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“”We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.
Career and writing
|—H.L. Mencken's proposed epitaph|
Mencken started his career as a journalist in 1899 at the ripe old age of 19, writing for the Baltimore Morning Herald, then moving on to the Baltimore Sun six years later, and remained there writing his column for nearly fifty years. He later worked as a literary critic for The Smart Set and founded The American Mercury.
He soon became known as a staunch opponent of just about everything, calling American society on all the bullshit it produced. He railed especially against presidents and politicians of every stripe, "the Booboisie," religion, vacuous popular literature, dumb pseudo-philosophies of the time, pseudoscience and quackery, the South, academic stupidity, swindlers, Prohibition, and bad architecture. He wrote some poetry early in his career as well, then realized it was god-awful and proceeded to dump on poets throughout the rest of his life.
Mencken's writing covers a vast number of topics and a vast number of pages, estimated at a total of 5 million words. When he wasn't blasting terrible books, he was championing up-and-coming writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser. Unfortunately, he also recommended Ayn Rand's first book We the Living for publication, launching her career.
“”…[I]t is a little inaccurate to say I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible to any public office of trust or profit in the Republic.
Mencken was a scientific skeptic to the bone. A hardcore atheist, he denounced religion as a sham and declared clergymen to be frauds and thieves. He is best known for his opposition to creationism and defense of evolution during the Scopes "Monkey" Trial of 1925. He helped organize Scopes' defense with Clarence Darrow, a noted agnostic in addition to being considered one the greatest legal minds of the day. This was also a chance for him to rip on William Jennings Bryan, who had been, as a Populist and fundamentalist, a prime target for Mencken throughout his career. Mencken's reporting painted Dayton, Tennessee, which he dubbed "The Buckle on the Bible Belt," (a term he invented) as a hopeless backwater buried in the hellhole of the American South. This was hard to deny as Dayton had basically turned the trial into a temporary tourism scheme and media circus to make money, promote religion, and presumably because there was nothing better to do there. Mencken's columns, of course, did not go over so well with Southerners.
Medical quackery was another one of his favorite targets. He was an early critic of chiropractic, denouncing it as one of the dumbest things in American culture. He set up a James Randi-esque challenge in the 1920s by offering prizes to anyone who could demonstrate the effectiveness of chiropractic. Presumably, no one ever took him up on the challenge. He also wrote about osteopathy and other various snake oils, home remedies, and scams. Academic topics were yet another subject for snark. He called Freudian psychology essentially guesswork mixed with bullshit and riffed on overly abstract sociological theories of the day. His back-and-forth with sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen is one of the more famous cases.
Democracy and elitism
“”What we confront is not the failure of capitalism, but simply the failure of democracy.
Capitalism has really been responsible for all the progress of the modern age. Better than any other system ever devised, it provides leisure for large numbers of superior men, and so fosters the arts and sciences. No other system ever heard of is so beneficial to invention. Its fundamental desire for gain may be far from glorious per se, but it at least furthers improvement in all the departments of life. We owe to it every innovation that makes life secure and comfortable.
Unfortunately, like any other human institution (for example, [the] Holy Church), capitalism tends to run amuck when it is not restrained, and democracy provides inadequate means of keeping it in order. There is never any surety that democracy will throw up leaders competent to discern the true dangers of capitalism and able to remedy them in a prudent and rational manner. Thus we have vacillated between letting it run wild and trying to ruin it. Both courses are hazardous and ineffective, and it is hard to say which is more so.
Mencken's political views can be difficult to pin down. While he was vehemently opposed to conservative Christianity, he was also an unabashed elitist just as vehemently opposed to democracy. He admired Friedrich Nietzsche and produced an entire study of Nietzsche's philosophy that was published shortly after his Nietzsche's death. His ideal society was a sort of meritocratic aristocracy, with Nietzschean ubermenschen populating its upper echelons. These views have led Mencken to be characterized as a right-winger by some, and libertarians have attempted to claim him as one of their own. However, Mencken described himself as a lifelong Democrat and actually voted for FDR before later turning against him in the 1930s, though, in his own words this was largely done out of loyalty to a democratic party that no longer existed. While he certainly distrusted corporate greed and mere money making/free market capitalism, Mencken's praise for markets outnumbered his criticisms and he certainly wasn't a progressive.
