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The Elitist Individualism of H.L. Mencken

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10/08/2010Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "H.L. Mencken."]

September 2010 marked the 130th anniversary of Henry Louis Mencken's birth. He was born in Baltimore, September 12, 1880, grew up there, went to school there, and took up newspapering there around the turn of the 20th century, when he was a teenaged high-school graduate with a large talent and perhaps even larger aspirations.

He did well at newspapering, moving quickly from the lackluster Baltimore Morning Herald to its bigger rival, the Baltimore Sun; but writing for a daily paper didn't begin to exhaust his prodigious energy. He began writing books on the side, and freelance magazine pieces too. Somewhere along the way, he began signing himself "H.L. Mencken" instead of "Henry Louis Mencken" or "Henry L. Mencken." The first of his books to come out under the "H.L. Mencken" byline he eventually stuck with is dated 1912, by which time he was in his early 30s and had been writing professionally for more than a decade.

He published three other books during that first decade of professional writing — an inconsequential collection of verse and two works of serious nonfiction: a short study of George Bernard Shaw and his contributions to the theatre and a significantly longer study of Friedrich Nietzsche and his philosophical books.

During this time, Mencken traveled to New York frequently, to establish and maintain editorial contacts and also to sit at the feet of the legendary James Gibbons Huneker, who wrote with equal facility about music, theatre, literature, painting, and ideas; who had singlehandedly introduced two generations of Americans to contemporary European arts and letters; who had advocated the most advanced ideas in the pages of all the best magazines throughout the 1880s and '90s; and who was now, in his 40s and early 50s — in his prime, really — going back and collecting the best of these pieces, along with new ones, and republishing them in a brilliant series of books. Huneker's biographer, Arnold T. Schwab, describes "the bright young men who regularly gathered around Huneker at Scheffel Hall or Lüchow's to hear the spiced, sparkling pronouncements on art and life that were already legendary, and to marvel at his ability to identify every known brand of beer by the slightest taste." For, as one British student of Huneker's life and times has put it, "James Gibbons Huneker's broad conception of culture" accorded significant "attention and respect" to "the arts of food, beer and conversation."

As a visiting bright young man, Mencken met other young journalists on the rise — Carl Van Vechten, for example, who had come from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by way of the University of Chicago and was now with the New York Times, and George Jean Nathan, who had come from Fort Wayne, Indiana, by way of Cleveland and Cornell and was now with the New York Herald and freelancing furiously for the magazines. In the course of meeting his fellow bright young men, Mencken formed relationships that would figure large in his later career. He and George Jean Nathan particularly hit it off. They became fast friends, drinking buddies, and eventually coeditors of two magazines. First, in 1914, there was an intellectual magazine with a somewhat literary focus — fiction, poetry, essays, literary and theatrical criticism; it was called The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness. Then, a decade later, Mencken and Nathan founded and co-edited an intellectual magazine with more of a focus on current ideas and issues. It was called The American Mercury — and there were those who would say that it was the most influential American intellectual magazine of the 1920s.

Both Mencken and Nathan had started out in newspapers as general-assignment reporters, he in Baltimore, Nathan in New York, but both had moved on to more interesting jobs pretty quickly — Nathan to theatre reviewing, Mencken to book reviewing and editorial writing and commentary on recent news and recent trends in the world of ideas. He wrote incessantly, compulsively, for the Baltimore Sunpapers, of course, but also for countless other periodicals, daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly. He compiled books from this periodical writing, often rewriting, expanding, or otherwise strengthening the original pieces in the process. He wrote other books entirely from scratch on the side. He wrote millions of words, even if you count only the words he wrote for publication. By his own estimate, he produced "well beyond 5,000,000 words" of published copy in a career that lasted half a century. A little old-fashioned long division will tell you that that reflects an average output of about 100,000 words per year, enough words to fill every page of a 333-page volume every year for 50 years. That's a shelf of books at least six feet long. Mencken wrote in 1948 that a good deal of the 5,000,000 words he had ushered into print were devoted to "journalism pure and simple — dead almost before the ink which printed it was dry. But I certainly do not regret that I gave so much of my time and energy, especially in my earlier years, to this journalism, for I had a swell time concocting it, and in its day it got some attention."

That it certainly did. By the time he was 40 years old, in 1920, when his career as a professional writer was scarcely two decades old, his writing had already made his name a household word. He had been publicly denounced from pulpits and state legislatures all over the country as a destroyer of American civilization, and he had received more than a few threats of lynching if he so much as set foot in certain states or parts of states. By 1925, when he was 45, college and university students nationwide were debating the proposition "that the school of thought typified by Mencken is a harmful element in American life." By 1928, his writings had brought such a deluge of denunciation down upon him that he could collect the most vituperative and splenetic of the lot into a book of more than 130 pages and publish it (to his personal profit) under the title Menckeniana: A Schimpflexikon.

And what was the doctrine Mencken espoused — the doctrine that aroused his critics to such spluttering paroxysms of uncontrollable rage, the doctrine that scalded the sensitive palates and raised hives on the delicate skins of clergymen and teachers and literary critics and public officials from Bangor to Seattle and from San Diego to Miami? What ideas of his so filled them with fear and loathing when they contemplated the possibility that Walter Lippmann had been right in saying at the end of 1926 that Mencken was "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people"?

I suppose you might call it elitist individualism. It's the sort of individualism that is focused on self-realization and self-expression, and Mencken never makes any secret of the fact that he is primarily concerned with the self-realization and self-expression of what he calls "the superior man," that is, the individual of substantially above-average intelligence. "There are minds which start out with a superior equipment, and proceed to high and arduous deeds," he wrote in 1926, in the very book Walter Lippmann was reviewing when he called Mencken "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people."

