Introduction to
Mencken's America

(Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004)
[Copyright © 2004 by S. T. Joshi. Reprinted by permission of Ohio University Press.]

Americans have developed an enviable skill at remaining impervious to criticism. Perhaps it is merely the defense mechanism of a relatively new people facing the intimidating cultural antiquity of Europe and Asia; perhaps America's remarkably sudden rise to political and economic supremacy has engendered an arrogance that leads its citizens to vaunt size, speed, power, and money as intrinsic goods; perhaps, conversely, the nation's founding by religious dissenters has produced a holier-than-thou attitude that blandly overlooks instances of American hypocrisy, duplicity, and cultural inadequacy as insignificant counterweights to American morality and piety. Educated Americans can hardly be unaware that, from the earliest days of the republic, a nearly unending succession of overseas visitors have seized upon American political, social, and cultural deficiencies and held them scornfully up to the light of day; but it has become routine to pass these off as the maunderings of ignorant foreigners.

H. L. Mencken, although the son of immigrants, can hardly be called a foreigner; and ignorant is just about the last attribute that could be applied to him. Why, then, did he take so dim a view of his fellow citizens? Why did he regard the US government as "corrupt, ignorant, incompetent and disgusting" and its people "the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the fall of the Eastern Empire"? Mencken uttered this towering condemnation at about the midpoint in his long career as a journalist and cultural commentator, a career that began just prior to the turn of the twentieth century and continued until a stroke in 1949 suddenly silenced his pen; and in that fifty-year span, his opinion of Americans does not seem to have altered to any significant degree, either for the better or for the worse. Mencken claimed that rancor or indignation were foreign to his temperament, and that in spite of his dim view of his countrymen he was "curiously happy." Where, after all, could one find such a good show as that provided by the witnessing of an unending succession of American buffooneries?

As a journalist--first for the Baltimore Herald and then, beginning in 1906 and continuing almost without a hiatus until 1948, for the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun--Mencken was in a good position to view these buffooneries at first hand. He attended nearly every Republican and Democratic national convention from 1904 to 1948, and his pungent reporting of the political shenanigans that regularly turned them into grotesque farces is well known. [1] In his "Free Lance" column in the Evening Sun--a column he wrote six days a week for four and a half years from 1911 to 1915--he found an inexhaustible fund of absurdity in his native city of Baltimore, although he gradually broadened his scope to cover the entire nation and the world as it lurched into war. From 1914 to 1923 he added the responsibilities of coediting, with George Jean Nathan, the Smart Set, turning it into a leading American cultural organ and gaining celebrity for himself by his tart and uncompromising monthly review column. In these reviews, as in his later review columns for the American Mercury (1924-33), he rarely restricted himself to works of pure literature; instead, he spread his intellectual canvass to cover such things as the political tracts of Walter Lippmann, a new translation of the Bible, a brace of works on Freudian psychology, and any other book that caught his fancy. His final review, in the American Mercury for December 1933, was an examination of Hitler's Mein Kampf and other works of "Hitlerismus." Few reviewers have demonstrated such intellectual range; it was no surprise that these reviews, many of them the equivalent of substantial essays, served as the basis for the early volumes of Mencken's landmark six-volume series of Prejudices (1919-27), which cemented his reputation as the leading American cultural critic of the 1920s.

Mencken's productivity was such that he himself could scarcely trouble to assemble all his disparate writings into books, so that the task must be fulfilled by others. In particular, a series of papers he wrote for the Smart Set in 1913-14, about a year before he assumed the editorship of the magazine, are among his most scintillating screeds on American life; I have gathered them here under the rubric "The American: A Treatise." It is true that he incorporated one of these papers, with revisions, in the long essay "Puritanism as a Literary Force" (a chapter in A Book of Prefaces, 1917); but the rest remained unreprinted, although they manifestly served as a continual reservoir of ideas that Mencken drew upon for much of his later writing on the subject. A succession of other essays--accounts of travels throughout the country, meditations on American political and religious life, thoughts on the American literary tradition, even his views of the nascent film industry--fills out this volume, and presents a comprehensive account of American culture as Mencken saw it, rivaling and complementing such well-known essays in Prejudices as "The National Letters," "The Sahara of the Bozart," and "On Being an American."

