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My Life as an Author and Editor.

Mencken a racist? He could barely stand anybody

H.L. Mencken's vivid memoir recalls to me the best piece of advice I ever received. I had made, in my ignorant youth, a pretentious speech about literature and art, only to be confronted afterwards by one of my home state's literary and political lights, Jonathan Daniels.

"Young man," he said to me, in words that flashed and still bum, "never be a solemn ass."

That's one sin Mencken never committed. He was a dissenter--bellicose, unafraid, self-confident, irreverent, independent, and irascible. But, he asserts, he had no capacity for "moral indignation" and "a complete lack of messianic passion." He harbored no illusion that "human nature could be changed by passing statutes and preaching gospels." So he could not share Ezra Pound's or anyone's "yearning to improve the world." Mencken was quintessentially a critic, not a reformer, a no-sayer rather than a yes-sayer.

As a ferocious social critic and literary commentator, Mencken in his time--roughly the first third of this century--raised lots of hackles and evoked plenty of blistering responses. In this memoir, Mencken writes that it was his "fixed habit... to suffer without protest anything that was printed about me, however inaccurate and unfair."

This was in part tactical, because Mencken, a shrewd self-promoter, realized that attacks on him only expanded his reputation as a controversialist. For example, in writing his celebrated assault on Southern manners and mores, "The Sahara of the Bozart," he confesses, his "actual object was to outrage the professional Southerners" whom he considered "the bell-wether and archetype of all the worst varieties of American imbecile." As Mencken hoped, the article did not fail to provoke "their violent counterattack."

But H.L. Mencken was far more than a gadfly or a publicist. He so believed in free speech as a principle, he writes, that he was "seldom tempted to deny it to the other fellow." Having had his say, he understood that others had, and he was willing to grant, an equal right of reply. And he knew, as too few realize, that free speech "is worth nothing unless it includes a full franchise to be foolish and even to be malicious."

That is the right answer to those Americans who, today as in Mencken's time, seek to link "free speech" to "responsibility"--as if the former should not exist without the latter, that free speech should only belong to those who espouse generally accepted ideas. Mencken tended, with much reason, to regard a generally accepted idea as likely to be "moronic."

"I was," he wrote in recollecting his blunt, energetic, and often unpopular writings, "in favor of the true long before I was in favor of either the good or the beautiful."

He also favored the humorous and the lusty, in life as on the printed page. His recitals of various rowdy episodes--for example, a drinking bout with Ethel Barrymore, one of "the champion lady boozers of Broadway," enliven the memoir. He seldom uses a dull word where a witticism or a sardonic jibe will do-Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur "disappeared into the maw of the movies, where they made a great deal of money but produced nothing worth remembering." And Mencken has total recall for a good story-say, James Huneker's account of Lillian Russell's farewell to four lovers on the day of her third marriage.

His tart judgments probably are one reason Mencken stashed this lengthy memoir in a crate in the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, not to be opened until 35 years after his death (a deadline which arrived in 1991). His dictation of it had ended in 1948, when he suffered a stroke that effectively stopped him from writing during the last seven years of his life. He had then completed the work only through about 1923 (with occasional glances ahead to later years), so the decade of his editorship of the The American Mercury is largely and sadly unrecalled.

Sherman and Germans

Though Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post edited the text down to less than half its original length, many conclusions remain that are likely to be considered blasphemous by what Mencken would call the "literary pecksniffs" of today--particularly those who practice "the imbecility of (the college professor's) craft."

Ulysses, for example, Mencken found "deliberately mystifying and mainly puerile"; he suspected that Joyce had concocted it as a "vengeful hoax" in response to the years when his more conventional work went unnoticed. Ezra Pound--who recommended both Joyce and T.S. Eliot to Mencken and George Jean Nathan when they edited the magazine Smart Set--was "immensely talented but with an unmistakable flavor of the mountebank." In Pound's later career "a competent poet was spoiled to make a tinhorn politician"

Ernest Hemingway "was ... an excessively vain fellow-challenging, bellicose, and not infrequently absurd. His longer stories always struck me as melodramatic and obvious." Tender Buttons, by Hemingway's sometime mentor, Gertrude Stein, impressed Mencken only as "unmitigated balderdash."

