Takimag Classic

The Irreverent Mr. Mencken

December 02, 2012

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The Irreverent Mr. Mencken

Why do we still read Henry Louis Mencken? He was mostly a columnist, and columns are usually forgotten the day after they are published. One of the main reasons we still read Mencken is that he was enormously funny. The ability to write humorously about serious things is one of the rarest gifts an author can have.

Mencken also wrote about his own times with great detachment. In the 1930s, he had Freud pegged for a quack and predicted that the Soviet Union would run out of gas and collapse. People also still read Mencken because he wrote—in the bluntest possible way—that men are not equal and that it was insane to pretend that they were. He was a eugenicist and he ridiculed democracy. In our era of “sensitivity,” reading Mencken is almost a guilty pleasure.


INEQUALITY

This is what Mencken said about ordinary people:

The mob is inert and moves ahead only when it is dragged or driven….A geological epoch is required to rid it of a single error, and it is so helpless and cowardly that every fresh boon it receives, every lift upon its slow journey upward, must come to it as a free gift from its betters—as a gift not only free but forced.
Men Versus the Man

As for America:

Here the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy.

Mencken laughed at the idea that “all men are created equal.” He argued that the Declaration was a thumb in King George’s eye and that the phrase—if properly translated into ordinary English—meant: “Me and you are as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better.” Mencken pointed out that there is no silly chatter about equality in the Constitution, which contained the rules for actually running the country.


DEMOCRACY AND GOVERNMENT

Mencken wrote:

If it were actually possible to give every citizen an equal voice in the management of the world…the democratic ideal would reduce itself to an absurdity in six months. There would be an end to all progress.
Men Versus the Man

Mencken was convinced that a democracy cannot produce honest leaders:

The truth, to the overwhelming majority of mankind, is indistinguishable from a headache. After trying a few shots of it on his customers, the aspiring statesman concludes sadly that it must hurt them, and after that he taps a more humane keg, and in a little while the whole audience is singing “Glory, glory hallelujah,” and when the returns come in the candidate is on his way to the White House….The candidates will all promise every man, woman and child in the country whatever he she or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land…curing warts by saying words over them, and paying off the national debt with money that no one will have to earn. They will all know that votes are collared under democracy, not by talking sense but by talking nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a hearty yo-heave-ho.
A Mencken Chrestomathy

For Mencken, the less government the better:

The ideal government…is one which lets the individual alone—one which barely escapes being government at all.
Prejudices: Third Series

Mencken was, however, a firm believer in law and order. As a reporter he attended no less than nine hangings, and he thought the rope was an effective and humane way to clear out the dross.

“One of the main reasons we still read Mencken is that he was enormously funny.”


EUGENICS

Mencken was emphatically a eugenicist. This passage uses one of his favorite terms for poor whites—lintheads—from the bits of fluff that got caught in the hair of textile workers:

The great problem ahead of the United States is that of reducing the high differential birthrate of the inferior orders, for example, the hillbillies of Appalachia, the gimme farmers of the Middle West, the lintheads of the South, and the Negroes. The prevailing political mountebanks have sought to put down a discussion of this as immoral: their aim has been to prosper and increase the unfit as much as possible, always at the expense of the fit. But this can’t go on forever, else we’ll have frank ochlocracy in America, and the progress of civilization will be halted altogether.
Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks


RELIGION

Mencken was a famous scoffer:

What the faithful Christian professes to believe, if put into the form of an affidavit, would be such shocking nonsense that even bishops and archbishops would laugh at it.
A Treatise on the Gods

However, he recognized that faith was a great solace to many people and did not want to change their minds: In the preface to A Treatise on the Gods he wrote:

There is no purpose here to shake the faithful, for I am completely free of the messianic itch, and do not like converts. Let those who believe, and enjoy it, heave this book into the dustbin, and go on reading the War Cry [the Salvation Army magazine].


THE SOUTH

Mencken considered the entire South a cultural desert, “the Sahara of the Bozart.” As he put it, “There are single acres of Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south of the Potomac.”

