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    If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner
    and wink your eye at some homely girl.
        -H.L. Mencken, Epitaph (The Smart Set, December 1921)

There seems, even at this late date, some remote possibility that the revival of conservative thought in America may actually suffice to rescue the original reputation of H.L. Mencken, as a funny and profound critic of democracy, and save him from being remembered as only a cranky (perhaps even racist and anti-Semitic) columnist and the author of a decent early book on linguistics.  This is not to diminish in any way the enduring value of The American Language; it remains eminently readable and retains its significance as an important defense of the distinctiveness and even the superiority of American English to British English.  At the time he wrote, Mr. Mencken's assertion may have seemed audacious, but who now would argue with his conclusion that :

    When two-thirds of the people who use a certain language decide to call it a freight train instead of a goods train, they are 'right';
    then the first is correct usage and the second a dialect.

It is indisputably the case today that American is the dominant version of English across the globe.  So he earns plaudit for having the foresight to see this coming, and the book also remains an interesting example of the contradictions that made up Mencken's character.  For while it is certainly true that no domestic writer was ever a more ferocious critic of both the intellectual elite and the great unwashed masses of America, who he called "the booboisie", it is also the case that this book evinces an extraordinary, even sentimental, desire to see American culture taken seriously on the world stage.  Mencken could do worse than stake his future on just the one book, but we would do well to remember him for much more.

To get some sense of how severe a scourge of American democracy Mencken truly was we need only quote him directly :

    I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads,
    cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing
    them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all
    alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality
    since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government,
    and even to civilization itself - that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only
    that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating. But I am, it may be, a somewhat malicious
    man: my sympathies, when it comes to suckers, tend to be coy. What I can't make out is how any man can believe in
    democracy who feels for and with them, and is pained when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any man
    be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat?

And make no mistake about it, this was not mere disgust with a system that wasn't working the way it might have; heavily influenced by Friederich Nietzsche, whose books he was one of the first Americans to translate and analyze, he was quite explicitly elitist in his views :

    All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and
    cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man
    who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both.

Like Nietzsche, he seems to have been hostile to all forms of organized or systemic belief, which in the teens and 1920s pitted him against America's prevailing puritanism and other religious fundamentalisms, but would also find him opposing liberalism, socialism, and the like.  Here in one paragraph, paying backhanded tribute to the departed Calvin Coolidge, we find him gouging at both ends of the political spectrum :

    In what manner he would have performed himself if the holy angels had shoved the Depression forward a couple of years -
    this we can only guess, and one man's hazard is as good as another's. My own is that he would have responded to bad times
    precisely as he responded to good ones - that is, by pulling down the blinds, stretching his legs upon his desk, and snoozing
    away the lazy afternoons.... He slept more than any other President, whether by day or by night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge
    only snored.... Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two
    more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant?
    There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.

Perhaps because his writing was so original and wonderful, or perhaps because he didn't really scare his targets that much, Mencken was able to get away with this acerbic style for years.  But as Alistair Cooke's introductory essay to The Vintage Mencken shows, eventually his opponents--high and low--caught up to him :

    He has written nothing since his stroke in 1948, and it is surely no secret that he ceased to be a missionary force long before then.
    To be precise, it was the Roosevelt era that brought him to the mat.

    At first glance, the New Deal might appear to offer just the sort of target he loved; a big popular idol, an idealist in the Wilsonian
    tradition who was yet undismayed by the shifts and audacities necessary to get his own way; moreover, a liberal with the further
    stigma of having gone back on a patrician upbringing for 'the people's' sake.  But as a matter of record the New Deal was Mencken's
    Waterloo, and Roosevelt his Wellington.  To jeer at a democratic government when it paid off in filet mignon and a car in every
    garage was one thing.  To pipe the same tune in the unfunny days of 12,000,000 unemployed was another.  Mencken's thunder
    issued from an unmaterial mind, but also from a full stomach.  In the thirties it impressed only those who feared the hungrier chorus
    of the breadlines. It was always plain that Mencken had a clear eye for the realities that conceived the Roosevelt period.  He saw
    that the way ahead for America lay between no such simple choices as he had laid down between 'the aristocrat'--the 'first-rate man'
    speaking his mind--and the 'booboisie' that had no mind to speak.  But this thesis was his specialty, and in a vulgar time it had made
    him famous.

Of course, we can all see now that America never needed a Mencken more than during the New Deal, but sadly for him, and more sadly for his fellow citizens, the combination of a needy and greedy populace with an intellectual elite eager to expose the scope of government was unwilling to listen any longer to those who sought to point out the error of their ways.  Albert Jay Nock nicely captures the status to which such critics were reduced by these events in the title of his autobiography : Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.  When the mighty and the lowly make common cause, then truly is a conservative voice superfluous.