What, then, did Mencken find so offensive about Americans? The matter can be summed up in one word: Puritanism. It is of no consequence that Mencken's use of this term may have been historically inaccurate--that the Puritans of the seventeenth century may not have had the exact attributes that he had in mind under the rubric of Puritanism; for Mencken, the issue was more one of psychology than history. While it is true that he dates the emergence of the "new Puritanism" to the generation after the Civil War, he was aware that its fundamental premises had colored American politics, society, and morals from the beginning; and while dogmatic religion may have been at its base, its ramifications went well beyond theology and entered into nearly every facet of American life.

Puritanism, in Mencken's memorable phrase, "assum[es] that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that ninety-nine percent of them are wrong." It was, in his view, Americans' inveterate habit to judge all thoughts and actions from an ethical perspective, and to disapprove the great majority of them as subversive of "good morals." It was this that engendered Americans' suspicion of the fine arts as somehow morally dangerous. It was not simply that Americans were indifferent to art; they were actively hostile to it as a potentially corrupting influence. The notion that art could civilize, could soothe the asperities of daily life, or could merely supply some harmless amusement, was absent from their consciousness. Art, in any case, was the province of the few, and Americans did not look with favor upon any aspect of life that could not be readily appreciated by all. The principle of equality was illegitimately extended from the political and legal realms into the realms of intellect and culture: if a book or a painting or a piece of music could not be understood and enjoyed by everyone, then it should not be enjoyed by anyone.

It was Puritanism, too, that not only assumed the moral "wrongness" of many thoughts and actions that the rest of the world deemed harmless and pleasurable, but that demanded the suppression of these thoughts and actions by "the secular arm." Mencken may have been in error in deeming the seventeenth-century Puritan society of New England a "theocracy," but he was quick to detect the ever-increasing encroachments upon freedom by crusaders whose quest for moral purity impelled them closer and closer to tyranny and fascism. The censorship campaigns of Anthony Comstock and his Society for the Suppression of Vice; the long, tortured, agonizing lurch toward the Eighteenth Amendment, fueled by the hardball political tactics of the Anti-Saloon League; the chasing of Reds and other undesirables in the post-World War I period--all these things were witnessed at first hand by Mencken and elicited his relentless and towering condemnation. Mencken frankly referred to himself as a libertarian; but unlike many present libertarians, who envision only the freedom of business to engage in economic manipulation without irritating government interference, Mencken knew that the cornerstone of liberty was freedom of thought: "As for me, my literary theory, like my politics, is based chiefly upon one main idea, to wit, the idea of freedom. I am, in brief, a libertarian of the most extreme variety, and know of no human right that is one-tenth as valuable as the simple right to utter what seems (at the moment) to be the truth. Take away his right, and none other is worth a hoot; nor, indeed, can any other long exist." [2]

Mencken himself exercised that "simple right" on every possible occasion, and never more vigorously and iconoclastically than in the realm of politics. It was not merely that he tirelessly exhibited the blatant and undisguised hypocrisy and duplicity of self-serving politicians, who he considered merely jobholders intent on keeping their positions from one election to the next with the least amount of effort; it was that he boldly challenged the most cherished shibboleths of American political thought. Specifically, he presented--briefly in some of the essays in this book and more exhaustively in the treatise Notes on Democracy (1926)--a systematic critique of the very principle of American democracy. Democracy, in his judgment, was flawed in its very conception; as he wrote in "What Ails the Republic" (1922), it "always resolves itself, in the end, into a scheme for enabling weak and inferior men to force their notions and desires, by mass action, upon strong and superior men. Its essence is this substitution of mere numbers for every other sort of superiority--this fundamental assumption that a group of idiots, if only its numbers be large enough, is wiser and more virtuous than any conceivable individual who is not an idiot." Mencken would have agreed emphatically with his erstwhile correspondent Ambrose Bierce, who only a few years earlier had written a "future history" in which the downfall of the American republic was memorably etched: "An inherent weakness in republic government was that it assumed the honesty and intelligence of the majority, 'the masses,' who were neither honest nor intelligent." [3] And Mencken would have agreed with both facets of Bierce's condemnation: it was not merely that the American people were uneducated (and therefore unable to grasp the complexity of the political, economic, and social issues that they were called upon to adjudicate); it was that they were also fundamentally dishonest. The "liberty" they touted was in reality liberty for themselves and restraint for everyone else; the moral "evils" they condemned were those that they had neither the desire nor the capacity to commit themselves, or knew that they could commit without detection.

