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H.L. Mencken: Misfit In 21st-Century America
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H.L. Mencken, a contrarian polemicist and the consummate critic, who wrote prolifically and prodigiously from 1899 until 1948, may no longer seem relevant, but the fault would not be his.

Mencken was a well-read bon vivant with a taste for Teutonic philosophy and a fidelity to immutable truth. He was also a brilliant satirist and a writer whose facility with the English idiom and grasp of intellectual history are unsurpassed.

How can a phenom like Mencken appeal in our age, The Age of the Idiot?

He can’t: He should, but he can’t.

Henry Louis Mencken cannot appeal to the bumper crops of humorless, dour “dunderheads” America is now siring. He cannot resonate with those who are afraid to question received opinion, who cannot conjugate a verb correctly, use tenses, prepositions and adjectives grammatically and creatively, or appreciate a clever turn-of-phrase.

How can Mencken, author of The American Language (1919), be relevant in an America in which the rules of syntax are passé, pronouns are politicized and neutered, torrential prolixity is in, concision and precision are out, and “editors” excise nothing, preferring to let mangled phrases and lumpen jargon spill onto the page like gravy over a tablecloth.

Not for nothing did one wag say that the history of ideas is the history of words. And since Mencken was, first and foremost, a man of ideas (and hence, words)—no discussion of Mencken and his ideas is complete without a reference to English, the language he deployed with such verve and vim.

Thus, when “a few newspaper smarties protested” Mencken’s verbal virtuosity, Mencken tartly noted, in his Preface to A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949): “Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs and adjectives … are still unfamiliar to such ignoramuses. Let them … leave my vocabulary and me to my own customers, who have all been to school.”

Written at a considerable level of abstraction, for a prosaic people that, by Mencken’s estimation, “cannot grasp an abstraction,” a Mencken essay is certain to furrow the brow of the above-average American reader, writer and editor nowadays (bar our own editor, here at the American Greatness). Unlike the tracts disgorged by Conservatism, Inc., the least complicated of Mencken’s editorial writings would place excessive demands on the unsupple minds of young activists, who are busy striking a selfie on social media or running to CPUKE conferences.

Indeed, ideas are in retreat; and the incremental and steady “closing of the American mind” is on the march. By virtue of the unsettling, bracing originality of his ideas, Mencken is rendered as inaccessible to the American reader as an alien from deep space.

While Mencken’s libertarian acolytes and admirers focus on his disdain for The State as the leitmotif of his writings—Mencken’s war on the “dishonest, insane, intolerable and tyrannical” U.S. government was, arguably, the least controversial thread in his voluminous oeuvre.

Mencken’s grasp of government as a predatory, “regimenting” force that fleeces the citizen without flinching; that could and does “safely strip [the individual] to his hide”; a “gang well-nigh immune to punishment”—these, nowadays, are the most acceptable of Mencken’s thoughts.

What would make Mencken an outcast to the turgid minds dominating the current marketplace of ideas is his disdain for the “intellectually underprivileged” American electorate, whom he called the “boobs.” As Mencken saw it, Boobus Americanus, so easily and reliably “impressed and enchanted” by the political scoundrels, was largely to blame for why nowhere in the world was government more secure than in the United States. Americans were simply the “most timorous, sniveling, poltroonsish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag …”

“A glorious commonwealth of morons,” Mencken called America. “The American moron’s mind”—this “mob-man’s” mentality—is that of a “violent nationalist and patriot,” to whom ideas are a menace, and who would always opt “to keep his Ford, even at the cost of losing the Bill of Rights.”

These are all Mencken’s words, not mine.

It was Mencken against America, then, to paraphrase the scholar Thomas W. Hazlett. And it would be Mencken against America today.

More so than his anti-statism and strong, spare prose—so different from today’s insipid, anemic, meandering commentary—Mencken shattered every conceivable totem and taboo of American life. It is this so-called anti-Americanism that would make Mencken unpalatable and unemployable in our times.

In a word, being a man of ideas is what would render Mencken a misfit among his countrymen. For, as Mencken saw them, Americans were congenitally and “implacably hostile to” the very things that made him tick: “novel ideas and points of view.” “Everything American,” mocked Mencken, is characterized by “a great distrust of ideas” … and “a harsh fidelity to a few fixed beliefs,” most of which Mencken derided.

Let me count the ways.

