All About M(mmm)e(eeeeEEEEE)ncken

My editor made me do this.

Tonight I’ll be delivering a book talk on Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken. The event starts at 7:30 and takes place in the Dow Center at Hillsdale College. Hillsdale County has an airport. If you plan to fly in for the event, call (517) 797-4833.

Here is how the book begins:

H. L. Mencken remains a man who needs no introduction to any American familiar with literary and social criticism during the first half of the twentieth century. A reporter for the Baltimore Sun, who covered most of the national political conventions for four decades, along with the Scopes Trial, and prize boxing matches to boot, Mencken became a literary critic for The Smart Set, eventually took over that magazine, and then went on to found another literary publication, The American Mercury. As editor, Mencken published the early work of Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Eugene O’Neill, and Ezra Pound. Many of those same authors revered Mencken. Even Ernest Hemingway, a novelist for whom Mencken had little regard, paid deference to The American Mercury’s editor in The Sun Also Rises. To explain Robert Cohn’s inability to enjoy Hemingway blamed Mencken, who “hates Paris, I believe. So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken.”

The author of more than fifty books – the first to write in English on George Bernard Shaw and on Friedrich Nietzsche – his topics ranged as wide as women and European night life. Mencken was also an amateur philologist whose American Language cataloged sometimes brilliantly the differences between British and American English. That overview hardly does justice to Mencken’s output and influence. According to the literary critic, Alfred Kazin, “If Mencken had never lived, it would have taken a whole army of assorted philosophers, monologists, editors, and patrons of the new writing to make up for him.” According to Edmund Wilson, long-time critic for The New Yorker and the New Republic, Mencken was “without question, since Poe, our greatest practicing literary journalist.” According to Terry Teachout, another critic and one of Mencken’s biographers, Wilson’s acknowledgment was “[i]f anything an understatement.”

Aside from the sheer volume of his writing, Mencken was remarkable for a prose style rarely executed before or since. In a review of one of his books, Walter Lippmann acknowledged that Mencken’s reputation for calling average people “cockroaches and lice” lapsed into “unjust tirades.” Even so, Mencken had attracted a large readership because “this Holy Terror from Baltimore is splendidly and exultantly and contagiously alive. He calls you a swine, and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live.” Joseph Wood Krutch, a writer for The Nation, wrote soon after Mencken’s death that the Baltimorean was the best prose writer in twentieth-century America, a man whose gift “was inimitable” and who used “as a genuine instrument of expression a vocabulary and a rhythm which in other hands stubbornly refused to yield anything but vulgarity.” More recently, Joseph Epstein wrote that much of Mencken’s appeal owed to his comedy and uplift. “Some writers . . . do lift one out of the gloom, and away from the valley of small and large woes,” Epstein explained. Mencken was one of them and one of the ways he did that, Epstein added, was by having “an appreciation for the reality of things.” “His animus against the [idealists] of the world is that, with their concepts and notions, they flattened out reality – and, in the act of doing so, not only got things wrong but made them less interesting than they are.” The collision of Mencken’s candor and Americans’ idealism was always riveting. To capture some of that amusement this book violates rules against learned in graduate school. This book includes many block quotations, the crutch of the young historian. The hope is that readers unfamiliar with Mencken will appreciate the appeal of his prose. Another reason for violating historical protocol is to stave off the boredom that afflicts authors when reading and proofing manuscripts. At least Mencken will keep this reader awake.



27 thoughts on “All About M(mmm)e(eeeeEEEEE)ncken

  1. Ordered the book Monday. Amazon says it should be in stock on the 19th. Perhaps you can tell your editor it is hard to sell from an empty wagon.


  2. Curt, you lied about Mencken to score a cheap shot at me. FOR SHAME!!!

    And you don’t have the courage to admit you were wrong about Mencken.

    So if your accusations of racism can be so way off, why should we here you at other times as anything other than Chicken Little? It’s a big claim. Don’t trivialize it.


  3. D.G.,
    Really? From Men versus The Man:

    I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example,
    but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready to hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of to-day is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. His brain is not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort; his ideals, no matter how laboriously he is trained and sheltered, remain those of the clown. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.

    The above is copy and pasted of a Menchen response to La Monte. The only editing was to remove unnecessary new lines.


  4. Curt, still uncharitable and fundamentalist (as per usual). If you really wanted to make a case, maybe you read a little more in the literature. But no. If you’ve got a scalp, hang it.

    But in the book to which I link, a prominent African American attorney wrote this:

    If that were the end of the story and the last thing Mencken wrote about black people, one would have to conclude that he was a racist. But taht is not the end of the story. Mencken wrote that letter in 1910, rather early in his career. He stopped saying thinks like that; and through most of his career he said just the opposite. . . . his later writings became replete with statements extolling the intelligence and character of African Americans. [29]

    And you call yourself a Christian.


