Academic journal article Independent Review

More Arrows Bouncing off the Great H. L. Mencken

Academic journal article Independent Review

More Arrows Bouncing off the Great H. L. Mencken

Article excerpt

Few public figures of the twentieth century, regardless of their achievements or fame, have had as much published about them as Henry Louis Mencken, American journalist and critic, 1880-1956. In Baltimore, the city in which he lived his entire life and for which he had special affection, there exists to this day a membership society and a quarterly literary journal, each devoted exclusively to him. Higher-quality academic libraries catalog at least seventy-five books by or about him, and even a cursory Internet search will confirm that he continues to rank among America's most quoted authors.

In spite of the books he wrote and the magazines he edited, Mencken was primarily a newspaperman, a profession he joined in 1899 at the age of eighteen and one he was still practicing in 1948, when his last column was published just weeks before a severe stroke left him unable to read or write. During that five-decade span, he produced by his own estimate some ten million words of copy, most of them reflecting his own firmly held views, and every line well written, even in letters and memos. His particular interests were culture and politics, but for a number of years he was also an influential literary critic.

H. L. Mencken earned his prominence for two reasons. He was "the greatest and most widely imitated prose stylist ever to grace the pages of an American newspaper" (Yardley 1989, 2B). Even many who detest his opinions agree with that assessment. In truth, nothing written about Mencken has ever been as enjoyable or as insightful as anything written by him. He is known also for his Weltanschauung, which was grounded in two convictions: an unqualified devotion to political and intellectual freedom, and an intense loathing for demagogues, whether religious, political, or other. His corollaries were a contempt for politicians, an opposition to wars, an aversion to the inevitable results of democracy, a lack of respect for evangelicals, and a disdain for those superstitious and ignorant masses who revered charlatans.

Considering how openly Mencken confessed his own thinking--not only in published writings but in thousands of letters, memos, and journal entries--and considering that he was as unambiguous a writer as the English language has ever had, one might be excused for asking why his opinions and personality should continue to require new analyses. Previously unpublished writings, unsealed over the past few decades, revealed nothing of substance that had not been known widely for years. Granted, their tone was "darker," but that was the very reason he had arranged to seal them for twenty-five and thirty-five years after Iris death.

Aside from the obvious point that Mencken books are respectable and profitable, one lamentable reason for the attention he continues to receive seems to be a desire among some to diminish the impact of his ideas by discrediting his character. Of all the attacks since he died, the most damaging has been the one that would have astonished him most: the idea that he was an anti-Semite. Although he sought to evoke powerful reactions in readers, his goal was never to persuade so much as to entertain and thereby to sell more newspapers, magazines, or books. He was a compulsive writer with little hope of changing the world. He didn't mind being criticized or attacked for his views, but never would he have anticipated that he, of all people, would, or could, be branded seriously as anti-Semitic.

Mencken's Diary

What was the source of this accusation? The tale actually begins in the 1940s, when Mencken decided that he would leave his books, files, and unpublished manuscripts to Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, a local institution to which he felt greatly indebted, having availed himself of its facilities since boyhood. His sole dilemma pertained to a personal journal that he had maintained off and on since 1930. Because he liked putting his thoughts on paper and once entertained the idea of writing an autobiography, he had begun to enter his private musings and spontaneous feelings in a diary. …

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