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Mencken in Palestine.

Readers who recall H. L. Mencken as an unrepentant antisemite will likely be surprised to learn that the noted American journalist once visited Jewish settlements in Palestine. Moreover, Mencken admired what he saw there. But that doesn't mean he liked to admit it. Indeed, his articles about his visit aptly illustrate his particular brand of antipathy towards Jews.

Throughout his long career, Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was among the most popular and influential of writers. His prodigious output included an estimated three million words in newspapers and magazines and some 30 books. Even today, nearly a half-century after his death, many of his books, most notably The American Language, are widely read. Amazon.com lists over 2,100 titles by or about H. L. Mencken. Internet surfers may Google dozens of web pages devoted to Mencken. And every few years sees yet another Mencken biography or critical study.

Yet Mencken also has his detractors, not least because of the writer's numerous and undisguised expressions of antisemitism. The charge of antisemitism dogged Mencken throughout his career. It was renewed in recent years with publication of various Mencken diaries, letters and other private papers.

That debate over Mencken's views on Jews even exists is astonishing. Mencken's antisemitism, however, is often minimized, if not excused or dismissed. In his otherwise admiring biography, The Skeptic (2002), Terry Teachout allows: "... that he [Mencken] was an antisemite cannot now reasonably be denied." But in his introduction to The Impossible H. L. Mencken (1991), the redoubtable Gore Vidal declares Mencken "Far from being an antisemite...." Others, like Joseph Epstein and Gary Wills, have wavered on the allegation. And in a 1990 letter to The New York Review of Books regarding publication of a Mencken diary, such luminaries as Norman Mailer, William Styron, Arthur Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut acknowledged: "The Diary does indeed contain discourteous remarks about Jews ..." But the letter added: "Discourtesy was Mencken's style," and asserted that "His hyperbole did not foreclose warm friendships with Jewish publishers, writers, and doctors...."

Mencken indeed was an exasperating sort of antisemite. On the one hand, Mencken's published anti-Jewish libels are almost too numerous to count. One mild if unambiguous example: "The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display." (Treatise on the Gods, 1930, 1946). On the other hand, many of Mencken's closest friends and most admired associates throughout his life were Jewish. These included George Jean Nathan, his long-time co-editor of the popular Smart Set magazine; Charles Angoff, Mencken's assistant and eventual successor at the helm of The American Mercury magazine; and Alfred A. Knopf, Mencken's long-time publisher. (The last named was an example of the kind of Jew Mencken could best tolerate--a cultivated Germanic Jew who himself disdained his East European cousins.)

In like manner, Mencken's defenders are quick to point out that the "Sage of Baltimore" disapproved of Hitler, denounced Nazi violence against Jews, and favored allowing German Jewish refugees into the United States. All true enough--but hardly evidence of judeophilia. Mencken disliked Hitler chiefly because Hitler was a politician, and Mencken tended to loathe all politicians. Early on, Mencken found much to admire in Hitler. Later, when the Nazi leader proved too uncouth for the Baltimorean's refined taste, Mencken predicted the wise and rational German people would soon enough dump the little Austrian. In the same vein, if Mencken argued for allowing German Jewish refugees into America, it was because these unfortunates were Germany's Jews. Of German extraction himself, Mencken cherished all things German: beer, Beethoven, Nietzsche. If Germany had Jews, well then, he would accommodate a few of those too. But not East European Jews. The place for these, he wrote, was Russia, a land with "plenty of room" and "no prejudice against them."

Mencken's supporters also insist his antisemitism merely reflected the prevailing prejudice of his time. More persuasive is that Mencken was an equal opportunity offender. Truth is, he despised nearly everybody. Throughout his career, Mencken vented his spleen against the English, the Irish, the Italians, the Asians, African Americans and, not least, most of his fellow white Americans. He seemed to loathe the upper class, the middle class, and the lower class, most women, and adherents to all faiths.

