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Cynical quips like “Marriage: the end of hope” and “Wife: a former sweetheart” led critics to label H. L. Mencken "the country's high priest of woman-haters." Needless to say, his publication of In Defense of Women must have come as quite a shock. Here, Mencken argues that women possess a "superior intelligence" and are “the supreme realists of the race." Man, by contrast, is a helpless romantic: "without a woman to rule him and to think for him, he is a truly lamentable ...
Cynical quips like “Marriage: the end of hope” and “Wife: a former sweetheart” led critics to label H. L. Mencken "the country's high priest of woman-haters." Needless to say, his publication of In Defense of Women must have come as quite a shock. Here, Mencken argues that women possess a "superior intelligence" and are “the supreme realists of the race." Man, by contrast, is a helpless romantic: "without a woman to rule him and to think for him, he is a truly lamentable spectacle."
From the Introduction by Fred Hobson
To those critics who had labeled H. L. Mencken "the greatest misogynist since Schopenhauer" and "the country's high priest of woman-haters," the appearance of his In Defense of Women in 1918, then in a revised edition in 1922, must have come as quite a shock. And even then readers and reviewers were not altogether sure what to make of the book. Most—including many women reviewers—received the more publicized 1922 edition favorably; Mencken, after all, proclaimed that women possess a "superior intelligence," indeed "almost a monopoly of certain of the subtler . . . forms of intelligence." "The supreme realists of the race," women possess a "sharp and accurate" vision, "an habitual immunity to emotional enchantment, a relentless capacity for distinguishing clearly between the appearance and the substance." Man, by contrast, is a helpless romantic: "without a woman to rule him and to think for him, he is a truly lamentable spectacle." Even if women outwardly respect him, they "always regard him secretly as an ass, and with something akin to pity." He is, in short, "the eternal tragic comedian."
The man who wrote these words was, in the early 1920s, taking his place as the nation's most prominent social, cultural, and literary critic. Born in 1880 in Baltimore to German-American parents, Henry Louis Mencken grew up in a comfortable middle-class home, living the urban equivalent of a Tom Sawyer childhood, a period he later captured in his autobiographical Happy Days (1940). Leaving school and going to work in his father's cigar factory when he was just short of age sixteen, Mencken left the factory at eighteen—upon his father's death—and went to work for Baltimore newspapers. Soon he was trying his hand at fiction and poetry, and shortly after that at literary and social criticism. After being effectively silenced during World War I, because of his German sympathies, he burst forth in the period just after the war with his iconoclastic editorship of the Smart Set and then the American Mercury, with several volumes of essays which he entitled Prejudices, and with his explosive columns in the Baltimore Evening Sun. He championed bold new writers—first Joseph Conrad and Theodore Dreiser, then Sinclair Lewis and James Branch Cabell—and he led the postwar American assault on provincialism, religious fundamentalism, and smug middle-class respectability. So famous did he become as a social commentator that by the mid-twenties the New York Times labeled him the most powerful private citizen in America and columnist Walter Lippmann referred to him as "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." But this iconoclast was also, in many ways, a traditionalist, particularly in his ideas about class and gender. In his late thirties when the little-noticed first version of In Defense of Women appeared as well as in his early forties when the more widely circulated 1922 version was published, he led an eminently respectable life in Baltimore, living with his mother in the family row house, working most of the day in his upstairs study, and keeping his involvements with women as discreet as he could.
But at the typewriter he led an exciting life, which is to say he was given to ridicule and hyperbole and he wrote with the most explosive prose style of any essayist then practicing. He made the language stand up and perform, made it dance and sing. A wicked satirist who liked to challenge his readers, he also sometimes kept them guessing—-which was, in great measure, the case with In Defense of Women. In its formative stages he had spoken of his Defense as "A Book for Men Only"—a "critical consideration of la femme. Aphoristic, scandalous." He had also thought of calling it The Eternal Feminine, then The Infernal Feminine, before settling on In Defense of Women. But whether Mencken was, in fact, writing a "defense" is questionable. He did, after all, later note that his title had been "ironic." It is therefore relevant to ponder whether he was being ironic in his thesis that women have superior intelligence or whether, as several Mencken scholars have held, the irony was in the fact that he knew women needed no "defense" at all.
Mencken, as both his supporters and detractors well knew, had ventured onto this minefield before, particularly in the Smart Set, and one thing was certainly clear: he was, at the least, cynical about relations between the sexes. In 1916, in a collection of witty epigrams on women, religion, and public life, he had included the following:
Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.
Marriage: the end of hope.
Wife: a former sweetheart.
