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H L Mencken

December 18, 2002

Hating the Booboisie, and Making It a Virtue


Henry Louis Mencken, the crusty newspaperman from Baltimore who died 46 years ago, is one of those rare literary figures whose names define a whole sensibility — in his case a kind of comedic contempt for the ordinary person, the philistines, what he liked to call the "swinish multitude." But as with other writers whose names define a cultural or political world view, like George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling, Mencken is claimed by different people of different persuasions for themselves.

So what exactly does the term Menckenesque mean, and how did the holder of that particular copyright, a figure who was by today's standards exceedingly unlovable, retain his stature as "a tremendous liberating force in American culture"? (The words are those of Ralph Ellison, John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and other signers of a 1990 letter to The New York Review of Books responding to charges that Mencken was a racist and anti-Semite.)

Answers to questions about Mencken's true identity and the nature of his appeal are to be found in Terry Teachout's biography of him, "The Skeptic," which is as brisk and smart, as smooth-as-silk an account as we're likely to find. Mr. Teachout, who is the music critic for Commentary magazine and a contributor to many publications (including The New York Times), has swallowed Mencken whole in this book, warts and all. There's admiration of him but no sanitizing of a man who, in Mr. Teachout's unblinkered view, was not only unequivocally anti-Semitic but, perhaps worse, given what Mencken supposedly stood for, something of a philistine himself.

Mencken, born in 1880 in Baltimore, where he lived all his life (in the same house with his mother until he was 45), will be remembered because he was funny, because he was a free speech absolutist, the master of a magnificently blunt literary vernacular and the founder of the first genuine adversary culture in American life. He would be remembered if only for his coinage of words and phrases that summed up his contemptuous attitude toward the mass of his fellow men: the Bible belt, the booboisie, the idea that nobody ever lost any money underestimating the taste of the American public.

The popular image of Mencken, moreover, only barely retains some of Mencken's other accomplishments, that he was, for example, one of the most prescient and forceful literary critics in American history. As the editor and chief book critic for two magazines, The Smart Set and American Mercury, Mencken promoted such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis and other exemplars of what he saw as a welcome realism in American writing, a grappling with the real lives of real people living in the real American cultural wasteland. What Mencken loved about Dreiser, Mr. Teachout says, was that "he wrote in plain language about a world of poverty and desire whose very existence other writers denied."

And this preference of Mencken for a new realism in literature suggests, in Mr. Teachout's shrewd take on him, a unifying theme, an animus that stayed with him all his life and was responsible both for his memorable attributes and his unattractive ones. "I had to struggle daily against the incompetence of men full of gabble about their sacred rights," Mencken wrote in 1925. "They were stupid and lazy. I was a better man than any of them, and on all counts."

What persuaded Mencken, who was remembering, in that comment, his youthful days as city editor of The Evening Herald in Baltimore, was a sense of superiority, confirmed by what Mr. Teachout calls a superficial reading of Nietzsche. Mencken, Mr. Teachout writes, "never strayed far in spirit from the social Darwinism in shirt-sleeves that he acquired as city editor of The Herald, listening to drunken reporters griping about the unfairness of life."

What many liberal admirers of Mencken's zest for combat remember are his hundreds of essays in which he took on such dinosaurs as the Christian right and William Jennings Bryan, especially the William Jennings Bryan who represented the prosecution in the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, when a teacher was prosecuted for teaching Darwinism to his high school class. To Mencken, the prosecution of the teacher, John T. Scopes, illustrated the oppressiveness of religious orthodoxy in American life, and for Mencken Christianity and democracy were the ultimate expressions of mediocre mass man.

Mr. Teachout reminds us that Mencken's prejudices (and in a brilliant stroke, that's what Mencken himself called them) derived ultimately from a belief in the inherent inequality of men that, at least by the standards of today, is indubitably retrograde. In other words, Mencken hated many things — for example, the genteel, Victorian tradition in literature, almost all politicians, all suggestion of uplift, moral preachment and social do-goodism — and these hatreds may have been behind the adversary culture, a coinage by Lionel Trilling 40 years after Mencken. But these dislikes were also behind such ideas as this one, expressed by Mencken in 1923: "Liberalism always involves freeing human beings against their will — often, indeed, to their obvious damage, as in the cases of the majority of Negroes and women."

Unlovely sentiments like that permeated Mencken's life and thought and reached a sort of climax both before and after World War II in his weird refusal to see Hitler as more evil than, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a frequent target of Mencken's eloquent ire. "He had no feeling for the darkness in the heart of man," is Mr. Teachout's explanation for this. "To him Hitler was Babbitt run amok."

The impression left after reading Mr. Teachout's discerning portrait is that Mencken's chief fault was to be blinded both by his own immersion in the 19th-century Victorian culture and by his sense of superiority. And yet in the end, it is difficult to disagree with that assessment of Messrs. Ellison, Galbraith, Schlesinger et al. Mencken, for all his faults, did help tremendously to liberate Americans from all sorts of prior restrictions and conventions. He is one of those figures about whom it can truly be said that the world would be a very different place but for the deep mark he made upon it.

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