungainly, outsized, and troublesome articles of our cultural furniture unless we trim and trivialize them into domestic comforts.

The special service of Bode’s anthology is the help it gives us in understanding that Mencken’s mind took its mold very early on. Just because he so recognized the difference between himself and the run of his countrymen, the brands preserved in The Young Mencken glow especially with anticipations of the mistaken identity his shade now threatens to carry through the eternal snows.


That fate had, after all, been Mark Twain’s:

While he lived he was several times labeled and relabeled, and always inaccurately and vainly. At the start the national guardians of letters sought to dismiss him loftily as a hollow buffoon, a brother to Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby. This enterprise failing, they made him a comic moralist, a sort of chatauquan in motley, a William Jennings Bryan armed with a slapstick. Foiled again, they promoted him to the rank of Thomas Bailey Aldrich and William Dean Howells, and issued an impertinent amnesty for the sins of his youth. Thus he passed from these scenes—ratified at last but somewhat heavily patronized.3

And then, after Mark Twain was buried and his habitual alarms about being a cause of scandal were no longer relevant, those black posthumous works What Is Man? and The Mysterious Stranger were at last published, and in Mencken’s words,

The parlor entertainer… completely disappears; in his place there arises a satirist, with something of Rabelais’s vast resourcefulness and dexterity in him, and all of Dean Swift’s devastating ferocity…. No wonder the pious critic of the New York Times, horrified by [What Is Man’s] doctrine, was forced to take refuge behind the theory that Mark intended it as a joke.4

Mencken had barely passed his apprenticeship before he resigned himself to the same destiny of misunderstanding. While still young, he demonstrated a knack for clarifying and compacting the ideas of alien and distant prophets. His first appearances between boards were vade mecums to Nietzsche and Shaw; and his formidable learning owed itself in considerable part to the force-feeding such drudgeries extort. He was only twenty-seven when he was at work on George Bernard Shaw: His Plays, and gave voice to his doubts that

…Shaw will ever become a popular dramatist, in the sense that Sardou and Pinero are popular….

One cannot expect a man, however keen his sense of humor, to laugh at the things he considers eminently proper and honorable. Shaw’s demand that he do so has greatly restricted the size of the Shaw audience.5

This early insight may best explain why the Mencken manner, to the extent that it survives at all, has its awkward existence in the language of disciples who reserve their scorn for whatever the respectable conceive as improper and dishonorable, and who confine their nonconformity to mock-heroic gestures of refusing to crook the knee to anyone who declines to conform. Thus we have R. Emmett Tyrrell, who walks so lamely among us as Mencken’s bitterest enemy, the enforcer of loyalty oaths, born again in the disguise of Mencken revivivus.

Would he be ashamed to have progeny no seemlier than this one? We can by no means be sure that he would. There sits, by no means uncherished, some Aunt Polly at the back of all our minds, and as the years go by, her voice grows ever more compelling. What we rejected we now embrace; suddenly we are ashamed to be a trial and long to be accepted as a comfort.

Mencken was forty when he caught the pathos and arraigned the betrayal of Mark Twain’s later years,

…returning to the native mob as its premier clown—monkey-shining at banquets, cavorting in the newspapers, shrinking poltroonishly from his own ideas, obscenely eager to give no offense.6

And yet, if they are free of pathos and innocent of betrayal, what are those yarns that Knopf now abridges and reissues as A Choice of Days except the effort simply to please that overcomes all of us in an old age anxious to be amnestied for the sins of our youth?

Both A Choice of Days and On Mencken are almost all allegro, youth as sunrise in Baltimore as Eden. They are delightful, but they are far from the whole symphony. On Mencken beguiles us with a full chapter of tributes to the city of Baltimore collated by Huntington Cairns. We are in Cairns’s debt for The American Scene, the most acute and discriminating of all selections of Mencken’s work. But in this case the employment assigned him is the mining and exhalation of roseate memories of Mencken’s native place. His Baltimore was certainly charming and easy enough, but there were cruel limits to the tolerance Mencken celebrates.

