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.
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?"