H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices

The Sage of Baltimore has been honored with a new edition of the complete set of his “Prejudices.” The best review I’ve found so far is by Damon Root at Reason. He must have looked beyond the pages of Prejudices, because he knows of Mencken the editor as well as Mencken the writer. It was in that role, primarily for his “American Mercury,” that he did the country a service he is little honored or remembered for today. As Root puts it,

Similarly, at a time when most leading Progressives (including Wilson) supported racial segregation and turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Jim Crow South, Mencken attacked the lawlessness of “Klu Kluxry” and routinely praised (and published) the work of black writers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and George Schuyler. Indeed, White later said that Mencken pushed him to write his first novel, The Fire in the Flint, and then helped him secure a publisher. Zora Neale Hurston was a major Mencken fan. And according to the Harlem Renaissance giant James Weldon Johnson, “Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any other American then writing.”

Indeed, Mencken did more for social justice at that crucial time than any of his contemporaries, not because he pitied African Americans or because he loved to imagine himself as their noble savior, but because he admired the work of black writers and considered it worthy of being published. He gave them a much greater gift than condescending patronage. He gave them respect. The Mercury set the tone for many of the intellectuals of the day, and they, too, learned to recognize and respect the talent Mencken set before them. As Root points out, he hated the Klan and everything it stood for, and fought it with scorn and ridicule in every issue of his journal. In spite of all this, he has actually been called a “racist” because he spoke of blacks as he spoke of everyone else in his world, without the fine sense of political correctness expected of writers in the 21st century. No good deed goes unpunished.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is not so complimentary as Root in the review he wrote for the Wall Street Journal.  For example,

But the vast majority of the pieces in “Prejudices” are tedious and ephemeral, even terrible at times.

Anyone seeking the reasons for Mencken’s high reputation would do better by turning to Huntington Cairns’s “The American Scene” (1965), an anthology that judiciously selects from Mencken’s autobiographical works, his writings on the American language and his various superb efforts at reportage, including his famous account of the 1925 Scopes Trail, in which fundamentalist religion famously butted heads with evolutionary theory.

There are no dates included in the Library of America volumes and no contextual introductions to the pieces offered. Much of the time we have no idea what Mencken is shouting about. He comes off as a gasbag.

Mencken continued such rewrites and regurgitations for an additional four “Prejudices.” He is at his worst when he writes on what he considers important topics: the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character.

I understand what Tyrrell is talking about.  Mencken was scornful of his enemies, and he wrote about them in a style that was repetitive to the point that it could become tiresome.  Perhaps he does come off as a gasbag in some of the worst of the Prejudices.  However, if you’re interested in learning something about the human condition, the Prejudices are not ephemeral, nor is it difficult to gather what he is shouting about if you take the time to learn a little of the history of the time.  I suspect the reviewer’s blanket judgment that the sage is “at his worst” when writing about the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character,” is more a reflection of his own opinions than of Mencken.  He occasionally had strong praise for southerners and southern letters, and as far as the national letters are concerned, I owe the discovery of several authors I greatly admire to his reviews.  He had a fine eye for literary talent, and put it to good use in the Mercury.  His first encounter with Sinclair Lewis is a case in point.  He was put off by Lewis typical antics, wonderfully described in Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River.”  However, when he got around to reading Lewis’ work, it didn’t matter.  He knew he had found a first rate talent.  He did not dislike farmers because they farmed, but because they were the source of political power for his bete noires such as William Jennings Bryan and “dry boss” Wayne B. Wheeler.  Tyrrell comes closer to the truth when he writes,

He flourished in the first quarter of the century, but I doubt there would be room in America for him now. His prose style aside, he was an independent mind. There are only two camps today, and he would be in neither.

That’s exactly what I admire about him, and why it’s well worth the effort to read his Prejudices, in spite of their blemishes.  There have never been many like him in any age, and in our own, they are almost non-existent.  Most of the stuff one reads today is so predictable, so orthodox in its conformity to some ideological dogma, so processed like the food we eat, so often regurgitated in blogs and the “news,” that one despairs of finding anything original enough to be worth thinking about.  Mencken is constantly holding little baubles of insights in front of your nose, turning them this way and that, shoving your imagination out of familiar ruts, even if they are sometimes in the rough, just as he dug them up.

Katherine Powers wrote another review for Barnes and Noble.  She bowdlerizes Mencken as an original “east coast intellectual:”

H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices is an extended Bronx cheer from the smarty-boots side of the culture war and the first full-bore expression of the animus of East coast intellectuals toward the South and fly-over country.

If you prefer feeding your confirmation bias about east coast intellectuals over according Mencken the respect he deserves as an individual, you will certainly find many tidbits that will serve the purpose before reaching the end of Prejudices.   However, the main problem with this pigeon-hole version of Mencken is that it isn’t true.  Anyone who takes the time to read his work will notice that he found a great deal to admire and respect in “the South and fly-over country.”  The rest of Powers’ review is more of the same wooden caricature.  For example,

In “The Cult of Hope” (Second Series) he calls the idea that criticism should be constructive a “messianic delusion”; on the contrary, its object is destruction.

If Powers’ object here is to give the reader an example of one of Mencken’s bombastic phrases, well and good.  If, on the other hand, she sets any value on informing her readers who and what Mencken was as a critic, its a complete distortion.  Mencken had a fine eye for separating the wheat from the chaff, and while he may not have been charitable to the chaff, he often had enthusiastic (and constructive) praise for authors he liked, many times before their reputation had already been established elsewhere.  Other than that, Powers can’t resist the urge to draw our attention to the fact that her personal piety meets the most up-to-date standards by means of the politically correct peck-sniffery familiar to modern readers.  This sort of thing may be forgivable as an inherited weakness in her case, as we learn that her “great-grandfather was an ardent supporter of William Jennings Bryan.”

It’s hard to capture a writer as original and thought-provoking as Mencken by trying to mount him on a pin in a review limited to a couple of webpages.  The most you can hope to do is pique the readers interest enough to get them to look for themselves.  Mencken is worth the effort.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

Leave a Reply