Mencken: America's Critic

In "The Sage of Baltimore" (December 2002 Atlantic), a review of a new biography of the legendary journalist H. L. Mencken, Jonathan Yardley calls Mencken "the greatest of all American journalists," and summarizes his influence in the following way:

No matter where his writing appeared, it was quoted widely, his pungently outspoken ideas debated hotly. Nobody else could make so many people so angry, or make so many others laugh so hard.
H. L. Mencken illustration by Douglas B. Jones

Illustration by Douglas B. Jones

Though not without some ambivalence about what Mencken had to say, The Atlantic published several of his controversial writings in the years surrounding World War I.

His irreverent prose made its Atlantic debut in March 1914 in an article called "Newspaper Morals." In nine pages of stinging wit, Mencken called into question the credibility of the entire American press. His opening paragraphs shared what he had gradually come to understand about the typical newspaper over the course of his early days in the business. A newspaper's ultimate goal, he had discovered,

... was to please the crowd, to give a good show; and the way they sat about giving that good show was by first selecting a deserving victim, and then putting him magnificently to the torture. They lightened the dull days of midsummer by pursuing recreant aldermen with bloodhounds and artillery, by muckraking unsanitary milk-dealers, or by denouncing Sunday liquor-selling in suburban parks. Always their first aim was to find a concrete target, to visualize their cause in some definite and defiant opponent. And always their second aim was to shell that opponent until he dropped his arms and took to ignominious flight.

Expanding on this argument, Mencken went on to ridicule the simple-mindedness of American newspaper readers. The educated people in a society, he opined, do not believe what they read in the papers, being "too cantankerous for that, too ready with embarrassing strategy of their own." But most readers, he asserted, are uneducated and ready to believe anything that reads like a good story:

It is hard for the plain people to think about a thing, but easy for them to feel. Error, to hold their attention, must be visualized as a villain, and the villain must proceed swiftly to his inevitable retribution. They can understand that process; it is simple, usual, satisfying; it squares with their primitive conception of justice as a form of revenge.... [The average reader] is not at all responsive to purely intellectual argument, even when its theme is his own ultimate benefit.... But he is very responsive to emotional suggestion, particularly when it is crudely and violently made, and it is to this weakness that the newspapers must ever address their endeavors. In brief, they must try to arouse his horror, or indignation, or pity, or simply his lust for slaughter. Once they have done that, they have him safely by the nose. He will follow blindly until his emotion wears out. He will be ready to believe anything, however absurd, so long as he is in his state of psychic tumescence.

Later that same year, Mencken wrote a second, equally provocative Atlantic piece about the larger-than-life German figure Friedrich Nietzsche. Mencken had an obvious affinity with Nietzsche; in describing the German's attitude toward his countrymen, he could have been summarizing his own writings about Americans:

He accused the Germans of stupidity, superstitiousness, and silliness; of a chronic weakness for dodging issues, a fatuous 'barnyard 'and 'green-grazing' contentment; of yielding supinely to the commands and exactions of a clumsy and unintelligent government; of degrading education to the low level of mere cramming and examination-passing: of a congenital inability to understand and absorb the culture of other peoples and particularly the culture of the French; of a boorish bumptiousness and an ignorant, ostrich-like complacency.... German wit had no existence. German cookery was 'a return to nature, that is, to cannibalism.' Germany itself was 'the flatland of Europe.'

As the piece continued, it gradually became a celebration of Germany's rise from "boorish bumptiousness" to fierce military prowess. Mencken's final paragraphs evoked visions of "grave, blond warriors ... afoot for new conquests, a new tearing down, a new building up." To the American people, poised to enter a war with "Teuton," Mencken issued an unsettling warning: "Let us not assume his downfall too lightly: it will take staggering blows to break him. And let us not be alarmed by his possible triumph. What did Rome ever produce to match the Fifth Symphony?"

Statements like these revealed a lifelong paradox about H. L. Mencken. Though in many ways the quintessential American newspaperman, Mencken strongly identified with his German heritage even when American sentiment was solidly against Germany. In the spring of 1915, The Atlantic's editor Ellery Sedgwick sent a tormented response to one of Mencken's submissions. "I am writhing and twisting inside," he wrote. "Your reprehensible paper is damnably effective.... However, it is within the bounds of possibility that we shall have war with Germany before this paper can be printed, and, of course, I have no desire to foment treason." The "paper," a strongly pro-German piece about the war in Europe, had been submitted just a few days after German U-boats sank the Lusitania on its voyage from New York Harbor.

