Books by H. L. Mencken


Men Versus the Man
by H. L. Mencken and R. R. LaMont

T his collection of letters between H. L. Mencken, who was possibly the greatest curmudgeon of all time, and the newspaper editor Robert Rives La Monte, shows how political discussions were conducted in the age of steam locomotives, wireless telegraphy and unsinkable oceangoing cruise liners.

In those days, before the so-called Great War, chemistry and physics had reached new heights. The theory of relativity was being formulated. Radioactivity had just been discovered. Classical music was still alive and philosophy and culture were still exciting and vibrant. We might reasonably call it the high point of Western civilization. Certainly the art of letter writing has rarely been higher.

Future historians will look back at our age and be amazed at how much bile can be squeezed into the 160 character limit of a text message or the 140 character limit of a Tweet. Yet even though the writers of 1910 were more polite, circumspect, and, yes, long-winded than those of today, they expressed their ideas more honestly.

This exchange is certainly not a “flame war,” as the back cover describes it. But it's not a titanic battle of wits, either. Mencken's opponent, though clearly well educated in classical literature, comes off as a dreamy-eyed evangelist with a naïve and unreasoning faith in communism. His inadequacy as a debating opponent becomes especially clear by his fourth letter to Mencken, in which he repeatedly enjoins him to “become a soldier of the Social Revolution.”

This is nothing less than a slab of red meat for Mencken, whose response, inspired by his opponent's outburst of communist idiocy, is a thing to behold. So much so that one suspects that the whole point was really just to push Mencken's buttons, one after the other, in order to get some truly great prose out of him. Whether this was LaMont's real intention or not, he succeeded magnificently.

Mencken believed in what we now call social Darwinism, and the highly imaginative terminology that Mencken reserves for lower forms of life like politicians and the lazy and uneducated would be considered seriously impolite today. In those days, it was possible to discuss ideas that would get one crucified now. We have lost much of the freedom of speech that Mencken had. And that may explain why Mencken's writing was more interesting, and more thought-provoking, than the inoffensive drivel we find today. To read H. L. Mencken, whether one agrees with everything he says or not, is to experience vicariously that exhilarating sense of intellectual freedom that he must have felt when writing it. The issues have not changed; only our ability to talk about them honestly has been stifled. And it shows in the poverty of our political vocabulary.

Mencken, like his contemporaries, believed in progress, both technological and social. It's ironic that those who now call themselves “progressives” are the ones who no longer believe in progress of either kind. On this point I think that Thomas Sowell is mistaken when he says that conservatives are pessimistic. On the contrary, it is they, not their opponents, who still believe in progress. On that point I think H. L. Mencken, though he would never consider himself a traditionalist, would wholeheartedly agree.

I should also mention the outstanding preface by John Derbyshire. It takes consummate skill to be able to write about Marxism and not have your readers start flipping pages. It is certainly a skill that Karl Marx himself never mastered. Derb is a great writer, and National Review is that much poorer for losing him.

oct 12 2013


The Complete Series

T hese days, it's become fashionable to blame the Baby Boomers for the combination of big government and small thinking that we struggle under today. But in fact it all started in the first three decades of the 20th century. H. L. Mencken was there, and his thoughts and observations about it are collected in this nicely published two-volume, 1200-page work.

You might think that twelve hundred pages of Mencken would be perilously close to a fatal dose. Indeed, many of the articles, like “The American Tradition,” are strong medicine. But bad things were happening to the country in those days. Woodrow Wilson had lied to get himself elected, and dragged the country into the worst war in history. The feminists of the day had foisted Prohibition on the country, causing a terrible decade-long crime wave. The voters had changed the Constitution to give the government power to collect income tax from “the rich.” Government interference with trade had crashed the economy, turning a temporary stock market crash into a decade-long depression. We are so much more sophisticated than that now.

While all this was happening, Mencken's fellow humans, whom he refers to as “Homo boobiens,” were too busy giving up their individual freedom to notice. Mencken was a libertarian at heart, and his sharpest words are reserved for the voters and the politicians they were foolish enough to elect. Impeachment of politicians, he says, is grossly inadequate: “When job holders become so unbearably corrupt or incompetent that they are actually separated from their jobs,” he writes, “they commonly deserve hanging, or, at least, long confinement in the hoosegow.”

His writing style is what you might call “transitional” — halfway between the pompous, ornate style of Walden or The Federalist Papers and today's scatterbrained politically correct drivel. We read Mencken today, not just in the (forlorn) hope of absorbing some of his spectacular writing skill, but also to relive a time long ago when Americans were still free, and to envy them.

apr 29 2014


A Mencken Chrestomathy:
His Own Selection Of His Choicest Writings

T his book is proof that writers should never, ever, ever be allowed to edit their own work. When they do, they're tempted to make their work consistent. By consistent, read predictable. In this case, Mencken selected his favorite paragraphs from various sources and strung them together. It creates the impression that he had only one idea: that everyone who ever lived was a deluded fool.

Maybe he did believe that, but I suspect his real goal was to get his readers to think. HR departments of newspapers screen out candidates with such a radical idea today. Today's papers don't want you to think—they want you to swallow their ideology. That may be one reason why subscription rates are declining.

Nonetheless, it would also be wrong to deny that H.L. Mencken had found a successful formula. The theme of his article “Women” is that males are all morons. The theme of “Religion” is that God would have had to be a moron if he had designed humans, because of all the design flaws, despite the exquisite creativity He showed in designing ingenious ways of killing us off. In “Death” it is existence itself that is sour: “Life, fundamentally,” he writes, not being ironic, “is not worth living.” And so on.

If essays are written to address a contemporary imbalance, Mencken must have thought that people were too upbeat, too happy, and not nearly cynical enough for their own good, and he sought to provide an antidote. But Mencken is more than just a gold mine of clever sound bites. He was also a stupendously good writer. A hundred years later, his sentences are still humbling in their freshness. Only his essays on technology, for example the article where he glories in the wonders of this new-fangled thing called a “thermostat,” and his rants against the grave injustices to mankind caused by the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for the purpose of immoral sex, feel quaintly out of date. Mencken seems particularly exercised about this law, for reasons he doesn't clearly state. In most other matters, such as politics, the issues are the same as today. Mankind has not progressed at all in achieving insight about itself.

As I said, Mencken used a formula. But never let it be said that a mere blogger would dare to diss H. L. Mencken. It would be tantamount to saying that Hamlet would have been great if not for all that crap about ghosts and people talking to skulls. Much of the stuff here is brilliant, and a lot of it “hilarious,” as the Daily Mail might put it. Still, the editing could have been better....

dec 22 2013