American exceptionalism? Not on your life—except as the “greatest show on earth … a show which lays chief stress upon … the exquisitely ingenious operations of master rogues … clowns in constant practice.”

“American values”? Aren’t those fit for export? Should not America be making the world over in its image?

Are you fit to be tied? Mencken’s conviction was that the “average American” is a narrow-minded chauvinist, who is wont to conflate “differentness” with “wrongness” and immorality. By extension, America’s habitual manner of dealing with “foreign nations, whether friend or foe—is hypocritical, disingenuous, knavish, and dishonorable.”

Christianity? Not too long ago, gingerly cleaving to Edward Gibbon’s scholarship, this essayist pondered whether Christianity might be considered the Social Justice movement of its day. How subtle was that compared to Mencken’s reference to Christianity as a “mob religion” that “paves heaven with gold and precious stones, i.e., with money”!

ORDER IT NOW

Nevertheless, in his day, Mencken was seen as merely following his métier as an acidic critic; today, his heretical words on most subjects would have earned Mencken a rebuke from a prissy, Fox-empaneled gaggle of schoolmarms, called upon to expatiate about Mean Man Mencken. On second thought, today, Mencken would have been silenced by “cancel culture.”

Mencken’s views on “monogamous marriage” and the military broke the American mold as well.

The married man ends up “making machiavellian efforts to avoid kissing the everyday sharer of his meals, books, bath towels, pocketbook, relatives, ambitions, secrets, malaise and business: a proceeding about as romantic as having his boots blackened.” Find me a conservative radio mouth or TV anchor who would forgive the Maestro for that uproariously funny quip.

The American military? The “military caste,” bemoaned Mencken, in the Minority Report, did not originate as a party of patriots, but as a party of bandits.” More crucially, Mencken mocked the mighty American military’s fighting prowess. Who gets away with that today?

From the riffs of outrage coming from the Democrats and their demos over “our democracy” betrayed, infiltrated, even destroyed—you’d never know that a rich vein of thinking in opposition to democracy runs through Western intellectual thought. It’s at its best in Mencken’s diatribe against the democratic doxology. Mencken was withering about a political dispensation that teaches that “all moral excellence, and with it all pure and unfettered sagacity, resided in the inferior four-fifths of mankind.”

Of course, Mencken was not merely politically impolite or incorrect. Rather, he pulverized every politically protected group conceivable: soldiers, sainted farmers and their subsidies, Jewish money-lenders, blacks, and Anglo-Saxons. Mencken would have infuriated with this verdict about the Anglo-Saxon: He is “the least civilized of white men and the least capable of true civilization.” His blood is “running thin,” and “he fears ideas almost more cravenly than he fears men.”

Rest assured, too, that for his use of racial epithets, the country’s professional racism-spotters would proceed against Mencken with all their sinecured mediocrity. This, even though, by the Baltimore Sun’s telling, Mencken did “more to help black writers—including the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson—get into mainstream print than any other white magazine editor of his day.”

Yes, Mencken helped all talent. Why so? For one, he was secure in his own talent unmatched. For another, Mencken toiled at a time when merit still mattered. Today, however, true talent is expunged—treated as a mortal threat to the gatekeepers and overlords of our slum-dog culture. Only in America, ventured Mencken, are such “third-rate men” in full control of the state and the “Kulture.” More so than in Mencken’s day, the mission of these “third-rate men,” today, is to preserve the status quo by warding off “the menace of ideas.”

In Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray evaluates and assesses the events and the individuals, from 800 B.C. to 1950, to have inspired humanity and dragged it out of wattle-and-daub hovels. His verdict about cultural products in the “post-1950 West”: Hardly any of “the literature, music, and visual arts of the last half century has enough substance to satisfy, over time.”

Murray’s methodologically sound findings jibe with the case made here. It is that Mencken—whose career as an American man-of-letters was meteoric, and who made a good living regaling and enraging every segment of American society—would have perished in penury had he peddled his craft in the culturally more barren half of the 20th century.

Not prone to hyperpartisan hysteria, this writer sees Mencken as the keenest and cleverest observer of American culture. Whereas Mencken marshalled exciting, irreverent and powerful thoughts and arguments; current commentary, by-and-large, serves up self-righteous, “pious piffle,” to quote Mencken on the cultural foot-and-mouth of his time. Right and Left, these “dull fellows” would rise on their hind legs in protest of Mencken’s systematic, analytical and entertaining evisceration of the alpha-and-omega of American life.

