The 355th Reason to Recommend H. L. Mencken

He had a keen sense of pretense, that is, when people were trying to be something more important than they really wore. Mencken was especially astute at detecting pretense in politics. Would World War I make the world safe for democracy or be the war to end wars? Seriously? Would a given federal program or policy eliminate crime or poverty? What kind of gullibility do you need to believe that?

When it came to spotting where inspiration left reason behind in political speeches, Mencken was relentless. Consider his take down of Warren G. Harding:

On the question of the logical content of Dr. Harding’s harangue of last Friday I do not presume to have views. The matter has been debated at great length by the editorial writers of the Republic, all of them experts in logic; moreover, I confess to being prejudiced. When a man arises publicly to argue that the United States entered the late war because of a “concern for preserved civilization,” I can only snicker in a superior way and wonder why he isn’t holding down the chair of history in some American university. When he says that the United States has “never sought territorial aggrandizement through force,” the snicker arises to the virulence of a chuckle, and I turn to the first volume of General Grant’s memoirs. And when, gaining momentum, he gravely informs the boobery that “ours is a constitutional freedom where the popular will is supreme, and minorities are sacredly protected,” then I abandon myself to a mirth that transcends, perhaps, the seemly, and send picture postcards of A. Mitchell Palmer and the Atlanta Penitentiary to all of my enemies who happen to be Socialists.

But when it comes to the style of a great man’s discourse, I can speak with a great deal less prejudice, and maybe with somewhat more competence, for I have earned most of my livelihood for twenty years past by translating the bad English of a multitude of authors into measurably better English. Thus qualified professionally, I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

The Bible tells believers not to put trust in princes. So does Mencken. Christians should appreciate his help.

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21 thoughts on “The 355th Reason to Recommend H. L. Mencken

  1. “the snicker arises to the virulence of a chuckle, and I turn to the first volume of General Grant’s memoirs. And when, gaining momentum, he gravely informs the boobery…” Wonderful.

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  2. But how much trust should we put in Mencken? Part of the answer to that question depends on Mencken’s weaknesses. And I would be interested in reading what D.G. would list as Mencken’s weaknesses. After all, we need to be careful not to conform to the world.

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  3. Curt, why so negative? What if Mencken has more strengths than you, Marx and me put together?

    Give a man his due.

    Owe, that’s right. You’re an egalitarian all the way down. All men are equally bland. Except business owners who are below equal.

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  4. He concocted everything about Scopes, a horrible lie about Christians in America that is still used against us.

    FDR 100% ate him for lunch, breakfast and dinner.

    Wrote the worst possible survey on Nietzsche, quite an accomplishment actually.

    He couldn’t come to denounce Hitler.

    Not sure why a supposed Christian trumpets this man.

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  5. Kentos, so you think Genesis should be taught in biology classes?

    Why give FDR credit for three meals when it was only one dinner (and give Mencken credit for not going gooey with other American intellectuals who joined the Communist party)?

    Why not give Mencken credit for writing the first book in English on Nietzsche?

    Neither did Chamberlain denounce Hitler. Did the man who at Mencken for lunch break ties with England?

    Peter denied our Lord three times. Have you stopped reading 1 and 2 Peter??

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  6. D.G.,
    We can’t reduce our analysis of a person to just his strengths. We certainly need to learn from unbelievers. But we can’t learn in such a unguarded sense that we imitate their conformity to the world.

    Let me ask, what criticisms do you have of Mencken? Where should Christians be leery of imitating him?

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  7. Regarding Mencken not denouncing Hitler………….if one drives a Volkswagen, does that mean that they admire the Fuhrer? Charles Lindbergh admired the Nazi’s for their efficiency and progress in technology, though it has never been proven, that I am aware of, that he admired Hitler and his manifesto of hate, anti-Semitism and genocide. Eisenhower returned from the war instituting Hitler’s interstate system into America, and we began fighting North Korea with Sabre Jets and a decade later put Man into space and landed on the moon thanks to the Nazi (formerly so) rocket scientists, chief of whom was Dr. Werner Von Braun. I think this speaks to how God works in mysterious ways, his secret counsels to us unknown, but always for our good, even with/through the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Ragnar Lothbrook, Ivan or Vlad……….all the while we are fighting against and opposing them. All of this is beyond my comprehension, but knowing God is Sovereign is a tremendous help….

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  8. Curt, where did I say imitate him? He’s an author. We read authors all the time. Lots of Christians don’t read Mencken. So read Mencken. It will energize your mind.

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  9. D.G.,
    Don’t we imitate those we admire. And don’t we admire those for whom we have hundreds of reasons to read?

    Again, what criticisms of Mencken do you have?

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  10. Curt
    This is nonsense. We don’t need 100’s of reasons to find an author worth reading. Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Marilynne Robinson, Andrw Sullivsn, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins are all very different writers, but one thing they have in common is that they are excellent prose stylist But as good as they are, none of them are as gifted as Mencken at stringing together memorable lines that make you say, “I wish I had written that!”

    If you think that the point of prose is to tell you what to think or if you take the juvenile psudo-intellectual approach of Zinn seriously and think you need to stand in moral judgement of everyone you read, then you have a terribly stunted appreciation of language.

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  11. D.G.,
    Since you seem reluctant to answer the question, I will provide an abbreviated list of what I like and don’t like about Marx. Then you could do the same for Mencken.

    I love Marx’s analysis of Capitalism. I also like the ideal notion of his abolition of religion and private property. Note that he said that what he called the abolition of religion and private property assumed the existence of both. Thus, his abolition of both was not the elimination of both. But here is what I must disagree with:

    1. His materialism. But as MLK noted, Capitalism has its own form of materialism that is just as ‘pernicious’ as Marx’s materialism.

    2. Marx’s emphasis on revolution. I find revolution to be contrary to democracy.

    3. Marx’s proletariat dictatorship. Though I firmly believe in increasing the workplace and political power of the proletariat, to believe in a proletariat dictatorship is to assume the moral superiority of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie.

    4. Marx’s utopianism. Certainly we should work to improve things and reduce injustice and exploitation in the world, but we ain’t going to eliminate it.

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  12. Curt, that might work for Mencken if you read him for policy. I don’t. Some essays soar. Some are ordinary. He is always intriguing and he makes me laugh.

    He’s a writer!

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  13. D.G.,
    Of course he is a writer, but he is a writer for which there are over 300 reasons to recommend him–that is if titles are to be believed. And, like some other writers, his readers enjoy what he writes and they do so for various reasons. But doesn’t not being a Christian affect his writings in ways that we should stay clear of lest we are conforming to the world as a nonChristian writer has? And isn’t it true that we can’t ignore what we can gain from any favorite writer just as much as we need to avoid where those writers guide us into conforming to the world?

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  14. DGH,

    “Some [days] soar. Some are ordinary. [S]he is always intriguing and he makes me laugh.”

    Think we can re-purpose your thoughts on Mencken to put in a dating advice column?

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