On the other hand,

there are minds which never get any further than a sort of insensate sweating, like that of a kidney. … Of one mind we may say with some confidence that it shows an extraordinary capacity for function and development — that its possessor, exposed to a suitable process of training, may be trusted to acquire the largest body of knowledge and the highest skill at ratiocination to which Homo sapiens is adapted. Of another we may say with the same confidence that its abilities are sharply limited — that no conceivable training can move it beyond a certain point. In other words, men differ inside their heads as they differ outside. There are men who are naturally intelligent and can learn, and there are men who are naturally stupid and cannot. …

Some men can learn almost indefinitely; their capacity goes on increasing until their bodies begin to wear out. Others stop in childhood, even in infancy. They reach, say, the mental age of ten or twelve, and then they develop no more. Physically, they become men, and sprout beards, political delusions, and the desire to propagate their kind. But mentally they remain on the level of schoolboys.

Mencken's individualism was an elitist individualism because Mencken believed that some men were better than others — though not on account of their race or their color or their nationality or their religious background or their socioeconomic class. He believed that some men were better than others because some were more competent and creative than others. But he believed in freedom for everybody. He believed that progress was possible "only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say." And he saw that "the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men."

Mencken saw the implications of where his thinking was leading him, and he acknowledged those implications frankly. "I am," he wrote in The Smart Set in 1922, "a libertarian of the most extreme variety." He was, he said, "against jailing men for their opinions, or, for that matter, for anything else." He considered that the ideal government would be one "which lets the individual alone — one which barely escapes being no government at all." He believed, he said in 1930, "that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty."

But he was not sanguine about the prospects for actually getting rid of government, or even for reducing it to a tolerable minimum. The ideal of a government which barely escapes being no government at all, he said, "will be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I have passed from these scenes and taken up my public duties in Hell."

By the way, before I go any further, did that last bit — the bit about libertarian goals being realized two or three thousand years after Mencken's death — did that seem "joyous" to you? How about some of those earlier parts I quoted from his 1926 book Notes on Democracy — say, the bit about the minds who never progress in their intellectual development beyond "a sort of insensate sweating, like that of a kidney." Did that seem "joyous" to you?

I ask, because a man for whom I have a great deal of respect, Murray N. Rothbard, published an essay on Mencken many years ago called "H.L. Mencken: The Joyous Libertarian." This essay has introduced at least two generations of young libertarians to the work of one of the most important individualist writers of the 20th century. It played a part in convincing me, early on, of Mencken's importance in the larger picture of the libertarian tradition. Yet, I could never unequivocally accept Murray's notion that "joyous" was the right word to describe Mencken's spirit.

Joyous? I didn't think so. Playful, at times, certainly. But more often acerbic, disdainful, contemptuous. His positive doctrine was individualism, but he spent much of his time focusing on the negative — singling out his enemies for abuse: ridiculing them, pointing out their stupidity, their laughable ineptitude.

And make no mistake about it: it was this spirit of mockery and ridicule, not any spirit of joyousness, that got Mencken denounced coast to coast and made his reputation. He was denounced, not for how joyous he was, but for how contemptuous, how derisive, how comically disrespectful, he was. He was denounced because his scorn was so withering. As Lord Chesterfield reminded his son way back in 1746, "there is nothing that people bear more impatiently, or forgive less, than contempt; and an injury is much sooner forgotten than an insult."

Eventually, though, Mencken's insults were forgotten. He is best known today, not for his libertarianism or for his dismissive attitude toward those of limited intelligence and their various foibles and follies, but for his 1919 book on The American Language and for his memoirs, written during the late 1930s and early 1940s for the New Yorker and collected later into three volumes under the titles Happy Days, Heathen Days, and Newspaper Days. He is also fairly well remembered as a historical figure, as the cynical, scoffing journalist who served as the model for Gene Kelly's character in the movie version of Inherit the Wind — the version that stars Spencer Tracy and Frederic March — and also as the model for the cynical, scoffing journalist Jim Lefferts, as portrayed by Arthur Kennedy in the film version of Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry.

Mencken scoffed cynically all the way up to the fall of 1948, when, at the age of 68, he suffered a stroke that left him unable to read or write and able to speak only with great effort and difficulty. He spent the last seven years of his life in this unfortunate condition, dying finally in January of 1956, at the age of 75. I was a schoolboy at the time, in the middle of fourth grade. I had begun reading the newspapers by then, but I remember no significant reaction to Mencken's passing. He was not an author we were assigned to read in school in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nor was he ever assigned to me in my undergraduate years in the middle and later 1960s. On the other hand, if you were in the habit of browsing libraries and secondhand bookstores, as I was, Mencken was impossible to miss. Whoever he was, he had written plenty of books.

I finally began getting into Mencken myself during my junior and senior years as an undergraduate, when I began specializing in American literature and focusing a great deal of attention on the 1920s. It proved to be impossible to read about the 1920s in American literature without stumbling over Mencken's name every time you turned around. It proved to be necessary to come to terms with who Mencken had been and what he had done if I wanted to master my chosen subject matter. Then I began seeing the recommendations of Mencken's work by Rothbard and other libertarian writers. One thing led inexorably to another, and still another. And today, here I am, convinced that H.L. Mencken is among the very greatest of all American writers and disposed to recommend him to everyone, and especially to libertarians.

So, what are you waiting for? You've received my recommendation and a little basic information on Mencken. If you haven't read him already, get busy! Believe me, you'll be glad you did.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.