Marion Rodgers, “Mencken: the American Iconoclast” (2005) – “Send a maniac to catch a maniac,” as the phrase went in one of my favorite childhood movies, “Demolition Man” (which I think still holds up quite well). The writer to “catch” Henry Louis Mencken in biography form, by that standard, would have to be a prose wizard and critical to the point of scabrousness. Alas, in this biography, the task is taken up by a journeyman writer whose attitude towards her subject is mostly one of hero worship.
Do people still think much about Mencken? An article recently said Matt Taibbi thinks of himself as a Mencken figure, which is a complicated claim I’m just going to leave alone. I thought about him well before I read much of him because his name was ubiquitous if you read much about American culture from a period roughly between 1920 and 1945 or so. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every American writer who came of age in that period wrote in Mencken’s shadow. From his perch at The American Mercury and The Smart Set, Mencken propelled American literary modernism into the spotlight through his criticism and curation. He was one of the most famous men in America during the Jazz Age, and young intellectuals the country over aped his hard-drinking, cigar-chomping style. He was also a working journalist and was famous for reporting on presidential campaigns and on the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” His linguistic work, “The American Language,” is highly respected.
It’s hard to explain much about Mencken’s career without going into detail about his politics, which is a problem because a lot of the contexts of what mattered to him were different back then. In fact, you could argue that as his context converged more with one we could recognize, the more he kicked against it, and the further he fell from his twenties heights.
H.L. Mencken is at one and the same time a very contemporary figure, and one not necessarily easy to place given contemporary ideas about writing and politics. He was, in many respects, the original talented edgelord, laying the pattern for media iconoclasts from his day to the time of Parker and Stone. He was the guy who always one step ahead in terms of wit, who didn’t care when you did (and sometimes, just to show you up, cared when you didn’t, or didn’t expect him to), the “equal opportunity asshole,” the guy you couldn’t help laughing at or otherwise enjoying his work. Many of the same hot button issues Mencken leaned on are similarly deployed by edgy types today, from the hypocrisy of religion to the fecklessness of politicians to the importance of free speech.
That last might give us an entry point into the ways in which Mencken eludes us. Rodgers depicts Mencken as a man whose first and last priority was always free speech. She opens with a scene of him baiting a Boston blue nose into having him arrested for selling a copy of the American Mercury, which the Watch and Ward Society had had banned (this was the time when “banned in Boston” was a known phrase), getting the case dismissed, and stopping by Harvard for rousing applause. Mencken was, in fact, critical in opening both cultural and legal doors that allowed literary modernism to flourish in the United States. But it’s worth noting that the sensibilities offended were usually those around the use of working-class language like “damn,” allusion to the existence of sex workers, or depictions of such lascivious acts as kissing.
The point being, if you showed Mencken an episode of South Park without context, I think it quite likely he would agree with his Boston antagonist that it was filth and should be banned post-haste. This is a guy who broke up with a movie starlet at least in part because she made jokes about Johan Strauss’s waltzes. In this way, he’s both utterly unlike the “free speech purists” (outside of some chan-bound fantasists no one believes in literally free speech but you know what I mean), and strangely parallel. They get weirdly easily offended, too, a lot of the time. A lot of the time, what they’re about is more the promulgation of quality, as understood by themselves and as done over the objections of busybodies, rabble, and losers, than they are about anyone else’s freedom.
Mencken’s contemporary quality and his distance from our time come together in his reaction to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mencken hated FDR since he came
onto national political scene in 1920, seeing him as a silver-tongued mountebank (a favorite Mencken insult, “mountebank”). When FDR became President and started implementing the New Deal, Mencken grew increasingly angry, and grandiose, paranoid, in his anger. FDR spelled an end to American liberties, with his throwing money at the poors and his management of the press. On the one hand, this was, more or less, ideologically consistent for Mencken- he was always an elitist and always despised the poor. On the other, FDR was actually known as a relative fiscal conservative going into his term of office (Rodgers neglects to mention this), but Mencken still hated him and had for over a decade.
I think it’s actually easy to see why Mencken hated FDR so much, so consistently, for so long, even as FDR was key to ending the Prohibition law Mencken hated so. FDR beat Mencken. FDR beat Mencken at his own game, communicating in American English via mass media, and shifted the cultural ground under Mencken’s feet. Mencken couldn’t adjust to post-1929-crash reality, and FDR steered many aspects of that reality. FDR even beat Mencken at ridicule, owning him in speeches, and all Mencken could do was fume and fulminate, getting less and less funny with each column inch he took up screaming after the president. Whatever abrogations of due process FDR undertook in his time, he didn’t need secret police to beat his most determined opponent in the press- just his own wit and popular goodwill. That must have gutted Mencken, to the extent he understood it. It revealed a deeper weakness- Mencken always did best against weak opposition. He was a front-runner, great at turning his nose up at the “boobs” but unable to do much against anyone who could match wits with him or see something he couldn’t.
