Angry with His Own Time

Mencken's anger at America was his trademark. But it was also – more than once – his undoing. An excerpt from An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken

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The great Austrian novelist Robert Musil, born like Mencken in 1880, placed these prophetic words in the mouth of his protagonist Ulrich, in The Man without Qualities: “One can’t be angry with one’s own time without damage to oneself.” It’s a warning H. L. Mencken may never have read, or have held up to him as a caution by a friend or an enemy, but it suits his case as well as anything he wrote or had written about him. He was a cultural and political malcontent who hurled anathemas left and right and aligned himself with no one. His favorite boast was that resistance to the status quo was in his bloodstream. “How did I get my slant on life?” he replied in an interview in 1926. “My ancestors for 300 years back were all bad citizens… They were always against what the rest were for… I was prejudiced when I came into the world.”

It can be argued that this instinct for opposition was the making of Mencken, that it resonated with a restless minority of closet rebels who embraced him as their prophet and warlord. It’s certain, looking back on his career’s trajectory, that he asserted it at a terrible cost to himself. Professionally he committed suicide twice, first when he sided with the kaiser in World War I, and second — beyond resurrection this time — when he failed to convince most Americans that he was sufficiently outraged by Hitler’s Third Reich. He alienated another generation of potential readers with his pathological loathing of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mencken never equivocated or apologized, of course. But he was conspicuously out of fashion by the age of 60, a fact that must have wounded him more than any of the verbal slings and arrows that failed to penetrate his armor-thick skin. His courage cannot be questioned. Every biographer, reviewing Mencken’s attacks on God and country in times of feverish piety and patriotism, marvels that he was never lynched, or even physically assaulted.

At the beginning of the Great War in Europe, in 1914, he had remarked to Theodore Dreiser that he hoped to “spend my declining years in a civilized country.” His distaste for the country of his birth seemed to peak in 1919 — understandably, as the Red Scare metastasized, Prohibition loomed, and he remained muzzled and closeted by the Baltimore Evening Sun — when he wrote to his friend Gerald Boyd that he was “planning to get out of the United States as soon as possible, and to stay out.” Earlier in the year he had advised Dreiser of his hope “to move to Munich as soon as I can shake off my obligations.” But his dreams of romantic self-exile never materialized, to the delight of many and the chagrin of many more.

The wisdom of Musil’s aphorism is not beyond question. Anger against their “own time” has always marked individuals of unusual insight or compassion. And which time in history, it’s worth asking, has seen such a flowering of human excellence that most citizens would have declared themselves contented? Moreover, the “time” that belonged to Musil and Mencken was a time of unprecedented slaughter and devastation, of fascism, genocide, and two world wars that completed the collapse of European civilization. Happy warriors were few, and suspect. Joseph Roth, the brilliant Austrian novelist and journalist who combined the gifts of Musil and Mencken, had the terrible misfortune to be a Jew as well as a genius. Roth fled the Nazis and drank himself to death at the age of 45, in exile in Paris on the eve of the Second World War. (Musil, whose wife was Jewish, died an exile in Switzerland in 1942.) H. G. Wells, another disillusioned contemporary, died at the end of the war, a few months after publishing a last lament for Western civilization titled Mind at the End of Its Tether. Wells outdid them all by suggesting that the earth itself was fed up with the murderous human race and was in the process of rejecting it.

A dark view of the social order and the ideas that propped it up was hardly a strange reaction to the twentieth century. But what set Mencken apart from the Europeans was that his most outspoken revulsion against the established order came in times of peace and prosperity. The great wars crushed Europe, winners and losers alike, but they left the United States in an enviable position, for the first time in its brief history the most powerful and influential country in the world, and the most secure. Though Mencken was the grandson of German immigrants on both sides — his Mencken grandfather emigrated from Saxony in 1848 — he was a full-fledged and somewhat pampered child of the American middle class. “Fat, saucy and contented” were the words he used to describe himself after a happy childhood as the eldest son of a prosperous tobacco merchant.

But if he was ever guilty of the bourgeois sin of contentment, it was not a sin he tolerated among his countrymen. If the prosperous Jazz Age America of Calvin Coolidge and bathtub gin was a sty of contentment, Henry Mencken was the stinging gadfly who kept the pigs awake.

“What one beholds, sweeping the eye over the land, is a culture that, like the national literature, is in three layers — the plutocracy on top, a vast mass of undifferentiated human blanks bossed by demagogues at the bottom, and a forlorn intelligentsia gasping out a precarious life between.” Mencken wrote that in 1920, the year Warren G. Harding was elected to replace Woodrow Wilson in the White House. Nearly a century later, what would he behold, sweeping his gimlet eye over the land, that is so strikingly different? Only technology. The bloody twentieth was a century of revolutionary, life-altering technologies — automobiles, nuclear energy, and television in Mencken’s time, computers in ours. Americans embraced each of these with reckless, simian enthusiasm, but each has proven to be a dangerously mixed blessing, with the worst perhaps yet to come. Through it all, Mencken’s three-tiered culture has remained intact, cemented in place by technology that enabled the plutocrats to manipulate the helots more efficiently.