  5. D.G.,
    After the Menchen quote I gave, is it still uncharitble to ask about the racism in Mencken? After all, you took that comment personally after I was only commenting on Mencken.

    And btw, he started praising the intelligence of African Americans in comparison anglo-saxon americans of whom he had a very low opinion. Another quote we should note is what he wrote in 1925:

    there are only two types of music: German music and bad music

    In 1923, he wrote:

    So far as I can make out there is no record in history of any Anglo-Saxon nation entering upon any great war without allies. The French have done it, the Dutch have done it, the Germans have done it, the Japs have done it, and even such inferior nations as the Danes, the Spaniards, the Boers and the Greeks have done it, but never the English or Americans. Can you imagine the United States resolutely facing a war in which the odds against it were as huge as they were against Spain in 1898? The facts of history are wholly against any such fancy. The Anglo-Saxon always tries to take a gang with him when he goes into battle, and even when he has it behind him he is very uneasy, and prone to fall into panic at the first threat of genuine danger

    In 1922, he wrote the following

    [In America] the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy.

    And in the 1918 work, he wrote the following about Blacks:

    [T]he negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience; that he must remain the inferior of the stronger and more intelligent white man so long as he retains racial differentiation. Therefore, the effort to educate him has awakened in his mind ambitions and aspirations which, in the very nature of things, must go unrealized, and so, while gaining nothing whatever materially, he has lost all his old contentment, peace of mind and happiness.

    And in 1931, he wrote:

    That Negroes, in more than one way, are superior to most American whites is something that I have long believed. I pass over their gift for music (which is largely imaginary) and their greater dignity (which Dr. Eleanor R. Wembridge has described more eloquently than I could do it), and point to their better behavior as members of our common society. Are they, on the lower levels, somewhat turbulent and inclined to petty crime? Perhaps. But that crime is seldom anti-social…Professional criminals are rare among Negroes, and, what is more important, professional reformers are still rarer. The horrible appetite of the low-caste Anglo-Saxon to police and harass his fellow-men is practically non-existent among them. No one ever hears of Negro wowsers inventing new categories of crime, and proposing to jail thousands of their own people for committing them. Negro Prohibitionists are almost as rare as Catholic Prohibitionists. No Negro has ever got a name by pretending to be more virtuous than the rest of us. In brief, the race is marked by extraordinary decency

    In 1956, he wrote the following:

    The theory that all the races of mankind have descended from one stock is whooped up assiduously by the prophets of egaltarianism, but there is really no support for it in the known facts. On the contrary, there is every evidence that man emerged from the primordial apes in two or three or even four or five distinct races, and that they survive more or less to this day, despite the wholesale intermingling that has gone on in civilized countries. In many of the isolated backwater of Europe––and of America too, as Appalachia witnesses––the traces of Neanderthal Man are much more evident than those of Cro-Magnon Man, who was vastly his superior. In any chance crowd of Southern Negroes one is bound to note individuals who resemble apes quite as much as they resemble Modern Man, and among the inferior tribes of Africa, say the Bushmen, they are predominant. The same thing is true of any chance crowd of Southern poor whites. It offers individuals so plainly inferior to the common run of Americans that it is hard to imagine them descending wholly from the same stock.


    The Jewish theory that the goyim envy the superior ability of the Jews is not borne out by the facts. Most goyim, in fact, deny that the Jew is superior, and point in evidence to his failure to take the first prizes: he has to be content with the seconds. No Jewish composer has ever come within miles of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; no Jew has ever challenged the top-flight painters of the world, and no Jewish scientist has equaled Newton, Darwin, Pasteur or Mendel. In the latter bracket such apparent exception as Ehrlich, Freud and Einstein are only apparent. Ehrlich, in fact, contributed less to biochemical fact than to biochemical theory, and most of his theory was dubious. Freud was nine-tenths quack, and there is sound reason for believing that even Einstein will not hold up: in the long run his curved space may be classed with the psychosomatic bumps of Gall and Spurzheim. But whether this inferiority of the Jew is real or only a delusion, it must be manifest that it is generally accepted. The goy does not, in fact, believe that the Jew is better than the non-Jew; the most he will admit is that the Jew is smarter at achieving worldly success. But this he ascribes to sharp practices, not to superior ability.

    See, Menchen’s view of people of different races might have evolved some from that first quote I provided, but you were so defensive that it seemed that you didn’t acknowledge that earlier racism. In addition, I believe his other quotes support varying degrees of racism. After all, racism occurs on a continuum rather than on a discrete point. Personally, I can tell you that I was a passive racist when I was in college; and so to were a lot of my friend. And that racism was born completely out of ignorance of what American Blacks had to suffer at that time.

