Book Review: The Diary of H. L. Mencken Edited by Charles A. Fecher
JULY 01, 1990 by DAVID M. BROWN
Alfred A. Knopf, 400 Hahn Road, Westminster, MD 21157 • 1989 • 476 pages • $30.00 cloth
H L. Mencken was an American phenomenon. His was a gaudy and gorgeous career, propelled by a divine afflatus. Born Henry Louis Mencken in 1880, he began his literary life as a workaday journalist in turn-of-the- century Baltimore. In 1914, having conquered the world of newspapers, he joined theater critic and fellow booboisie-slayer George Jean Nathan as co-editor of The Smart Set. From this makeshift perch Mencken alternately terrorized and bemused the culture as the most daring social critic of his time; he was to reach the zenith of his influence in the 1920s as editor of The American Mercury.
In addition to being a prolific essayist, reporter, and book reviewer, he found the time to publish books on literary and political matters, and in his later years became known as a formidable scholar of the “American” language, a field of study he pioneered. He also prepared two bulky, as yet unavailable accounts of his experiences in the newspaper and magazine business, and wrote a 2,100-page diary, a third of which has now been selected for public consumption. And all this without a word processor!
Mencken, ever the beleaguered champion of civilization fending off the invading hordes, was an archenemy of all things banal, mediocre, and hypocritical. His forte was a devastating (albeit usually venomless) satirical wit that blended a stupefying erudition with a kind of disingenuous barnyard raillery. The style that was the product of these attributes was, and remains, utterly unique.
Though he certainly favored being on the attack, Mencken’s work is more fundamentally preoccupied with the promotion of positive values than with the demolition of bad ones. He was a tireless defender of men of ability and originality, as well as of the individualist creed and political freedom that made the achievements of such men possible. As the premier literary arbiter of his day, Mencken prodded and promoted the careers of many writers whose work is now regarded as classic. He was, as Murray Rothbard calls him, the “joyous libertarian”; and, in his total independence and indifference to opposition, the spiritual archetype of the “free man.”
With his myriad critical judgments Mencken conveyed a fortitude that was tough and inspiring. But whatever his lambasting of “morons” and “mountebanks” in public, in his personal life he was not at all the ogre that his boisterous ferocity in print might suggest. Typically, he was genial, polite, and civil to a fault.
This is no contradiction. As a polemicist, Mencken was brilliant and unsparing, but this needn’t imply a zealot bereft of courtesy, or blind to all perspectives save his own. There are plenty of examples of such dogmatism in any age, and they are always disheartening. Instead, what we have in Mencken’s case is a man who saw with both eyes, was ruthlessly honest about what he saw, but who could also be compassionate. In the often affecting entries of The Diary of H. L. Mencken, we see personal sympathy intermingled with an often harsh realism; but the judgments rarely seem unfair.
This observation leads us, however, to the media hubbub that greeted the publication of this journal, which was sealed, by Mencken’s request, from public view for 25 years after his death in 1956, and which for several years past has been available only to scholars and the rumor mill.
No one who reads H. L. Mencken closely can doubt his individualism, his Jeffersonian belief in an “aristocracy of talent,” and his sweeping rejection of egalitarian and collectivist notions. Yet, it is precisely Mencken’s individualist social and political views which led to his popular downfall with the advent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, as social planning along with its philosophical underpinnings began to spread with an ever-increasing virulence. Today, we are beset with an egalitarian ethos that often transmogrifies observation of plain facts into a mortal sin. (As witness the attacks on Thomas Sowell for his analyses of differences among racial and ethnic groups in defiance of collectivist presumptions, for instance.) This kind of blind egalitarianism seems to have infected much of the public reaction to the Diary.
At issue are Mencken’s occasional dubious references to friends and acquaintances by their ethnic Or religious background, which in the minds of many commentators demonstrate his “racism.” Throw in Mencken’s antagonism to the welfare programs of the New Deal, his hostility to U.S. entry into World War II, and his failure to explicitly condemn Hitler as evil in the pages of this journal, and no further proof of his Nazi sympathizing is required. (To his credit, the diary’s editor, Charles Fecher, does not himself jump to this last conclusion; he merely supplies the requisite premises and evaluations.)