Mencken was a man of conservative temperament, born in the age of the horse and buggy, who lived into the age of hydrogen bombs and nuclear disarmament. It’s no surprise that he was a devout technophobe who in his last, invalid years rejected television as hopelessly moronic. He had always detested the telephone, an archenemy of his privacy. “The greatest boon to bores ever invented,” he called it. “The most infernal invention of the 20th century.”

“The only modern inventions that have been of any real use to me are the typewriter and the Pullman car,” Mencken announced to an interviewer in 1946. In spite of his professed allegiance to science, he was no gadgeteer. But it’s precarious trying to isolate, precisely, just what it was about his time that most infuriated Mencken. This was not only the man who contradicted everyone, but a man who personally embodied a galaxy of contradictions, which is what has made him such a challenge for biographers and scholars. An educated guess is that the thing he loathed most was optimism. Animal optimism — animal spirits — he endorsed and enjoyed. Food and drink, sexual attraction, good music (as he defined it), good company, and good conversation were essential to his well-being. This was no sour ascetic or life-denying hermit. What he detested was delusional optimism, as he saw it — organized religion with its promises of ecstatic afterlife, the cult of human progress, American exceptionalism, popular beliefs in the essential goodness of humankind and the benevolence of representative democracy. It was this doctrine of the Ascent of Man, of cultural, moral, spiritual, and supernatural uplift, that never failed to raise his hackles and provoke his most venomous rhetoric.

Most educated people of Mencken’s time, on both sides of the Atlantic, would have agreed that the ancient European culture was infinitely superior to the American brand, if in fact the USA could lay claim to any culture at all. Oscar Wilde’s famous epigram, penned after a speaking tour of the United States in 1882, reinforced our inferiority complex: “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” As a German American raised within an ethnic community, Mencken was a student, admirer, and staunch partisan of the Europeans, and of Germans in particular. The admiration was mutual. Biographer Marion Elizabeth Rogers credits European intellectuals and journalists as “the first to recognize his merits” — thanks in part, no doubt, to Mencken’s poor opinion of American character and society, a prejudice most of them shared. L’enfant terrible de la critique americaine they called him in France. The deposed Kaiser Wilhelm, in exile in Holland, was an enthusiastic reader of Mencken’s scathing Notes on Democracy, published in 1926, and sent him a framed photograph inscribed “With thanks for your splendid book on democracy.”

The photograph was reportedly hung in the back hall on the third floor at 1524 Hollins Street. Even Mencken hesitated to scandalize his personal guests. But as he saw it, an unnecessary, fraudulently promoted war had ruined Germany and eclipsed a superior civilization — all to the great advantage of the United States, which, after virtually suspending the Bill of Rights to support its war effort, impudently embarked on a decade of optimism. The damn Yankees had the temerity to be pleased with themselves. For many middle-class Americans the Twenties were a time of giddy excess and self-congratulation, with nothing much but H. L. Mencken to spoil it for them. That theirs was a fool’s paradise was proven, to Mencken’s satisfaction, by the stock-market crash of 1929 and the brutal Depression that followed.

Against the proofs that he was always “angry with his time,” there is the argument that a man like Henry Mencken would have been angry with any time, or any place. But if he were here today to instruct us, as was his habit, he would point to the dreadful symmetry of our follies as he chronicled and predicted them. We were on the winning side in two wars, and each of them was followed by Red Scares and communist witch hunts, the notorious Palmer Raids in 1919–1921, and the equally notorious reign of Senator Joe McCarthy after World War II. These paranoid periods were characterized by jingoism, censorship, grotesque hypocrisy, and the righteous suspension of most of the liberties of which America loves to boast. Mencken would have nodded his head, ruefully, at the Patriot Act and the war on terrorism with its constitution-defying domestic spying, all spawned by the bombings of September 2001. Coddle them and they love freedom, he would have said; kick them and they destroy it.

The postwar paroxysms of unreason and injustice were both followed by periods of boundless optimism — the Twenties and the Fifties — as if the American populace, after the arrests and deportations and ruined lives, was somehow pleased with itself instead of ashamed. Mencken must have judged it a misfortune that he lived on into the happy-face Fifties, the age of Ike and Mamie and Ozzie and Harriet. Followed, of course, by a decade of assassinations and a humiliating war that America did not win. But Mencken was never shy about saying “I told you so.” • 20 October 2014

Hal Crowther is a critic and essayist, and a former syndicated columnist and news-magazine editor at Time and Newsweek. His most recent collection of essays, Gather at the River, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle prize in criticism. His syndicated columns won the Baltimore Sun’s H. L. Mencken Writing Award in 1992. He is also the author of Unarmed But Dangerous and Cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South, winner of the Lillian Smith Book Award for commentary and the Fellowship Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with his wife, the novelist Lee Smith.

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