(Swans - May 17, 2010) In the mid-l920s when women were swooning over Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks and men idolized Mary Pickford and Theda Bara, there was one celebrity who was more renowned than any of the stars weaned by the Hollywood press corps and that was H.L. Mencken, a columnist and critic adored by the university elites of Harvard and Yale as well as literati throughout the nation -- with the exception of the Religious Right who loathed his name and burned him in effigy -- all of which merely contributed to his personal allure.
The title "iconoclast" was forever attached to his persona and the man himself drenched in notoriety. Virtually every American had to take a stand either for or against him. For the liberals he was a knight in starch-collared armor; for the conservatives, a Lucifer incarnate. But whatever one felt about this writer, one had to accept his ubiquity. Mencken had an opinion about everything: politics, journalism, music, film, theatre, literature, religion, medicine, liquor, women, and, most notably, the state of the nation. To call him opinionated doesn't even begin to encompass the length or breadth of his interests.
His heyday was in the twenties and the high spot was the Scopes "Monkey trial" in which Mencken's tart columns on the idiocy of bible-thumping zealots in Tennessee earned him the contempt of virtually all of the southern states. He was reviled in the local newspapers and the constant recipient of death threats. The trial, which hoped to debunk Darwinism once and for all, was fought between two celebrity lawyers, William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense, and was followed on radio transmissions throughout America. After a sweltering couple of weeks, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but on appeal the Tennessee Supreme Court set aside the guilty verdict due to a legal technicality. Mencken, who lodged regular reports on the trial's monkeyshines, established himself as the stentorian voice of libertarianism and became something of a cult hero for millions of liberally-inclined Americans. One decade later, that would all change. He would then be considered a turncoat conservative and a man out of touch with the times.
His love for German culture was so deeply embedded that in the First World War he couldn't persuade himself to hop on the American Bandwagon and rail against the Kaiser. His family roots were in Germany and he worshiped writers such as Goethe, Nietzsche, Kleist, etc. It was so deeply-rooted an affection, it somewhat blinded him to the American repulsion with Wilhelm II. In the l930s his was the most ferocious voice against Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, a position he had to painfully reconsider when the Depression engulfed over ten million unemployed Americans and the Second World War was rapidly coagulating. Before FDR's reelection in 1938, (the first president to serve three consecutive terms), he was referring to Roosevelt as "the boldest and most preposterous practitioner of political quackery in modern times." His colleagues in Baltimore remained loyal to FDR and recognized the benefits that his administration was accomplishing, but nothing could change Mencken's mind about the venomous "New Deal."
A decade earlier, in 1924, he had joined up with the theatre critic George Jean Nathan to produce a literary-political magazine entitled The American Mercury, which was instrumental in establishing the reputation of writers such as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mencken, as co-editor, turned the publication into one of the most influential publications of the century. His own books bubbling with harsh satirical criticism made him beloved and despised throughout the country. Apart from sharp-toothed critiques of literature and politics, he was also the author of The American Language, one of the few philological books to trace and define the differences between American speech and the Queen's English. It was an unexpected masterpiece from a writer who had spent most of his time deriding American democracy and that swirling mass of feeble-minded patriots that he blithely dismissed as "the booboisee."
During the second World War several of Mencken's positions were deeply unpopular and even his wit seemed out of touch with the times. He thought Hitler merely a buffoon who would shortly be ousted by a more discriminating German public. Even when the decimation of the Jews was occurring in front of everyone's eyes and the first of the concentration camps were being established, Mencken was unable to condemn the atrocities of the Third Reich. This made for strained relations with journalistic colleagues, but it wasn't in Mencken's nature to swim with the tide. He was too busy toppling icons to realize the severity of what was going on in Europe. When the penny finally dropped, he became active in helping Jews migrate to the States and editorialized against their treatment in Nazi Germany, but it was too little and too late.
By the fifties attitudes to Mencken had shifted considerably. He was viewed by many as something of a clown whose brand of iconoclastic humor had grown stale; a Democrat who had sold out the cause of democracy and a crusty hangover from the '20s who was fiendishly out of touch with the changed social and political realities in a very different America. It was around that time that I actually discovered him and for me the clatter of stained-glass windows being regularly smashed by bricks was enthralling. His essays on criticism were both sound and enlightening, his ruffian manner always couched in humor and his insights on music, literature and politics, consistently edifying. His wit could be pungent or whimsical - (i.e., "A man always remembers his first love with special tenderness. But after that he begins to bunch them." - "Adultery is the application of democracy to love." - "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it - good and hard!") Behind his aphorisms there lurks a cynicism that was always expressed in luminescent prose. Much of Mencken's writing is journalism achieving a status that touches the hem of philosophy. You can't turn out over a million words over a period of some sixty years without acquiring a certain elegance of expression. As a newspaper journalist, there is no one who can touch Mencken for sharp-toothed lucidity and sardonic humor. Although many of his positions on politics and law are despicable, they are couched in an incomparable diction and backed with persuasive prose.
It is always curious returning to a hero from one's adolescence long after maturity has developed new influences, but rereading Mencken today, I still get a cerebral buzz from the clarity of his pugnacious literacy. As one connects the writer's brilliance with the somewhat old-fashioned milieu in which he produced his best work, the old enthusiasm is invigorated and belittling criticism dissolves like smoke rings. When you compare him with the likes of Frank Rich or Maureen Dowd you recognize that you are dealing with minnows swimming around a gigantic killer whale.
Fate treated Mencken cruelly in his last days. On November 23, 1948, the man who had devoted his entire life to the written word suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, which made it impossible for him either to read or write. It was as if some vengeful god had decided to punish him for being so relentlessly loquacious. He waxed on for another eight years leaving the fold on January 29, 1956.
There are several Mencken biographies around but unquestionably the most definitive is Mencken - The American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rogers published by Oxford University Press, which colorfully captures the subversive genius of the man. It's a long read -- 662 pages -- but it brilliantly brings to life the man, his era, and his brilliance.
What reading Mencken drives home in this new millennium is that style is as important as content and many of our columnists and political writers, although they churn out pertinent articles, essays, and books, they don't leave behind a personality imprint that elevates their opinions to the level of art.
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