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Reading: If Mencken Could See Us Now

Imagine what the supreme cynic would say about Bush and Dukakis. Ronald Reagan and Jesse Jackson. Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart!

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"The United States is essentially a commonwealth of third-rate men. . . . No sane man, employing an American plumber to repair a leaky drain, would expect him to do it at the first trial, and in precisely the same way no sane man, observing an American Secretary of State in negotiation with Englishmen and Japs, would expect him to come off better than second best. Third-rate men, of course, exist in all countries, but it is only here that they are in full control of the state, and with it of all the national standards."

That is but the tiniest piece of the mind of Henry Louis Mencken, whose staggering output of criticism and opinion made a lasting dent in the American character and surely influenced our ways of seeing and judging public life today. He was "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people," or so said Walter Lippmann in 1926. "So many young men," wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, "got their likes and dislikes from Mencken." And for nearly 50 years those likes and dislikes, embedded in Mencken's bitingly droll commentary in the Baltimore Sun and syndicated around the country, evoked howls of outrage and delight. During the 1910s and the '20s, his heyday, he also commuted from Maryland to Manhattan three days weekly to air his curmudgeonly likes and dislikes as a magazine editor--first of the Smart Set, then of the American Mercury, arguably its day's most heeded monthly.

Heeded, but often hated in the bargain, H.L. Mencken was our modern-day Socrates--a gadfly-patriot obsessed with the Republic's dire need for, if for nothing else, quality. He probably meant every word he pounded on paper, but few will doubt that words served him strategically or that he knew he could use them to provoke. And so he offended many--in societies religious, professional, and ethnic. Yet his enthusiasts prefer to imagine that for each enemy he made among frenzied zealots, frosty pedagogues, bad writers, craven politicos, the Bible Belt yokels he called "hinds," and the U.S. "booboisie" in general, he converted someone else to his own exacting orneriness.

But now, 32 years after his death, Mencken's legacy is a thing felt rather than known. For many he survives only as the nihilistic, shallowly clever reporter character in the Scopes monkey-trial drama Inherit the Wind. Though some of his selected pieces are still in print, it seems that only The American Language, his monumental and sole scholarly work, has stayed obscurity's hand. So those of us who admire his legacy must sometimes wonder: In an age when political passions swing so wildly from right to left and back again, what have young, educated people derived from the Sage of Baltimore? Is there any continuity between his likes and dislikes and our own?

Mencken called his likes and dislikes "prejudices," the title also of a series of his writings to appear first in the Mercury and then, between 1919 and 1927, in six books. He promoted these many prejudices with an incomparable consistency over his lifetime (1880-1956); if you ventured to boil them down you might say he respected facts, hated all kinds of gaudiness, and scorned all surfacings of "the bilge of idealism."

It was a reactionary attitude, and it cut both ways along the political continuum. He ridiculed Puritans, whom he called "wowsers," and Puritanism, which he summarized as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." To Mencken, his foe William Jennings Bryan was a wowser par excellence whose personal style--exhortative, charismatic, demagogic--exposed Bryan's hypocrisy and magnified evangelism's menace to the Republic.

But Mencken's anti-idealism had other targets. It conspired, perhaps, with his self-consciousness as a German-American to make him scorn the "hallucination" of Woodrow Wilson--both as wartime president and maker of the League of Nations--and later to soft-pedal the threat of Hitler. And it's chiefly what jeopardized his popularity during the New Deal, which he called "a milch cow with 125,000,000 teats." In the 20s Mencken could merrily lacerate the Prohibitionist regimes of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Even though boobs called him un-American and some called him a Red (because he supported "Fighting Bob" La Follette's 1924 bid for the White House), the cognoscenti cheered and he had lots of fun. But the 30s shoved him out of the Voltairean grandstand and so far into the left-versus-right fray that he dismissed the Great Depression as overblown. So: "There is, in fact, only one intelligible idea in the whole More Abundant Life rumble-bumble, and that is the idea that whatever A earns really belongs to B. A is any honest and industrious man or woman; B is any drone or jackass. On this proposition all the quacks clustered about the Greatest President Since Hoover are agreed, and on this proposition alone."