From there, it was downhill for Mencken. He was materially secure, more or less, but increasingly culturally irrelevant, somewhere between an honored relic and a cautionary tale. Among other issues, he was part of a whole generation of people whose justifiable skepticism regarding American intervention in World War One led to some horrifying judgment calls as its sequel came around. Mencken, ever the Germanophile and mindful of how exaggerated (some) anti-German propaganda in the Great War was, systematically downplayed the dangers of fascism and of Hitler in particular. Whenever there was a choice between sympathizing with inconvenienced Germans and with existentially endangered Jews, he always chose the former, and didn’t shy away from stereotype and crude language in so doing- why would the guy who called his critical collection “Prejudices”? By the time he died in the fifties, it made sense that a scabrously racist gang of paleocons had taken his name for one of their societies.
Well! I guess I should talk about Rodgers’ book rather than giving you this report on the guy, huh? Most of what I’ve written here I knew before I listened to this biography. Of course, I learned a fair amount in listening… but a lot of that was minutiae. This wound up raising questions for me that I found more diverting than the book as it wore on. How do you generate good questions in a biographical project? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of taking a side in some notional Egyptian afterlife courtroom, waiting to see if the alligator eats the subject’s heart. This leads biographers to array their investigations around the established controversies — in this case, “how much of a racist, antisemitic prick was Mencken, all told?” mostly — and neglect more interesting approaches.
The upshot of this is that as Rodgers went on into the period of Mencken’s life defined by public controversies, especially ones where he both loses and looks bad by contemporary lights, the more analytical energy she spends trying to justify him. This sucks, because not only are some of her calls pretty bad, but when she lets the thing breathe a little it isn’t half bad. You can see this in the early parts of the biography, where Mencken’s boyhood Baltimore comes to life, and the Edwardian (they often say “Victorian” but that’s basically wrong) context in which Mencken grew up and which shaped so many of his ideas comes across clearly. Among other things, the German-American milieu of Mencken’s youth (I forget whether Mencken’s parents or grandparents were the immigrants) comes in loud and clear, the combination of respectability and skepticism and the quiet certainty that they were, in fact, superior in terms of culture to American-Americans.
Basically, think of this book as having three stages (it has like seven “parts” but ignore that). Mencken’s youth is the best part, basically up until the end of World War One. Along with fun descriptive bits, it seemed to be setting up a clash between Mencken’s Edwardian, vaguely-German-American-nationalist idea of what an advanced man should be like, and the realities of modernity as revealed by the war. We get a little bit about this in the second part, Mencken’s salad days in the twenties. We see some of how the literary critical sausage gets made, Mencken’s negotiation with the “tribal twenties” — despite believing black people to be essentially inferior to whites, he published many more black writers than any other white editor, respecting talent where he found it — but we also start getting a lot of “hot goss” about Mencken’s love life. It was intermittently interesting — and Rodgers seems more indignant at the way the bachelor playboy Mencken dealt with some of his women than how he borderline denied the Holocaust — but not a good sign, how much it dominated the book. Then you get the end, with Rodgers scraping the bottom of the evidentiary barrel to make her man look good in his decline. By this time, analysis of anything interesting has gone out the window in favor of lawyering up- admitting what she has to admit, but giving “context” to excuse him.
The context I’d be interested in is that of historical change, and not just “a lot of people didn’t believe atrocity stories from Nazi Germany that people now know are true.” A real historical contextual understanding of someone like Mencken wouldn’t be a defense, or a takedown. He’s interesting enough, and important enough to American letters, to contextualize for its own sake. I wonder where Rodgers is at these days- I think she teaches somewhere, used to contribute to Reason, and you can see this as an addition to an aughts-era libertarian canon of saints. What it all would have meant, to her or to anyone, after libertarianism took its big fall against Trump, is a question you can’t glean an answer to from this book, alas. Will anyone with a critical acuity anywhere near matching Mencken’s — and despite some holes in his abilities, when he was good, he was phenomenal — ever take on the project of bringing him and his times truly to life, or will it all be fans and/or detractors from here on out, until people finally forget him? ***