But racism, if the concept has any meaning at all, does not mean mere reference to a person’s race, even in an inappropriate context, but rather judging and treating an individual based on his race as opposed to “the content of his character.” Perhaps Mencken may be justly accused of a mild racial prejudice or stereotyping, but there is ample evidence even in this journal that he was hardly a racist per se in his attitudes and behavior—for example, his praise of black journalist George Schuyler, or his general support as editor and critic of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, documented by Charles Scruggs in The Sage in Harlem. As for the charge of anti-Semitism, Sheldon Richman reminds us that Mencken expressed private concern for the situation of German Jews as early as 1922, and in early 1939 attacked U.S. policy makers for failing to admit German refugees into the country. “[The initiative] should be taken by the political mountebanks who fill the air with hollow denunciations of Hitler, and yet never lift a hand to help an actual Jew,” he wrote in the Sun.
Editor Fecher and his uncritical media parrots, however, grab at a few offhand characterizations in Mencken’s private journal in order to brand him as a bigot at the expense of the example of his whole life. Even the “Communist presidium” of the Progressive Party’s 1948 Presidential convention (attended by “all the worst idiots in the United States”) refused to entertain a Maryland resolution “denouncing me as anti-Semitic and anti- Negro,” as Mencken ironically notes in his entry of July 26, 1948, one of the last.
The Sage of Baltimore would no doubt have chuckled over the current uproar, given the serene amusement with which he tolerated even the most vituperative abuse in his own day (he even anthologized some of it just for fun, in a little book called Menckeniana: A Schimpfiexikon). In any case, the controversy cannot obscure the tremendous value of his journal, valuable especially for the light it sheds on how Mencken dealt with the adversity of his later years.
Mencken began his diary in 1930, at the age of 50, and as his influence was beginning to wane. Discussed in it are his brief marriage with his beloved Sara, her death from meningitis in 1935, the physical and sometimes mental decline of many of his friends and associates, his own ailments and physical deterioration, and the wartime censorship that prevented him from airing his political views in print. But despite many opportunities for bitterness, Mencken possessed a genuine equanimity and peace of mind that sustained him through the worst of times and the saddest memories.
Writing a decade after Sara’s death, he notes that “I shall not forget her. My days with her made a beautiful episode in my life, perhaps the only one that deserves to be called romantic. It seems to me to be vain and even a bit silly to resist the irremediable, but I think of her with tenderness and a kind of longing.” There is a wistfulness here, but also acceptance, and dignity. In other entries, Mencken weighs the good and the bad in his life and concludes that despite his problems, the scale is tipped in his favor, with reasonable prospects for achievement in the years remaining to him. His public skepticism and cynicism notwithstanding, he was not only a realist but an optimist as well.
The journal is also of interest for Mencken’s political gripes, mostly familiar; for its account of the author’s work habits; and for his pungent assessments of everyone from his next-door neighbor (a “complete moron” who led a life of “utter vacuity”) to Sinclair Lewis and other literary notables, to his publisher Alfred Knopf, his colleagues at the Sunpapers, and his cohorts of the Saturday Night Club, where the sine qua non was music, beer, and conviviality.
The Diary of H. L. Mencken is not the first Mencken book to read—his Mencken Chrestomathy is probably that—but it is an important supplement to his other work, revealing intriguing facets of his personality not manifested elsewhere. Last but not least, and certainly not to be missed, is his perspicacious endorsement of”the Chinese maxim that it is foolish to do anything standing up that can be done sitting, or anything sitting that can be done stretched out.” How true.
The Diary’s final entry is dated November 15, 1948, eight days before the stroke that ended Mencken’s productive career, though not his life. That end would not come until seven weary years later. Mencken’s legacy, of course, is timeless.
David M. Brown is the managing editor of the Laissez Faire Books catalog and a free-lance writer.