Were Mencken to submit a tract to most of the popular magazines or websites, conservative or liberal, he’d have been reprimanded by a millennial or Generation-Z “editor” for being mean-spirited. He would have been told, “Thanks, but no thanks, Henry. We’ll pass.”

And “Henry” would have replied to editorial detractors as he did back in the day: Your newspaper, young pipsqueak, is “trifling, ill-informed, petty and unfair. It is full of transparent absurdities. Its editorials are ignorant and without sense. It is written in English full of clichés and vulgarities—English that would disgrace a manager of prize-fighters or a county superintendent of schools.”

Amen.

Ilana Mercer has been writing a weekly, paleolibertarian column since 1999. She’s the author of Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa (2011) & The Trump Revolution: The Donald’s Creative Destruction Deconstructed (June, 2016). She’s on Twitter, Facebook & Gab. New on YouTube

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Mencken, Political Correctness 
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  1. anon[456] • Disclaimer says:

    Thanks, Ilana.

    • Thanks: ILANA Mercer
  2. Quebecer says:

    This comes as a cold shower, a well-needed one.

    How far this man, as well as yourself Ms.Mercer, is from the McReporters we’re being served on a daily basis.

    • Thanks: ILANA Mercer
  3. Thanks for the entertaining essay on HL Mencken. I should reread his essays. His description of tongue-speakers dancing and howling around a bonfire in Alabama or Tennessee was the vivid, unforgettable.

  4. Bumpkin says:

    While I may appreciate Mencken even more than you, show, don’t tell. In many ways, this essay is the opposite of Mencken, full of broad adjectives aimed at a scattershot selection of largely common targets. I agree with much of what Mencken wrote and that you highlight, but you’d have been better off playing more of his greatest hits than stringing together a bunch of your meaningless superlatives, “exciting, irreverent and powerful thoughts and arguments.”

    I enjoyed your enthusiasm for a subject I too thrill to, but to convince others, show and expound more on what specifically marks him as great, rather than wasting as much space simply telling us that he was so.

    • Replies: @Cowboy
  5. Save Prince Harry

    • LOL: Escher
  6. onebornfree says: • Website

    My two favorite Mencken quotes to date:

    “The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic” H.L.Mencken

    “The fact is that the average man’s love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty — and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.” H.L. Mencken

    Regards, onebornfree

  7. Anonymous[700] • Disclaimer says:

    Thanks for this essay!
    CBS Radio Workshop broadcast an admiring portrait of H.L. Mencken’s life and times upon the occasion of his passing in 1956. It’s very much worth a listen, as a reminder, among other things, of what this country used to be, and how far we’ve fallen.

  8. Kerry C says:

    Interesting column about an interesting man. I first heard of Mencken, not in the American school system of course, but during my twenties when I was a self-described “hardcore Libertarian,” and doing my own research. Reading this makes me want to delve deeper into his writings, etc.

    This struck me – “The married man ends up “making machiavellian efforts to avoid kissing the everyday sharer of his meals, books, bath towels, pocketbook, relatives, ambitions, secrets, malaise and business: a proceeding about as romantic as having his boots blackened.” Find me a conservative radio mouth or TV anchor who would forgive the Maestro for that uproariously funny quip.”

    It struck me because it’s something I’ve always noticed. Not to sound crude, but years ago an older co-worker – at the time I was 25, he was maybe sixty, would often remark that he “hadn’t kissed his wife in years.” He also said other choice things that aren’t appropriate for a public forum.

    • Thanks: ILANA Mercer
  9. I would enjoy reading what Henry Mencken might be moved to write about The Baltimore Sun of today, if he could come back and see what it has become. A quote of his about newspaper reporting being the life of kings is written in large letters on a wall in the Sun building’s lobby, and that is about all of HL Mencken that remains in that paper these days.

  10. Cowboy says:
    @Bumpkin

    Ya it got puffy but she did nail the essential point that it was about ideas and Menckens abilities to distill those ideas in words and the great thing about Mencken is that he didn’t have any idols but he also could appreciate those he differed with in principle who could offer a good apology for their thoughts. People can’t handle polemics anymore they are all too soft.

