At the sputtering end of the Gilded Age, a cult of sham gentility had America in a creative vise. Our literature was Victorian but without the smoldering subtext of radicalism of its British antecedents, while propriety was the watchword of governmental censors who determined what the American public was and was not allowed to read. It was the era of the Comstock laws, which decreed it illegal for anybody to instruct a woman on how her own body worked; the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan; and the tightening of New Puritanism’s grasp around the throat of innocuous American revelry. But more than any of that, it was the age of H. L. Mencken (1880–1956), the paradoxical cynic who fought against America’s bland easing into respectable Babbittry with a fierce elegance that founded modern editorial writing.
From the pages of The Smart Set and American Mercury, the culture-defining magazines that he edited, and The Baltimore Evening Sun, to which he contributed for more than three decades, Mencken devoted himself to a tireless struggle against ignorance and charlatanry. He shook American literature by the shoulders until it dropped its genteel affectations in favor of a hardscrabble look at the cost of American success. The realism of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis would have come and gone largely unnoticed if not for his vigorous championing of their prose. And what America knew of Joseph Conrad, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Bernard Shaw, and F. Scott Fitzgerald it knew from Mencken. His coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial set forever the image of William Jennings Bryan as the lost old man we see in Inherit the Wind and of Dayton as the land of orchestrated religious convulsions. Even when Mencken was wrong—and he was often wrong—the force of his challenges, the refusal to take things as they appeared, positively complexified the landscape of an American discourse grown timid under sedition laws and federal surveillance.
Personally, he was a blustering contradiction in the best American tradition. Mencken lived with his mother until her death, keeping an orderly and quite mad work schedule that was thoroughly at odds with his carefully crafted sinful old devil persona. He never attended college, opting instead to hop straight into the newspaper business upon the death of his father, and yet his meticulous work cataloguing the vagaries and diversity of American English was the ship that launched a thousand comparative linguistics departments. He was a cultural commentator who helped usher in a new era of American thought, and then he arbitrarily dug in his heels against any further progress once he saw his goals achieved. A skeptical libertarian avant le mot, he ended his days being rejected by both liberal and conservative alike, too scornful of socialism to fit in with the former and too withering in his condemnation of Christianity’s various inanities to pass muster with the latter.
As an author, his prose was the most distinctive and satisfying of his generation, a tough and gnarled mass of arcane references and intentionally vulgar Americanisms that mixed the surliness of vintage Twain with the clip and jitter of a new age moving too fast to take its bearings. There is no way to mistake a Mencken linguistic assault for anything but Mencken: “That Protestantism in this great Christian realm is down with a wasting disease must be obvious to every amateur of ghostly pathology. One half of it is moving, with slowly accelerating speed, in the direction of the Harlot of the Seven Hills: the other is sliding down into voodooism. The former carries the greater part of Protestant money with it; the latter carries the greater part of Protestant libido.” Mencken’s sentences are gilded dance halls in which elegant ladies and gaudy street women jostle against one another in improbable but delicious concord. In the hands of a lesser stylist, it could easily devolve into the stuff of faux-risqué Rotarian toastmanship, but Mencken’s exhaustive immersion in the literary traditions of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries made it all hang intoxicatingly together. When his foe was worth his venom, the results were the definitive statements of their age.
After an apprenticeship served at the Baltimore Herald, Mencken was given a chance to coedit the failing magazine The Smart Set with theater critic George Jean Nathan. They recast the journal as a joint attack on the stifling strictures of American culture’s barren gentility. First as a literary critic (1908–1915) and then as editor (1915–1923), Mencken lashed out at the anemic literature of the Oliver Wendell Holmes tradition and sought out authors who were neither ashamed of embracing the emerging American language nor of reporting the grim casualties of the American Way. He championed the thick realism of Theodore Dreiser and thereby put Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt into the pantheon of American literature. A decade later, he introduced America to Main Street, a novel by a brilliant drunkard named Sinclair Lewis that would go on to win America’s first Nobel Prize for Literature.