Perhaps what's most exasperating about the Menckenian stripe of antisemitism is how it manifested itself even when he was presented with Jews he could not help but admire. Such a schizophrenic moment occurred 70 years ago when Mencken eagerly toured Jewish settlements in Palestine.

Mencken's biographers usually skip over the Palestine jaunt. To mention just four recent studies: Teachout's The Skeptic relegates comment on the visit to a footnote; Fred Hobson's Mencken: A Life (1994) allows it 12 lines. Vincent Fitzpatrick's H. L. Mencken (1989) gives it three. William Manchester's Disturber of the Peace (1986) makes no reference whatsoever to the Palestine visit.

Mencken journeyed to the Holy Land early in 1934. He published a column called "Erez [sic] Israel" in The Baltimore Evening Sun in April of that year and wrote a longer sketch called "Pilgrimage" for his 1943 collection, Heathen Days. To be sure, Mencken's visit did not prove especially inspiring. Mencken himself later characterized his reports as "superficial." The trip to Palestine was part of a sweep around the Mediterranean inspired by Mark Twain's 1869 classic travelogue, The Innocents Abroad. Mencken carried the Twain volume with him and visited many of the same sites Twain had described in Southern Europe, Turkey, North Africa, and the Levant. (Mencken was particularly thrilled with Mussolini's "achievements" in Italy.)

On arrival in Jerusalem, as reported in "Pilgrimage," Mencken dutifully echoes Twain's shock at the filth and poverty of the Old City. Mencken likewise decries the state of the churches, casts doubt on the authenticity of holy sites and relics, and characteristically finds nothing good to say about the local Jews, Moslems, or Christians. He evidently never actually speaks to any natives, preferring to gather his information about them from secondary sources. And what Mencken conveys to the reader with these quotes invariably reflects Mencken's own biases. When Mencken visits the Western Wall, for example, an "instructive" British soldier explains: "What I am down in this bloody hole for is to keep the peace among the Jews. They are all very religious fellows, and so they tend to hate each other."

If this quote has a distinctly Menckenian flavor, the next has even more. Returning to the King David Hotel, the journalist hires a car to take him to Bethlehem. The driver, Mencken reports, is "a Soudanese Negro who had been a dragoman in Cairo and spoke very fair English." This driver "pointed out the places of interest along the road. The only one that I remember was the Y.M.C.A., a huge structure not far from the King David, resembling in a way a country-club in Florida and in another way the General Motors building at a world's fair. I asked the driver how so large an establishment could be supported in Jerusalem, for Protestants are almost as rare there as in South Boston or the Bronx. He replied that the money came from America, and that the actual patrons were Moslems and Jews. The Moslems, he said, went in for track work in the gymnasium, and the Jews patronized the flee classes in double-entry bookkeeping, foreign exchange and scientific salesmanship."

The considered opinion of "a Soudanese Negro who had been a dragoman in Cairo and spoke very fair English"? I don't think so. It's transparently the journalist's device of slipping his own observation into a report by attributing it to a nameless source. It's also a means of expressing antisemitism through another's voice. (Incidentally, in his adoring bio of Mencken, Vincent Fitzpatrick, the assistant curator of the H. L. Mencken Collection at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, quotes the line about the Y.M.C.A.'s athletic Moslems but expunges the reference to Jewish wannabe accountants.)

Next day, Mencken accepts an invitation from a Jewish Agency official named A. L. Fellman for a tour of 'Jewish colonies to the north of Jerusalem." Mencken describes Fellman approvingly as "an intelligent young man speaking English, Yiddish, Arabic and Hebrew, with family connections in my native Baltimore." Fellman guides the American journalist in a 350-kilometer sweep to Tiberias, Nazareth, Mount Carmel, Haifa, and back to Jerusalem. Along the way, Mencken visits "half a dozen Jewish colonies, and had friendly palavers with their public relations agents." Although Mencken records that his "hearty kosher lunch" in Tiberias offered "two soups, three kinds of meat, and four kinds of pastry," he does not deem it pertinent in "Pilgrimage" to name the colonies he visited. (In the shorter Baltimore Evening Sun article, however, he does mention visiting Nahalal and Kibbutz Ein Harod. Of the latter, he concludes, despite citing no hard evidence: "Will it last? Probably not.")