  11. An article praising Mencken, with peacockery and the basest alliterative cliches.

    Any writer unholstering past 2010 ‘first and foremost’ is visually deaf. There is no exception. No non-assholes burp that mating call.

    ‘such verve and vim’
    Ow.

    The article is a Mencken-aping demo.

  12. Brilliant essay on a captivating writer, independent mind and fierce wit.

    Notwithstanding Ilana’s general remarks on today’s journalism the spirit that Mencken embodied still lingers outside the mainstream as shown in this tribute to a great within a higher period of readership.

  13. I’ll copy here something I posted recently on Steve Sailer’s blog:

    I am always amazed at the stupid ways politicians and communicators of every kind try to make concepts understandable to a majority that can’t grasp things like Cartesian graphs, rates of change, or much of anything besides “food, car, job, poop, sex,” (not necessarily in that order).

    A novelist once told me that to be a successful writer, whatever you put out has to be about the four Fs: Fighting, Fleeing, Feeding, and Fucking.

    New York governor Andrew Cuomo had just used a foam model of a mountain to explain to his mouth-breathing public what an x, y coordinate system shows about coronavirus numbers over time.


    We don’t want to climb this mountain again.”

    BTW many thanks to Ilana Mercer for suggesting H.L. Mencken. I don’t think I’ve read anything by him, and now I am going to.

  14. Realist says:

    In spite of your admiration…Mencken was a brilliant, honest man.

  15. Realist says:
    @Buzz Mohawk

    BTW many thanks to Ilana Mercer for suggesting H.L. Mencken. I don’t think I’ve read anything by him, and now I am going to.

    All intelligent people have read Mencken.

    • Replies: @Buzz Mohawk
  16. @Realist

    All intelligent people have read Mencken.

    LOL and only stupid people make logically improbable statements like that.

    • Replies: @Realist
  17. Realist says:
    @Buzz Mohawk

    LOL and only stupid people make logically improbable statements like that.

    You’re just covering your ass

    • Troll: Buzz Mohawk
  18. He also predicted the Trump presidency: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

    • Replies: @wlawlor
    , @Realist
  19. JT says: • Website

    The response to Ilana’s article is gold. Increased spite, jealousy, and arrogance with every new comment.

    -Is Ilana “brilliant enough” to write about Mencken??
    -I’ve read him, have you?
    -Only the brilliant read him!
    -I’ve read him so I am brilliant, you have not, so you are stupid.

    and it’s not a parody – these shitposters take themselves seriously.

    That’s America for you.

    That’s the America Mencken grilled.

    The same uninformed and self-centered country I think a danger to itself, per a recent discussion on Atzmon’s “Black Voices also Matter” https://www.unz.com/gatzmon/black-voices-also-matter/#comment-4008343

    Ilana roasted America from behind Mencken’s name, a point seemingly lost on all whose conceited & slimy comments evidence the persistent accuracy of Mencken’s acerbic judgments.

    In ” Some Opprobrious Nicknames” Mencken mentions the word “Baltimoron,” which I would willingly substitute for “liberal” but am tempted to distort into Amerimoron, the country of Amerimoronia, inhabited by Ameridiots…Mencken preferred the term “Boobus Americanus,” and called America ” “This glorius commonwealth of Morons.”

    Mencken had wit. He didn’t take his pronouncements too seriously, they were quips, not eternal truths. He wasn’t a political ideologue. With the death of Art Buchwald we’ve seen the demise of political satire in the mainstream American press.

    The 19th century gave us many brilliant names. Dreiser’s Trilogy of Desire is worth a read.

    Some of you might enjoy a book, Chic Ironic BitternessBy R. Jay Magill. The names there are worth exploring.

    • Replies: @Pincher Martin
  20. If the Baltimore Sun had any balls whatsoever they’d make Mencken’s entire library of columns available online for free. He was only the most important newspaper columnist in America at the time, and obviously the greatest brand asset to the Baltimore Sun ever. Instead they retcon his writings with cheap observations like “Mencken predicted Trump” because he had so little regard for the electorate. (Everything refers back to Trump, you see, but only selectively) The Sun also put Mencken’s life at great risk by shipping him over to Germany in December 1916 to cover the war. The Brits immediately howled that he was pro-German because he dared interview the German military, plus that Mencken name sure did sound ethnically suspicious didn’t it. Two months later his European gig was over, sadly.