When Mencken wrote a column calling Arkansas “the capital of Moronia” and claiming that the people were starving to death through congenital stupidity, the Little Rock legislature voted to censure him. When Mencken was asked to comment, he said, “I didn’t make Arkansas the butt of ridicule. God did it.”

The Arkansas House of Representatives then offered prayers for Mencken’s soul. When the AP asked him what he thought about that, he said:

I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves, and the sound of many things in my ears and I knew the house of representatives was praying for me again.

Mencken opposed lynching and thought Southerners should take up bullfighting instead: “every bull that was killed would save a Christian Ethiope.”

Mencken thought it would have been much better for both the North and the South if the South had won the war:

Whatever the defects of the new commonwealth below the Potomac, it would have at least been a commonwealth founded upon a concept of human inequality, and with a superior minority at the helm.

Mencken called the Gettysburg Address a “genuinely stupendous” piece of oratory, but:

Let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday, the doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—“that government of the people, by the people, and for the people” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

After Americans began to worship FDR and after the country went to war for the second time against Mencken’s advice, he cut back on his political writing so he could be “a carefree butterfly with no more sense of responsibility than a glamour girl in Hollywood or the President of the United States.”

Mencken despised Roosevelt, writing in his diary that the president was “a fraud from snout to tail,” adding that “he had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes.” As for the New Deal, Mencken called it “just another political swindle, simply a scheme of robbing A to buy the vote of B.” The best he could say about the New Deal was that there was one article of the Bill of Rights it hadn’t violated. So far, no soldiers had been quartered in any man’s house without the owner’s consent.

During this period he worked hard on The American Language, a massive work of scholarship about every nuance of the way Americans write and speak. Here is a passage about what he called the “unearthly” names mothers give their daughters:

The masterpieces of this art show a determination to achieve something unmatched and unimagined, at whatever cost to tradition and decorum….On what other theory is one to arrive at the genesis of Flouzette, Ulestine, Wheirmelda and Moonean? The woman who achieves so shining a novelty not only marks off her little darling from all other little darlings within ear- or rumor-shot; she also establishes herself in her community as a salient social reformer and forward-looker….The woman next door who can fetch up nothing better than Echo, Kiwanis or Apple is plainly of an inferior order.

He wrote about black names:

Medical men making a malaria survey of Northampton County, North Carolina, staggered back to civilization with the news that they had found male Afro-Americans named Handbag, Squirrel, Bootjack, and Solicitor….Many of the double names in vogue among the dark-blanket Christians of the South are the product of piety, for the uneducated Negro is almost as religious as the white Cracker. Examples are King Solomon, Queen Esther, Holy Moses, and Virgin Mary. Once in a while these combinations run to formidable length, recalling the worst imbecilities of the Puritans, e.g., I Will Arise and Go Unto My Father, Jesus Christ and Him Crucified.


THE DIARY

There was much screeching about Mencken’s diary when it was published in 1989. Its editor, Charles Fecher, wrote in the introduction: “Let it be said at once, clearly and unequivocally: Mencken was an anti-Semite.”

Mencken an anti-Semite? This reminds me of an old joke: What do you call someone who hates blacks, Jews, Arabs, Mexicans, and the Chinese? An anti-Semite.

But in his diary, Mencken said nothing unkind about Jews in general; he simply noticed when people were Jewish. He was much more insulting about the South. He said of one man, “He is a Tennessean and will never get over it” and dismissed an Army general as “a southern cracker.” The harshest language in the whole diary was about Southern whites:

Only a rare linthead girl remains a virgin after the age of twelve. Her deflowering, in fact, is usually performed by her brothers, and if not by her brothers, then by her father. Incest is almost as common as fornication among these vermin, and no doubt it is largely responsible for their physical and mental deterioration.

Mencken called poor whites “ill-fed men and filthy, slatternly women and children, who all live like animals and are next to animals in their habits and ideas.”