Two years later, as war raged in Europe, Mencken sent a dispatch from Germany that admiringly profiled the German military leader Erich von Ludendorff. This piece, which Sedgwick apparently did not find overly objectionable, appeared in the June 1917 issue.

After World War I, Mencken turned his attention homeward. He rose to a new level of prominence during the 1920s as a result of his vivid account of the Scopes Monkey Trial. His caustic articles for The Baltimore Sun were the lens through which many Americans observed the Tennessee courtroom, and his undisguised antipathy for fundamentalist Christianity became the inspiration for the character E. K. Hornbeck in the 1936 play Inherit the Wind.

The real H. L. Mencken, meanwhile, was busy with a number of diverse projects, including the writing and revising of his book The American Language. A detailed history of the English language as it developed in the United States, the book playfully ridiculed American speech while painstakingly cataloguing its unique expressions and words. In 1946, the literary critic Jacques Barzun wrote an Atlantic piece called "Mencken's America Speaking," which suggested that the once-formidable journalist had now become a placid, contented scholar:

To the nineteen-twenties H. L. Mencken was a dangerous iconoclast, the relentless and often ribald derider of what he called the booboisie; a man who consorted nightly with the works of Nietzsche and spent the day tracking down Americana for the inside pages of his "anti-American" Mercury. To the forties, on the contrary, he appears simply as a voluminous lexicographer; and this, as everyone knows from Dr. Johnson's definition, is to be "a maker of dictionaries, a harmless drudge."

At the heart of Mencken's new book, Barzun identified what he called a "satirical love of country." By the mid 1940s, Mencken had become infamous for sympathizing with the enemy in not one but two world wars. Even so, Barzun insisted that America had always been Mencken's chief subject. "He still fondles it with ridicule," Barzun wrote, "but on a true view both emerge greater from an embrace that often resembles a pugilistic clinch."

Not all writers were able to view Mencken's acerbic personality so forgivingly. Mencken was widely considered to be racist and anti-Semitic. In a 1962 article about George Nathan (Mencken's co-editor at the literary magazine The Smart Set), Charles Angoff, who had previously published a biography of Mencken, addressed the issue of Mencken's anti-Semitism head-on. Angoff described a conversation he had with Nathan two years after Mencken's death:

I decided to come right out with my question: "Was Mencken anti-Semitic? I think that in a very real sense he was, and I say so in my book. Anyway, I strongly hint at it." Nathan was silent for a few seconds, then said, "If you say what you have just told me, you won't be wrong. Perhaps I can put it this way. Menck was a Prussian." Nathan hesitated again. Then he added, "I guess it would he right to say that he never wholly liked Jews. He respected them, he was amused by them, he was even afraid of them, but he didn't like them. Maybe he even disliked them. I suppose that's anti-Semitism."

But one of Mencken's most prominent Jewish friends, the publishing giant Alfred A. Knopf, painted a very different kind of picture of Mencken. In "For Henry With Love" (May 1959), Knopf focused on Mencken's amusing quirks: his brightly colored pajamas, his devotion to his mother, his gusto at the piano, his fear of air travel. He praised Mencken's taste in books and chuckled over his blatant disregard for Prohibition. Nowhere in the piece did he depict Mencken as anything but a generous, intelligent friend:

He had the reputation ... of being a burly, loud, raucous fellow, rough in his speech and lacking refined manners. How mistaken this opinion as I learned a little later, when on a visit to Washington I introduced Blanche [Knopf's wife] to him. He met her with the most charming manners conceivable, manners I was to discover he always displayed in talking with women.... His public side was visible to everyone: tough, cynical, amusing, and exasperating by turns, but everlastingly consistent. The private man was something else again: sentimental, generous, and unwavering—sometimes almost blind—in his devotion to people he liked.

Knopf had little to say about the people his friend didn't like, and Mencken's articles over the course of fifty years suggest that those were many: Tennessee Christians, New York Jews, President Roosevelt, the American public. If Mencken had any moral principle at the base of his prickly prose, it was a brand of libertarianism that, for him, was close to a religion. Nothing seemed to matter more to him than uncensored self-expression. He did not always win friends, nor did he set any standards for politically correct journalism. But he remains a legend among American writers, and his words are unlikely to be forgotten.

—Jennie Rothenberg