His own life suggested that these beliefs were more than editorial posturing. Socially he saw a number of women (more frequently on his trips to New York than back home in
Baltimore), but he stayed as far as he could from marriage. In fact, as he often said, he preferred the company of men, around a table, drinking beer, engaging in riotous conversation. The one woman to whom he had been close during the period he was writing In Defense of Women, and to whom he remained close through the early 1920s, was Marion Bloom, an aspiring writer some twelve years his junior. Mencken was fond of Marion, was sexually involved with her, gave her just enough encouragement to keep her from bolting, but was not seriously interested in marriage. She did serve, however, as a sounding board for many of the ideas in Defense, and it is likely that Mencken had her in mind in many of his observations.
Those observations, to repeat, were generally favorable to women, and Mencken was not being ironic in that respect. In private he remarked on men who occupied positions of power and influence but whose wives were infinitely smarter and shrewder. "Women in general seem to me to be appreciably more intelligent than men," he was later to write in his diary. "A great many of them suffer in silence from the imbecilities of their husbands." In Defense he described other ways in which he felt women demonstrated their superiority: they have no sense of honor—which is to say, they do not, like men, operate under the illusion that they are creatures of honor—and they refuse to be taken in by false promises and by frauds as men frequently are. Even women's seeming liabilities, Mencken contends, spring from the possession of a higher intelligence: they generally are not good homemakers because they "rebel . . . against the dull, mechanical tricks of the trade that the present organization of society compels them to practice for a living. . . . " Neither are women successful in such "petty" pursuits as business and law; their way of thinking transcends the kind of "practical efficiency" of such pursuits, an efficiency in which "men are expert" and which is "esteemed . . . in our materialistic and unintelligent society."
And most of all, Mencken contends, women demonstrate their superiority by winning "the war between the sexes." That is, women want to marry for economic security, and men want to flee from marriage, but women almost always win. Man's sentimentality does him in: he sees "a glamour of romance in a transaction which, even at its best, contains almost as much gross trafficking, at bottom, as the sale of a mule." While men succumb to "the intellectual disaster that is called falling in love," women are more calculating—again, more intelligent. Moreover, demonstrating their superior capacity for realism, women realize the human body "is not a beautiful thing but a hideous thing," while men entertain the "illusion" of beauty in the female body. In fact, Mencken maintains, the female body, "even at its best, is very defective in form; it has harsh curves and very clumsily distributed masses; compared to it the average milk-jug, or even cuspidor, is a thing of intelligent and gratifying design. . . . " Women realize this, but men do not.
Thus, Mencken rests his case on the superiority of women, and at times the reader is convinced, but at other times, the reader—eighty-five years later—might well ask is there also something a little disingenuous in his argument, even something a bit condescending? Is Mencken, at times (and perhaps subconsciously), constructing a defense not so much of women but of the status quo in gender relations as they existed in the 1920s? Contending that the thinking of women is on a plane too high for the "petty practicality" of law and business, not to mention politics, conveniently keeps women out of those pursuits in which American power and prestige lie. In this respect, Mencken's private correspondence is perhaps more revealing than In Defense of Women. "I am utterly against executive jobs for women, either on magazines or newspapers," he had written a friend in 1913. "A woman with a masculinized mentality," he wrote another friend, "must perforce be hard on the eyes." Outside the workplace women were equally peripheral. "I have discovered that it is possible to get enjoyment out of women, alcohol, and ideas," he wrote much later. "I get little enjoyment out of women, more out of alcohol, and most out of ideas."
Even in Defense it becomes clear about halfway through that Mencken is championing a certain kind of woman rather than the species in general. In chapter 3, "Marriage and the Law," he decries changes over the past century that have given women additional rights in marriage and goes on to complain about "newly enfranchised women" bent on "what they call social improvement":
The English wife of tradition [as well as the American, Mencken makes clear]
. . . is being displaced by a gadabout, truculent, irresponsible creature, full
of strange new ideas about her rights, and strongly disinclined to submit to her
husband's authority, or to devote herself honestly to the upkeep of his house,
or bear him a biological sufficiency of heirs. And the German Hausfrau, once
so innocently consecrated to Kirche, Küche und Kinde, is going the same way.
Although Mencken was, in many respects, a supporter of women's suffrage—largely because women, being realists, "will proceed to a scotching of many of the sentimentalities which currently corrupt politics"—he is very critical of "the iron-faced suffragist propagandist." Indeed, he is harsher in his description of suffragettes—and, in general, crusaders for women's rights—than of any other women, and largely for qualities they possess that do not conform to his own idea of femininity. It is in this section of Defense that Mencken appears at his least enlightened. Suffragettes, he maintains, are motivated by their jealousy of " the superficial privileges of men." In particular, they envy men for what they believe is a greater sexual freedom. In fact, Mencken maintains, most men are too cowardly and beset by conscience to utilize that freedom, but the suffragette, believing otherwise, voices a "hysterical demand for a sexual libertarianism that she could not put to use if she had it." The reason she could not utilize that freedom, Mencken implies, is that she isn't sufficiently attractive or, in any case, not sufficiently feminine. Suffragettes are women who are "two-thirds men," "pseudo-males" (one of several hints that he may consider many of them lesbians). Mencken contrasts suffragettes to "normal" women who "know that there must be a class to order and a class to obey."
