“You know what H.L. Mencken said one time about religious people? He said he’d been greatly misunderstood. He said he didn’t hate them. He simply found them comical.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Today is the birthday of one of the greatest cranks in American letters – and the best writer of them all – the sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken.
He’s probably most famous for the quote in the title line, but also for his righteous enraged dispatches from the Scopes trial, collected into a book with the non-inflammatory title A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, a high watermark of journalism as activism. These articles are incandescent with rage. He hated quacks and fads and trends. He hated stupidity, he hated the credulous, he hated organized religion. The mere THOUGHT of chiropractors drove him bananas. And nuttery like creationism fired him up with evangelical zeal to reveal those ignoramuses for what they were: dangerous, misguided, and to be beaten at all costs.
I read Terry Teachout’s excellent biography (The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken), which helped contextualize him. He was one of THE authors of the “Jazz Age,” which is really interesting when you look at how he lived his life, in the most non-Jazz-Age-y way as possible. He lived in the house he grew up in. He lived with his mother. He didn’t marry until he was in his 40s. He occasionally played piano in burlesque houses, and things like that, he enjoyed cigars and alcohol … but he wasn’t a trendy “bright young thing.” At all. But you can’t get more successful than Mencken was in the 1920s. As the 1930s heated up with fascism all over the world, Mencken often found himself on the wrong side of history. He admired German culture so much, he “wrote off” Hitler as a goof, a sideshow. (He was not alone in that.) He became crankier with age. (Don’t we all. Or, I’ll speak for myself.) He was “out of touch” with the times. But during his heyday, he helped launch American letters into the stratosphere.
He was a snob. He didn’t try to keep up with the culture. He could not care less. He barely gave the movies any thought at all. He was highly suspicious of consensus. Maybe this is why I love him so much. He helps keep you sharp, he helps you interrogate your own responses to things, and you also interrogate your response to HIM. He’s fun to argue with. I read his In Defense of Women just this year and some of his blanket statements! I go, “COME ON NOW.” He could be brutal about women, yes, but that’s nothing … NOTHING … compared to his views on men. He thought American men were the worst. He felt sorry for American women for having to put up with the slobs. And Mencken put into words – over and over again – something I have felt and sensed my whole life: that men are more romantic than women, that men are more sentimental than women, that women are practical, because they have to be. Men get swept away. Generalities, yes, blah blah, but much of this has been reflected in my own experience. It’s almost a conspiracy, the assumption that women are these fluttery romantic nincompoops – when I have found the exact opposite to be true.Mencken can be a tough read, you have to have a very thick skin, which I do, and besides: anyone who can write as well as he can is worth the time.
I really love his unexpectedly tender essay on Rudolph Valentino, which – weirdly – is an unofficial obituary for Valentino, a sex symbol who died shortly after his bizarre meeting with Mencken. Valentino had reached out to Mencken for advice – this blows me away. The two men did not know each other. Mencken did not think the movies were a worthwhile subject. Two more unlikely people you could not imagine. Mencken dismissed most popular culture, he despised the new, any “fad,” anything the majority of people flipped over he thought was probably useless. And yet here he was, summoned to a meeting with a man who was famous in a field Mencken thought vulgar, a man whose movies he never saw. (I wrote about this beautiful essay here, with an excerpt.)
The Valentino essay stands out in its affection and baffled tenderness. But in general, why I treasure Mencken is his vinegar-y contempt and outrage at stupidity, ignorance, anti-science bullshit, credulous people, etc. Yes, some of his sentiments wouldn’t fly today, but that’s not the measure of something’s worth. When he goes after the anti-science attitudes behind the Scopes trial, he takes no prisoners. Think of the anti-vaxxers today. Think of Marianne Williamson’s disgusting comments on illness, AIDS, hurricane trajectories. This kind of stuff will always be with us, and Mencken destroyed those who hold such views. His contempt rollicks forth in non-stop hilarious broadsides.
There is a small pantheon of mean obituaries. The top 3 mean obituaries are, in chronological order:
1. Mencken’s obituary for William Jennings Bryan (“He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity.”)
2. Hunter Thompson’s obituary for Richard Nixon
3. Christopher Hitchens’ obituary for Mother Teresa.
Here’s an excerpt from his essay on the “artist” in society, and how all great artists are – in many ways – AGAINST the society from which they sprung.
“It is almost safe to assume that an artist of any dignity is against his country, i.e., against the environment in which God hath placed him, as it is to assume that his country is against the artist. The special quality which makes an artist of him might almost be defined, indeed, as an extraordinary capacity for irritation, a pathological sensitiveness to environmental pricks and stings. He differs from the rest of us mainly because he reacts sharply and in an uncommon manner to phenomena which leave the rest of us unmoved, or, at most, merely annoy us vaguely. He is, in brief, a more delicate fellow than we are, and hence less fitted to prosper and enjoy himself under the conditions of life which he and we must face alike. Therefore, he takes to artistic endeavor, which is at once a criticism of life and an attempt to escape from life.
So much for the theory of it. The more the facts are studied, the more they bear it out. In those fields of art, at all events, which concern themselves with ideas as well as with sensations it is almost impossible to find any trace of an artist who was not actively hostile to his environment, and thus an indifferent patriot. From Dante to Tolstoy and from Shakespeare to Mark Twain the story is ever the same. Names suggest themselves instantly: Goethe, Heine, Shelley, Byron, Thackeray, Balzac, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Dostoevsky, Carlyle, Moliere, Pope – all bitter critics of their time and nation, most of them piously hated by the contemporary 100 per centers, some of them actually fugitives from rage and reprisal.
Dante put all of the patriotic Italians of his day into Hell, and showed them boiling, roasting and writhing on hooks. Cervantes drew such a devastating picture of the Spain that he lived in that it ruined the Spaniards. Shakespeare made his heroes foreigners and his clowns Englishmen. Goethe was in favor of Napoleon. Rabelais, a citizen of Christendom rather than of France, raised a cackle against it that Christendom is still trying in vain to suppress. Swift, having finished the Irish and then the English, proceeded to finish the whole human race. The exceptions are few and far between, and not many of them will bear examination.”