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BOOK REVIEW

The Impossible H. L. Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories

JULY 01, 1992 by EDMUND OPITZ

Reading Mencken cleanses the mind of cant and drivel, raises the blood pressure, and starts the adrenaline pumping. He may move us to furious dissent or cheerful agreement, but no one reads him unmoved. He may leave us battered, our pride wounded; but we love the way he slaughters the Amalekites and Agag their king! It’s not just the man’s virtuosity with words, although few equal him as a literary stylist; nor is it his erudition, although it is obvious that he is genuinely learned and widely read. What makes Mencken unique and indispensable is his independent stance; he wore no man’s ring in his nose. And he was fearless; no sham was off limits to his barbs, no hypocrite was immune.

Mencken never catered to any party, faction, or clique; he was not swept up into any of the popular and passing idiocies of his day; he did not bend the knee to any of our tribal idols, nor worship at the shrine of the Zeitgeist. “He approached everything with a mind unclouded by current opinions. There was nothing of the superior person about him. This makes him terrifying.” These words aptly characterize Mencken, but they were written to define William Blake, quoted from T. S. Eliot’s essay on the English artist and poet. Now, Blake and Mencken were about as different as two people can be, but both belonged to the same rare breed of Homo sapiens—an order composed of men and women who are completely themselves: no echoes allowed. May their tribe increase!

Democracy, in its corrupt version, operates under the pretense that every man is just as good as any other—or a little better. The corresponding ethos lays down a smoke screen behind which cavort a gaudy troupe of impostors, quacks, and charlatans. Mencken spotted them in academia, in ecclesia, and in the media; they flourished in literary circles and enjoyed a prodigal growth in politics.

The politicos of Mencken’s day were his primary target; he had at them with every weapon in his amply stocked arsenal. He was a shrewd reporter whose high-voltage prose matched his outrage. He was utterly honest and impartial, albeit a bit cruel when the occasion seemed to demand it. The mountebanks in public office were not, after all, harmless clowns; they were men with power preying on the multitudes of people who lacked the means to defend themselves.

But Mencken also criticized the masses for their apparent willingness, nay even eagerness, to be bamboozled. Aware that the game was crooked, they played on, believing it was the only game in town. They compromised their innocence by clinging to the airy hope that a turn of events would put them in a position to do their own swindling.

Mencken used the word “democracy” in its two different senses: on the one hand as descriptive of a society of liberty and justice for all; on the other, as a label for the political racket which exercises public power for private gain—pretending, all the while, to be The People’s friend. The closing sentences of his short book, Notes on Democracy, give us a glimpse of his thoughts on the matter. Referring to those who are short-changed in the political scuffle he writes: “What I can’t make out is how any man can believe in democracy who feels for and with them, and is pained when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any man be a ‘democrat’ who is sincerely a democrat?”

Mencken had a number of friends in public life: senators, congressmen, judges. From his early days as a reporter he was on good terms with the ward bosses who haunt smoke-filled rooms, and the ward heelers who lurk around the seamy edges of society. Tammany types might serve a useful role in those nooks and crannies where the rules do not fit with precision. It was not the “honest imbecility” of the average politico that sent Mencken’s temperature up to 103. What brought him to the boiling point was the do-gooder, the right-thinker, the forward-looker in politics—“the resilient, sneaking, limber, oleaginous, hollow and disingenuous [fellow, who purveyed] . . . an idealism that is oblique, confusing, dishonest and ferocious.” In other words, Boss Tweed was bad enough, but the New Deal was worse!

This huge tome contains roughly half a million words of Mencken’s writing for the press, sparked by some transient event, turned out under pressure, and somehow transmuted by Mencken’s genius into absolutely brilliant prose. And of course the style is all his own. The pace never falters; there’s always the odd or unusual word which clicks precisely into the right spot; the argument never wanders—except when dealing with some egregious cad or crook, when the ad hominem mode jumps in.

Mencken avers that democracy is the most entertaining form of government ever invented. He shares the fun with readers of this book in 172 pages of his reports on eight of the national political conventions he covered from 1904 to 1948. His sprightly manner conveys much political savvy as well.

We get his views on food, women, “literary gents,” the American language, and music—the last especially in his essays on Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. If his two paragraphs on Beethoven’s Eroica do not double your enjoyment of this colossal masterpiece, read his other essay on the Eroica in his Chrestomathy. Or demand your money back!

Mencken is a man eminently worth knowing, and there’s no better way to make his acquaintance than by poring over this wonderful collection. What kind of a man will you be taking unto yourself? Hear the report of one of his friends, Albert Jay Nock: “At dinner last night with Henry Mencken at Luchows . . . . There is no better companion in the world than Henry; I admire him, and have the warmest affection for him. I was impressed afresh by his superb character—immensely able, unselfconscious, sincere, erudite, simple-hearted, kindly, generous, really a noble fellow if ever there was one in the world.”

A couple of men like this in every generation, and we need not despair of the Republic. 

The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of The Foundation for Economic Education and is the author of the book Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies.

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July 1992

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