Mencken in Palestine

By Nesvisky, Matt | Midstream, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Mencken in Palestine

Nesvisky, Matt, Midstream

Readers who recall H. L. Mencken as an unrepentant antisemite will likely be surprised to learn that the noted American journalist once visited Jewish settlements in Palestine. Moreover, Mencken admired what he saw there. But that doesn't mean he liked to admit it. Indeed, his articles about his visit aptly illustrate his particular brand of antipathy towards Jews.

Throughout his long career, Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was among the most popular and influential of writers. His prodigious output included an estimated three million words in newspapers and magazines and some 30 books. Even today, nearly a half-century after his death, many of his books, most notably The American Language, are widely read. lists over 2,100 titles by or about H. L. Mencken. Internet surfers may Google dozens of web pages devoted to Mencken. And every few years sees yet another Mencken biography or critical study.

Yet Mencken also has his detractors, not least because of the writer's numerous and undisguised expressions of antisemitism. The charge of antisemitism dogged Mencken throughout his career. It was renewed in recent years with publication of various Mencken diaries, letters and other private papers.

That debate over Mencken's views on Jews even exists is astonishing. Mencken's antisemitism, however, is often minimized, if not excused or dismissed. In his otherwise admiring biography, The Skeptic (2002), Terry Teachout allows: "... that he [Mencken] was an antisemite cannot now reasonably be denied." But in his introduction to The Impossible H. L. Mencken (1991), the redoubtable Gore Vidal declares Mencken "Far from being an antisemite...." Others, like Joseph Epstein and Gary Wills, have wavered on the allegation. And in a 1990 letter to The New York Review of Books regarding publication of a Mencken diary, such luminaries as Norman Mailer, William Styron, Arthur Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut acknowledged: "The Diary does indeed contain discourteous remarks about Jews ..." But the letter added: "Discourtesy was Mencken's style," and asserted that "His hyperbole did not foreclose warm friendships with Jewish publishers, writers, and doctors...."

Mencken indeed was an exasperating sort of antisemite. On the one hand, Mencken's published anti-Jewish libels are almost too numerous to count. One mild if unambiguous example: "The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display." (Treatise on the Gods, 1930, 1946). On the other hand, many of Mencken's closest friends and most admired associates throughout his life were Jewish. These included George Jean Nathan, his long-time co-editor of the popular Smart Set magazine; Charles Angoff, Mencken's assistant and eventual successor at the helm of The American Mercury magazine; and Alfred A. Knopf, Mencken's long-time publisher. (The last named was an example of the kind of Jew Mencken could best tolerate--a cultivated Germanic Jew who himself disdained his East European cousins.)

In like manner, Mencken's defenders are quick to point out that the "Sage of Baltimore" disapproved of Hitler, denounced Nazi violence against Jews, and favored allowing German Jewish refugees into the United States. All true enough--but hardly evidence of judeophilia. Mencken disliked Hitler chiefly because Hitler was a politician, and Mencken tended to loathe all politicians. Early on, Mencken found much to admire in Hitler. Later, when the Nazi leader proved too uncouth for the Baltimorean's refined taste, Mencken predicted the wise and rational German people would soon enough dump the little Austrian. …

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