The whole issue of the viability of democracy as a political principle is well beyond the scope of this introduction, but some further thoughts on Mencken's attitudes may be in order. The basis of his critique of democracy was the very low opinion he held of both the abstract intelligence and the educability of the "plain people":

. . . I doubt that the art of thinking can be taught at all--at any rate, by school-teachers. It is not acquired, but congenital. Some persons are born with it. Their ideas flow in straight channels; they are capable of lucid reasoning; when they say anything it is instantly understandable, when they write anything it is clear and persuasive. They constitute, I should say, about one-eighth of one per cent. of the human race. The rest of God's children are just as incapable of logical thought as they are incapable of jumping over the moon. Trying to teach them to think is as vain an enterprise as trying to teach a streptococcus the principles of Americanism. [4]

In the absence of an educated electorate, it would then appear that every politician is obliged, in order to be elected at all, to become a demagogue; and the end result (as he states in his contribution to Harold Stearns's Civilization in the United States, included here under the title "The American Politician") is that "It is almost impossible to imagine a man of genuine self-respect and dignity offering himself as a candidate" for political office. Mencken was not naive enough to imagine that pure intelligence was sufficient to transform a person into a sensible voter; rather, he was looking for what might might be termed political savvy--an ability to snuff out the insincerities, hypocrisies, and rhetorical smokescreens that so many politicians use to bamboozle the electorate and to win favor for policies that they secretly support for quite other (and usually self-serving or doctrinaire) reasons.

This brings up the vexed issue of what the purpose of democracy actually is. Is the principle of "majority rules" valid in itself, and in every circumstance? Should a majority of people not be allowed to determine what policies its government is to follow? It is here, as Mencken saw, that both intelligence and morality (what he habitually termed "common decency") come into play. What if, for example, a majority of the American people decided to imprison, exile, or even execute all African Americans, or homosexuals, or atheists? For large periods of American history such policies would probably have been supported by substantial majorities. It is no argument that the Constitution--specifically the Bill of Rights--prevents such decrees from taking effect; Mencken was well aware that the Constitution could be changed with suitable doses of demagoguery from politicians or pressure groups, as happened with Prohibition. It would then seem that, in the absence of an intelligent and morally sound electorate, democracy cannot function even in principle.

Mencken, of course, was hardly inclined to offer any solutions to this dilemma or the others that he faced when contemplating American society and culture; probably he felt that that there were no viable solutions to be had. Remember that Mencken believed the American people were not merely uneducated, but ineducable: no amount of education, and no amount of reform of educational practice, could ever allow more than a tiny fraction of the American (or human) populace to attain a sufficient modicum of intelligence to make politically astute decisions. And that ineducability, Mencken well knew, played itself out in many other aspects of social and cultural life.

One of those other aspects was religion. The exact place of religion in American life and morals is one that Mencken does not discuss explicitly or concentratedly in his 1913-14 papers on "The American," nor does he do so in Treatise on the Gods (1930), an unwontedly sober study that is chiefly concerned with the anthropology of religion. [5] In "The American: His New Puritanism" he does discuss the religious origins of the new Puritanism, but one must turn to other, later writings--specifically his editorials in the American Mercury--for his views of the state of the American religion in the 1920s. It is not surprising that, in an editorial published in the November 1925 issue, Mencken--still relishing the firestorm of controversy he provoked by his pungently satirical reporting of the Scopes trial that summer, which concluded with several kicks in the stomach to the late lamented William Jennings Bryan--would address himself to the "divine ignoramuses" of the Fundamentalist sects, a group that Mencken presciently saw as a growing threat to American freedoms. Nor is it surprising that in another editorial, written just prior to the presidential election of 1928, he should actually welcome the widespread anti-Catholic prejudice that emerged, notably from the Ku Klux Klan, with the nomination of Alfred E. Smith as the Democratic candidate. Advocate of free speech that he was, Mencken was not inclined to propose the restriction of even the ugliest kinds of religious or racial bigotry, so long as it was restricted to speech--and so long as others, like himself, were equally free to have their own say in turn.