It was, after all, Baltimore whose citizens grew so abraded by his enthusiasm for the German cause in the First World War that by the autumn of 1916 their Sun papers were driven to put him on forced leave. The city he loved was also the city that exiled him from its journalism for three years and the city whose public librarian declined to stock the novels of Theodore Dreiser while they sat untrammeled on the shelves of Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Indianapolis. There was darkness as well as sunshine in this life; and the swimmer swam against the current, gaily to be sure, but all the same strenuously.


His community with Dreiser, you finally decide, was the expression of Mencken’s nature that brings us nearest to an accurate perception of him:

All the latter-day American novelists of consideration are vastly more facile than Dreiser in their philosophy, as they are in their style. In the fact, perhaps, lies the measure of their difference. What they lack, great and small, is the gesture of pity, the note of awe, the profound sense of wonder—in a phrase, that “soberness of mind” which William Lyon Phelps sees as the hallmark of Conrad and Hardy, and which even the most stupid cannot escape in Dreiser…. In the arts, as in the concerns of everyday, the American seeks escape from the insoluble by pretending that it is solved. A comfortable phrase is what he craves beyond all things—and comfortable phrases are surely not to be found in Dreiser’s stock.7

One swiftly forgets his intolerable writing, his mirthless, sedulous, repellent manner, in the face of the Athenian tragedy he instils into his seduced and soul-sick servant girls, his barbaric pirates of finances, his conquered and hamstrung supermen, his wives who sit and wait…. Such a novel as “Sister Carrie” stands quite outside the brief traffic of the customary stage…. It is not a mere story, not a novel in the customary American meaning of the word; it is at once a psalm of life and a criticism of life—and that criticism loses nothing by the fact that its burden is despair…. The thing he seeks to do is to stir, to awaken, to move. One does not arise from such a book as “Sister Carrie” with a smirk of satisfaction; one leaves it infinitely touched.8

Cooke notices a strain of cruelty in Mencken; and it is inescapably there, although you rather wish that he had found a specimen more inarguably gross than the obituary of William Jennings Bryan that was printed the day after his death and polluted the attendant clouds of incense with the stink bomb of the insistence that the deceased was “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense of dignity…full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all beauty, all fine and noble things.”9

This style of having at the carcass pays the price of getting itself thought cruel but that cost seems meager when set against its rewards. For the Mencken who was unafraid to violate the proprieties is the Mencken who speaks most eloquently to us still; he dared in that high fashion Whitman marked in Thoreau: “his lawlessness—his dissent—his going down his own absolute road, let hell blaze as it pleases.”

But then Mencken’s grand advantage over the journalists of his or any later time was not merely that he did not worry about Hell or Heaven. Indifference to and even disbelief in an after-life of blessings and punishments are more common than unique to man. But, if it is a rare journalist who quakes at the prospect of the Lake of Fire, it is a rarer one still who does not worry about the hot water that can scald anyone who gives cause for scandal.

The conventional obituary escorts the defunct to the bar of heaven with a deference made particularly ceremonious by the fear of being caught jogging the elbow of the Recording Angel. Mencken did not believe that there is such a being as the Recording Angel; and yet the precipitate death of William Jennings Bryan, whom he had watched raving and fuming at the Scopes trial only days before, pressed upon him the awful transience of everyone’s life. We could hardly otherwise explain the image he summoned up at the opening of his dispatch to the Baltimore Evening Sun:

Has it been duly marked by historians that William Jennings Bryan’s last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies? A curious detail, and not without its sardonic overtones. He was the most sedulous fly catcher in American history, and in many ways the most successful. His quarry, of course, was not Musca domestica but Homo neandertalensis. For forty years he traced it with coo and bellow, up and down the backwaters of the Republic. Wherever the flambeaux of Chatauqua smoked and guttered, and the bilge of idealism ran in the veins, and Baptist pastors damned the brooks with the sanctified…—there the indefatigable Jennings set up his traps and spread his bait.10

This is an image of the sort that is started by the most vivid intimations of your own mortality and the sharpened perception that all of it could end for you tonight as it had so suddenly for so many men, run over, say, by some rackety Ford on the way back to bed after filing at the Western Union office.