Such sentiments do not show Mencken at his most liberated: it is clear that he feels threatened, particularly by women who demand full equality. But he returns in his final chapter, "The New Age," to his earlier tone, again stressing the superior intelligence of women and even seeming to welcome at least some of the changes in gender relations that he believes the remainder of the twentieth century will bring. Already, he observes, the traditional economic dependence of women that drove them into marriage is "so far broken down that large classes of women are now almost free agents, and quite independent of the favor of men." Although "women in general" may still opt for marriage, "there is an increasing minority which begins to realize that work may offer the greater contentment, particularly if it be mellowed by a certain amount of philandering." (Mencken does not seem to consider the possibility of both marriage and professional success.) Indeed, "with the decay of the ancient concept of women as property," women—on their own terms, without having to catch a man—may be liberated as never before.
Although he continues for a few pages in such a prophetic vein, at the end of his Defense Mencken turns, for nearly the only time in the book, to romance. "Every man," he writes, "has his own notion of what constitutes perfect peace and contentment," and all of these notions "revolve around women." He goes on, in his famous conclusion, to describe his own ideal:
It is the close of a busy and vexatious day—say half past five or six o'clock of a
winter afternoon. I have had a cocktail or two, and am stretched out on a divan
in front of a fire, smoking. At the edge of the divan, close enough for me to reach
her with my hand, sits a woman not too young, but still good-looking and well-
dressed—above all, a woman with a soft, low-pitched, agreeable voice. As I
snooze she talks—of anything, everything, all the things that women talk of:
books, music, the play, men, other women. No politics. No business. No religion.
No metaphysics. Nothing challenging and vexatious—but remember: she is
Intelligent. . . . I observe the fine sheen of her hair, the pretty cut of her frock,
the glint of her white teeth, the arch of her eyebrow, the graceful curve of
her arm. I listen to the exquisite murmur of her voice. Gradually I fall asleep—
but only for an instant. . . . Then to sleep again—slowly and charmingly down
that slippery hill of dreams. And then awake again, and then asleep again, and
I ask you seriously: could anything be more unutterly beautiful?
Mencken's fantasy is significant for several reasons. First, sexual desire is altogether missing from the picture, at least in any obvious way. What Mencken prefers in his ideal woman is not sensuality but rather cultivation, refinement, and charm. She is calming and soothing, not necessarily maternal but nonetheless comforting. She is indeed a creature whose function is to please—an appealing accessory, along with the cocktail, the divan, and the fire. Mencken does not want her to speak of politics, business, metaphysics, or anything "challenging and vexatious." But, he reminds us, she could perhaps speak of these matters if he wanted; she is intelligent.
Mencken's early love, Marion Bloom, always thought she was the ideal woman Mencken depicted at the end of In Defense of Women, and others have also identified her as such. Mencken revealed in his memoirs that his model was instead an unnamed "half-Jewish lady who had been a successful actress and was later to have a brief time of glory as a movie star." In fact, the ideal he describes seems nearly to describe the woman, Sara Haardt, whom he had not yet met in 1922, when he published this description, but whom he was later, in 1930, to marry. Sara Haardt was indeed well-dressed and good-looking (at least before her looks fell victim to the ravages of illness), had a soft, agreeable voice, was highly intelligent (but not aggressively so), was not particularly sexually exciting to Mencken, rather was cultivated and refined and possessed all the other charms Mencken assigned his ideal woman.
Thus Mencken, who had railed against marriage in his Defense—who insisted that superior men, among whom he certainly numbered himself, resisted it—was himself to approach the altar less than a decade after he had held forth in print against the institution. His bride was a southerner (another species of humanity he had frequently railed against), whose voice was not only soft but honeyed with southern charm. The nation's newspapers were full of pieces which, reminding their readers that Mencken had denounced marriage in his Defense, had great fun at his expense. But Mencken, who was accustomed to foreseeing all contingencies, had in the Defense taken care of this one as well. "The marriage of a first-rate man, when it takes place at all," he had written, "commonly takes place relatively late."
Mencken was indeed "relatively late"—fifty—in marrying, and his own marriage lasted five short years: he knew Sara Haardt's health was precarious when he married her, and she succumbed to tuberculosis in 1935. He never married, or even came close to it, in his remaining twenty years. (He died in 1956.) His own marriage to Sara, Mencken later wrote, was "a beautiful episode in my life. . . . I'll have her in mind until thought and memory adjourn. . . . " The author of the earlier "ironic" Defense, the cynic who had defined marriage as "the end of hope," at last demonstrated himself to be a romantic, nearly a sentimentalist, at least on those few later occasions when he considered his own case.
Fred Hobson is Lineberger Professor in the Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and coeditor of the Southern Literary Journal. He is author of a number of books in American literary studies, including Mencken: A Life (Random House, 1995).
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