But it was in an editorial of 1931 that Mencken seems to have identified a tendency that would come to dominate American religious thought and practice for the rest of the century: a kind of homogenization of religion into a bland and doctrine-free Christianity, offensive to no one and capable of incorporating the views of nearly all religious groups, with only atheists and agnostics left beyond the pale. Mencken himself was far from being an atheist, but his skeptical credentials were well attested far in advance of the Scopes trial; and one cannot help feeling that he looked with something like wistful regret at the decline of religious infighting, especially since this suggested as a corollary that criticism of anyone's religion had suddenly fallen beyond the bounds of good taste. Mencken knew that the numerous follies embedded in the doctrines of every religion could only be exposed by freewheeling debate, even if that debate occasionally verged on abuse and billingsgate; and he was opposed to the granting of some unspecified "respect" for a person's religious views merely on the ground that he or she held them. Nothing is to be gained by sealing off religion, or any other facet of life, from critical scrutiny, even in the interests of social harmony.

Mencken devoted the great proportion of his career in pointing to the deficiencies of the American character; but in so doing he was necessarily relying, albeit at times implicitly, upon a conception of proper social, political, and moral behavior as he saw it. What, then, was Mencken's ideal? What was his antidote to the pathological Puritanism of American life? He summed it up in a single word: civilization. Behind this word lurked a complex network of conceptions that is difficult to elucidate. It was not merely that civilized persons are capable of appreciating the great literature, art, and thought that represent the highest pinnacles of human endeavor; it was that such persons have the self-restraint to keep their moral fervor in check, to resist bringing in the secular arm in regard to thoughts or actions that do not encroach upon anyone else's freedoms. Moreover, civilized persons could take their pleasures sanely and level-headedly; they could enjoy liquor, dancing, and even sex without running amok; they were unthreatened by difference-difference in opinion, in behavior, in philosophical or political orientation. Civilized persons are even willing to allow Puritans "the private practice of their rococo asceticism on their remote farms or in the galvanized-iron tabernacles that they erect on suburban dumps," so long as those Puritans don't make any efforts to railroad them into those tabernacles without their consent. That this kind of restraint only comes after centuries of civilized life, such as we find in the mellow societies of Europe and Asia, Mencken assumed as a foregone conclusion, hence his entire lack of enthusiasm for waging a campaign for civilizing the raw American. The effort, he knew, would be doomed from the start.

It was, indeed, as a function of his spanning the globe--from the Caribbean so early as 1900 to Germany in 1917 to the Middle East in the 1930s--that Mencken arrived at many of his views on the American character. Nor did he refrain from canvassing the American continent as time and circumstances permitted. His reporting of the quadrennial political conventions caused him to crisscross the country several times over; other journeys were taken for less strenuous purposes, although he rarely allowed himself to kick up his heels in some vacation spot without writing at least one or two accounts of it.

And yet, Baltimore remained close to his heart, as the early essay "Good Old Baltimore" (1913) attests. Let it pass that a large part of this essay is devoted to Maryland cuisine, with the suggestion that the finest days of its culinary preeminence are in fact over. The real issue is whether we are to see any contradiction between the unfeignedly positive portrayal of his native city ("A quaint town! A singular people! And yet the charm is there!") embodied in this essay and the rather glum portrayal we find only nine years later in "Maryland: Apex of Normalcy" (1922). Perhaps the contradiction is only on the surface. It is not sufficient to say that the later essay was written as Prohibition had gained its stranglehold upon the American populace and upon American civil liberties; what is more pertinent is that the lugubrious assessment we find there--life "is dull . . . it is depressing . . . it steadily grows worse"--is really implicit in the earlier piece as well, which could be read as a nostalgic elegy for a Baltimore that, even in 1913, had already seen its apogee as a haven for the civilized come and go.