Nevertheless, Mencken declares the "colonies interested me greatly." And why? Chiefly "because of the startling contrast they represented to the adjacent Arab farms ... On one side of a staggering stone hedge," Mencken observes, "were the bleak, miserable fields of the Arabs, and on the other side were the almost tropical demesnes of the Jews, with long straight rows of green field crops, neat orchards of oranges, lemons and pomegranates, and frequent wood-lots of young but flourishing eucalyptus ... fat cows grazed in the meadows, there were herds of goats eating weeds, and every barnyard swarmed with white Leghorn chickens. In place of the bent sticks of the Arabs, the Jews operated gang plows drawn by tractors ..."

Mencken also admires the settlers' "glistening new stucco homes recalling the more delirious suburbs of Los Angeles," the handsome barns and other farm buildings, and the "healthy and happy" children who in the "more advanced-thinking colonies ... slept in dormitories attached to the schools." As for the Jewish farmers themselves: "Almost all of their waking hours were given to hard labor in the fields. In the larger colonies they did not even come in for meals, but were fed from a lunch-wagon working out of the central kitchen. Nor were their wives idle, for cooking was their job, and in addition they usually had to attend to the chickens and milk the cows."

Yet while Mencken finds it "pleasant roving about these luxuriant farms and palavering with the laborious and earnest men and women who ran them," somehow the only settlers he manages to quote, and even then indirectly, are pessimists. "I found a certain amount of doubt," he says of the farmers, "concealed only defectively by tall talk."

Such "doubt" from his anonymous farmers, coupled with hostility from local Arabs, convinces Mencken the Jewish enterprise is likely doomed. The only thing the pioneers have going for them, he smirks, is money: "So long as there was a steady flow of money from Zionists all over the earth the problem would not be pressing, but what if that flow were ever cut off? Also, what would happen if another world war interrupted overseas trade, and left Palestine to butter its own parsnips?" Mencken then projects himself into the settlers' psyches: "I suspect that many a sweating colonist, his back bent in the field, occasionally let his mind play upon such unhappy questions ..."

But no matter. Before Hitler decides to boycott Jewish citrus, Mencken says, the jealous Arabs from the other side of that stone hedge will rise up. In "Erez Israel," Mencken predicts that "the Jews who now fatten on so many farms will have to fight desperately for their property and their lives." And in an update to "Pilgrimage" some years later, Mencken piously remarks: "I wonder as I write what has been the fate of some of the hopeful and persevering Jews I met on that beautiful Winter day. Most of them, I trust, are still alive, but I am not too sure that those who are still alive are more fortunate than those who are dead."

One hardly know what to make of this last rumination. The lucky Jew is the dead Jew; the unfortunate Jew is the one still stuck on the land. But with this kind of antisemite, it's really all of a piece. He can gather first-hand information and yet not let the evidence erode his bigotry. He can express admiration and sympathy--up to a point. And like a ventriloquist he can project his harshest observations into the mouths of his sources--a doubt-ridden kibbutznik, a British army sergeant, a "Soudanese Negro."

Yet to some biographers, such reportage is forgivable. Terry Teachout suggests the Palestine writing shows Mencken "had mixed feelings about Jews," and in fact "became something of a Zionist." Fred Hobson notes that Mencken "marveled at the energy and prosperity of the farmers in north Palestine" and pretty much leaves it at that. And of course to Gore Vidal, Mencken was "Far from being an antisemite." Not, in my view, far enough.

MATT NESVISKY, is an associate professor of jounalism at Kutztown University, Kutztown, PA, and a former senior editor and feature writer at The Jerusalem Post.
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Title Annotation:Israel; Henry Louis Mencken antisemitism
Author:Nesvisky, Matt
Publication:Midstream
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Words:2227
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