Mencken the right-wing racist?
Much of his writing had strange and seemingly contradictory attitudes toward race and sex. One can find a number of racial stereotypes in his writing (though many of these would have been considered acceptable in his day). When his diary was unearthed, some racist comments were found in it. On the other hand, he spoke out in favor of civil rights and against racially motivated violence and regularly insulted the KKK. This makes some sense in light of his ideas about meritocracy — he did not believe in the inherent superiority or inferiority of certain races or ethnic groups (Anglo-Saxons were a frequent target of his) so much as he did that each group produced a small set of elite thinkers. The American Mercury was the first magazine edited by whites to publish the work of black authors such as Langston Hughes. Mencken also opposed eugenics, calling it "mainly blather", and he published some of the earliest scientific criticisms of it in The American Mercury. Despite his earlier anti-Semitic remarks, he was one of the first to speak out against Franklin Roosevelt's inaction on Jewish persecution in Germany, imploring him to take in Jewish refugees before World War II and drawing up a number of plans to rescue them. He wrote in his paper:
“”There is only one way to help the [Jewish] fugitives, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn't the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?
Mencken's views on gender relations were similarly ambivalent. His diaries also contained sexist remarks. He was known as something of a playboy and didn't marry until he was middle-aged. However, he also happened to be a strong advocate of women's rights and wrote In Defense of Women. All of his writing about gender relations tended to attack men as moronic brutes.
- A number of his books are in the public domain and available at Project Gutenberg in full.
- The Mencken Society
- Terry Teachout. Mencken vs. Mencken. The New Criterion, May 1990
- A Book of Burlesques — Sketches satirising things like slavery, eugenics, and modernist classical music.
- H.L. Mencken. (1956) Minority Report: H.L. Mencken's Notebooks, book 1
- Mencken's proposed epitaph, though it does not actually appear on his grave. From "Epitaph," Smart Set, December 3, 1921, p. 33.
- Hey, we can't all be perfect. But give Mencken some credit: We the Living is at least gifted with some basic qualities of literary merit (namely: intelligibility, a coherent plot, and conciseness), and at the time, Mencken was unaware of the vast cyclopean eldritch crawling literary horrors that Ms. Rand would soon unleash upon an unsuspecting world.
- Quoted in Life magazine, Vol. 21, No. 6, (5 August 1946), p. 52|
- His columns on the Scopes Trial are collected here.
- H.L. Mencken. Chiropractic. Baltimore Evening Sun, December 1924.
- Mencken on Veblen, Cafe Hayek
- Mencken's History of the Bathtub, Museum of Hoaxes
- Mencken, Henry Lewis. Minority Report, Knopf (1956), p. 310
- H.L. Mencken. (1907) The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
- E.g., Jackson Lears. "The Sophomore." The New Republic Online, Jan. 23, 2003.
- The Cato Institute has a position known as the "H.L. Mencken Research Fellow," which has been held by figures such as Penn Jillette and P.J. O'Rourke.
- Damon W. Root. The New Deal Made Them "Right." Reason, Oct. 16, 2009
- Mencken's Diary Reveals Anti-Semitism, Bigotry. Baltimore Evening Sun, Dec. 17, 1989
- H.L. Mencken. On Eugenics. The Chicago Tribune, May 15 1927
- Melissa Hendricks. Raymond Pearl's Mingled Mess. Johns Hopkins Magazine, Apr. 2006
- Help for the Jews, 1938, in The Impossible H.L. Mencken
- H.L. Mencken. (1918) In Defense of Women