College has become a way to cultivate and
preserve ignorance and misconceptions,
sort of a bell jar over the mind that
lets no contrary facts in.
The Sage of Baltimore, Revisited
by Eric Oppen
Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
Lately, I’ve been on a H.L. Mencken kick. I discovered him in junior high, thanks to my mother. She had been an English teacher for years, specializing in literature, and Mencken was just one of many authors she brought to my attention. I devoured The Vintage Mencken, which was all that I could lay hands on at that time, and later on got hold of the Chrestomathy. But for years, that was about all the Mencken I could get. Living in a small town, pre-Internet, with little discretionary income, was not always easy.
Later on, more Mencken became available to me, as I went to college and entered adult life. Not only were there more Mencken works to find in my college library, but more of the Sage’s work became available. I leaped on the Second Chrestomathy with delight, and The Impossible H.L. Mencken, a collection of his previously-uncollected newspaper writings. Being the thoroughgoing sort I am, I tracked down his more obscure works: Treatise on the Gods , Treatise on Right and Wrong, Notes on Democracy, and In Defense of Women.
As writings he had designated to be kept under lock and key until a certain time after his death became available, I read them, too. About the only one I really bounced off of was Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work; his My Life as Author and Editor was much more readable. His Diary told me much about the man behind the writings, with details that had not got into his previous memoirs, as well as giving me Mencken’s views of many of the illustrious and prominent men of his day.
At the end of it, you may ask what my conclusions were. Is Mencken still worth reading after all this time? Are his thoughts worth remembering?
I would say that, on the whole, Mencken is still quite readable and enjoyable, and many of his observations on the American scene are still as valid as when he made them. He has his weaknesses. He’s not much of an historian, which limits him when he takes up historical subjects. He never got over what he saw as the unfair treatment the German cause got in the American press between 1914 and the entry of the US into World War One. He also often identifies people as Jewish or black when it’s not really relevant to what he’s saying, but this was more a custom of his time than out-and-out bigotry. While he often has uncomplimentary things to say about Jews, and blacks, his greatest scorn is reserved for “the lintheads”—his term for the poor whites of the South. He regarded them as barely worthy of human status.
I will admit that his fulminations on literary controversies of his day tend to go over my head, if only because I’ve either never read those authors, or couldn’t get into them. Someone with more familiarity with that part of literature would probably find them quite interesting, though.
While he was not a “kiver-to-kiver” libertarian, his views on most subjects were quite compatible with libertarian positions. He was an inveterate opponent of government overreaching (which was behind a lot of his ferocious opposition to Prohibition) and while I don’t think he’d approve of drug use, he’d see our War on (Some Unpopular) Drugs as the assault on the Constitution that it is. While he was by no means hostile to blacks, and went out of his way to promote black writers (many of the figures in the “Harlem Renaissance” owed a lot to his support), he’d also denounce affirmative action and our current frenzy of “anti-racism” in scathing terms. His views on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and how it has been turned into an alternate, and superior, Constitution would probably scorch the paint off the walls.
Mencken's views on people's private lives would have infuriated many of his contemporaries. While he disapproved of homosexuality, referring to it negatively in entries in his private diaries, he was by no means a howling “homophobe.” His writings on the travails of Oscar Wilde are very sympathetic to Wilde's sufferings, which Mencken thought were wholly disproportionate to what he was known to have done. Mencken referred to Lord Alfred Douglas, in a review of Douglas' book about Wilde, as a Tartuffe—that is to say, a posturing hypocrite.
Having been a reporter for years in Baltimore, back when reporters were very like the old film noir view of them, Mencken was very much a man of the world, and inclined to great tolerance on others' sex lives. When he wrote of prostitutes, he refrained from the sort of pious moralizing that was expected in his time. He said that prostitutes often actively preferred their profession to other work available to them, and that most of them ended up respectably married. He kept his own love life very private, and was a faithful husband to his wife throughout their brief marriage, but he does mention, here and there, having had other lovers, whom he does not name even in writings designated to come to light only long after everybody involved was dead. By his own account in his Diary, he lost his virginity at age fourteen to a girl of his own age, who had already had other experiences before him. He felt that such experiences, unless pregnancy happened, did no one any harm.
While he was an atheist, Mencken had no particular hostility to religion per se, no matter what the Fundamentalists of his day thought. His book Treatise on the Gods makes interesting reading, although it is marred, in my view, by Mencken's lack of knowledge of languages. He praises Christianity for having “the most gorgeous poetry,” but as far as I know, he could not read Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, and was thinking in terms of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. However, the book is still worth reading, although a serious student of the subject would find it limited.
It would be interesting to have him back and get his views on current events. While he would not care for Trump, I think his keen eye for frauds would spot that Trump’s inveterate opponents have long since left any trace of sanity behind in their frothing hatred of Bad Orange Man. He had been a reporter in Baltimore for years, back when reporters were hard-boiled types with press-cards in their hatbands, and was usually very hard to fool.
If you haven’t read Mencken, give him a try. There are quite a few collections of his works out there, most of them to be found in any well-stocked library.
[ Quite a number of his books can be found at Project Guetnberg, downloadable for free — Editor ]
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