But as revolutionary and important a literary critic as he was, it is as a social commentator that we remember Mencken now, a role he was able to play once he slipped the purely literary bonds of The Smart Set and set out to create a new magazine in his own image, the American Mercury (1924–1933). It was the magazine that defined “it-ness” during the height of the Roaring Twenties, for no other reason than that here Mencken was free to be Mencken, to lash out at whatever he thought needed a thorough humbling. When he began his writing career, his arrows aimed at the parochialism of American culture and politics rubbed against the grain of prewar idealism. After the experience of World War I, however, Americans were at last ready to see the worst—and Mencken was there, as he had been since the turn of the century, to show it to them. He savaged politicians and preachers and those who would be both; railed against Christian Science and white supremacists; snarled at Prohibition; and shone a cruel and unforgiving light upon the lie at the heart of every presidential promise.
He was a curmudgeon soothed only by memories of Huckleberry Finn and the music of the great Romantic composers. Mencken seemed to hate everything, and America loved him for it. At the height, of his influence in the mid-twenties, his Sun columns and American Mercury editorials set the pace for advanced skepticism in the United States, culminating in his masterful coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Though he had to miss the legendary denouement when Clarence Darrow put William Jennings Bryan on the stand, his reports of religious life in Dayton, Tennessee, and especially his obituary of Bryan, who died shortly after the trial, formed the public memory of the event. We remember Dayton as a mixture of earnest religious fanatics and unscrupulous business opportunists because that is what Mencken showed us, just as he bequeathed us our picture of Bryan as a glory-seeking charlatan whose certainty exceeded his understanding. Though Scopes lost the trial, the victory belonged to evolution thanks to Mencken’s journalism.
So long as America was fat and prosperous, Mencken was the necessary court cynic, the indispensable conveyor of Puritanism’s ongoing, manifest, and manifold cruelties. But come the Stock Market Crash of 1929, his feel for the leading edge of critical analysis grew less sure and continued growing more vague with each year. The man who had argued for America to break free of its creative thralldom to Victorianism could not and would not understand the innovations of modernism. He abhorred the New Deal as a reckless experiment in big government that would end in the destruction of liberty. He argued for an isolationist approach to World War II, retiring in silent protest upon America’s engagement in the conflict. He continued to rail against the old foes of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties even though their malevolent stars were largely in decline, giving his later editorials a feeling of curmudgeonly disconnection. By the early forties, the nation’s greatest essayist found himself muzzled and straining for purpose. His additions and revisions to The American Language, the massive study of American English’s departure from British English, was perennially successful, and a series of memoirs proved engaging and popular, but the idea of Mencken as the head man of the nation’s intellectual reimagining grew less thinkable with each Franklin Delano Roosevelt reelection, leaving Mencken to seethe privately and writing unpublished works for a future he hoped would understand him better.
In many ways, it has. The mixture of religious skepticism and extreme libertarianism that formed the core of his personal ideology, and which was so problematic for his time, is a cultural commonplace now. Turn on any episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit, and you’ll see the spirit of Mencken in all of its paradox alive and well. And after years of assurances that American religion was steadily rationalizing itself in step with the times, the resurgence of fundamentalism has resolutely flung atheism back upon its copies of The Mencken Chrestomathy in search of explanations for this presumed-moribund specter.
The man who scratched and fought nearly alone against the timid self-satisfaction, casual racism, anti-intellectualism, and insincere prudery of pre–World War America would find many of his bugbears, thought long defeated by the modernists who discarded him as old-fashioned, thriving with renewed vigor today. The vacuous sentimentality of Twitter, the flaccid intellectual barbarism of Rick Santorum, the ghastly intolerance of the Westboro Baptists—these would all have Mencken scrambling with wicked glee toward his Corona typewriter to point out the price of flagging critical diligence and easy bourgeois prosperity. There is much in him that is best left dead (his low-burning anti-Semitism, his often-cold opposition to social-welfare programs), but there is also much that will stay eternally relevant whenever, after a long abeyance, the “anthropoid booboisie” links arms with the undulating purveyors of redemption to attempt another pull on the brake line of American ethical progress. In times such as these, Mencken will always be our gruff oracle, the Delphi of Baltimore, mocking and relentless, and most of all necessary.