second read

The Devil’s Football

H. L. Mencken airs his unexpurgated Prejudices
December 1, 2010

As we all know, serious criticism of the arts is leaving the pages of mainstream newspapers and magazines. Shrinking under the pressures of new-media innovation and the triumph of Zagat-inspired populism, the once potent prerogatives of cultural tastemakers are fading fast. For some prominent reviewers, including major American writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, criticism has become so marginalized that they are reluctant to judge negatively, setting their dainty digits to keyboard only to ladle out praise. Fighting for survival, furiously marketing themselves on the web, critics increasingly opt for an all-thumbs-up approach.

Given the mental and spiritual retreat of the critique, it is hard to believe that for a brief and (so far) unique time in our history, a journalistic critic named H. L. Mencken ruled the roost of American culture. Mencken was admired by the young and the rebellious, and feared by established plutocrats, artists, academics, religious leaders, and politicians. He accomplished this by exercising his right to be excessively, vulgarly, courageously, and charmingly negative.

At the height of his influence in the 1920s, when he was churning out the bestselling volumes in his Prejudices series, Mencken transformed criticism into a liberating force. He perfected a sledgehammer satiric art that delights in radical disturbance via the well-timed guffaw and the devastating deflation of ideologues, do-gooders, puritans, professors, and Bible thumpers. He was a basher of bosh who turned his dissection of democracy and its low-brow arts into riotous entertainment for tens of thousands of readers.

Of course, negativity was not a new tactic for a homegrown arts critic. Mencken admired Edgar Allan Poe, who earned his nickname of “tomahawk critic” thanks to his merciless lambasting of American reviewers and writers who chose patriotism over independence and high standards. Poe lamented “the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American.” Bouncing from publication to publication, the frequently penniless Poe was mauled rather than hailed for his dedication to honest judgment. He had few critical groupies; instead, he fended off regular invitations to duels and potential lawsuits from unhappy reviewers and authors.

Like Poe, who grew up in Virginia, Mencken was an outsider (from Baltimore) who wanted to make his reputation by taking on the northern cultural establishment. Mencken was also the beneficiary of the success of his friend James Huneker, who rose to prominence as an arts critic for a variety of small, ethnic, European-friendly music magazines at the turn of the century.

But Mencken thought his mentor was too accommodating, too willing to bottle up his disgust at the mainstream. It was time, he believed, for some cultural bloodshed. In his “Footnote on Criticism,” Mencken argued that critical debate “does not necessarily establish the truth…. [Instead] it melodramatizes the business of the critic, and so convinces thousands of bystanders, otherwise inert, that criticism is an amusing and instructive art, and that the problems it deals with are important. What men will fight for seems to be worth looking into.”

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Mencken drew on the growing frustration, particularly among the young, created by a period of rapid change and turmoil after World War I. A wised-up postwar generation, aroused by Mencken’s bolts of bile, yearned to jettison (or at least question) the lockstep patriotism of the Gilded Age and the bigoted irrationality of the evangelical Right. He also made expert use of the new marketing attitudes and vocabulary of the 1920s—the era’s love of zippy absolutes and linguistic flash—to sell an invigorating form of anti-Americanism. In the process Mencken revolutionized, to the point of fleetingly glamorizing, the image of the critic, whose essential responsibility was to attack all that Americans believe to be sacred. The shock treatment was therapeutic: lampooning complacency reveals the rot underneath society’s smiling façade.

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.

The articles Mencken wrote for magazines and newspapers served as drafts for the pieces in the series; in that way he could respond to the initial reaction to his line of attack, honing his vituperation to a sharper edge. “I kept the Prejudices books in mind for all my magazine and newspaper work,” he writes in My Life as Author and Editor, “and not infrequently an idea that was first tried out in the Baltimore Evening Sun was later expanded and embellished in the Smart Set or some other magazine, and then finally polished for book form.”

Throughout the series he holds steady to his organizational formula. Each volume begins with a big bang aimed at a fat quadrant of American philistinism (“The American Tradition,” “Journalism in America,” “The National Letters,” “On Being an American”), followed by a grab bag of essays, portraits, book reviews, and squibs. His targets throughout range from the anemic state of the arts to complaints about the stupefying limitations of the American character to broadsides against the “experts” who believe they hold a monopoly on the truth, including the grand poobahs of religion, politics, academia, psychology, and economics.