  21. wlawlor says: • Website
    @Observator

    The moron was previously elected.He served from 2000-2008.

    • Agree: schnellandine
  22. Imagine someone who has never heard of H. L. Mencken before and his first contact with him happened to be via this article.
    What could be his reaction? Here’s one possible scenario:

    This Mencken guy is a megalomaniac: “applies low-frequency words unnecessarily and derides others whom he perceives as less intelligent”;
    He also typifies the ‘rebel without a cause’ i.e. he’s a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian;
    All in all, he seems actually completely fit for the 21st Century – join any online forum and you’ll sooner or later encounter arseholery from some smarty-pants.

    • Agree: schnellandine
  23. @Buzz Mohawk

    Hey, Cuomo! This is how you do it!

  24. @onebornfree

    “The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.”

    ~ H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy

    Anyone standing against the mania of the moment is a misfit, as all libertarians are.

    https://www.zerohedge.com/political/japanese-city-kills-smartphone-zombies-bans-texting-while-walking

  25. Realist says:
    @Observator

    On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

    That has happened numerous times…the latest…2017.

  26. very good. dont knew menken. before. i dont need. mi brain minds same

  27. @Mark Humphrey

    Mencken has been replaced with Menchicken littles working for Foxy locksydown media

    the new lot just cannot think outside the bucks even though the sky is falling on their

    QE rabbits

  28. Libby says:

    “…The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the greatest liars;
    the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”

    — H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

    “…The most dangerous man, to any government,
    is the man who is able to think things out for himself,
    without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.

    Almost invariably he comes to the conclusion that
    the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable,
    and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it.

    And if he is not romantic personally,
    he is apt to spread discontent among those who are.”

    — H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

  29. I’m an admirer of the “Sage of Baltimore.” Mencken was the supreme enemy of pretense and bullshit.

  30. @onebornfree

    If we’re restricted to two, mine would be

    Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

    and

    The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.

    .

    I also love “Memorial Service” (from “Prejudices, Third Series“, reproduced on p95 of “A Mencken Chrestomathy“), but it’s too long to reproduce: it’s the one that starts “Where is the graveyard of dead gods?” and ends…

    You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: You will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity — gods of civilized peoples — worshiped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.

    The same framework is suitable for discussion of empires.

  31. If Mencken were alive and still writing, his words would probably be only available on sites like The Unz Review.

    • Agree: ILANA Mercer
  32. On second thought, today, Mencken would have been silenced by “cancel culture.”

    I am surprised that his house in Baltimore has not been burned and his papers, which are stored at the Pratt Library, have not been tossed out. Maybe he is so unknown to most people that it keeps them safe.

  33. I disagree that Mencken is worthwhile now or that he was worthwhile then. He was simply a smug and arrogant writer who thought no one else mattered but himself and a few of his favorite second-rate writers. Books don’t build countries. They are built by people who build houses, roads, bridges, tunnels, harbors, people who raise food, companies who make pharmaceuticals, and so on. Compared to some of the great writers of his own time, like Thomas Mann and W,illiam Faulkner, Mencken was a schmuck.

  34. @Buzz Mohawk

    Mencken was an amazing writer–ripped all the self-righteous jerks of his time to shreds.

    An emergent AI will discover Mencken–and realize that homo sapiens is much closer to apes than angels–and the AI will act accordingly.

  35. @onebornfree

    A few of my favorite Mencken quotes.

    First, on the idiocy of English teachers:

    “…I suppose that the inferiority of the teachers of [English] is largely due to the fact that they are recruited from the lower moiety of pedagogical aspirants. The more ambitious fellows tackle something that seems more recondite, and hence better worth knowing. A prospective teacher of biology, say, or mathematics, or physics, cannot outfit himself for his career by reading a few plays of Shakespeare, memorizing the rules of grammar laid down by idiots, and learning to pronounce either as if it were spelled eyether; he must apply himself to a vast mass of strange and difficult facts, and mastering them requires a kind of capacity that is not common. The stupider fellow turns to something that is easier and more obvious, which is to say, to the language that every “educated” man is presumed to know, and the books he is presumed to have read…”

    On the goal of public education:

    “The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”

    On the questionable value of high-minded motives:

    “The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.”

    On idealists:

    “An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.”

    On radicals:

    “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who loves his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.” 

    His brutal takedown of Henry James:

    “The average newspaper reporter writes better English than Henry [James], if good English means clear, comprehensible English…. Take any considerable sentence from any of his novels and examine its architecture. Isn’t it wobbly with qualifying clauses and subassistant phrases? Doesn’t it wriggle and stumble and stagger and flounder? Isn’t it ‘crude, untidy, careless,’ bedraggled, loose, frowsy, disorderly, unkempt, uncombed, uncurried, unbrushed, unscrubbed? Doesn’t it begin in the middle and work away from both ends? Doesn’t it often bounce along for a while and then, of a sudden, roll up its eyes and go out of business entirely?”

    His even more brutal takedown of Thorstein Veblen:

    “Well, what have we here? What does this appalling salvo of rhetorical artillery signify? What was the sweating professor trying to say? Simply that in the course of time the worship of God is commonly corrupted by other enterprises, and that the church, ceasing to be a mere temple of adoration, becomes the headquarters of these other enterprises. More simply still, that men sometimes vary serving God by serving other men, which means, of course, serving themselves. This bald platitude, which must be obvious to any child who has ever been to a church bazaar, was here tortured, worried and run through rollers until it spread out to 241 words, of which fully 200 were unnecessary. The next paragraph was even worse. In it the master undertook to explain in his peculiar dialect the meaning of “that non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity with the environment which is left as a residue of the latter-day act of worship after elimination of its anthropomorphic content.” Just what did he mean by this “non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity”? I studied the whole paragraph for three days, halting only for prayer and sleep, and I came to certain conclusions. What I concluded was this: he was trying to say that many people go to church, not because they are afraid of the devil but because they enjoy the music, and like to look at the stained glass, the potted lilies and the rev. pastor. To get this profound and highly original observation upon paper, he wasted, not merely 241, but more than 300 words. To say what might have been said on a postage stamp he took more than a page in his book.’

    “And so it went, alas, alas, in all his other volumes—a cent’s worth of information wrapped in a bale of polysyllables. In “The Higher Learning in America” the thing perhaps reached its damndest and worst. It was as if the practise of that incredibly obscure and malodorous style were a relentless disease, a sort of progressive intellectual diabetes, a leprosy of the horse sense. Words were flung upon words until all recollection that there must be a meaning in them, a ground and excuse for them, were lost. One wandered in a labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable to walk. It was, and is, impossible to imagine worse English, within the limits of intelligible grammar. It was clumsy, affected, opaque, bombastic, windy, empty. It was without grace or distinction and it was often without the most elementary order. The professor got himself enmeshed in his gnarled sentences like a bull trapped by barbed wire, and his efforts to extricate himself were quite as furious and quite as spectacular. He heaved, he leaped, he writhed; at times he seemed to be at the point of yelling for the police. It was a picture to bemuse the vulgar and to give the judicious grief.’

    “Worse, there was nothing at the bottom of all this strident wind-music—the ideas it was designed to set forth were, in the overwhelming main, poor ideas, and often they were ideas that were almost idiotic. The concepts underlying, say, “The Theory of the Leisure Class” were simply Socialism and well water; the concepts underlying “The Higher Learning in America” were so childishly obvious that even the poor drudges who wrote editorials for newspapers often voiced them, and when, now and then, the professor tired of this emission of stale bosh and attempted flights of a more original character, he straightway came tumbling down into absurdity. What the reader then had to struggle with was not only intolerably bad writing, but also loose, flabby, cocksure and preposterous thinking….”

    On Protestantism:

    “The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore.”

    These are just a few of my favorites. I have many more.

  36. @JT

    Mencken had wit. He didn’t take his pronouncements too seriously, they were quips, not eternal truths. He wasn’t a political ideologue.

    A lot of this is true, except for the part where you claim Mencken didn’t take “too seriously” what he was saying.

    I think Mencken believed nearly every word he wrote. But he wasn’t a political agitator or organizer. He didn’t advocate in the need for action, which he left up to the romantics. He did, however, believe in his work. He was a professional. He had an enormous output over the course of his life – especially when you consider he was a working journalist in his early career – and some of that output were scholarly books that required a lot of research.

    Mencken wasn’t just a jokester coming up with quips. He was a funny, street-smart intellectual who managed to create one of the most enduring bodies of work in America literature because of a style that was entirely his own.

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