This conservatism persisted long enough beyond Roosevelt's death for Mencken--until his own permanently disabling stroke late in 1948--to bring it crashing down upon Harry Truman as well. But a Mencken paradox is that, like most of his booboisie countrymen then and now, he still tended to believe that a leader's style ("the manner") says at least as much about him as what he says he stands for ("the matter"), that where a candidate falls left or right must be borne in mind yet is not decisive. Mencken could distrust leftish movements and still defend La Follette against Red-baiting adversaries; he could still feel kindly toward Eugene Debs and, in 1948, call the Socialist party's perennial presidential hopeful, Norman Thomas, the best man running. He also thought states'-rightser Strom Thurmond a better man than Truman, the GOP's Thomas E. Dewey, and the Progressives' Henry Wallace.

Most of us may still take "ideology" as unseriously, but fewer trust their gut feelings as confidently as Mencken trusted his. And few hold politicians in lower esteem; to Mencken, they were "without exception, scoundrels." That may be why those who remember him often wonder how he would react to today's domestic scene (he wrote comparatively little about the foreign). The Moral Majority couldn't fail to remind him of the wowsers he knew--the Anti-Saloon League, the Baptists, the Methodists and Ku Kluxers. And just as he excoriated the GOP's one-term presidents of the 20s for their kowtowing to the Temperance Movement, he might despise the Republican party of today for its cozy symbiosis with the religious right--even if he decided the wowsers needed Reagan more than he needed them. It's harder to guess how he would have balanced the illegality of liquor against that of cocaine, but surely he would have sharp words for an administration that finesses bizarre deals with drugs and arms.

Or maybe he'd let it pass: He was a Jeffersonian, and he harshly inveighed against price supports, welfarism, and Keynesian "buncombe" generally; he may conceivably have warmed to the Reagan revolution's repudiation of the New Deal, to the basic sentiment of Washington keeping its long nose out of Americans' business. His 1933 obituary of Calvin Coolidge will strike Reagan opponents as uncannily relevant even if at last it emits the aroma of tribute:

"His chief feat . . . was to sleep more than any other President--to sleep more and to say less. Wrapped in magnificent silence, his feet upon his desk, he drowsed away the lazy days. . . . It was this snoozing, I suspect, that was at the bottom of such moderate popularity as he enjoyed. The American people, though they probably do not know it, really agree with Jefferson: they believe that the least government is the best. . . . The worst fodder for a President is not poppy and mandragora, but strychnine and adrenalin. We suffer most when the White House busts with ideas."

Perhaps if Mencken had lived to see farmers whoop up the Reverend Jesse Jackson as a deliverer, he would have taken the candidate for a black La Follette; or perhaps his racism (though it was bared mainly when he assayed "races" of Caucasian immigrants) would blind his judgment. But Mencken always thought that farmers had their hands out, and that politicians who pandered to them were even worse. So he would most likely detect in the reverend an exotic alloy of Bryan and FDR, both elements a-bust with "ideas," and warn against him.

Mencken was also a Nietzschean. In his 20s he wrote an astute monograph on the philosopher, who caught his (and Teddy Roosevelt's) notice early in the century. Nietzsche's influence probably gave Mencken's writings their elitist bent, for he steadfastly derided democracy short of actually pleading its abolition and seldom blamed Wall Street for any national fault he could pillory down Main Street. Yet he also posited a vital distinction between the intellectual elite ("aristocrats"), who never will lead but should, and the power elite ("Plutocrats"), who generally have led but should not. Possibly John F. Kennedy met Mencken's criteria for aristocracy, but likely Reagan does not--and certainly the Sage would see Reagan men, if not Reagan himself, as plutocrats. He would probably call the Trilateral Commission a "camarilla" and not be thrilled by George Bush's, Jimmy Carter's, or Andrew Young's past or present affiliations with it.