There are also bracing riffs on the worth of human life, the battle of the sexes, America’s “lust to make the world intolerable,” and the nature of death—all infused with the critic’s belief in a mature “pessimism which comes with the discovery that the riddle of life, despite all the fine solutions offered by the learned doctors, is essentially insoluble.” This disparate material is held together by the force of Mencken’s personality, which we might paradoxically define as a heavyweight gadfly. And despite the overwhelming pugnacity of tone, Mencken does sprinkle the books with occasional hosannas (a prescient appreciation of Ring Lardner, a salute to theater critic George Jean Nathan, a deftly ironic homage to arch-censor Anthony Comstock, an admiring shout-out to Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Because the Prejudices have been out of print for decades, our view of them has been mediated through anthologies, from Mencken’s own culling to picks by James T. Farrell and Terry Teachout. The Library of America volumes—which include helpful notes by editor Marion Elizabeth Rodgers—demonstrate the drawbacks of this cherry-picking approach: an enormous amount of amusing, provocative, and revealing material has been left out. Also, going through Mencken’s pieces as they were originally ordered suggests a more complex sensibility than the scattershot pugilist we encounter in the anthologies.

Mencken argues throughout the Prejudices that he sees criticism as an art. In “Footnote on Criticism,” he insists that the critic’s task is “to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.” Truth, as Mencken saw it, was best left to the scientists. Criticism was not about truth, but about the creation of beguiling prose. In the name of art, critics were free to indulge their “prejudices, biles, naïvetés, [and] humors.”

But just what kind of an artist was Mencken? Although he championed such challenging writers of the era as Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and the now forgotten Joseph Hergesheimer, his crusade against simple-mindedness could be deeply conservative. He was often blind to innovation in America and elsewhere. For example, Mencken took a myopic view of experimental art, ridiculing what he saw as the surreal foolishness of Apollinaire and sideswiping T. S. Eliot along the way. (“It is the best joke pulled off on the Young Forward-Lookers since Eliot floored them with the notes to The Waste Land.”) His take on the Greenwich Village rebels was equally tepid. A Mencken contradiction: the representative critic of the Jazz Age, admired by Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t like jazz much.

Still, a careful examination of Prejudices suggests that Mencken did not simply want to make “articulate noise” for its own sake. He hoped that critical dissent would set off an explosion that would blow away conventional ideas and aid the birth of new approaches. Indeed, along with the ersatz Darwinism referred to earlier, the series is enlivened by an anarchistic strain. Many of the writers Mencken admires, from Conrad and Ibsen to Wells, believe that artistry is rooted in destruction as well as creation.

In “Private Reflections,” a 1922 Smart Set article, Mencken defends himself from the charge that his criticism is purely deconstructive—that he is no more than “a mere professional ruffian.” He writes:

I am constantly accused, and sometimes quite honestly, of tearing down without building up, of murdering a theory without offering in its place a new and better theory. My business, considering the state of the society in which I find myself, has been principally to clear the ground of moldering rubbish, to chase away old ghosts, to help set the artist free. The work of erecting a new structure belongs primarily to the artist as creator, not to me as a critic.

This vision of the critic as a demolition artist also puts some of Mencken’s wackier aesthetic and political verdicts into context. His purpose, his higher calling, was to eradicate trash with panache. This gave an almost adolescent glee to some of his efforts, such as his methodical, pitiless dismissal of his Scopes Monkey Trial foe William Jennings Bryan soon after the man’s death in 1925 (“In Memoriam: W. J. B.” ).

Though it makes use of reason and logic, Mencken’s prose throughout the Prejudices sets up an internal, irrational drama: it pits the rabid energy of the author’s mind and the slangy friskiness of his vocabulary against the width and breath of American chaos. The critic needs to command two-ton adjectives, burly verbs, and exotic nouns because there is so much utter nonsense to cart away. A more modest style simply couldn’t contend with, say, an American presidential campaign: “Would it be possible to imagine anything more uproarishly idiotic—a deafening, nerve-wracking battle to the death between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Harlequin and Sganarelle, Gobbo and Dr. Cook—the unspeakable, with fearful snorts, gradually swallowing the inconceivable?”

Despite this rhetorical firepower, Mencken’s habitual stance is that of an impartial observer, a reporter valiantly attempting to describe a parade of monstrosities. He wants you to see what he sees. Reviewing a dry tome entitled The Social Objectives of School English, he gets rolling in the very first sentence: “Here in the form of a large flat book, eight and a half inches wide and eleven inches tall, is a sight-seeing bus touring the slums of pedagogy.” The entire series teems with exaggerated visual metaphors. Mencken hot-wires descriptive language, mashes together argot high and low, in order to shake his readers awake.

