Magazine article New Criterion

Who Reads Mencken Now?

Magazine article New Criterion

Who Reads Mencken Now?

Article excerpt

I observe a tendency since his death to estimate him in terms of the content of his books.... Nothing could do him worse justice

--H. L. Mencken, on Huneker, in Prejudices: Third Series

The passage of time has not been kind to the reputation of H. L. Mencken. While the writer who was famously described by Walter Lippmann in the 1920s as "the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people" is still a legend in the folklore of American life and letters, it is my impression that he is now very little read. Only the pioneering, often entertaining studies in his multi-volume, much-revised The American Language (1919-1936) seem to have survived the oblivion to which posterity has consigned the bulk of his enormous output. Yet even this, his magnum opus, is now mainly consulted by other specialists in the study of American speech. Almost everything else--the books on Shaw and Nietzsche, his Notes on Democracy and In Defense of Women, the six volumes of Prejudices, the literary criticism and much more--gathers dust on the shelves of our libraries and used book shops.

This is not, in my view, a case of unjust neglect. Rereading Mencken in the first decade of the twenty-first century can be a disheartening experience, as I have lately discovered. Even the political reporting that once gave me a chuckle now strikes me as more dispiriting than amusing. The facile rhetoric of remorseless, uproarious ridicule that made Mencken a culture hero in the 1920s turns out, in retrospect, to have been exactly what Irving Babbitt said it was in 1928--"intellectual vaudeville," full of bluster and farce aimed at what now seem easy targets, but thin in intellectual substance and woefully lacking in a sense of history.

That in its heyday this intellectual vaudeville was found to be vastly entertaining, and indeed liberating, by a great many intelligent people is not to be doubted. But not to be doubted, either, is that ours was a very different country and a very different culture in the early years of the twentieth century. It was a far more provincial country with a far more philistine culture than comparable readers would find tolerable today. In many respects, especially in his response to radical politics and the modernist avant-garde, Mencken shared this philistine outlook. It was only on the subject of religion that he departed from it, and even in that respect the role in which he cast himself--that of the village atheist--was already an established feature of provincial America. One of the keys to Mencken's popularity with the young was his success in stripping the whole subject of its solemnity, treating religion not as a weighty matter, but as farce.

Unfortunately, he treated a great many other serious subjects in the same way. What really separates us now from Mencken's eager acolytes in the 1920s--and, for that matter, from Mencken himself--are precisely the horrors as well as the achievements of the twentieth century that he missed or dismissed or otherwise chose to regard as beneath serious notice. Among them, alas, were the two World Wars, the Leninist revolution and the spread of Communist totalitarianism, Hitler's rise to power and the Nazi conquest of Western Europe, the Holocaust, and virtually all of the principal currents of modern thought in literature, philosophy, and the arts. While he busied himself demolishing the pretensions of yahoo preachers, rotarians, prohibitionists, and sundry writers and public figures with little claim on the attention of posterity, Mencken remained cheerfully oblivious to the political and cultural earthquakes that were irreversibly altering the very civilization he claimed to represent. That, I believe, is the fundamental reason why Mencken is so little read today.

Still, if Mencken is no longer much read--and, for some of us, no longer even readable--what remains of the Mencken legend has proved to be sufficiently durable to assure him a place in that class of secondary historical personages whom many people are interested in reading about. …

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