Doomed, I fear, to being gradually forgotten, is the great libertarian writer H.L. Mencken. A journalist in the early 20th century, Mencken is today remembered mostly by bookish folks like myself, as a minor figure in the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial,” and indirectly through phrases that he coined, such as “The Bible Belt,” and the definition of Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Terry Teachout recently published a biography of Mencken called The Skeptic, which made some headlines because it purported to convict Mencken of anti-Semitism. Some Mencken authorities, like my editor at Liberty, R.W. Bradford, condemned the book harshly; although I found Teachout’s accusations less than convincing—and was sorry at some other flaws—I rather enjoyed the book. Carl Bode’s biography is charming, although not very remarkable. The most enjoyable biographies of Mencken are probably his own three-volume autobiography, consisting of Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days.
But after many years, Mencken’s best book is the anthology he himself put together, A Mencken Chrestomathy. It contains most of his best writing, including his go-for-the-throat obituary of William Jennings Bryan, “In Memorian, W.J.B.,” his best, and most savage essay.
Mencken’s reputation as a cynic is well deserved, but like all cynics, Mencken was a man of deeply held principles and high—thus inevitably disappointed—idealism. The essays collected in the Chrestomathy make this clear. He despised quacks and charlatans because he admired the power of thought and reason so profoundly. Although he professed to scoff at everyone and everything, his undisguised admiration for people like Thomas Huxley, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Mark Twain, reveal the sincerity that were often overpowered by the noise of his other writings. Mencken rarely tried to salvage the title of idealist for himself, however. As with Twain, he used his title of humorist as a safe fortress from which to bombard his old enemies: faith, ignorance, superstition, group-think, compromise, slavery. Unfortunately, Mencken lived at a time—the New Deal era—when the reading public no longer cared to be reminded of the Enlightenment-era principles on which Mencken stood.
In “Government: Its Inner Nature,” first published in 1919, Mencken explains that
All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both.
Mencken watched as Franklin Roosevelt erected a massive new bureaucratic edifice on what Ayn Rand would later call “the Age of Envy,” which only justified Mencken in his belief that the state was bent on dominating all independent spirits, and making them subject to the rule of the sort of people who did not much mind being ruled. In an essay on the Landon/Roosevelt campaign of 1936, (which unfortunately is not in the Chrestomathy, but in A Carnival of Buncombe), he explained with especial clarity:
[T]he government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can't get, and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten, that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.... The have-not, B, may ask only a larger measure of power over the life and liberty of A; on the othe rhand, his yearning may be for a share of A's property. In either case, it is the chief present business of government, which is to say, of politicians, to give him what he wants. And in both cases it may be given to him only by taking away something that belongs to A....
At the moment...there is no realistic discussion of this process in our great and glorious country. [Republicans are]...opposed, in theory, to every such augmentation of governmental functions and prerogatives, but [they are]...apparently willing to condone a great deal of it in practice. [Democrats are]...for it without qualification: the kind of government [they] seem to advocate would take the place of all other human agencies, and every man's goods, whether material or spiritual, would be held only by its license, and subject to its revocation of that license for contumacy to itself.... The question before the house is, When and by whom will a forthright attack upon it be made?
Mencken rose to prominence as a newspaper writer for the Baltimore Sun. Many of his best writings for the Sun are collected in The Impossible H.L. Mencken, including his articles from the scene of the Scopes trial. Mencken’s reporting is largely responsible for the fame of the Scopes trial, and he is immortalized as the character of E.K. Hornbeck in Inherit The Wind. Although Hornbeck laughs at everything, seeking only to destroy, Mencken’s blazing hostility to William Jennings Bryan was deeply rooted in principles of religious and intellectual liberty. “I sincerely hope that the nobility and the gentry of the lowlands will not make the colossal mistake of viewing this trial of Scopes as a trivial farce,” he wrote. “Deeper down there are the beginnings of a struggle that may go on to melodrama of the first caliber, and when the curtain falls at least all the laughter may be coming from the yokels. You probably laughed at the prohibitionsts, say, back in 1914. Well, don't make the same error twice.”
Mencken’s writing style is an inimitable mix of cultural sophistication and American middle-class references. He moves giant words with ease, and in the next sentence sparkles it up with an equally deft use of slang. The result is a voice entirely his own, breaking every “rule” in the writer’s book, and ending up with delightful masterpieces of wit, fury, or grace. And the rhythm of his sentences show a great deal of poetic sensibility (at an early age, Mencken had written a lot of poetry, and he later credited it with giving him his sense of vocabulary and timing). My favorite example is the flawless sentence with which he begins “The Hills of Zion,” collected in the Chrestomathy: “It was hot weather when they tried the infidel Scopes at Dayton, Tenn., but I went down there very willingly, for I was eager to see something of evangelical Christianity as a going concern.” I could write for fifteen years and never mint a sentence that perfect.
As for charges of Mencken’s racism and anti-Semitism, I think they’re quite overblown. Mencken held just about everyone in like disregard, and enjoyed doing so. Although his remarks about Jewish people are insensitive by today’s standards, he nowhere indulges in a sincere denunciation of them as he does of, say, Baptists, a group he genuinely despised. When Mencken really hated, he let you know; I see little, even in Teachout’s biography, to prove that Mencken really hated Jews. Other races, Mencken openly defended—his last published article was an attack on segregation at a Baltimore tennis club, and even Richard Wright later praised him highly.
During work on The Skeptic, Teachout discovered that Mencken had planned to publish a sequel to the Chrestomathy. Teachout brought it out as A Second Mencken Chrestomathy. Included in it is “H.L. Mencken, By Himself,” first published in 1923. “What do I primarily and immovably believe in, as a Puritan believes in Hell?” he asked.
I believe in liberty. And when I say liberty I mean the thing in its widest imaginable sense—liberty up to the extreme limits of the feasible and tolerable. I am against forbidding anybody to do anything, or say anything, or think anything, so long as it is at all possible to imagine a habitable world in which he would be free to do, say, and think it. The burden of proof, as I see it, is always upon the policeman, which is to say upon the lawmaker, the theologian, the right-thinker. He must prove his case doubly, triply, quadruply, and then he must start all over and prove it again. The eye through which I view him is watery and jaundiced. I do not pretend to be “just” to him—anymore than a Christian pretends to be just to the Devil. He is the enemy of everything I admire and respect in this world—of everything that makes it various and amusing and charming. He impedes every honest search for the truth. He stands against every sort of good will and common decency. His ideal is that of an animal trainer, an archbishop, a major-general in the Army. I am against him until the last galoot’s ashore.
Check out some of the great writings of H.L. Mencken.