Mencken was, accordingly, forced to seek that haven elsewhere, even if temporarily. He would never abandon Baltimore, but he could at least sample what the rest of the country had to offer. How about nearby Philadelphia? Not likely: this "city of seven Sundays"--a reference not to the Philadelphians' excess of piety but to their moral and aesthetic timidity--did not offer the mellow civilization Mencken sought, and the worst thing he can find to say of it is that "Philadelphia is the least un-American city in the nation." Washington, DC, is even closer to Baltimore, but it too is found wanting: its architecture is a chaotic congeries of classic grandeur and appalling lack of taste, and its citizens (particularly the politicians) are bare-faced hypocrites in the wake of Prohibition. New York? No doubt Mencken enjoyed his frequent visits to New York as editor of the Smart Set; but it is telling that he only agreed to take on the editorship if he could edit the magazine at long distance, making trips to the editorial offices only "every third or fourth week." [6] One gains the impression, surveying his many discussions of New York over the course of his career, that Mencken felt an unacknowledged envy at the megalopolis that so overshadowed his native city in its size, its wealth, and its role as a magnet for artists and writers hoping to cash in on their proximity to the nation's major publishers. In the later essay, "Metropolis" (originally an editorial in the American Mercury, October 1926, and reprinted in Prejudices: Sixth Series, 1927), he repeats the contention made in the essay "New York" (1923) that the city has not figured prominently in much of the major American literature of the recent past; he singles out Chicago as the source of much of the inspiration of such writers as Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. In light of recent events, it is of course chilling to read of Mencken's bland prediction of the ease with which a foreign attack could be undertaken on that exposed and underdefended city.

It is no surprise that Mencken found his civilized paradise in San Francisco, a city he visited only twice, once in 1920 for the Democratic National Convention, and again in 1926, in the course of a lengthy stay in both southern and central California. What else did San Francisco represent to him but a "subtle but unmistakable sense of escape from the United States"? Of all the cities in the United States, it perhaps came the closest to replicating the civilized mellowness of the great cities of Europe, although Mencken was aware that its orientation was eastward, to Asia. But consider the specific points on which Mencken bases his praise of the city by the bay: "here, at last, was an American city that somehow managed to hold itself above pollution by the national philistinism and craze for standardization, the appalling progress of 100% Americanism, the sordid and pathetic dreams of unimaginative, timorous and inferior men." It defied the American hostility to art; it rejected that absence of independent thought that caused so many Americans to be joiners of safe groups of like-minded individuals; it had eyes for values other than the acquisition of wealth and power. It was, in a word, un-American.

It is interesting to note that the one aspect of American civilization that gained Mencken's approval was what he termed the "American language." And yet, it becomes evident that no small element of prejudice entered into his approbation--specifically, prejudice against the cultural hegemony of the British (hateful to a German-American who excoriated his adopted country for siding with the Allies during World War I) and his unrelenting scorn for the "schoolmarm" and other pedagogues, whose pedantry and inflexibility he never tired of skewering. A careful reading of the essay "The American: His Language" (1913)--which could serve as a radical condensation of what became The American Language (1919)--reveals its share of fallacies and contradictions. Firstly, the championing of ungrammatical lower-class speech comes oddly from one who otherwise spared no occasion to lampoon the intellectual failings of that class. Secondly, Mencken far exaggerates the degree to which even this class actually uses the ungrammatical and slang-ridden formulations he attributes to them. Indeed, in an awkward moment in his last revision of The American Language, he was forced to admit, after an analysis of statistics he himself endorsed, that "the schoolmarm's efforts to inculcate 'good grammar' have some effect." [7] Mencken himself never utilized these formulations in his own writing except for parodic purposes. Nevertheless, he was unquestionably right in asserting that the impetus for change in the English language now came largely from Americans--not only by virtue of their sheer numbers, but because they did indeed seem to have a gift for piquant and novel utterance, perhaps because their fluid and dynamic society created a greater degree of social and technological change than the stratified British society of the period.

But when it came to studying American literature, Mencken saw himself as judge, jury, and executioner. He was relentless in condemning the timid, hackneyed, and simply mediocre writing that bulked so large in the history of American literature--and was more relentless still in crucifying the timid, hackneyed, and mediocre critics who vaunted this literature over the bold and dynamic work that crept in, almost by accident, along the edges of the pervailing desert of conformity. On the one side were Irving, Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier; on the other side, Poe, Twain, Whitman, and Dreiser. Dreiser in particular was the watershed, heralding the advent of such other writers of social realism as David Graham Phillips, Sinclair Lewis, and Willa Cather. What Mencken sought was originality, iconoclasm, a freedom from moral convention--and it could be embodied as well in the gritty work of a Dreiser as in the languid and satirical fantasy of a James Branch Cabell. [8]

