11-24-09: Happy Birthday, H.L. Mencken. You Big Jerk!

November 23, 2009 at 4:42 pm 3 comments

This segment originally aired September 9, 2009.

Listen to the conversation.

The Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, was a great writer, very opinionated, and not very nice — especially to William Jennings Bryan. September 12 was the 129th anniversary of Mencken’s birth, and on that day the Enoch Pratt Free Library hosted the Mencken Memorial Lecture. Sheilah talked to Michael Kazin, Professor of American Political and Social History at Georgetown University — and Bryan biographer — about his lecture at the Pratt, “Bryan Debates Mencken: The Confrontation We Missed.”

Entry filed under: Arts and Culture, On Air, Politics. Tags: , , , .

11-24-09: Documenting the Presidency 11-24-09: The Long View on Aging

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nonya Bizness  |  November 24, 2009 at 9:46 am

    The whole problem with WYPR is that neither you nor your listeners know anything about Mencken. How it is possible to be a so-called “journalist” without a thorough knowledge of his life and philosophy is beyond comprehension. Sheila Kast and Fraser Smith, for example, would greatly benefit from an immersion course.


    From Gore Vidal’s introduction to Marion Elizabeth Rodger’s “The Impossible Mencken”:

    “… A babble of words that no one understands now fills the airwaves, and language loses all meaning as we sink slowly, mindlessly, into herstory rather than history because most rapists are men, aren’t they?

    Mencken is a nice antidote. Politically, he is often right but seldom correct by today’s stern standards. In a cheery way, he dislikes most minorities and if he ever had a good word to say about the majority of his countrymen, I have yet to come across it. Recently, when his letters were published, it was discovered that ‘He Did Not Like the Jews’, and that he had said unpleasant things about them not only as individuals but In General, plainly the sign of a Hitler-Holocaust enthusiast. So shocked was everyone that even the New York Review of Books’ unofficial de-anti-Semitiser, Garry Wills (he salvaged Dickens, barely), has yet to come to his aid with An Explanation. But in Mencken’s private correspondence, he also snarls at black Americans, Orientals, Britons, women, and WASPs, particularly the clay-eating Appalachians, whom he regarded as subhuman. But private irritability is of no consequence when compared to what really matters, public action…


    • 2. mdmorn  |  November 24, 2009 at 10:38 am

      From H.L. Mencken’s notebooks:
      “Men are the only animals who devote themselves assiduously to making one another unhappy.”

      • 3. Nonya Bizness  |  November 25, 2009 at 2:42 pm

        “Of all the classes of men, I dislike the most those who make their livings by talking— actors, clergymen, politicians, pedagogues, and so on. All of them participate in the shallow false pretenses of the actor who is their archetype. It is almost impossible to imagine a talker who sticks to the facts. Carried away by the sound of his own voice and the applause of the groundlings, he makes inevitably the jump from logic to mere rhetoric. His success is judged by the favor of his inferiors, or at all events of persons supposed to be his inferiors, and for that sort of thing I have no taste. If he is intelligent at all, which happens occasionally, he must be well aware that this favor is irrational and almost certainly transient. He is admired for his worst qualities, and he cannot count upon being admired for long. A good part of my time, in my earlier days, was spent listening to speeches of one sort or another, and to watching their makers glow under the ensuing clapper- clawing. I was always sorry for such men, for I soon observed that the applause of today was almost invariably followed by the indifference of tomorrow.”

        – H. L. Mencken
        “Minority Report”
        New York, 1956.

        Mencken knew that the cornerstone of liberty was freedom of thought: “As for me, my literary theory, like my politics, is based chiefly upon one main idea, to wit, the idea of freedom. I am, in brief, a libertarian of the most extreme variety, and know of no human right that is one-tenth as valuable as the simple right to utter what seems (at the moment) to be the truth. Take away his right, and none other is worth a hoot; nor, indeed, can any other long exist.”

        Mencken himself exercised that “simple right” on every possible occasion, and never more vigorously and iconoclastically than in the realm of politics. It was not merely that he tirelessly exhibited the blatant and undisguised hypocrisy and duplicity of self-serving politicians, who he considered merely jobholders intent on keeping their positions from one election to the next with the least amount of effort; it was that he boldly challenged the most cherished shibboleths of American political thought. Specifically, he presented–briefly in some of the essays in this book and more exhaustively in the treatise Notes on Democracy (1926)–a systematic critique of the very principle of American democracy. Democracy, in his judgment, was flawed in its very conception; as he wrote in “What Ails the Republic” (1922), it “always resolves itself, in the end, into a scheme for enabling weak and inferior men to force their notions and desires, by mass action, upon strong and superior men. Its essence is this substitution of mere numbers for every other sort of superiority–this fundamental assumption that a group of idiots, if only its numbers be large enough, is wiser and more virtuous than any conceivable individual who is not an idiot.” Mencken would have agreed emphatically with his erstwhile correspondent Ambrose Bierce, who only a few years earlier had written a “future history” in which the downfall of the American republic was memorably etched: “An inherent weakness in republic government was that it assumed the honesty and intelligence of the majority, ‘the masses,’ who were neither honest nor intelligent.” And Mencken would have agreed with both facets of Bierce’s condemnation: it was not merely that the American people were uneducated (and therefore unable to grasp the complexity of the political, economic, and social issues that they were called upon to adjudicate); it was that they were also fundamentally dishonest. The “liberty” they touted was in reality liberty for themselves and restraint for everyone else; the moral “evils” they condemned were those that they had neither the desire nor the capacity to commit themselves, or knew that they could commit without detection.

        The whole issue of the viability of democracy as a political principle is well beyond the scope of this introduction, but some further thoughts on Mencken’s attitudes may be in order. The basis of his critique of democracy was the very low opinion he held of both the abstract intelligence and the educability of the “plain people”:

        “. . . I doubt that the art of thinking can be taught at all–at any rate, by school-teachers. It is not acquired, but congenital. Some persons are born with it. Their ideas flow in straight channels; they are capable of lucid reasoning; when they say anything it is instantly understandable, when they write anything it is clear and persuasive. They constitute, I should say, about one-eighth of one per cent. of the human race. The rest of God’s children are just as incapable of logical thought as they are incapable of jumping over the moon. Trying to teach them to think is as vain an enterprise as trying to teach a streptococcus the principles of Americanism.”

        S. T. Joshi
        “Mencken’s America”
        Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004

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