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 was enough. For miles the flivver dust would choke the roads. And when he rose at the end of the day to discharge his Message there would be such breathless attention, such a rapt and enchanted ecstasy, such a sweet rustle of amens as the world had not known since Johann fell to Herod’s Ax.
This is in parallel with what he said of the “booboisie” as a class and of those—I of course was one—who held Roosevelt in awe and reverence, a matter to which I will return. It is better, on the whole, than the treatment in his diary of his fellow authors of the day. He spends several pages on a trip to Vermont in July of 1931 to visit Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson; almost all are devoted to Lewis’s drinking and behavior while drunk. “He craves whiskey, and when he gets the chance he drinks it straight, drink after drink…. He is in a sad mess.”
In the same season he tells of a visit to Baltimore by William Faulkner, who “has gone home at last, leaving a powerful odor of alcohol behind him…. He had a roaring time while he was here, and will go back to Prohibition Mississippi with enough alcohol in his veins to last him a year.”
Of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Baltimore to see the distressed Zelda, who was getting medical treatment there, he observes that “most of his experience has been got in bars…. Unfortunately, liquor sets him wild and he is apt, when drunk, to knock over a dinner table, or run his automobile into a bank building.” “Visiting Joe Hergesheimer at West Chester, Pa., he caused a town sensation by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe.”
Going on to the most famous publisher of the period, he reports an anecdote told by Ellery Sedgwick, then editor of The Atlantic Monthly, who had been at dinner with the late Moorfield Storey. “The name of Hearst came up and Storey said: ‘Hearst married a prostitute, and then gradually dragged her down to his own level.’ ”
This attack on Hearst was, however, mild as compared with Mencken’s own condemnation of FDR. Charles Fecher, the highly competent and very diligent editor of the diary—Mencken had ordered that it be kept closed for twenty-five years following his death so that he could speak the truth as he saw it about those then living without hurting their feelings—devotes several pages to Mencken’s reaction to Roosevelt. “His hatred of Roosevelt,” he observes, “was, indeed, maniacal—there is no other word to use.” On April 13, 1945, the day after the President’s death at Warm Springs, Mencken wrote, “He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes. Thus a demigod seems to be in the making.” So much for those of us who so regarded Roosevelt. But here is the problem: today the most ardent supporters of FDR and, one trusts, of racial tolerance and decency regularly turn up as the most devoted admirers and defenders of Henry Mencken. Why?
First it must be said that the diary now published is not the Mencken thus esteemed. Running with long gaps from 1931 to the time of his disabling stroke in 1948, it is an exercise in hypochrondria or perhaps, a needed word, metachrondria. He tells in extravagant detail of his personal afflictions and with equal pleasure of those of his friends. (In a nearly unbelievable introductory note, Mr. Fecher explains that a great deal more of this material was deleted before publication.) There is also a bit too much on the deviant behavior of his old friends, as that of the drunken authors mentioned above. And there is, even after deletions, more on his household and commonplace routine than one needs to know. This is not, however, to say that it is boring; it simply is not Mencken at his best. Those who did not read him as near contemporaries could be put off a little by the diary.
What those of us who did read him long ago remember was his wonderfully explosive, some have said liberating, attack on an otherwise conventional, even stuffy world. Perhaps what he said was sometimes wrong, but he was our example in taking on the reputable view, saying what we believed was right and needed. What he said about Roosevelt released us to say what we wanted to say about Herbert Hoover—and William Randolph Hearst. The Mencken liberation, if greatly different as to target, was closely akin to that of Thorstein Veblen.
But this was not all and perhaps not the most. There was Mencken’s mastery of his particular form of literary expression—the shock effect of unexpected relevance. No one ever stated this as well as Mencken himself in A Book of Prefaces:
To the man with an ear for verbal delicacies—the man who searches painfully for the perfect word, and puts the way of saying a thing above the thing said—there is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident.
For the reader of Mencken that joy is not less.
Three other qualities endeared Mencken to my generation. There was, of course, his mastery of the American idiom, something to which he devoted a lifetime of prideful study. And there was his ability to compress great and enduring truth in a phrase or two; one example I have cited maybe a hundred times is his definition of conscience—that “inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.”
And there was the friendship and support he gave to the best writers of his generation, including the three mentioned above whom he so delightedly describes as drunks, as well as Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Eugene O’Neill. With Alfred and Blanche Knopf, his best-loved friends, both Jews, he saw them into print in the American Mercury and the Knopf books. If a man or woman wrote brilliantly or even well, he or she could also count on Mencken’s friendship and help, however idiosyncratic or objectionable that person might be. His personal concern and kindness extended on to many, many other neighbors and friends—ordinary people, black, Jewish, and no doubt linthead. No one in his time, or anyhow not many, spoke more firmly for fair and decent treatment of the blacks in Baltimore than did Henry Mencken.
The National Press Club, I am told, has now suspended, at least for the moment, its plan to change the name of the library. That is good. But I hope those so given to the release of history from its errors will not relax. They should now turn, say, to the problem of Warren Gamaliel Harding, for whom, I judge, a room has not been named. Why, after the truly gigantic S&L larceny, that at HUD, and the revolving doors at the Pentagon, is this poor man, because of the relatively minor Teapot Dome peculation, still the symbol of Washington scandal? Let all those historically concerned scribblers get off Mencken and on to correcting that error.
June 28, 1990