A Cuomo candidacy may have brightly reminded Mencken of Al Smith's, but Bush and Dukakis would probably remind him only of the colorless Dewey, who woefully lacked "zowie." Nor would Mencken gladly suffer Dukakis's and Jackson's trumpeting of their humble origins. Then again, he might advise us to respect Dukakis's reported disdain for the political tool of charisma (and to shun Jackson's reliance on it) and assess in the governor's record of business-government collaboration something a trifle more palatable than much else he'd see, even if "Hamiltonian."

Bush? Again, it helps to cite Mencken on Coolidge (acting chief executive after Harding's death in 1923): "What moves him quite often, I believe, is the . . . seemly and excusable desire to have his conduct in office ratified--his quite natural yearning to go into the school histories as a President who was virtuous and approved. . . . He sees very clearly that, in the struggle ahead of him, issues that are perplexing can only do him damage, and so he is avoiding them with magnificent assiduity." But those confident that the recent Pentagon and Ed Meese scandals make Dukakis a shoo-in might heed Mencken on the election of Harding's successor. Voters "are not in favor of stealing per se, but stealing from the Government somehow seems to them less reprehensible than other kinds."

In the civil liberties arena, his true bag, Mencken was a doughty champion of the Bill of Rights, especially its First Amendment. His In Defense of Women espoused sexual parity in the workaday world and argued women's mental superiority (admittedly with such Schopenhauerian back-handedness one wonders how much of it he really meant). He was among the first editors to promote black writers and among the first columnists to defend blacks' rights to housing and public integration. He presumed to decry Christianity's role in black life--another bone he'd pick with the Reverend Jackson--not only because of his agnosticism but because he believed religion held all aspiring people back.

These election-year thoughts arise with the publication of a new volume of Menckeniana, fully titled The Editor, the Bluenose, and the Prostitute: H.L. Mencken's History of the "Hatrack" Censorship Case, edited by one of Mencken's several biographers, Carl Bode. Bode culled it from ten scrapbooks Mencken assembled in the mid-30s, comprising clips from the Baltimore Sun and other papers on a stunt Mencken had pulled during the previous decade. "It is conceivable," he wrote in one of those scrapbooks, "that this detailed narrative . . . may some day interest an historian of American culture in the early Twentieth Century."

The case transpired in 1926; the editor of the title was Mencken; the bluenose was the formidable secretary of Boston's formidably puritanical Watch and Ward Society, the Reverend Jason Franklin Chase: the prostitute was the title character of "Hatrack," an amusing piece of short nonfiction by Herbert Asbury that Mencken ran in the Mercury's April issue. Hatrack, so called because she was so shaped, lived in Farmington, Missouri. She desired religion's consolations but was spurned by both the town's Protestant and Catholic congregations and of course reviled by their clergy. Out not of revenge but of want for human contact, she gave her body's scant flesh to male worshipers for any nominal sums they wished to fork over--or for nothing. Out not of irony but of decency, she serviced the Protestant brethren in the Catholic cemetery and the Catholics in the Masonic one.

Mencken frankly wanted to provoke the Watch and Ward Society--mainly Chase, who had serenely been censoring books and magazines for some time, intimidating vendors by warning their Boston-wide mercantile associations that in the Society's judgment certain pieces of literature were sinful or outright obscene. Banned under Watch and Ward's imprimatur were James Branch Cabell's Jurgen, Sherwood Anderson's Many Marriages, Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay, and many books by Mencken's favorite American novelist, Theodore Dreiser.

"Hatrack" provided Mencken with his showdown. Chase put a Boston ban on the April issue of Mercury and an unlucky Greek vendor was collared hawking the contraband and clapped behind bars. Chase told the Boston papers that the story "viciously intimates that the preaching against immorality by the clergy acts as a boomerang, and that by warning their congregations against existing evils the ministers of God thereby indirectly suggest visits to these places of sin. Word-pictures of alleged conditions are painted in filthy and degrading descriptions."

