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…

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