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.

Still, Dreiser’s profound early effect on Mencken helped to arm him for many battles ahead. As early as 1917, Mencken in A Book of Prefaces could scorn Dreiser the primitive Midwesterner while preserving his highest praise for the storyteller.

Struggle as he may, and fume and protest as he may, he can no more shake off the chains of his intellectual and cultural heritage than he can change the shape of his nose…. Briefly described, it is the burden of a believing mind, a moral attitude, a lingering superstition…. There come moments when a dead hand falls upon him, and he is once more the Indiana peasant, snuffing absurdly over imbecile sentimentalities, giving a grave ear to quackeries, snorting and eye-rolling with the best of them. One generation spans too short a time to free the soul of man.

…The truthabout Dreiser is that he is still in the transition stage between Christian Endeavour and civilization, between Warsaw, Indiana and the Socratic grove, between being a good American and being a free man.

…There is in [Dreiser], hidden deep-down, a great instinctive artist, and hence the makings of an aristocrat. In his muddled way, held back by the manacles of his race and time…he yet manages to produce works of art of unquestionable beauty…

In Dreiser the thing is more intimate, more disorderly, more a matter of pure feeling. He gets his effects, one might almost say, not by designing them, but by living them.2

This for its time and place was original as well as brave; Mencken went to the core of Dreiser. The difference between being an American, which carried “the burden of a believing mind, a moral attitude, a lingering superstition,” and being what Mencken grandly thought of as a “free man” (another term for this was “aristocrat”), was basic to Mencken’s outlook, bound him on every side, and explains his power to exhilarate. Mencken’s contempt for conventional opinion, for the tame, totally obedient middle class he scorned as the “booboisie,” was founded on his belief that art is the highest function of the race. In Mencken’s view most people in America are not only incapable of being artists, but are such slaves to religious and moral convention that they cannot respond to those Ezra Pound called “the antennae of the race”—writers.

Mencken never called himself an artist. He identified with the Victorian iconoclast and popular educator of science Thomas Henry Huxley, first great defender of Darwin; with Nietzsche, on whom he wrote a book outlining Nietzsche’s anti-Christian philosophy. Mencken published the first book in the United States on Bernard Shaw, another intellectual hero, whose style Mencken admired as much as his attacks on the status quo. Shaw, a fervent socialist, eventually proved himself as antidemocratic a thinker as Nietzsche and Ibsen. When we look at how predictable newspaper columnists have become (Mencken was early given a column of his own, and of course it was freewheeling, impressionistic, essentially literary), we may well wonder what it was about being a newspaperman early in this century that gave Mencken his head, unleashed his intellectual curiosity on so many subjects, established his national fame as a purveyor in all things of the pleasure principle.

My explanation is that Mencken was formed by the tides of revolt at the end of the last century, so that he never lost some sustaining myth of himself as a crusader against conventional opinion in every department of life. It was a time when journalists still learned, as journalists, to be writers rather than sociologists. One recalls with some awe these days the great line of journalist-writers (some of them beginning as printers). It included Howells, Mark Twain, even Henry James as a literary correspondent and reviewer, not to forget Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Hemingway. The newspaperman as writer-to-be had access to all sorts of experience unknown to professors and clergymen. In a fashion that became mythical (thanks partly to Mencken), he was the last free man—a rowdy, steady drinker and heathenish frequenter of bordellos—who in defiance of all religion and respect read such wicked fellows as Ibsen and Nietzsche and had a whale of a time crossing up his managing editor.

What Mencken did was to incorporate the type into his literary personality, to make himself a character indivisible from the writer he was. He became an archetype, a legend—he said so himself—of the perfect hedonist, freethinker, and professional skeptic. Above all, he was the always happy man (Mencken made a point of this). Elsewhere Americans were superstitious boobs, slaves to an outworn religion, anxiously duplicating the life everyone else lived. The 1920s outside Mencken’s New York and Baltimore were still provincial America, stifled by Puritanism. Mencken, joyously proclaiming not just his own emancipation but the unqualified claim that he had been born merry and free, persuaded the reader not so much by what he said as by the contagious force of this litany. Look at me, one happy man in this repressed and anxious continent. To be ribald like me is to be happy like me.