The "emenintissimos" of the once-famed Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel in New York were regarded by Mencken and Nathan "all save a few as hollow frauds." Hamlin Garland, an "old quack," tried to "stab [Theodore] Dreiser in the back" and William Dean Howells was a "notorious coward" who failed to support Dreiser and The "Genius" when it was banned. Dorothy Thompson, the columnist-wife of Sinclair Lewis, was a "vain, shallow and excessively cocksure woman, consumed during the early days of their marriage by an ill-conceived jealousy of his fame... a tinpot messiah with an inflamed egoism that was wholly unameliorated by humor.'' The marriage "marked the end of (Lewis's) great days," and he wrote "nothing of the first chop thereafter."

Yardley's necessary cutting obscures how much of this sort of thing may have enlivened Mencken's reviews as they appeared in Smart Set, The American Mercury, the Sunpapers and elsewhere. But a snippet or two remain to suggest the flavor of the original stuff. Reviewing A Son of the Middle Border, for example, Mencken observed that "in the world of beauty, (Hamlin Garland) is as forlorn a stranger as a Methodist deacon at a (beer party)." He helped along to obscurity the largely forgotten Robert Cortes Holliday by describing the author's books as "trivial and uninspired... a standing refutation of the notion that Americans have a sense of humor."

Beneath the ready invective, the savage wit and the incessant intellectual jousting, H.L. Mencken was a deadly serious--if never pompous--man, who fought and survived two of the most determined efforts to suppress free speech in America. Those he contemptuously called "the Comstocks" were still trying, in his time, to eliminate "vice" and impure thoughts from American literature--and actually succeeded for a while in suppressing Dreiser's novel The "Genius ". Simultaneously, an unparalleled growth of superpatriotism mushroomed out of World War I.

Mencken paid the price for his outspoken proGerman views by the temporary loss of his column in the Baltimore Sunpapers. He also here recalls with relish how the "German spy scare" was turned against him by Stuart R Sherman in The Nation--"violent stuff," Mencken notes, that he characteristically took "with equanimity." He was "well aware that, in the long run, it would get me a great many more friends than enemies."

Sherman later tried to make amends for this attack and for an earlier assault, regarded by Mencken as "cowardly and ignorant," on Dreiser and The "Genius ". But though Mencken boasts of his supposed inability to hold a grudge, he never yielded to "the yokel" Sherman's "frequent and pathetic" overtures.

If such blunt language falls with an unfamiliar ring on today's ears, it's because few journalists or other commentators--to their shame--are now as outspoken and fearless as Mencken was, nor do they command the language as he did, nor yet have his disdain for substantial reputations.

Henry Holt, the publisher, for instance, was "an extraordinarily opinioned fellow, and most of his opinions ... were rubbish;" the "public posturing" of the poet Amy Lowell "repelled" Mencken; Burton Rascoe was "always a cuckoo;" and Margaret Sanger was a mere "birth-control propagandist" whose signature would seriously weaken a letter of protest against the suppression of The "Genius ".

Mencken was angered when Sinclair Lewis accepted the Nobel Prize for 1930, because he believed that writers should "resolutely refuse all prizes, college degrees, and other such empty honors, leaving them to the muckers who pulled the wires for them." He was further outraged in 1935 when Lewis "accepted membership in the preposterous National Institute of Arts and Letters and so put himself on all fours with" a long list of "emenintissimos" that Mencken scorned--including Helen Keller and Lewis Mumford.

Writer's knock

Mencken had his blind spots, and many of them. Contrary to Yardley's introduction, Mencken's low opinion of most women (other than beauties) seems to me unmistakable. He was often bigoted about Jews and gays. He so far departed from his usual crusty integrity that he was willing, on occasion, to help an author by editing his book and touting it to a publisher--then reviewing the book favorably. As for literary judgements not necessarily sustained by time, he viewed Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night as "poor stuff indeed." In Smart Set, he actually wrote that Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt was "the best American novel I have ever read"--adducing only as an afterthought "the lonesome but Himalayan exception of Huckleberry Finn."