Yet, surely time and the tide of history have vindicated men like Nock and Mencken, and so we should look not merely to the works that remained popular throughout the Era of Big Government, but to those writings that were dismissed in their time.  Every fan of Mencken will have his own favorite from among his voluminous work, but I think the one that best stands the test of time is his review of a collection of the dissenting opinions of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.  You can find the whole review on-line, but I'll quote it at some length here :

                Mr. Justice Holmes's dissenting opinions have got so much fawning praise from liberals that it is somewhat surprising
                to discover that Mr. Lief is able to muster but fifty-five of them, and even more surprising to hear from Dr. Kirchwey
                that in only one case did the learned justice stand quite alone, and that the cases "in which he has given expression to
                the judgement of the court, [sic] or in which he has concurred in its judgement, far outnumber, in the ratio of eight or
                ten to one, those in which he felt it necessary to dissent."

                There is even more surprising stuff in the opinions themselves. In three Espionage Act cases, including the Debs case,
                one finds a clear statement of the doctrine that, in war time, the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment cease to
                have any substance, and may be set aside by any jury that has been sufficiently alarmed by a district attorney itching
                for higher office. In Fox v. the State of Washington, we learn that any conduct "which shall tend to encourage or
                advocate disrespect for the law" may be made a crime, and that the protest of a man who believes that he has been
                jailed unjustly, and threatens to boycott his persecutors, may be treated as such a crime. In Moyer v. Peabody, it
                appears that the Governor of a state, "without sufficient reason but in good faith," may call out the militia, declare
                martial law, and jail anyone he happens to suspect or dislike, without laying himself open "to an action after he is out
                of office on the ground that he had no reasonable ground for his belief." And, in Weaver v. Palmer Bros. Co. there is
                the plain inference that in order to punish a theoretical man, A, who is suspected of wrong-doing, a State Legislature
                may lay heavy and intolerable burdens upon a real man, B, who has admittedly done no wrong at all.

                I find it hard to reconcile such notions with any plausible concept of Liberalism. They may be good law, but it is
                impossible to see how they can conceivably promote liberty. My suspicion is that the hopeful Liberals of the 20s,
                frantically eager to find at least one judge who was not violently and implacably against them, seized upon certain of
                Mr. Justice Holmes's opinions without examining the rest, and read into them an attitude that was actually as foreign to
                his ways of thinking as it was to those of Mr. Chief Justice Hughes. Finding him, now and then, defending eloquently a
                new and uplifting law which his colleagues proposed to strike of the books, they concluded that he was a sworn
                advocate of the rights of man. But all the while, if I do not misread his plain words, he was actually no more than an
                advocate of the rights of lawmakers. There, indeed, is the clue to his whole jurisprudence. He believed that the
                law-making bodies should be free to experiment almost ad libitum, that the courts should not call a halt upon them
                until they clearly passed the uttermost bounds of reason, that everything should be sacrificed to their autonomy,
                including apparently, even the Bill of Rights. If this is liberalism, then all I can say is that Liberalism is not what
                it was when I was young.

Justice Holmes was the darling of the chattering class for many years, but here Mencken captures not only what made him such a dangerous man, but also what has come to be one of the greatest threats to our democratic form of government, the willingness of judges to extend the powers of government regardless of the will of the people.  In all the volumes written on Holmes, you'll not find a more astute analysis than this contrarian one written by Mencken when Holmes's reputation was at its apex.

Beyond his admirable daring in the face of popular and elite opinion, one of the things that's most appealing about Mr. Mencken is that he ultimately proved unable to live by the austere philosophy he set himself.  He, again following in Nietzsche's footsteps, seems to have believed that the truly superior man should be able to craft his own morality, without any reference to, or dependence on, the thinking or utterances of others or any system of thought.   But check out his famous Mencken's creed :

    I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind - that its modest and greatly overestimated services on
    the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.

    I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood,
    however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

    I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty...

    I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

    I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech...

    I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.

    I believe in the reality of progress.

    I - But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe
    that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

Imagine what a writer of Mencken's own penetration and skepticism could do with the internal contradictions here.  At the same time that he's denouncing religious belief and the certitude of opinion that accompanies it, he's announcing his own obstinate and unreasoning faith in the perfectibility of Man and the ultimate triumph of science over ignorance.  Or consider his famous dispatches from the Scopes trial, one can't help but be amused by the irony of Mencken, the iconoclast supreme when it came to Christianity, so beholden to the implausible theories of Darwin (not least because he was also a Social Darwinist).  This desperate faith serves to humanize him even as it proves his point about the failings and foibles of men.

By all means, read The American Language and enjoy one of the truly original American stylists as he argues in favor of a distinctly American style.  But be sure to also seek out a collection of his columns, for the argument in the former has long since been decided in his favor, but his arguments in the latter--about the quite possibly fatal flaws of democracy--are still timely and remain largely unanswered.  Read him, wrestle with him, and wish he were around today, this American Socrates.


