Baltimore's Complacent Iconoclast
A MAN who relished controversy during his lifetime, launching provocative attacks on American culture (or the paucity thereof), Baltimore-based journalist, critic, and editor Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) has continued making waves more than 30 years after his death, first with the publication of his diary in 1990, now with the release of his equally outspoken autobiography, "My Life as Author and Editor."
Mencken had arranged for both these manuscripts to remain sealed in the vaults of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library for several decades after his death, when his friends, enemies, and acquaintances would no longer be around to feel insulted by his less-than-glowing accounts of them.
But when his diary was finally published three years ago, the shock came not from Mencken's acid comments or from any personal revelations, but from the sheer extent of his prejudices, most notably his anti-Semitism.
Book critic and columnist Jonathan Yardley, who has edited Mencken's unfinished autobiography (reducing an unwieldy, copiously detailed 1,024-page typescript to a diverting memoir less than half the original length), tries to excuse Mencken's prejudice with a weak sort of historical relativism: "... if by the standards of our day Mencken was anti-Semitic, by those of his own he was not. Inasmuch as he lived in his time and not in ours, it is by this we should judge and, I believe, acquit him."
Mencken himself says, "My belief in free speech is so profound that I am seldom tempted to deny it to the other fellow. Nor do I make any effort to differentiate between that other fellow right and that other fellow wrong, for I am convinced that free speech is worth nothing unless it includes a full franchise to be foolish and even ... malicious." But neither statement can explain away Mencken's many-faceted bigotry.
The Mencken who cut a figure in the 1910s and '20s as a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, editor of Smart Set and American Mercury, foe of censorship and Puritanism, coiner of such memorable disparaging phrases as "the Bible Belt" and "the booboisie" would seem, at first glance, a far cry from the Mencken who refers in his autobiography to "low-caste Jews," "filthy homos," and "blackamoors." And it was more than just talk. Mencken baldly relates how he once made Carl Van Vechten (a white promoter of the H arlem Renaissance) promise not to have any blacks at his own dinner party lest their presence upset Mencken's Southern-born wife, Sara. But Mencken published black, Jewish, and women writers in his magazines, spoke out against Jim Crow laws, and regularly denounced the racist dogmas of the Ku Klux Klan. And his bigoted generalizations about Jews did not prevent him from becoming close friends with many individual Jews, including his publisher Alfred A. Knopf.
The list of Mencken's strong dislikes is wide-ranging: religious evangelists, sex hygienists, suffragettes, temperance preachers, Christian Scientists, Woodrow Wilson, Greenwich Village "frauds," political reformers, communists, socialists - indeed, anyone who held what he deemed the foolishly misguided view that mankind should and could be "improved."
Mencken characterized himself as a libertarian rather than a liberal. "Under the influence of my father," he recalls in a revealing passage, "who was always the chief figure in his small world and hence inclined toward complacency, I emerged into sentience with an almost instinctive distrust of all schemes of revolution and reform.... It always amuses me when I am accused of being a fallen-away Liberal, for I was never anything even remotely resembling what passes for a Liberal in the United States.... E ven as a boy I never had any belief in religion, and even as a youth I never went through the Socialist green sickness."
The key word, I think, is "complacency," an attitude echoed in Mencken's thumbnail sketch of the "typical reader" he aimed to reach with Smart Set: someone "quite satisfied with the world and himself." Mencken's distrust of reformers included political zealots on the one hand, avant-garde artistic experimenters on the other. (He admired James Joyce's "Dubliners" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," but suspected "Ulysses" was a "hoax.") Reading his tart, self-assured assessments of his contempo raries, one comes to feel that Mencken's essential conservatism and his celebrated iconoclasm both had roots in an underlying outlook of complacency.
A complacent conservative is understandable, but is there such an animal as a complacent iconoclast? Mencken's iconoclasm proceeded not from the hard-won doubts of a mind stirring to question its own cultural assumptions, but from a ready-made set of ideas that were pretty much in place from the outset of his career. One of the most striking features of his autobiography, which covers his career from 1896 into the 1920s, is how little he seems to change, even though he was writing this account from the p erspective of the 1940s.
Yet his voice continues to speak to readers. It is plain-spoken and to the point. Some highlights of his autobiography are Mencken's recollections of such figures as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Branch Cabell. Mencken was an early champion of Dreiser - not only out of admiration for his work, as he admits, but for the more self-serving reason that Mencken the critic needed to balance his frequent jibes at overrated literary lions with a positive campaign on behalf of t alented, underrated newcomers. His efforts to advise the stubborn Dreiser in his fight against censorship, however, were often in vain. Mencken also valued Sinclair Lewis, but felt he ruined his talent by accepting the Nobel Prize. On a more mellow note, Mencken's appreciative portraits of relatively forgotten writers such as Abraham Cahan, Ruth Suckow, and Lilith Benda are unintentionally touching reminders of the vagaries of literary fame.
Mencken made no secret of the fact that he courted controversy to make a splash and establish his position. But he was also expressing his honest reactions with a down-to-earth, witty skepticism that might very well have tickled the fancy of one of his few literary heroes, the great Mark Twain.