These then might be the last lines you would write on earth, and that thought serves to expel every inhibition about how they might look to the properminded. Mencken once remembered or perhaps imagined that he had composed his envoi to Bryan on a July night in a Chattanooga hotel room sitting in his undershorts with all the windows open and nothing between him and suffocation except a languorous overhead fan. We can conceive him standing up when he had finished and putting his shirt back on and saying to himself, “What I have done this night no man alive could have done and I am the king of the cats.”

The kingdom runs to fairly tame cats with ribboned necks and clipped claws; and in the times when their king runs raucous on the rooftops, he has very little company; but no matter: moments of self-coronation like those excuse staying too late at the journalist’s trade.

I don’t think it can be sensibly argued that Mencken did not stay too late at his trade. Victimage has its uses. Black-listing deprived Zero Mostel of every chance except that of being a very great artist at the $75 a week Equity minimum; and absolution only liberated him for increasing excesses of clownish vulgarity, irresistible in their way but travesties of his higher self. Mencken was expelled from daily journalism for his heresies in wartime; and when his term of banishment was over, he had made himself the first American editor to publish Joyce and the first living American critic to earn the admiration of Joseph Conrad.

In exile, he had brought himself to the place from which great leaps are made. And then the Sun papers opened themselves up to him again and he went zestfully back to inspecting statesmen, reporting on prize fights, and exulting in the stable smells of conventions and campaigns. He did this kind of thing better than any other first-rate journalist has done since the death of John Reed; but it is easy work really, and third-rate novelists try it now and then and almost automatically do it better than first-rate journalists, and novelists like Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote, being well above the third-rate, do it better than anyone else on earth.

Still Mencken’s turn back to the journalism he had outgrown was not so much a surrender as an engagement with a felt duty to a cause. He always boasted that he had no more social conscience than a cat; and yet now he took up the sword and threw away the scabbard, and there ensued a great war with the American consensus of the Twenties that could not have been pressed so vehemently unless fructified by the anger of a victim of intolerance who felt himself one with every other victim.

A month before the Armistice, he had written Ellery Sedgwick at the Atlantic Monthly,

Once it is over, I’ll be glad to write you, if you dare me, a frank statement of the feelings and sensations of an American of German blood, facing for a year or more the ecstatic Germanophobia of the rest of the population. It has been a curious time and I think it has changed me a lot.11

It had changed him into a radical in unremitting conflict with the spirit of his age. I confess to thinking of him with idolatry; and it is idolatry’s worst defect that the idolator molds his idol from the clay of his personal prejudices. The minimal respect we owe any man is to begin by taking him at his word; and Mencken never presented himself as other than a Tory, contemptuous of democracy and scornful of the masses. But, faithful as he tried to be to that vision of himself in the abstract, he was almost invariably false to it in confrontations with the here and now. He had the luck of the disability that afflicts William F. Buckley: his nature was not cold enough to make a good Tory or a good Bolshevik; he was deficient in the high-mindedness the disciplined cold-hearted need. He worked as best he could to corral his sentiments and pen them away; and yet some fugitive feeling constantly drew him into places where the complacent do not choose to travel.

He was only too successful at making us think him the bourgeois undiluted. But for all his origins in the overheated, overbundled, overfed cocoon of a German-American middle-class household, he was thrown into a workingman’s world while barely out of adolescence. He was established on the old Baltimore Herald when he was eighteen and had already learned to look with a detached and eventually ribald eye while sheriffs lurched through hangings they could not execute until they were drunk enough not to notice. He saw men die of rabies in the country’s earliest Pasteur clinic and suicides with their mouths distorted by carbolic acid and the cops badgering their distracted mothers. These experiences were a permanent coarsening; but they also bred a lasting tenderness toward the victims of life.

“It seems plain to me,” he once wrote Dreiser, “that the most valuable baggage that you carry is your capacity for seeing the world from a proletarian standpoint. It is responsible for all your talent for evoking feeling. Imagine Sister Carrie written by a man without that capacity, say Nietzsche. It would have been a mess.”12

There is no explaining their affinity unless we understand that Mencken, incompletely and therefore rebelliously, and Dreiser, entirely and therefore resignedly, each saw the world from a proletarian viewpoint.