After plotting with his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and their lawyer, Mencken baited Chase to buy a copy of the offending issue on Boston's Brimstone Corner. Mencken would hawk it in person, Chase would have to buy it for there to be an offense, Mencken would get arrested, and the whole matter would become an overnight cause celebre.

When he got to the corner Mencken was met at first only by a Chase lackey, and the scheme's hopes waned. Mencken refused to deal with anybody but the reverend, and waited. At last, Chase arrived with two policemen and identified himself. Mencken offered him a copy of the magazine and received a silver half dollar. "I bit it," Mencken writes, "as if to make sure that it was good coin." At once Chase turned to the vice-squad constable he'd brought along, one Captain George W. Patterson, and said, "I order this man's arrest." The editor was cuffed and marched to the nearby station.

At the first of several hearings the judge saw nothing obscene about the April issue and threw the case out. But Chase was not to be undone. He took a train to New York, where he prevailed upon censorious pals in the U.S. Post Office (Mencken liked to call such folk "smellers") to ban the issue from mail going to Boston. The effect was nugatory, since the copies had already gone through. But as a matter of principle--that the Watch and Ward Society or Chase himself or anybody had the right to censor anything by any means--Mencken kept fighting on Boston and interstate fronts.

The last third of the book details both sides' maneuvers. The legal outcome was left ambiguous, but political victory went to Mencken and his fellow infidels in the days to follow. Chase's persistence against them, despite early failures to beat them decisively, only lent credibility to the thought that Watch and Ward could be defied without injury, that its power was illusory. Never would it regain its accreted clout.

But, as Bode notes, the starch of the drama departed with Chase's death later in 1926. It must have reminded Mencken of Bryan's death in the wake of the Scopes Monkey trial that he had covered so scathingly the year before. Indeed, in The Editor, the Bluenose, and the Prostitute Mencken reflects:

"Like all agnostics, I am somewhat superstitious, and one of my superstitions is to the effect that men who set out to do me evil not infrequently die suddenly. I could compile a long list of examples, but this is not the place for it. Chase's death gave me no noticeable grief. He belonged to a type of cleric that is extraordinarily obnoxious to me. I had spent years denouncing others of his kind, and when I met him in Boston I found nothing in him to ameliorate my views of the species. He was a Pecksniff, and, despite all his burly geniality, he looked and acted the part. Boston was full of reports that, like Anthony Comstock [an earlier Puritan watchdog], he was extremely fond of the dirty literature he professed to hold in such holy horror, and was in the habit of exhibiting it clandestinely to his friends. A newspaper woman, Katherine Donovan, of the Boston Advertiser, informed me that he had once composed an obscene ode to the night clubs of Boston, and read it to a committee of the State Legislature. He told several Boston reporters, who told me, that on one of his frequent visits to New York, he had lain awake all night in a Fall River boat, reading a pornographic novel and experiencing a continuous engorgement of the corpora cavernosa."

An aspect of the Hatrack tale that ties Mencken's day to ours (aside from its delightful parallels to the escapades of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart) is the spectacle of the editor setting himself up for arrest. Its spirit is of civil disobedience, and it links him with those in the 60s who attained publicity through confrontation and sometimes, ultimately, changed bad laws, or bad policies.

Mencken never gave a name to that region of the social psyche that such disobedience was devised to affect (for him psychology was just more rumble-bumble). But instinctively he seemed to know that an action usually prods into service some counteraction, what the good Reverend Chase called a "boomerang"--that Prohibition produced a lot of thirsty people, and that "forward-lookers" (do-gooders) who have their way too often just make us naturally misbehave. Above all, he'd say, whether we're the boomerang or the boomeranged, part of the problem or part of the solution, we're entitled to make any kind of noise we want.

Maybe that's Mencken's legacy--not very complex and not especially novel, but befogged enough by the anesthetics of life late in this century that we remain susceptible to the imbecilities Mencken fought in its earlier half.

The Editor, the Bluenose, and the Prostitute: H.L. Mencken's History of the "Hatrack" Censorship Case, edited by Carl Bode, 175 pages, Roberts Rinehart, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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