The repeated invocation of personal satisfaction carried with it an irresistible tone, a verbal music, even a swagger, that one could not easily resist. It suggested matchless certainty, the high and sweeping tone of personal authority for which we read certain writers. Thoreau said you must be strong in the legs to write; one read Mencken to imbibe a certain confidence, an air of power that he possessed almost immoderately. Even as a young man, uncertain of many things and not a little resentful of Mencken’s sweeping derision of American life, I laughed at the sheer nerve of him reciting the backwardness of those (one of my favorite passages) who drank the beverages of French peasants, played mah-jongg, the game of Chinese coolies, wore on state occasions the garb of English clerks, manifested a delirious taste for the music of African Negroes—and (the ultimate) actually ate alligator pears, the food of Costa Rican billy goats.

What fun in those anxious days of the Great Depression to read that the “Anglo-Saxon as a type” was inferior and a coward. The gravity of Mencken’s language was half the fun:

That this inferiority is real must be obvious to any impartial observer. Whenever the Anglo-Saxon, whether of the English or of the American variety, comes into sharp conflict with men of other stocks, he tends to be worsted, or, at best, to be forced back upon extraneous and irrelevant aids to assist him in the struggle. Here in the United States his defeat is so palpable that it has filled him with vast alarms, and reduced him to seeking succor in grotesque and extravagant devices.

Civilization is at its lowest mark in the United States precisely in those areas where the Anglo-Saxon still presumes to rule. He runs the whole South—and in the whole South there are not as many first-rate men as in many a single city of the mongrel North.3

The caustic generality, the rock-bottom air of total assurance, even the court-room manner (“That this inferiority is real must be obvious to any impartial observer”), the contrasting registers in his vocabulary reached their declamatory high as Mencken turned on the mediocrity of the national culture, the vacancy of the mass, the absurdity of democracy. Remember the trumpet blast (1920) from the scornful essay, “The National Letters.” This is funny, too, because American writing, with Mencken as fugleman, was now about to be just the opposite of what he castigated

as a sort of timorous flaccidity, an amiable hollowness…. In all that mass of suave and highly diverting writing there is no visible movement toward a distinguished and singular excellence, a signal national quality, a ripe and stimulating flavor, or, indeed, toward any other describable goal. What one sees is simply a general irresolution, a pervasive superficiality…. There is not even any serious approach, such as Whitman dreamed of, to the special experiences and emergencies of the American people.4

And the cause?

A defect in the general culture of the country—one reflected, not only in the national literature, but also in the national political theory, the national attitude toward religion and morals, the national habit in all departments of thinking. It is the lack of civilized aristocracy, secure in its position, animated by an intelligent curiosity…superior to the sentimentality of the mob, and delighting in the battle of ideas for its own sake.5

I am afraid that when Mencken spoke so confidently of “civilized aristocracy,” he was thinking of himself with George Jean Nathan, of those famous Saturday night beer parties of the Baltimore intelligentsia at which Mencken knocked out piano arrangements of Beethoven symphonies. The writer as debonair metropolitan intelligence, critic of the arts, scornful referee of the national idiocies, iconoclast untiring on all matters pertaining to religion and official morality, never afraid to say “your people, sir, is a great beast”—Mencken was his own prototype of “civilized aristocracy.” Yet Mencken was surely not mistaken when in the light of his intense self-approval he excoriated William Jennings Bryan (three times a candidate for the presidency of the United States) for being such a total fundamentalist “idiot” as to deny that man is a mammal. Nor was he anything less than splendid when he inveighed against the mob spirit during World War I and the Red Scare following:

Imagine a horde of peasants incredibly enriched and with almost infinite power thrust into their hands, and you will have a fair picture of its habitual state of mind. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority…. Never did it function more revealingly…against humorless idealists who, like Andrew Jackson, took the platitudes of democracy quite seriously. The machinery brought to bear upon these feeble and scattered fanatics would have almost sufficed to repel an invasion by the united powers of Europe. They were hunted out of their sweatshops and coffee houses…dragged to jail to the tooting of horns, arraigned before quaking judges on unintelligible charges, condemned to deportation without the slightest chance to defend themselves, torn from their dependent families, herded into prison-ships, and then finally dumped in a snow waste, to be rescued and fed by the Bolsheviki.6

This note of quasi-sympathy for victims is rare enough in Mencken’s work; his biographers can point to only a fleeting observation during the Depression—“after all, you cannot have people starving on your doorstep”—to offset his studious coldness during the 1930s depression. One trouble with Mencken’s tirades against what he called “the mob” is that he was always seeking an effect; another is his joyfully riding roughshod over the most elementary distinctions. Even in 1920 it was preposterous to characterize “the so-called Reds” as “humorless idealists who, like Andrew Jackson, took the platitudes of democracy quite seriously.”

What Mencken could not have anticipated is that we look back now on his funniest, his most furious tirades against democracy as examples of the smug isolationism that prevailed in America just as totalitarianism was about to take over Europe. It was Mencken’s despised democracy that made it possible for him to bray:

It is upon the emotions of the mob, of course, that the whole comedy is played. Theoretically the mob is the repository of all political wisdom and virtue; actually it is the ultimate source of all political power. Even the plutocracy cannot make war upon it openly, or forget the least of its weaknesses.7

Only someone indifferent to economics and social stratification could have thought the “mob” “the ultimate source of all political power.”

Mencken saw American society as nothing but cultural war: the enlightened individual versus the conventions. Does this mean that his horror of the mob, the mass, the “boobs” has no application today? Mencken’s firmest belief was in the fighting independence of the intellectual; he virtually established his fame on this basis. Nothing is more common just now among “conservative” and libertarian thinkers than their party spirit, their chummy reliance on the network they have created, consisting of magazines—The Public Interest, The National Interest, The National Review, Commentary, et al.—and the various “Institutions,” “Committees,” and “Centers” that funnel corporate cash to promote their views.

When Mencken’s reports on national conventions and such shenanigans, A Carnival of Buncombe, was reissued during the 1984 campaign, it was introduced by Joseph Epstein, the neoconservative editor of The American Scholar, and a fervent admirer of Mencken. Try to imagine what Mencken would have made of Mr. Epstein’s views on the current state of American literature, which he delivered four years ago at a conference of neoconservatives:

Suddenly American literature, contemporary American literature, seems rather lackluster, a bit beside the point, less than first-rate, even though American political power is still great. Why?

To think the worst of our society—against a superabandance of evidence to the contrary—gives the self-dramatizing American literary imagination a background against which to dramatize itself. The contemporary literary scene is rife with writers whose chief stock in the trade of ideas is a fairly crude sort of anti-Americanism.8

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., editor of the sophomoric, right-wing American Spectator, is a professed Menckenite and even claims to duplicate his style. The magazine first came to my attention because it derided sending reading matter to prisons. (One of every 520 Americans is in a federal or state prison.) Mencken as editor of The American Mercury welcomed good writing by all sorts of people with hard experiences; he encouraged the “tramp” writer Jim Tully, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell. And what would Mencken, who was at least capable of saying, “You cannot have someone starving on your doorstep,” have made of Tyrrell’s mocking the homeless in our great cities (many of them released on tranquilizers from state institutions) as “the true heirs of Liberal progress…strutting loons ridiculing the lunacy of the New Age”?