The author is also fond of huge, eye-catching generalizations: “Hygiene is the corruption of medicine by morality.” Or (in a somewhat more archaic vein): “Women like to be wooed endlessly before they loose their girdles and are wooed no more.” He likes to follow these lofty overviews with endless, absurd, faux-Whitmanesque lists. For example, in “On Being an American,” Mencken delights in toting up the nation’s most coveted jobs: “Let him bear in mind that, whatever its neglect of the humanities and their monks, the Republic has never got half enough bond salesmen, quack doctors, ward leaders, phrenologists, Methodist evangelists, circus clowns, magicians, soldiers, farmers, popular song writers, moonshine distillers, forgers of gin labels, mine guards, detectives, spies, snoopers, and agents provocateurs.” Where Whitman heard America singing, Mencken hears it braying like an ass.

Catching that sound is a big part of his mission, requiring all of his reportorial chops. In the age of Glenn Beck, his rousing jeremiads against Christian Fundamentalism remain as vivid and incisive as ever. He saw early on that the movement embodied a yen for a theocratic America. In “Memorial Service” (“Where is the grave-yard of dead gods?”) Mencken lists the deities that have bit the dust over the centuries—giving atheism the same sort of shot in the arm that Christopher Hitchens did in his recent God Is Not Great. However, his coverage in Prejudices of the Scopes Monkey kerfuffle, “The Hills of Zion,” is somewhat disappointing. (Readers eager for a sharper take should seek out A Religious Orgy in Tennessee, which collects his actual dispatches from the trial.)

An irascible comic stylist who envisions the world as a “vast, lumbering, hideous, obscene ball of mud—the football of the devil,” Mencken serves as a bridge between the sour yuks of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce and the apocalyptic satire of Nathanael West, as well S. J. Perelman’s linguistic acrobatics. His jaunty nihilism feeds American anti-utopian satire to this very day. Vulgar, combative, unfair, and on target, he may also be seen as the godfather of Internet trolls, though his comic conceits are much more substantial and inventive.

As early as 1931, Mencken noted in his diary that the Prejudices series was aging badly: “My plan is to let the Prejudices books go out of print. Large parts of them begin to date. What is still good I shall rewrite and republish, probably in two volumes instead of six.” He never got around to the task—and given the changing times, his rejiggered volumes might have gotten a mixed reception. As the years passed, Mencken’s vaudevillian bravado became increasingly predictable. Even an admiring reviewer, Stanley T. Williams, had to confess his fatigue in a 1923 Yale Review notice of Prejudices: Third Series: “My own charge against him is probably new—a heretical charge. That unending flow of German phrases, that avalanche of cheap simile, that insistence upon a pet joke, such as ‘Dr. Wilson,’ the incoherence, the vilification, the ignorance, in spite of a quotation or two from Martial—surely this is, in the last analysis—is it not?—just boring.” To that bill of fare could be added ethnic comments that make even thick-skinned readers flinch: “No other race, save the Chinese, is so thoroughly solid, or so firmly unresponsive to ideas from without.”

On the whole, though, the wham-bam prose more than outweighs the moments of discomfort. Among the gems is Mencken’s wonderful 1927 review of a Festschrift dedicated to a retired master “mixologist”—a wise fixture in Washington, D.C., who knew just when to cut off serving the hard stuff to politicos. In this loving elegy to the bartender’s trade (“an art that made men happy”), Mencken notes that in the photo of the saloon keeper at the front of the volume, the “light of tragedy” is visible in his eye. (We can probably blame that on Prohibition.) “He looks as Washington would have looked if he had lived to see Coolidge,” concludes Mencken.

No doubt that same tragic look will be found on some of the writers safely enshrined in our literary Valhalla, Library of America. The “schoolmarmish” targets of Mencken’s acidic sarcasm, such as William Dean Howells and Henry James, will now discover their tomes sitting cheek-by-jowl with the scoffing Prejudices. Perhaps even those who no longer think criticism should utter a discouraging word will tremble to see this arch-critic in such a lordly literary berth. And Mencken, in the afterlife reserved for hell-bent non-believers, is probably thundering forth a long horselaugh.

Bill Marx is a contributor to CJR.