Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H.L. Mencken

Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H.L. Mencken

Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H.L. Mencken

Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H.L. Mencken

Synopsis

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) was a reporter, literary critic, editor, author -- and a famous American agnostic in the twentieth century. From his role in the Scopes Trial to his advocacy of science and reason in public life, Mencken is generally regarded as one of the fiercest critics of Christianity in his day.In this biography D. G. Hart presents a provocative, iconoclastic perspective on Mencken's life. Even as Mencken vividly debunked American religious ideals, says Hart, it was Christianity that largely framed his ideas, career, and fame. Mencken's relationship to the Christian faith was at once antagonistic and symbiotic. Peppered with juicy quotes from Mencken's huge body of work, Damning Words superbly portrays an influential figure in twentieth-century America and, at the same time, casts telling new light on the crucial period in which he lived.

Excerpt

Whatever in the world could lead the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, a firm with a well-deserved reputation for its serious Christian books, to sponsor a volume on H. L. Mencken in a series of religious biographies? and whatever could have led Darryl Hart, himself the author of several worthy books patiently explaining the virtues of historical Calvinism, to think that any one at all could be interested in a religious biography of H. L. Mencken?

If a few knowledgeable academics might still remember Mencken as a major literary critic of the early twentieth century or a diligent student of the English language as spoken in North America, he is known to even more for his assaults on the Christian faith. My own history of engagement with Mencken might be representative. During the many occasions I taught courses on early-modern British history or early American history and paused in the effort to define “Puritanism,” it would usually get at least a chuckle to quote something that H. L. Mencken published, as it happens, in 1917: “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I’m pretty sure I also knew of his pithy put-down from 1949, though do not remember using it in class (“Show me a Puritan and I’ll show you a son-of-a-bitch”).

More commonly known is Mencken’s evisceration of William Jennings Bryan and those who stood with Bryan in the evolution trial of John T. Scopes in 1925 at Dayton, Tennessee. the trial, which took place in the South--to Mencken “the Sahara of the Bozart”--allowed the journalist to depict the aging politician in the worst possible light: “a tinpot pope in the coca-cola belt and a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards.”

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