But Mencken knew that the kind of writing he sought had numerous obstacles to face; and the greatest of them was that American hostility to art that went to the extreme of censorship of purportedly objectionable material. In "Puritanism as a Literary Force," one of his most impressive works of scholarly exposition, Mencken assembles a prodigious array of evidence from court cases of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrating the degree to which the campaigns by the "Comstocks" (the Society for the Suppression of Vice and its analogues) inhibited the free expression of literary work by threats of censorship, heavy fines, and even prison. It made no difference that many of these campaigns failed; the threat still hung over authors--and, more particularly, publishers, who stood to suffer heavy financial loss even in the case of ultimate victory in court--and also over the editors of magazines. Mencken was perennially looking over his shoulder in preparing issues of the Smart Set, which under his tenure had gained the reputation of a ribald and even, on occasion, a somewhat risqué magazine; and his battle with the Watch and Ward Society of Boston over a story he published in 1926 in the American Mercury is well known. [9]

Mencken also identified another, very different kind of obstacle to the production of a sound American literature: the lure of big money presented to authors by middlebrow magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, by publishers looking for best-sellers to tickle an aesthetically crude reading public, and by film magnates looking for pablum for the yokels who flock to the movies. Now-forgotten hacks like Robert W. Chambers, Ethel M. Dell, and Elinor Glyn far outsold the Dreisers and the Cathers, just as the Stephen Kings and John Grishams of today cast the Toni Morrisons and Gore Vidals in the shade, at least as regards the size of their bank balances. The problem was inveterate and incurable, for again no amount of education would ever raise a statistically significant number of readers to the level where they could appreciate the Dreisers and scorn the Chamberses; one could only rely on the integrity of those few authors who held out for aesthetic sincerity and passed up the chance for financial comfort. In the film industry, which Mencken witnessed at first hand in Hollywood in late 1926, the situation was the same: in "The Low-Down on Hollywood" (an interview of Mencken by James R. Quirk, published in Photoplay for April 1927), he stated without equivocation that "the present movie folk . . . think too much about money." But of course they had no choice: they "are on the hooks of a sad dilemma. In order to meet the immense cost of making a gaudy modern film they have to make it appeal to a gigantic audience. And in order to make it appeal to a gigantic audience they have to keep it within a narrow range of ideas and emotions, fatal to genuine ingenuity." What will be the upshot? In one of his most insightful comments, Mencken came to this conclusion: "Soon or late the movies will have to split into two halves. There will be movies for the mob, and there will be movies for the relatively civilized minority."

H. L. Mencken would be the last to consider himself a prophet or prognosticator, but it may be worth devoting a few final words as to the continuing relevance of his judgments on American life and thought. More specifically, what would Mencken make of the political, social, and cultural tendencies of the present age, and to what degree have his own writings played a role in bringing those tendencies about?

One would have to admit that his verdict on our time would be a mixed one. To be sure, intellectual freedom could be said to have made substantial advances since the 1920s: we no longer live in an age of oppressive, religiously inspired blue laws, where it is a criminal act for an orchestra to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on a Sunday; and the very notion of censoring or even boycotting a book or play or film because of some perceived moral or religious offense is sufficient to engender either mirth or an augmented interest in the work in question. And there seems no doubt that Mencken's own tireless championing of free speech--in spite of his suspicion of the general effectiveness of the ACLU and other groups that he regarded as part of the moral crusading he despised--has played its role in the liberalization of American thought and behavior on this point. But we should be wary of declaring the battle won. Recent events suggest that the protection of civil liberties is an ongoing and perennially difficult task, especially when the government perceives that its own concerns outweigh the freedoms granted by the Constitution; Mencken was correct in believing that the people at large are far more concerned about their comfort than their freedom, so they are not likely to be of much help even in blatant instances of the restriction of liberty. And if freedom of expression has perhaps been enlarged since Mencken's time, there remain subjects or points of view that are for all practical purposes verboten. Mencken himself identified one of them: "Dispute about democracy's failures all you please, but don't argue that democracy itself is a failure!" The notion that democracy (with universal suffrage) is and must be the only viable and morally sound political system is so entrenched, not only among the general public but even among political philosophers, that one despairs of ever conducting an honest debate on the issue. One could add that the frank espousal of atheism, socialism, and other heresies is virtually a guarantee of intellectual marginalization, as no major newspaper, magazine, publishing house, or television or radio station is likely to risk offending large segments of its audience with the expression of such views, given the inevitable economic consequences that would ensue. It is then that we long for a Mencken who not only spoke his mind fearlessly on these and other issues but who realized that there is a higher value to be sought in intellectual debate than inoffensiveness.