    Finally, I would never say that you like Mencken because of his racism. I believe you like him because of his libertarianism. I might be wrong, but that is what I believe. But one can’t really discuss Menchken without discussing his interest in superiority and race. And that interest existed well beyond 1910. And that is my point


  6. There’s a difference between what one “can” discuss and what one “should” discuss. All resistance to God’s gospel has been predestined by God. However, nobody SHOULD ever disobey God’s gospel or God’s law. But those who confuse law and gospel also tend to turn every indicative into a value-judgment—-yes, you CAN do that but you SHOULD NOT.

    What is Faith? (1925):, Machen, p 192—“Galatians is not an alternative between an external or ceremonial religion and what men would now call (by a misuse of the New Testament word) a “spiritual” religion, important though that alternative no doubt is; but it is an alternative between a religion of merit and a religion of grace. The Epistle to the Galatians is directed just as much against the modern notion of “salvation by character” as it is directed against the Jewish ceremonialists of long ago. What the Apostle is concerned to deny is any intrusion of human merit into the work by which salvation is obtained. That work, according to the Epistle to the Galatians and according to the whole New Testament, is the work of God and of God alone.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. D.G.,
    The point is that racism was a part of his life–btw, there is no moral high ground for me to take. And that racism was not just found in his views of Blacks regardless of how temporary or permanent those views were. Racism can be exercised against those of other races besides Blacks. And no one is forcing you into an exclusive-or choice between my views of Mencken’s racism or a Black person’s views.

    One should note that authoritarians tend to be overly sensitive to criticism of their favorite authority figures. And you and I need to face the truth about ourselves as conservative Christians: we were raised to have authoritarian personalities. And the result of that is that we don’t know how to turn off that authority switch when relating to and conversing with others.


  8. Curt, you tell me that racism is part of my life — it’s everywhere. It’s the system. It’s baked in. You’re racist, I’m racist. We’re all victims.

    Your moral high ground reduces to a mole hill thanks to your powers of analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. D.G.,
    Unlike you, I wouldn’t say everyone is a racist. But racism is around us though some things are different from the Jim Crow era. And whether we support that racism depends on what we say or what we are silent about and what we do or refrain from doing. But such is the same with all corporate sin. For example,, those who resisted the Nazis by speaking out against, such as what the White Rose did, or who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Holocaust, were certainly not part of their corporate racism. But those who were active supporters of the Nazis or who were silently complicit had some degree of guilt in that corporate sin. And it is for those who were either active supporters or who were silently complicit that Eisenhower made townspeople walk through the camps that were near their towns so they could see what they were responsible for.

    If you want to take an all-or-nothing approach to this by saying we are all guilty and all victims, it would seem that you are doing so to minimize our possible parts in enabling racism. But then again, maybe I am wrong in saying taht. Theologically speaking, it seems to me that those who believe that Christians can eliminate or repent from all known sin would be tempted to minimize sin so that eliminating all of it becomes possible. And such would contradict reliance on grace alone.

    As for my moral high ground, I already said that I have none. That has nothing to do with my powers of analysis and your comment there shows antagonism and a pharisaical speaking down to. For suppose I am not a racist, don’t I have other sins that would require me to beg for mercy as the publican did in the parable of the two men praying? In addition, I think that neither you nor I can be objective in determining whether we ourselves are racists. The reason why is because the stigma that the label brings causes a conflict of interest in examining ourselves. Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t. I myself have too many sins to worry about that. But I did list quotes from Mencken because that was a part of his writings. And if one is going to write about Mencken, one should list those writings and then make their case.


  10. Curt, systemic racism isn’t all that systemic if people can be free from it so easily.

    But now you’ve found your inner bourgeois self — all that free will, personal choice, and reward for self-determination.

    If laws and policies of the state and business and private organizations can still exclude blacks or legitimate white supremacy, you and I can hardly be innocent. I thought the point was that we are no better than the Germans who did nothing to topple Hitler.

    Which is it, Curt? Is it a system or is it personal?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. D.G.,
    It seems that you continually want to define systemic sin out of existence. And so do you believe that there was no systemic sin in Nazi Germany? Was there systemic sin in the US during Jim Crow or during the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the land? If systemic and corporate sin do not exist, then Nazi Germany did not sin or do anything immoral when it invaded its neighbors or try to exterminate the Jews. And the US did not sin when it allowed for slavery or when it ethnically Native Americans from the land. So why not, in your next book. write that Nazi Germany did not commit sin or do immoral when it waged war in Europe during the late ’30s and the ’40s? If there is no systemic sin, why not write about how even the worst case scenarios did not involve sin?