Mencken had a special taste for the public language of American presidents. What reader of Mencken can forget his going after Warren Gamaliel Harding in the immortal record Harding left of “Gamalielese”?

Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters…. [Harding] writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh.9

No one in public office can now afford to write like Warren G. Harding; we live by “communications.” President Reagan employs some of the most practiced word slingers in the land, notably the columnist Patrick Buchanan, now head of White House communications. But what would the Voltairean Mencken, the antagonist of fake-religious bluff, have made of such a professional communicator as Ronald Reagan. After the massacre of over two hundred Marines in Beirut, the President explained there was no need to pray for them, “because they are safe in God’s loving arms.” What would Mencken have done with the President’s announcement (March 1984) that there has been “a spiritual renewal” since he was first elected—“I do believe that He has begun to heal our blessed land.” How much belly laughter would have been provoked in Mencken by Reagan’s telling his delirious audience at Dallas when he was renominated, “Let’s go for growth, and let’s go for the gold…. We poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings.” What would Mencken have made of the President’s informing us that he was “told” there is no word for “freedom” in the Russian language?

What you get from the Reaganite intellectuals these days is not “buncombe” in the dated style of early twentieth-century America, but something close to what the Russian Communist party aggressively promotes as agitation and propaganda. We in America just now are suffering presidential politics as “total communication,” manipulation, indoctrination—the seductiveness of words used merely to rouse, to inflame, and so to set a patriotic mob yelling, as they regularly did during the 1984 campaign, “USA! USA!” The old pomposity, incompetence, oracular fuzziness have been replaced by professional propaganda. And if you can’t reach what Mencken prematurely called a “mob” (he should have waited for the national hookup), if you can’t market your political goods speedily, you’re just out of it, another in the swarm of obsolescence ignored by “the politics of ascendancy.”

Am I saying that the hick America that was Mencken’s earliest setting and his grand opportunity for satire has disappeared? That there are no rubes left, that all schools in Arkansas have happily accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution? That the Reverend Jerry Falwell has no audience and the Reverend Pat Robertson is not running for the presidency? The neoconservative “godfather,” Irving Kristol, who is funded by a right-wing foundation as professor of “social thought” at New York University’s Graduate School of Business, consoled his “creationist” allies in the Reagan camp by telling readers of The New York Times Op-Ed page (September 30, 1986) that there is “room for Darwin and the Bible.” Although the “creationists” insist that their version be taught as literal truth, Kristol without accepting this admittedly confused the issue by explaining that ” ‘evolution’ is no simple established scientific orthodoxy,” no “unchallengeable certainty,” and that “the religious fundamentalists are not far off the mark when they assert that evolution, as generally taught, has an unwarranted anti-religious edge to it.” What Mencken used to call in The American Mercury “Americana,” his delighted inventory of American dopiness and freakishness, is as richly memorable as ever. Eleven percent of the American people are reported to believe that the United States has never used atomic weapons in war. The Washington Post reported in July of last year that the wife of a Tennessee state representative registered to run for his seat in case he was killed in a terrorist attack during a visit to Europe before the election. If he survived the trip, she would withdraw. The representative is a funeral director.

Mencken’s America has by no means disappeared. In that sense, he is still with us. What Mencken could not have known, however, is that mass inertia can be induced by modern communications and the consensus society that such communications enforce in a time of international deadlock, terrorism, and panic. Mencken thought that cultural inanity and conformism arose from ignorance, provincialism, and narrow religion. He did not foresee TV dominating the American home, the centennial of the Statue of Liberty taken over by hucksters and show biz. As the man said, we are “amusing ourselves to death.” Mencken’s basic attitude at all times, disrespect for the powers of this earth, for everything seeking to make us more righteous and obedient at all costs, will always lead people back to his work. Because, in the end, he does make his readers happy. But I suspect that if Mencken were alive today, he would confess himself baffled by forces and world dangers no longer subject to his wonderful mockery.

This Issue

February 26, 1987