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Friday, September 1, 1995

A Second Mencken Chrestomathy

Mencken's Spirit Refuses to Depart

Despite his persona, H. L. Mencken, the curmudgeonly Sage of Baltimore who ruled American letters as critic and journalist from roughly 1910 to 1933, was actually a very generous man. Although next year will mark the 40th anniversary of his death, in the last six years, Mencken has presented us with four new books. For Mencken fans that is like a stream of gifts from the other world, which of course the agnostic HLM couldn’t bring himself to believe in.

In 1989 The Diary of H. L. Mencken was published, rekindling the national fascination in the author, an interest that may smolder but never is in danger of being extinguished. Next we got My Life as Author and Editor, a memoir of his literary life, then Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work.

Now we have in hand a Second Mencken Chrestomathy. What could be better than a smorgasbord of Mencken’s work selected, revised, and annotated by the old man himself? As Terry Teachout explains in his delicious introduction, Mencken in 1947-48 gathered and revised material for an anthology, but prepared much more than could fit in a single volume. The first Chrestomathy was ready for typesetting on November 8, 1948. About two weeks later Mencken suffered a debilitating stroke that stole his ability to read and write until his death in 1956. Although Mencken had hinted that there was a sequel to the Chrestomathy, no one seemed to realize it. After Mencken’s death, his papers were stored in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library where for almost 30 years no one, except a curator in 1963, looked closely at the material. As luck would have it, Teachout, who’s writing a biography of HLM, dove into the Mencken’s papers in 1992 and discovered that Mencken had done quite a lot of work on the sequel. Teachout should be awarded a box of Uncle Willie cigars (Mencken’s brand) for bringing the book to our shelves.

Here’s the enduring question: why after the man has been dead so long does his spirit refuse to depart? Why do we refuse to let it depart? Why do people of such differing outlooks about life and politics find themselves drawn to HLM much as he was drawn to a good Pilsner? I think the answer lies in Mencken’s refreshing, call-’em-as-I-see-’em, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may, like-it-or-lump-it candor. That attitude makes his writing irresistible in a time when bromidic fustian passes for elegance and erudition. Mencken seemed to have two questions constantly in mind: how do things look to me and how can I report my findings to intelligent men who abhor the commonplace? For Mencken, there were two capital offenses—hypocrisy and monotony—in a word, cant.

Mencken of course was a self-styled libertarian. While he distrusted all philosophical systems and did not apply his libertarianism consistently (as Leonard Read would have put it, he “leaked”), Mencken on many occasions declared that what mattered most to him was liberty: “And when I say liberty I mean the thing in its widest imaginable sense—liberty up the extreme limits of the feasible and tolerable.” Liberty is what made human life possible. Thus, the greatest threat to “the superior man” was government, the instrument of force and conformity.

As he writes in this volume:

Whenever a state is strong it is intolerant of dissent, when it is strong enough it puts down dissent with relentless violence. Here one state is as bad as another, or, at all events, potentially as bad. The Puritan theocracy of early New England hanged dissenters as gaily as they are now being hanged by the atheistic Union of Soviet Republics; the Prussian, Russian, Austrian, French, and English monarchies were as alert against heresy as the militaristic-capitalistic bloc which now runs Italy or the plutocracy which runs Pennsylvania, California, and Massachusetts. [1927]

Being an enemy of meddlesome government, Mencken naturally was critical of its most consequential product: war. He could see no good coming from America’s entry into the two world wars and was thus a relentless critic of Woodrow Wilson and the man he called Roosevelt II. No one was better at pointing out the duplicity of national leaders who professed peace while scheming for American participation in the blood-orgies that were WWI and WWII. “But wars are not made by common folk, scratching for livings in the heat of the day,” he wrote in May 1939, “they are made by demagogues infesting palaces.”

Nor was Mencken an enthusiast for public schools. For HLM, real education was “directed toward a capacity to differentiate between fact and appearance” and thus “is and always will be a more or less furtive and illicit thing.”

The plain fact [he wrote in 1921] is that education is itself a form of propaganda—a deliberate scheme to outfit the pupil, not with the capacity to weigh ideas, but with a simple appetite for gulping ideas ready-made. The aim is to make “good citizens,” which is to say, docile and uninquisitive citizens. . . . Americans in the days when their education stopped with the three R’s, were a self-reliant, cynical, liberty-loving and extremely rambunctious people. Today, with pedagogy standardized and school-houses everywhere, they are the herd of sheep (Ovis aries).

One of course could go on quoting HLM all day. You’ll enjoy him more by getting the book, picking out a comfortable chair, and dipping into any part of the volume. Savor his tribute to bricklayers and bartenders, his views on the literary and musical giants and pygmies of his time, his piercing of pols and professors, his musings on making a living and the places where one can make it. Mencken’s humor and good sense touched every aspect of this inspiring and infuriating world.

“My writings, such as they are,” he says on the final page of the book, “have had only one purpose: to attain for H. L. Mencken that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk. Further than that, I have had no interest in the matter whatsoever. It has never given me any satisfaction to encounter one who said my notions had pleased him. My preference has always been for people with notions of their own.”

There it is! That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the quality that draws so many to H. L. Mencken. And why we’ll never tire of him. Sadly, I don’t think there’s any “new” Mencken material left. We’ll have to content ourselves with what we have. It’s almost enough to last a lifetime.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.