Grade: (A)


See also:

H. L. Mencken (2 books reviewed)
H. L. Mencken Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: H.L. Mencken
    -     -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: mencken, henry louis
    -H(enry) L(ouis) Mencken (1880-1956) (kirjasto)
    -REVIEW : of The Dissenting Opinions of Mr. Justice Holmes arranged by Alfred Lief, with a forward by George W. Kirchwey (H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, May 1930)
    -ETEXT : The American Language : An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States by H.L. Mencken (Bartleby)
    -ETEXT : Prejudices: First Series.
    -ETEXT : In Defense of Women by H. L. Mencken (Gibbons Burke)
    -ETEXT : The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche by Henry Louis Mencken
    -ETEXT : The Hills of Zion by H. L. Mencken
    -ETEXT : "THE MONKEY TRIAL": A Reporter's Account (H.L. Mencken)
    -ESSAY : Last Words (H. L. Mencken, 1926)
    -INTRODUCTION : to Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (H.L. Mencken)
   -ESSAY : THE UPLIFTERS TRY IT AGAIN (H. L. Mencken, by The Evening Sun, 1925)
    -ESSAY : "A Neglected Anniversary" (H. L. Mencken, New York Evening Mail, Dec. 28, 1917)
    -ESSAY : Where is the graveyard of dead gods?
    -ESSAY : Chiropractic (H.L. Mencken, 1924)
    -ESSAY : Martyrs (H. L. Mencken, Smart Set, April, 1922)
    -ESSAY : Professor Veblen (H.L. Mencken)
    -ESSAY : The Burden of Humor (H. L. Mencken, The Smart Set, Feb. 1913)
    -ESSAY : Rudolph Valentino's Curse : What happens when two legends met? America's greatest newspaper reporter and iconoclastic social
observer H.L. Mencken tells of his meeting in 1926 with America's greatest silent screen and saddest star.
    -ESSAY : The Real Lorelei : Novelist and screenwriter Anita Loos wrote "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" with one motive -- revenge. Angered
that a dumb blonde starlet could captured the attention of the man (the newspaper reporter and social critic H. L. Mencken), that the already married, Loos was pursuing, she expressed her frustration by taking pen in hand. This is the story of how Anita Loss meet one Miss
Mae Davis. The morale being never annoy a really good writer.
    -ESSAY : JAMES A. REED OF MISSOURI (H. L. Mencken, American Mercury, April, 1929)
    -ESSAY : The Declaration of Independence in American (H. L. Mencken, 1921)
    -ESSAY : The Land of the Free (H.L. Mencken, January 12, 1925)
    -ETEXTS : H.L. Mencken (
    -ETEXTS : H. L. Mencken (Positive Atheism)
    -TRIBUTE : The Passing of Gilbert (1836-1911) (H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, May 30, 1911)
    -REVIEW : of The Mikado (H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, November 29, 1910)
    -REVIEW : of The Goslings: A Study of the American Schools by Upton Sinclair
    -REVIEW : of The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume V: Athens, 478 - 401 B. C. Edited by J. B. Bury, S. A. Cooks, and F. E. Adcock
    -LECTURE EXCERPTS : Advice from H.L. Mencken (H.L. Mencken addressed the first convention of the NCEW in Washington on Oct. 14, 1947. The following is an abridged version of his remarks, extracted from "A Gang of Pecksniffs," a collection edited by Theo Lippman Jr. and published by Arlington House, 1975.)
    -TRANSLATION : THE ANTICHRIST by Friedrich Nietzsche (1895) (translation by H.L. Mencken, Ã�Published 1920)
    -Quotes from H.L. Mencken (Freedom's Nest)
    -QUOTES : The best of H.L.Mencken : witty defender of liberty (
    -The Mencken Society Home Page
    -The HL Mencken Page (Gibbons Burke)
    -H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)
    -American Writers : H. L. Mencken (C-SPAN)
    -The San Antonio College LitWeb : HL Mencken Page
    -PAL: Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide : H(enry) L(ouis) Mencken (1880-1956)
    -PROFILE : H. L. Mencken Ã�(Walter Lippmann, The Saturday Review of Literature, December 11, 1926)
    -H.L. Mencken Corner (Diane Alden)
    -PROFILE : H. L. Mencken Ã�(Walter Lippmann, The Saturday Review of Literature, December 11, 1926)
    -PROFILE : Mencken, Henry Louis, 1880-1956. Editor, essayist, and critic (Fred Hobson )
    -PROFILE : By His Own Rules H. L. Mencken, A Cigar Always in Hand, Was the Most Influential Commentator of his Time (Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, Cigar Afficianado)
    -PROFILE : H. L. Mencken (John Patrick Michael Murphy, 1999,
    -PROFILE : H. L. Mencken, Critical Firebrand (Victor Lazofsky, '33, The Magpie, January 1933)
    -PROFILE : H. L. Mencken : Journalist of the Century (Shelton Hull, October 1999, Ink 19)