Even in the Thirties, when he was bleakly and even grouchily conservative Mencken never forgot that society is divided between those who own property and those who work for a living, and he could continue to describe the American Newspaper Guild as a necessary instrument to protect “working newspapermen…against the forays of the predatory Babbitts who control only too many of the American newspapers.”13

There was a black strain of pessimism beneath the motley he so often affected. As it early convinced him that all gods were illusions, it almost as swiftly persuaded him that all rulers were frauds and most social action a futility. When the New Deal is finished, he wrote Ezra Pound in 1937, “the poor fish who now sweat with hope will still be slaves, doomed to dull and ignominious toil for scoundrels, world without end.”

Pound had solicited his interest in Major Douglas’s Social Credit Movement a few weeks before, and Mencken had replied:

You made your great mistake when you abandoned the poetry business, and set up shop as a wizard in general practise…. All your native common sense oozed out of you, and you set up a cater-wauling for all sorts of brummagem Utopias, at first in the aesthetic region only but later in the regions of aesthetic and political baloney. Thus a competent poet was spoiled to make a tin-horn politician.

It does not seem unfair to suspect certain suggestions of the confessional in the harshness of these words. Mencken had made a choice not unlike Pound’s when he congratulated Louis Untermeyer for the promise that,

You will escape from literary criticism, too, as I am trying to do. The wider field of ideas in general is too alluring…. We live, not in a literary age, but in a fiercely political age.14

He had traded detachment for alienation and, throughout the Twenties, he would treat politics as a grinding of victims by their oppressors. The continued imprisonment of Eugene Victor Debs galled him almost as much as the prohibition amendment, which especially galled him as an assault upon private liberties.

The political commentaries that Malcolm Moos collected under the rubric “A Carnival of Buncombe” deserve to be read not so much for their gibes at charlatanry as for their social outrage. Consider his 1924 endorsement of the Progressive party presidential candidacy of Robert M. LaFollette,

…the Wisconsin Red, with his pockets stuffed with Soviet gold. I shall vote for him unhesitatingly, and for a plain reason: he is the best man in the running, as a man….

Suppose all Americans were like LaFollette? What a country it would be! No more depressing goose-stepping. No more gorillas in hysterical herds. No more trimming and trembling. Does it matter what his ideas are? Personally I am against four-fifths of them, but what are the odds? They are, at worst, better than the ignominious platitudes of Coolidge….

The older I grow the less I esteem mere ideas. In politics, particularly, they are transient and unimportant…. There are only men who have character and men who lack it. LaFollette has it…. He is devoid of caution, policy, timidity, baseness—all the immemorial qualities of the politician. He is tremendous when he is right, and he is even more tremendous when he is wrong.

And this on the mind of Calvin Coolidge:

Every idea that is honorable and of good report in Pullman smoke-rooms, on the verandas of golf clubs, among university presidents, at luncheons of the Kiwanis Club and where sweaters and usurers meet—all this rubbish he has welded into a system of politics, nay of statecraft, of jurisprudence, of epistomology, almost of theology, and made himself the prophet of it. He has shoved himself an inch ahead of his lieges. He is one degree hotter for the existing order than they are themselves.15

But the commitment to politics leads down two roads, each with a pit at its end. One is the path of embracing, the other is the path of rejecting; and you finish either embracing or rejecting everything. When the time came to recoil from Franklin Roosevelt as from every other incumbent, Mencken could only recoil on the terms and in the posture of the plutocracy he had always reviled; and sixteen years afterward, when he chose his own favorites among his writings, he included a philippic against the New Deal that reached the apogee of its disgust in the revelation that Harry Hopkins had a staff of non-entities so dim that they were not even listed in Who’s Who in America.16

The matter had shrunk down to no more than the manner. We may suppose that he was unsurprised to meet that empty hour, for he had long before shown the acuity with which the true critic anticipates his own twilight in the fallings-off of his elders. He had seen that shadow in 1920 in the remarkable tour d’horizon he called “The National Letters” when his eye fell upon “the literature that fills the magazines and burdens the book counters of the department stores”:

One constantly observes the collapse and surrender of writers who started out with aims far above those of the magazine nabob…. It is, indeed, a characteristic American phenomenon for a young writer to score a success with novel and meritorious work, and then to yield himself to the best-seller fever, and so disappear down the sewers…. The pull is genuinely powerful. Above lies not only isolation, but also a dogged and malignant sort of opposition. Below, as [Gouverneur] Morris has frankly admitted, there is the place at Aiken, the motor-car, money in the bank, and the dignity of an important man.17

“We all end up as packaged goods,” Westbrook Pegler remarked a little while before he died. The dreary road to the wrapping and bundling counter is probably inescapable: there is the hunt for the discovery of what works, then the erosion of curiosity about what else might work, then the disappearance of all curiosity about anything unfamiliar, and at last the prison of the safety of one’s own accepted manner. Yeats was a little way off the mark; the peril for the artisan no less than for the artist is not that his circus animals may desert him but that he will let slip past the time when he ought to turn them back to the forest.

I do not suppose it makes too much difference that Mencken lodged too long with his circus animals. The worst result of this capitulation to the habitual was that it distorted his reputation and limited him to followers drawn to the frozen model of his manner instead of the warm example of his intelligence. And yet the manner had been only a device to make a savage indignation less lacerating by transmitting uncomfortable thoughts in the language of an hyperbole so exuberant as almost to turn them into jokes.

But then, if it is one of life’s major blessings that, in time, savage indignation ceases to lacerate, it is one of life’s minor curses that the cured sufferer so often loses interest thereafter. The loss of interest was the likely reason why, in his last twenty-five years, Mencken produced so much that remained engaging and so little that is still exciting.

His flagging attention to literature may have been the most discernible cost to us. Mencken the critic was the very best Mencken, for, as it was his pose to look at the affairs of the Republic with monarchical disdain, it was his nature to confront the institutions of the kingdom of letters with the passion of a Leveller.

His most fervid responses were reserved for young and otherwise half-buried writers whose motive force it was, as he said of Dreiser’s, “to depict the life of struggling peoples.” He forgave their infelicities mostly for the sake of the poetry that infused their mission but partly because he took such delight in the banalities of the common speech.

His editorial functions at the American Mercury continued after his decampment from aesthetics to politics in the Twenties, and they conscripted him to keep an eye on the literary market-place. That eye retained its keenness whenever it lighted upon whatever came from below or outside the conventional culture.

He displayed a quick appreciation for Ring Lardner, Willa Cather, and Ruth Suckow; and Sinclair Lewis dedicated Elmer Gantry to him. That last piece of homage was a symbol of what was happening to him; he had begun to harden into a monument. He appears to have disliked Hemingway’s work no less than his person; and what scraps of their correspondence we have suggest a larger affection for Fitzgerald’s person than for his work. There is no evidence that he even read Faulkner.

Dreiser seems to have spent his life with a peasant’s timidity about being detected in semiliteracy, and, in 1937, he wrote to ask Mencken for a list of the more notable works of fiction produced in the last decade.

“I suggest,” Mencken replied, “that we have dinner alone and go through the matters you discuss. It seems to me that there is a great deal of quackery in literature, as there is in politics. Most of the geniuses discovered by the Communists are simply imbeciles. But I have considerable confidence in young [James T.] Farrell, despite his political hallucinations.”18

Dreiser had never much kept up with the course of letters, and by then we may surmise that Mencken had stopped keeping up with it either. He was coming to rest in that lovable anecdotage whose fragments Knopf now serves forth as its ceremonial wreath. Here is a deservedly admired publishing house; and here was quite the most original American mind ever to be sent forth under its imprint. And the samples of that mind the owners of its copyright have now judged the most relevant memorials have little more fresh and original to tell us—however marvelously they tell it—than that the kitchen was more fragrant and the carnival livelier when the teller was young.

And about that kind of circumstance Mencken would, I suppose, have only said what he did in the final sentence of his obituary of Theodore Roosevelt, which was, “Oh well, one does what one can.”

This Issue

June 11, 1981