An impartial critic of every race or religion, the “Sage of Baltimore” lived before “political correctness” became the fashion.
H.L. Mencken, a giant in American literature, held politics and politicians in abysmal regard. His ancient typewriter pounded out carloads of writings, which maddened and delighted Americans from 1904 to 1948.
And how the well-known iconoclast depicted the political process is particularly timely these days.
“A national political campaign,” said Mencken, “is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.” And “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”
Mencken was a human writing machine. He wrote for and edited newspapers and magazines, as he ranged from political analyst to theatre critic. Among his literary output were: Prejudices (Six Series), Notes on Democracy, In Defense of Women, Treatise on the Gods, and Treatise on Right and Wrong.
His multivolume The American Language may be the best-known of his literary creations. In the fourth edition, published in 1936, the author wrote in his introduction that the “American form of English language was plainly departing from the parent stem.”
Mencken was renowned as a witty sage. When he wrote his column for The Baltimore Sun papers, my father was city editor. Often, he would see Mencken rear back in his chair after he had written a clever turn of phrase and roar with laughter at his own brilliant sense of humor.
I was fortunate to inherit an audio-taped interview with Mencken made when he was about 60 years old. In it, he evinces some of the insights, prejudices and outrageous views that so many Americans found fascinating. An impartial critic of every race or religion, he lived long before “political correctness” became the fashion.
“I believe that all government is evil,” he declared, “in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty.”
Henry Louis Mencken was a libertarian before that term came into use. The frequent targets of his writing were New Deal politics, social reformers, “boobs and quacks,” and “gaudy sham.” But he was not all negativity. He loved the music of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach, and the writings of Mark Twain and other famed writers.
On political parties, Mencken wrote: “Each party steals so many articles of faith from the other, and the candidates spend so much time making each other’s speeches, that by the time election day is past there is nothing much to do save turning the rascals out and letting a new gang in.” And “every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.”
As for political pandering—if you could have called it that—he said: “If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”
Mencken was often seen with a cigar jutting from his mouth. His father owned Baltimore’s Mencken Cigar Company, where the young Mencken first worked. He rarely smoked; but he loved to chew on cigars. “The finest chewing tobacco of all,” he termed it.
Among many things, Mencken was famous for his knowledge of beer. As he says proudly on my audiotape, “I drink any known alcoholic drink.” His doctor told him, “As an older man, it is very salubrious for the heart.”
But he offers sound advice to any who imbibe:
“Never drink if you have any work to do.”
“Never drink alone.”
“Never drink while the sun is still shining.”
Mencken grew up in Baltimore at a time when that port city was wracked with smallpox and malaria.
“We had to sleep under mosquito nets at night,” Mencken says (on my audiotape). After graduating from high school at age 15, Mencken went into the newspaper business without further formal education.
On the audiotape, he says that he holds college in low regard, considering it a great waste of time “listening to idiots give lectures.” Undoubtedly some courses offered in well-regarded institutions of higher learning today would only increase his disdain for many universities.
For some years during his career, he was editor of the American Mercury, a then-popular magazine in America.
As a theatre critic, he noted, “I never mixed with the actors, and during long plays, I disliked sitting next to sometimes unpleasant people.”
For years, his daily column for the Baltimore Sun paper brought in bushels of mail. “Most people who write letters to the editor are fools,” sounded his raspy voice on my tape recording. And he said that he would pick out those most insulting to him for publication. “I’d have been ashamed if they praised me,” he added.
Mencken was superstitious—unusual for such an intellectual mind. On my audiotape he revealed that he would never do anything important on Friday because it was “unlucky.”
A recent book, Mencken by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, says it’s time for academia, the arts crowd, and the politically correct, however grudgingly, to face up to what Mencken was: “a towering figure of American literature and political journalism of the 20th Century.”
Mencken’s unvarnished figures of speech remain classics. She quotes from his commentary on the election of Calvin Coolidge in 1924: “The American people, having 35,717,342 native-born adult whites to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out the Hon. Mr. Coolidge to be the head of state. It is as if a hungry man set before a banquet prepared by master chefs and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back on the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies.”
Sadly, as Rodgers says in her book, “Too many present-day Americans know Mencken solely through the occasional printed sound-bite which political writers pilfer in an attempt to appear erudite.”
Mencken single-handedly, she notes, “made a national spectacle of the prosecution of a young Tennessee biology teacher—the famed ‘monkey trial’—for teaching Darwin’s ideas on evolution in the classroom.”
As Mencken voiced on my tape, “Work is my relaxation.” In his early days, he worked straight through on one news story without rest from Sunday to Wednesday.
Until suffering a massive stroke in 1948, Mencken remained sharp of mind and tongue. One of his friends wondered “whether there ever will be another one quite as big, quite as brave, quite as mad as Mencken.”
- Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.
- Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.
- When a new source of taxation is found it never means, in practice, that the old source is abandoned.
- It merely means that the politicians have two ways of milking the taxpayer where they had one before.
- I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.
- I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.
- It doesn’t take a majority to make a rebellion; it takes only a few determined leaders and a sound cause.
- It is not materialism that is the chief curse of the world, as pastors teach, but idealism.
- Men get into trouble by taking their visions and hallucinations too seriously.
- Morality is the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that 99 percent of them are wrong.
- Most people want security in this world, not liberty.
- The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable…