Published in six series between 1919 and 1927, H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices is an extended Bronx cheer from the smarty-boots side of the culture war and the first full-bore expression of the animus of East coast intellectuals toward the South and fly-over country. For Mencken it was the “civilized man” against “boobus Americanus”; today it could be “Brights,” in Daniel Dennett’s flattersome term, on one side and “NASCAR retards,” to sink to Eric Alterman’s, on the other. Except that Mencken’s comic brio is all his own, his spirit lives on—though his actual views are more problematic. In general, today’s liberals share the man’s antipathy toward religion, his approbation of science, and his championship of free speech—to say nothing of his incredulity that any intelligent person could think otherwise—but his social Darwinism, denunciation of democracy, and attitudes towards women and Jews, to mention only the most obnoxious of his hobbyhorses, cause the same people to shrink back in horror.
Prejudices must be taken at its title’s word: the pieces within are the enunciation of visceral, intransigent opinions, often pedestrian in their substance and riven by inconsistency. They are, in a word, journalism. First published in periodicals and newspapers and later revised, they include considerations on topics ranging from suicide to the nature of art; impressions of American ways; assessments of writers and their reputations; book reviews; and rambunctious jeremiads and excoriations. Among the last are “The Sahara of the Bozart,” on the degraded state of Southern culture; “Meditations in the Methodist Desert,” on the duplicity of Prohibition; “Memoirs of a Subject of the U.S.,” on the evils of democracy and an over-mighty government; and “The Husbandman,” in which Mencken sums up his views on one of his favorite bugaboos, that “prehensile moron,” the American farmer (“a tedious fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite”).
Thanks in large degree to an affectation of naughtiness, inspired invective, and a brilliant prose style, the pieces bear the gloss of iconoclastic sophistication. Indeed, they were published at exactly the time when urbanity, flouting of pieties, and personal freedom became marketed commodities and that, to an extent, is exactly what they were: hot items. Now they come to us, in their entirety, in two handsome volumes from the Library of America.
Even now, the stellar event for both sides in the continuing cultural clash is the Scopes trial of the summer of 1925. This is the showdown connived at by both the ACLU, seeking its first victory in court, and the boosters of Dayton, Tennessee, who hoped it would bring the impoverished little town profitable national attention. Called upon by the ACLU for his advice, Mencken recommended against seeking victory for Scopes, the teacher who agreed to be arrested for teaching the theory of evolution. Instead, he insisted, the defense should put William Jennings Bryan on the stand to convert the trial “into a headlong assault” on the man Mencken loathed above all others. The animal revulsion he felt toward Bryan—an agrarian populist, prohibitionist, religious fundamentalist, and three-time presidential candidate—is on display in the Fifth Series in the astounding philippic, “In Memoriam, W. J. B.” It is one of Mencken’s most brutal exercises of stylistic genius and, had the trial not done so already, it must surely have killed Bryan (“a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without shame or dignity” bearing “a vague, unpleasant manginess about his appearance”).
One longs to quote the whole terrifying, six-and-a-half-page assault on the character and person Mencken elsewhere deemed “one of the most tragic asses in American history,” but a sampling will have to suffice. Bryan’s “quarry,” Mencken wrote, was “Homo Neandertalensis.”
For forty years he tracked it with coo and bellow, up and down the rustic backways of the Republic. Wherever the flambeaux of Chautauqua smoked and guttered, and the bilge of Idealism ran in the veins, and Baptist pastors dammed the brooks with the sanctified, and men gathered who were weary and heavy laden, and their wives who were full of Peruna and as fecund as the shad (Alosa sapidissima)—there the indefatigable Jennings set up his traps and spread his bait….
Making his progress up and down the Main street of little Dayton, surrounded by gaping primates from the upland valleys of the Cumberland Range, his coat laid aside, his bare arms and hairy chest shining damply, his bald head sprinkled with dust—so accoutered and on display he was obviously happy….
His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time: he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses…. What moved him, at bottom, was simply hatred of the city men who had laughed at him so long, and brought him at last to so tatterdemalion estate….
Bryan in his malice, started something that it will not be easy to stop. In ten thousand country towns his old heelers, the evangelical pastors, are propagating his gospel, and everywhere the yokels are ready for it…. Such is Bryan’s legacy to his country. He couldn’t be President, but he could at least help magnificently in the solemn business of shutting off the Presidency from every intelligent and self-respecting man. The storm, perhaps, won’t last long, as time goes in history. It may help indeed to break up the democratic delusion, now already showing weakness, and so hasten its own end.
The “democratic delusion” is central to Mencken’s disgust for the man he liked to call “Jennings.” He deplored the absence in the United States of an aristocracy invested with “the true Junker spirit” and bemoaned the replacement of bold leaders on the lines of Davy Crockett with “cheer leaders, press agents, word-mongers, uplifters.” Be that as it may, democracy supplied the endlessly entertaining spectacle—the “buffoonery that never stops”—which, Mencken claimed, made him “so curiously happy.” Throughout Prejudices he generally keeps in character as the appreciative observer of fools and poltroons, but in “On Being an American” (Third Series) the tone develops a bitter edge. He offers his usual enthusiastic accolade to America’s “unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throatslittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances.” But just how really unamused he is becomes clear when he takes up the United States’s entry into World War I, a shameful act, in his view, that was the direct result of the country having become “a commonwealth of third-rate men.” It is a topic he was obsessed with thanks to his German sympathies, and one that he meant to make the subject of a multi-volume exposé of the “spy-hunting, profiteering, and patrioteering” that marked America’s “share” in the war—a project given up, as it happens, in favor of putting together Prejudices.
To a degree, the nation Mencken claims to delight in as an “Eden of clowns” is a mischievous creation unified by his own powerful sense of the ridiculous. Throughout Prejudices, he drives the diverse “bosh mongers,” spewers of buncombe and “geysers of pishposh” into the same corral through sheer brawny eloquence and fistic wit. Thus his menagerie of scoundrels brings together such strange bedfellows as “the Ku Klux Klan and all other clownish fraternal orders,” Chambers of Commerce, Methodists, Chautauquans, prohibitionists, sex hygienists, Freudian “necromancers,” the “snouting and preposterous Puritan,” and the “fantoddish old suffragette.” Indeed, his prose style is an assertion of masculine puissance (to use one of his favorite words); and it strikes one that what gives such galvanic force to his writing is not only his “unashamed taste for the bizarre and indelicate,” but his outraged feeling that America is being emasculated by purveyors of genteel literature, wowsers, teetotalers, and “vassarized” women. “Here,” he says, “is a land in which women rule and men are slaves. Train your women to get your slippers for you, and your ill fame will match Galileo’s or Darwin’s.”
As a physical presence Mencken seems to have achieved what he describes as the male ideal: a figure whose “only touch of genuine color” is “the florid blob of the face.” As an intellectual presence there’s nothing blobby about him. He’s a festive brawler, here to bust up the joint. In “The Cult of Hope” (Second Series) he calls the idea that criticism should be constructive a “messianic delusion”; on the contrary, its object is destruction. Mencken’s flair for contumely and comic rancor are intoxicating, even to one who disagrees with him more than half of the time. To be sure, in the pages of Prejudices he’s sometimes dull and stupid, as when he issues decrees on women’s clothing and makeup or on the relations between the sexes; sometimes he’s just dull, though unavoidably so, as when he lays into middle-brow writers lost to history; and sometimes he’s brilliantly hard-hitting as when he takes on American journalism and other forms of timeserving. There are many reasons to read Prejudices, but for me one trumps them all: that combative, beautifully sprung, ingeniously funny style, as irresistible as a laughing baby.
Katherine A. Powers, whose great-grandfather was an ardent supporter of William Jennings Bryan, writes a literary column for the Boston Sunday Globe.