But Mencken's "chief concern" as a critic was unvarying-not the classics beloved by academe but "the literature that was in being, to wit, the unrolling literature of a far from civilized, and even not altogether literate democracy." Thus, he was an early and ardent champion of Mark Twain, an articulate defender of Dreiser (whom he considered "a great artist" if a badly flawed writer and man), and one of the first American exponents of Joseph Conrad at the time "no more than a name in the United States."

As a magazine editor, Mencken recognized and printed the works of many good writers before they became luminaries--Eugene O'Neill, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather (though Mencken laments here that her novel One of Ours was "so bad... that it won... the Pulitzer Prize of 1922.") In his classic, The American Language and its supplements, he made a lasting contribution, not just to American literature but to American civilization.

Mencken once succinctly stated, in a brochure for would-be contributors to Smart Set, what he and Nathan did not wish to publish:

Both of us are against the sentimental, the obvious, the trite, the maudlin. Both of us are opposed to all such ideas as come from the mob, and are polluted by its stupidity: Puritanism, Prohibition, comstockery, evangelical Christianity, tin-pot patriotism, the whole sham of democracy .... Both of us... regard Beethoven and Brahms as far greater men than Wilson and Harding.

Substitute Bush and Clinton for Wilson and Harding and that would do rather well for editors today.

As a social rather than a literary observer, Mencken believed from the start "that the distinguishing mark of the normal Americano was his essentially moral view of the world, his tendency to color all values with concepts of rightness and wrongness, his inability to throw off the Puritan obsession with sin." He would hardly be surprised to know that, nearly 40 years after his death, the mark still distinguishes.

But Mencken was "full of lust to function" and recalls that "before I was 25 it was already plain that my functioning would take the form of a sharp and more or less truculent dissent from the mores of my country." As for "the common run of Americanos," he states candidly and with his usual intellectual arrogance, "I disdained them, not as members of a different species, but as inferior members of my own species."

This memoir, like Mencken's recently published diaries, abounds with evidence of his low esteem for Jews (though he worked closely with, admired and was admired by Nathan and Alfred Knopf, among others). Editor Yardley scrupulously left all of this in the text--"no whitewash," he writes in a Menckenian passage of his generally admiring introduction, "is intended or desired." He goes on to point out that Mencken "lived in his time and not in ours," and that in Mencken's time "racial and ethnic slurs were commonplace among even educated Americans."

No doubt they were. Still, this explanation seems insufficient to me. I suggest, rather, that H.L. Mencken had a virulent contempt for those he considered lesser mortals generally (he expected a pulp magazine he rounded to be "a hit with the morons," though it was written by "hacks"). He included in this group Jews (as, on the evidence of this memoir, he seems to have included "blackamoors" and "homos") and was able to overcome or ignore these clear prejudices only when persons like Knopf and Nathan proved by their competence that they were worth his not easily won approval.

"Competence, indeed, was my chief admiration then as now," he states flatly and his memoir is a massive testament to that obsession. No competent person (by Mencken's rigorous standard), whether Jew or Gentile, is here reviled. It probably never occurred to him that he or anyone was an anti-Semite; the term itself would have smacked to him of the "moral indignation"he steadfastly deplored.

In the spirit of the free speech that Mencken exalted, as I do, others are entitled to different conclusions, and no doubt will reach them. However that may be, My Life as Author and Editor is a memorable portrait of a time, several places, and many people--most particularly the brilliant writer, backyard bricklayer, consoling friend, ardent defender, lusty battler, frequent roisterer, perceptive editor, shrewd observer, and cranky soul that was H.L. Mencken.

Tom Wicker is a retired columnist for The New York Times.
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Author:Wicker, Tom
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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