But there was nonstop howling about anti-Semitism, and even serious talk of taking his name off the H. L. Mencken room at the National Press Club. These self-righteous asses were ignoramuses. Mencken had written very rough things about Jews that had been in print for years. In A Treatise on the Gods, he wrote:

As commonly encountered, they strike other people as predominantly unpleasant, and everywhere on earth they seem to be disliked. This dislike, despite their own belief to the contrary, has nothing to do with their religion: it is founded, rather, on their bad manners, their curious lack of tact. They have an extraordinary capacity for offending and alarming the Goyim.

However, he also wrote that the Bible is a remarkable work of beauty:

All these transcendent riches Christianity inherits from a little tribe of sedentary Bedouins, so obscure and unimportant that secular history scarcely knows them. No heritage of modern man is richer and none has made a more brilliant mark upon human thought, not even the legacy of the Greeks.

Mencken’s harshest passage about Jews is in his introduction to his translation of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist:

On the Continent, the day is saved by the fact that the plutocracy tends to become more and more Jewish. Here the intellectual cynicism of the Jew almost counterbalances his social unpleasantness. If he is destined to lead the plutocracy of the world out of Little Bethel he will fail, of course, to turn it into an aristocracy—i.e., a caste of gentlemen—but he will at least make it clever, and hence worthy of consideration. The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world. But whenever you find a Davidsbündlerschaft making practice against the Philistines, there you will find a Jew laying on. Maybe it was this fact that caused Nietzsche to speak up for the children of Israel quite as often as he spoke against them. He was not blind to their faults, but when he set them beside Christians he could not deny their general superiority.
The Antichrist

Mencken was accused of being pro-Nazi, but he called Hitler “an idiot followed by idiots.”

On the Jews streaming out of Germany after Hitler came to power, Mencken wrote: “Why shouldn’t the United States take in a couple of hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?”

At one point in his career, Mencken was mistakenly identified as Jewish in some kind of who’s-who listing. When he learned about this, he said he didn’t much mind. His best friends were Jewish and through years of wear and tear he was pretty nearly circumcised.

In his diary, Mencken also said a few mildly unkind things about blacks. The ignoramuses went off like firecrackers about this, too, but they had obviously never read any Mencken. As far back as 1910, he wrote:

So long as we refrain, in the case of the negro loafer, from the measures of extermination we have adopted in the case of parasites further down the scale, we are being amply and even excessively faithful to an ethical ideal which makes constant war upon expediency and common sense.
Men Versus the Man

And further:

In any chance crowd of Southern Negroes one is bound to note individuals who resemble apes quite as much as they resemble Modern Man, and among the inferior tribes of Africa, say the Bushmen, they are predominant. The same thing is true of any chance crowd of Southern poor whites.
Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks

However, Mencken recognized the talents of individual blacks. He admired the black writer George Schuyler and was very impressed with a 1926 collection of essays by black intellectuals called The New Negro: An Interpretation:

Here a Negro of a quite new sort comes upon the scene—a Negro full of easy grace and not at all flustered by good society. He discusses the problems of his people soberly, shrewdly and without heat….Here, indeed, the Negro challenges the white Southerner on a common ground, and beats him hands down.

However, in the same article, Mencken says this about Negro progress:

There are serious difficulties in their way. The vast majority of people of their race are but two or three inches removed from gorillas: it will be a sheer impossibility, for a long, long while, to interest them in anything above pork-chops and bootleg gin.
—“The Aframerican: New Style,” in the American Mercury

But let us not forget how he wrote about whites:

If all the farmers in the Dust Bowl were shot tomorrow, and all the share-croppers in the South burned at the stake, every decent American would be better off, and not a soul would miss a meal.
Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks

And further:

If all the inhabitants of the Appalachian chain succumbed to some sudden pestilence tomorrow, the effect upon civilization would be but little more than that of the fall of a meteor into the Ross Sea.
Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks

Sometimes Mencken thought of himself as an American Voltaire, but even Voltaire said this when he was asked for a comment after learning an enemy had died: “He was a great patriot, a humanitarian, a loyal friend; provided, of course, he really is dead.”


Jared Taylor is the editor of AmRen.com and the author of White Identity. This was an excerpt from a recent speech he delivered at a private gathering of Mencken admirers.

 

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