“An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Art of H. L. Mencken”
Author: Hal Crowther
Publisher: The University of Iowa Press; Muse Books: The Iowa Series in Creativity and Writing
Price: $16.00 (Paper)
The Iowa Muse Series is not full-fledged biography or literary criticism. These short books are actually extended essays that attempt to explain the very essence of the writer under consideration. Previous subjects have been as varied as Wordsworth, Blake, Keats and the James brothers, William and Henry.
Hal Crowther’s essay collection, “Cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South,” won both The Lillian Smith Award for commentary and the Fellowship Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His collection “Gather at the River” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle prize in criticism and his syndicated columns won the H. L. Mencken Writing Award in 1992.
Crowther is perfect for the task of understanding and explaining the curmudgeonly, cantankerous H. L. Mencken.
He makes extensive use of the biography of Mencken by Fred Hobson, the memoir by Sara Mayfield and a long, brilliant essay by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., but mainly he explains what he has come to believe, after years of deep reading, is important about Mencken and what Mencken was really up to.
Perhaps it is best to say why Mencken, dead for 60 years, should not be forgotten, as he mostly is. The leading public intellectual/social commentator in America for decades, Mencken “took the Enlightenment,” that is, science and logic, “into the streets” of America. A fierce proponent of individual liberty, he published over 5 million words and wrote perhaps, in letters and journals, 5 million more. Five hundred editorials were written about Mencken, 400 of them negative, which was just how he wanted it. A cynic (which is an idealist with experience), a skeptic, a gadfly, to say the least, he was happiest when he had riled people up on the left and the right.
Mencken loathed hypocrisy, plutocracy and mobocracy.
In his mind, the situation was most grave when the powerful began to praise the wisdom of the masses, whose opinions they controlled through demagoguery, advertising, flummery and public relations. Mencken hated communism and feared the mob.
The very structure of Crowther’s essay is that Mencken was a volcanic, productive, hyperbolic paradox and contradiction.
Mencken never attended a college or university, never knew professors or scholars as friends or colleagues, yet hated academia, especially the Ivy League—proposing euthanasia for professors and then interment in mass graves—so vehemently he declared “Let us not burn the universities—yet.” Universities, Mencken believed, were dangerous to creativity: “Suppose Oxford had snared and disemboweled Shakespeare! Suppose Harvard had set its stamp upon Mark Twain!”
Mencken was scornful of optimism, do-gooders, spiritualism and all religions. He excoriated William Jennings Bryant and the Scopes “monkey” trial. He mocked scholars, “aesthetics” and the attempt to explain beauty, but became a consummate linguistic scholar himself when compiling his dictionary “The American Language,” a huge job he undertook mainly because he found the American language so beautiful.
Mencken was a famous anti-Semite; his often quoted cruel remarks have marked him for all time. But his partner at “The Smart Set,” George Jean Nathan, was Jewish, as were his assistant Charles Angoff and his publisher Alfred A. Knopf. But non-Semites need not feel left out. Mencken fulminated against blacks, and was a “devout homophobe.” Norwegians he called “uncouth yokels,” Poles “ignoramuses,” Anglo Saxons “baboons,” Scots “vulgar and lowdown.”
His most widely known essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart” declared there was no high culture of any kind in the American South. So widely read and influential was Mencken’s essay, many offer the possibility that the Southern literary renascence was a response to his attack. But Mencken also hated New England –full of sanctimonious Puritans and goofy Transcendentalists—and the American middle west, inhabited as he saw it by George Babbitt, realtor, and his ilk.
Mencken’s pride in his German descent may have, ultimately, been his undoing as he sided with Kaiser Wilhelm in WWI and refused to condemn Hitler’s actions right up to WWII. That, combined with his “pathological loathing” of FDR and the New Deal, lost him his wide readership by 1940.
In many ways this is a shame because the nation needed him then and still does.
Even his essential personality is in dispute. Hobson described him as lonely at the core. Sara Mayfield called him gregarious, friendly and extroverted.
Confusion over Mencken reigns.
Crowther reports there is now an H. L. Mencken Club, “a gang of aging right-wing academics who couldn’t burn a hot cross bun without setting their robes on fire.” They have cherry-picked Mencken’s more obnoxious rantings and made it their credo. Harmless? Maybe.
But the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery has listed this club as a hate group and describes it as a “kinder, gentler Klan.” Surely the “Sage of Baltimore” needs to be better understood and saved not only from his enemies but from being misused by his unwanted supporters.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”