The Prejudices series, which originally numbered six volumes and was published between 1919 and 1927, gathered the author’s reviews, commentaries, reporting, and portraits, many of them written for the Smart Set, American Mercury, and The Baltimore Sun. Throughout, he argues that our national propensity for glad-handing and self-congratulation is essentially a reassuring mask. Beneath, insists Mencken, sits a deep-seated fear of freedom, a dread where conformity and delusion combine into a death wish: “The one permanent emotion of the inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear—fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.” To get at this dread, Mencken uses the explosives of anarchistic humor and ridicule, poking fun at our collective anxieties, contradictions, and hypocrisies.
Time after time, Mencken flays the hide off of what he calls boobus Americanus, maintaining that much of what passes for art, thought, and manners in the United States is balderdash. It is the exuberant gusto of his prose that makes Mencken more than a moldy scold:
What I see is a vast horde of inferior men broken, after a hopeless, fruitless fight, to the hard, uninspiring labor of the world — a race of slaves superbly regimented, and kept steadily in order by great brigades of propagandists, official optimists, scare-mongers, Great Thinkers and rev. clergy. And over them a minority of capitalist overlords, well-fed, well-protected, highly respected, politely envied, and lavishly supplied with endless stores of picture postcards, gasoline, silk underwear, mayonnaise, Pontet Canet, toilet soap and phonograph records.
Yes, times were simpler then. A number of Mencken’s bêtes noires look like dusty stuffed animals today, from Comstockery and Sex Education to Prohibition. What’s more, the author’s colorful disdain for the rabble mixes a goofy understanding of Nietzsche and Darwin as theorists of an embattled “superman” with a vision of class warfare analyzed in John Carey’s book The Intellectuals and the Masses. Modernists of Mencken’s cut viewed suburban and lower-class workers as robotic, inert, hapless. By contrast, to them the real aristocracy thrived in the higher echelons of late nineteenth-century German and British society.
Yet Mencken differs from H. G. Wells and other British snobs of the era because he relishes America’s carnival of mass inanity: Q. “If you find so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, then why do you live here?” A. “Why do men go to zoos?”
As it happens, the publication of The Diary of H. L. Mencken in 1989 revealed plenty of evidence that the critic could be as small-minded, conformist, and thuggish as his zoo mates. And even before then, the debunker had been expertly debunked by Alfred Kazin and other critics. They asserted that Mencken was a spent force by the end of the 1920s, that his feverish crusade against Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, his equivocations on World War II and the plight of the Jews, and his inability to deal with the issue of poverty rendered him an embarrassing antique.
Yet it is very much in the skeptical spirit of Mencken that his positions be scathingly critiqued as time goes by. For him, criticism is “anything but scientific, for it cannot reach judgments that are surely and permanently valid. The most it can do, at its best, is to pronounce verdicts that are valid here and now, in the light of living knowledge and prejudice.” Indeed, it is our prejudices that give our opinions their zest, even as they inevitably twist and distort their connection with reality. A true critic “submits himself frankly to the flow of his time, and rejoices in its aliveness.”
All of which is to say that his harshest detractors have failed to slam H. L. Mencken into the trashcan of history. And meanwhile, the arrival of two volumes from the Library of America containing the entire unabridged Prejudices comes at a beneficial time, given the problematic health of our society and letters. There’s plenty that’s still alive and kicking in these volumes, from Mencken’s sexy negativity and stirring defense of intellectual freedom to his hilarious attacks on American ignorance, which could flatten the political, religious, and academic wowzers of today.