    The issue of our participation in systemic sin is whether we resist or not. During the time of Nazi Germany, people did speak out against the Nazis. During the times of the Nazis, people hid Jews from Nazi persecution. People did what they could to resist. And the question is not whether we can stop system. The question is this: Are we, as individuals, doing what we can to resist systemic sin? Of course, if there was no systemic sin in Nazi Germany, then there was no need for Germans to speak out against the Nazi regime or to help Jews escape persecution. If there is no systemic sin, then there was no need for the Church to speak out against racism during the Jim era? And there was no need for abolitionists to help Blacks to escape slavery or even to speak against it. After all, why should one have to oppose what is not sin? If it isn’t sin, then Christians have the freedom to participate in activities such as helping the Nazi government persecute Jews or to support Jim Crow laws and practices during the Jim Crow era.

    Why is it that all sin has to be personal or systemic, but not both? Weren’t nations punished in the OT for systemic sins?


  12. Curt, why can’t you live with just toppled? Why is it so necessary to pin Nazi Germany with systemic sin, etc.? Don’t look now but your American is showing, as in Germany (and the Axis) wasn’t simply opposed and an imminent threat to America but a moral evil America had a duty to wipe out. You don’t think Germans had reason to think the same of America? Or Islamic nations today? Where does that get anyone except more amped up about the righteousness of us and the evil of them? And so this is the irony of your disposition: in your quest for rooting out systemic sin you traffic in the same ethos that would generate it.


  13. Curt, sorry but you’re the one struggling with systemic sin. You define it again in a way that allows your bourgeois slip to show — as long as Curt resists he’s not guilty of systemic sin. But how do you know you’ve resisted enough? Why not topple the system?

    Face it. Systemic sin is a card you play to paint someone else in the corner. It’s rhetoric. Unless you want to acknowledge that Christians resist principalities and powers — systems — of a whole lot more sinful kind.

    National Socialism: “at least it was an ethos.” You’re a nihilist.


  14. D.G.,
    Again, you try to define systemic sin out of existence much like Golda Meir tried to define the Palestinians out of existence. You are simply using deduction to reason that it does not exist. The problem, however, comes when one takes an inductive approach to studying systemic sin. That is because with a inductive approach, we take a look at specific examples to test if what we have reasoned is true. So it goes back what were the responsibilities of Christians during worst case scenarios such as Nazi Germany or America’s Jim Crow era–and there are many other scenarios. For if there is no systemic sin, then Christians are not responsible for caring about the victims of what the Nazis were doing or what White supremacists were doing. Christians would not even be responsible for calling the Nazis or the White supremacists to repentance because if there is no systemic sin, then neither the Nazis nor the White supremacists sinned in how they treated their victims. That is what follows or is implied by denying the existence of systemic sin. And so if you truly believe that there is no systemic sin, write a book describing how what the Nazis did or the White supremacists did was not sin.

    My guess is that you cannot do that so you have to distract people from what follows your denial of systemic sin by making accusations such as calling me a nihilist or by saying one is always guilty of systemic sin. Well, what sin aren’t we always guilty of committing? Is it adultery? Then do you ever lust? Is it murder? Do you ever hate or speak with the intention of hurting others or harboring hatred in your heart even if you do not express it? if you don’t always love God with all of your being and love your neighbor as yourself, then you are sinning. So what is your issue with systemic sin? Regarding systemic sin, those who wish to be justified by works ask when does one’s resistance become enough to absolve one of all guilt? For those who believe that they can eliminate all known sin want to know when their efforts qualify as being enough. Those who rely on grace do what they can not because they rely on having done their best and thus having established their own righteousness, but because they are concerned with loving God and loving others. And those who rely on grace trust God with their failures and sins. But those who want to live in a small world after all need to know when what they have done is enough for enough people.


  15. Curt, there you go again getting all bourgeois: “For if there is no systemic sin, then Christians are not responsible for caring about the victims of what the Nazis were doing or what White supremacists were doing.”

    Really? It’s all about caring? I want the eschaton now, bleep it. Where’s your inner radical?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. D.G.,
    Why not explain how I am getting all bourgeois?

    And again, it is all or nothing thinking for you. It is either all about this or all about that. In fact, while I said part was about caring, I never said all was about caring. But caring is important. We don’t exist without God caring about us. And if memory serves, we are to try to treat others the way God has treated us.

    But the above is a distraction. When are you going to write a book that says that what the Nazis did was not sin because there is no systemic sin? Then you can also include slavery and Jim Crow in America.


  17. Curt,

    DG: Mr. Editor, I want to write a book about how the Nazis did not sin because systemic evil does not exist.

    Editor: Unless you’re Ta-Nehisi Coates, you’re an assbleep.


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