    -PHOTO : H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), journalist, editor, and critic (American History 102)
    -PHOTO : H.L. Mencken & George Jean Nathan
    -H. L. Mencken (Find a Grave)
    -H. L. Mencken Collection (Princeton University)
    -H. L. Mencken Room and Collection (Enoch Pratt Free Library)
-TRIBUTE: A Birthday Tribute to the ‘Sage of Baltimore’ — H.L. Mencken (Mark J. Perry, September 12, 2022, AEI)
    -ESSAY: Americans Laughed at H.L. Mencken’s Cynical Commentary—Little Did They Know (Peter Carlson, November 23, 2020, HistoryNet)
    -H. L. Mencken Books Central (Self-Knowledge)
    -ESSAY : Mencken: Race
    -ESSAY : Absent Voices (Richard Mitchell, The Underground Grammarian)
    -ESSAY : The Ghost of Mencken (J.D. Tuccille , 03/22/97, : Civil Liberties)
    -ESSAY : THE AMERICAN MERCURY (Daniel R. McCloskey, Editor-in-Chief, The Exchange: Culture Reason Style)
    -ESSAY : Mencken's Creed (Bluepete, October 20, 1997)
    -ESSAY : Postal censorship against h. l. mencken (Eric Longley)
    -ESSAY : Mencken's Critique of Democracy and Government Ã�
    -ESSAY : The Bathtub, Mencken, and War (Wendy McElroy)
    -ESSAY : H.L. Mencken enjoys presidential campaign revival (November 1, 2000, CNN)
    -ESSAY : POLITICS AND THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE (Joseph Stromberg, August 17, 1999,
    -ESSAY : AMERICAN ENGLISH VS. BRITISH ENGLISH : Or whose language is it anyway? (Linda Berube, American Studies Today)
    -ESSAY : It's a nine ring circus and you'll never be bored (Alistair Cooke, December 4, 2000, Letter from America : BBC)
    -ESSAY : Sage Door (Brennen Jensen, February 1, 2000, Baltimore City Paper)
    -WEBRING : H.L. Mencken Bomis Ring
    -LINKS : Top: Arts: Literature: Authors: M: Mencken, Henry Louis Ã�(Open Directory)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : God, Man, and H. L. Mencken (George Weigel, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Treatise on the Gods (Keith Otis Edwards)
    -REVIEW : of The American Language by H.L. Mencken. Abridged Edition, edited by Raven J. McDavid Jr (W. V. Quine, The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1964)
    -REVIEW : Murray Kempton, Saving a Whale (The New York Review of Books June 11, 1981)
        A Choice of Days: Essays from "Happy Days," "Newspaper Days," and "Heathen Days," by H.L. Mencken
        The Young Mencken: The Best of His Work collected by Carl Bode
        The American Scene: A Reader by H.L. Mencken, edited by Huntington Cairns
        On Mencken edited by John Dorsey
        H.L. Mencken on Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe edited by Malcolm Moos
        A Mencken Chrestomathy edited and annotated by H.L. Mencken
        Letters of H.L. Mencken edited by Guy J. Forgue
    -REVIEW : of Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken by William Manchester (Keith Otis Edwards)
    -REVIEW : of H. L. Mencken Revisited by William H. A. Williams (George C. Leef, Ideas on Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of The Dissenting Opinions of Mr. Justice Holmes, Mr. Justice Holmes (H.L. Mencken, May 1930, The American Mercury)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: A Great Individualist: H. L. Mencken may be known as a curmudgeon, but he’s best understood as a conservative. (Richard M. Weaver, Spring 1962, Modern Age)
    -ESSAY: Mencken and Orwell, Social Critics With Little (and Much) in Common (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, October 26, 2002, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: H. L. Mencken: The Joyous Libertarian (Murray N. Rothbard, Summer 1962, New Individualist Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE SKEPTIC: A Life of H.L. MenckenBy Terry Teachout (Richard Lingeman, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Skeptic (David Kipen, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Skeptic (Jack Shafer, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken by Terry Teachout (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Skeptic (Jackson Lears, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of The Skeptic (Tom Chiarella, Esquire)
    -REVIEW: of The Skeptic: A Biography of H.L. Mencken (Ben Boychuk, Claremont)

Book-related and General Links:

    -The Scopes Trial (Douglas Linder, Famous Trials Homepage)
    -REVIEW : of When All the Gods Trembled: Darwin, Scopes, and American Intellectuals. By Paul K. Conkin (Cynthia Russett, Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of A Necessary Evil by Garry Wills (Alan Wolfe, New Republic)