As we have seen, Mencken in a sense predicted the rise of religious fundamentalism under the influence of charismatic ministers, although the humiliation they suffered as a result of the Scopes trial delayed their emergence for half a century. On a related subject, Mencken was sadly in error when, in a late paper on "The Burden of Credulity" (1931), he urged African Americans to give up the "barnyard theology" preached to them by their own fundamentalist pastors; African Americans remain among the most consistently religious segments of the American populace, and one can scarcely resist the conclusion that their piety is at least in part a defense mechanism against the continuing prejudice to which they find themselves subject. On the other hand, Mencken's adjuration to African Americans, in "Notes on Negro Strategy" (1934), to fight for the liberties that white society denies them appear to have been taken to heart, albeit a generation or two later.

It is in the realm of contemporary politics that Mencken would probably find the chiefest cause for cynical merriment. The monumental scorn he heaped upon the local and national politicians of his day ("What they know of sound literature is what one may get out of McGuffey's Fifth Reader. What they know of political science is the nonsense preached in the chautauquas and on the stump. What they know of history is the childish stuff taught in grammar-schools. What they know of the arts and sciences--of all the great body of knowledge that is the chief intellectual baggage of modern man--is absolutely nothing") would seem scarcely less relevant to the trimmers and hacks who occupy the halls of legislation today. Mencken could not have foreseen the corrosive effect of big money in the corruption of political leaders; but his words on the insidious power of lobbyists in affecting legislation are strikingly prescient; or perhaps they only appear so because we forget how pervasive that power has always been in American politics. Given the single-minded quest of the great majority of politicians to secure reelection at all costs, it is no surprise that they are readily subject to outside influences; all that has changed in the present age is that politicians have less of a need to kowtow to the pressure of the mob (although there is certainly plenty of that) and more of a need to lick the boots of their wealthy campaign contributors. Elizabeth Drew, among others, has lamented the decline in the level of intellectual debate in Congress; [10] but it is a fair question whether current debates over gun control or abortion or terrorism are any less foolish, self-serving, or hypocritical than the debates over the prohibition amendment in the late 1910s.

Were Mencken alive today, he would probably say that America has changed for the better, changed for the worse, or stayed pretty much the same, depending on what facet of politics, society, or culture was under discussion. Americans, by and large, still seem hostile to artistic expression, still translate every political or social cause into a moral crusade, still prefer the acquisition of property to the acquisition of culture, still endure restrictions to their liberty with insouciance so long as their material comforts are not jeopardized, and still make religion, politics, and art into commodities to be hawked about like soap or patent medicines. But, as Mencken was the first to admit, no one can deny that it is all a good show to anyone capable of viewing the spectacle from a safe and unassailable pinnacle of sardonic indifference.


1. A substantial number of them have been reprinted in The Impossible H. L. Mencken, ed. Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (New York: Doubleday, 1991). HLM himself, at the urging of his publisher, gathered his reports of the 1932 conventions in the volume Making a President (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932), although he later states that the book was among his least successful in terms of sales.

2. HLM, "The Monthly Feuilleton," SS 59, No. 4 (December 1922): 140.

3. Ambrose Bierce, "Ashes of the Beacon: An Historical Monograph Written in 4930" (1909), in The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires, ed. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000), p. 21.

4. HLM, "The Fringes of Lovely Letters," Prejudices: Fifth Series (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), p. 202.

5. An extensive selection of HLM's writings on religion can now be found in H. L. Mencken on Religion, ed. S. T. Joshi (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002).

6. HLM, My Life as Author and Editor, ed. Jonathan Yardley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 49.

7. The American Language, 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936), p. 421.

8. For a selection of HLM's reviews of the American literature of his time, see H. L. Mencken on American Literature, ed. S. T. Joshi (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002).

9. See The Editor, the Bluenose, and the Prostitute: H. L. Mencken's History of the "Hatrack" Censorship Case, ed. Carl Bode (Boulder, CO: Roberts Rinehart, 1988).

10. Elizabeth Drew, The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing, 1999).