Mencken: A Retrospect
[Newsweek column from February 20, 1956, and reprinted in Business Tides: The Newsweek Era of Henry Hazlitt.]
H.L. Mencken, who died on Jan. 29, was the outstanding American literary critic of his generation, its most influential stylist, its most prominent iconoclast, the chief scourge of the genteel tradition, and a great liberating force.
I devote this column to him in the hope of correcting a persistent misunderstanding about his economic and political ideas. The typical view, reflected in most of the obituaries, is that Mencken began as an arch-rebel and idol smasher; but that when the New Deal came along, he could not keep abreast of its “progressivism” and its “new ideas”; so the procession passed him by, exposing him as a mere “conservative.”
Those who hold this view have never understood either the real nature of the New Deal, or the real philosophy of Mencken. That philosophy never changed. Mencken was first and foremost a libertarian. That explains his unceasing warfare against censorship and prohibition, and most of his assaults on “democracy” — insofar as that word was used to imply the right of a majority to suppress or persecute a nonconformist minority.
I can speak about his views with a certain confidence, not only because I devoured all his work as it came out, but because of close personal experience. When Mencken nominated me in 1933 to succeed him as editor of The American Mercury, he thought I understood his philosophy and he mine well enough to assure his readers that in the magazine’s “basic aims and principles there will be little change.”
In his political and economic opinions Mencken was from the beginning, to repeat, neither “radical” nor “conservative,” but libertarian. He championed the freedom and dignity of the individual. Therefore he always considered Socialism preposterous. He had never known a Socialist, he was fond of saying, who wasn’t crazy on other subjects as well. One of his very earliest books, Men vs. the Man, published in 1910, was a debate against a Socialist. His famous blast against “this Prof. Dr. Thorstein B. Veblen, head Great Thinker to the parlor radicals, Socrates of the intellectual Greenwich Village, chief star [at least transiently] of the American Atheneums,” appeared, it is important to recall, in 1919, in the very first series of the Prejudices, and at the beginning of the great Mencken vogue.
Veblen remained the darling of the American intellectual left-wingers for at least twenty years longer. When the New Deal was at the height of its power and prestige, it was fashionable to say that Mencken had “missed” Veblen because he could not make him out. Now that the once exorbitant reputation of Veblen is itself rapidly fading, it is perhaps permissible to point out that whatever was sound in his celebrated The Theory
of the Leisure Class had already been said, in a few brief paragraphs, by Aristotle; and that Veblen’s attacks on “the price system” came from a man who had not the remotest understanding of that system, or of the role it plays in stimulating, directing, allocating, and balancing production.
Mencken was not a technical economist. He did not possess the specialized intellectual implements necessary to dissect all the Veblenian fallacies. His own essay, in fact, was published a couple of years before Veblen’s “The Engineers and the Price System.” But Mencken had an almost unerring sense of smell. He could usually detect pretentiousness and nonsense at the first whiff. True, his essay begins with an attack primarily upon the professor’s “incredibly obscure and malodorous style.” But when he got to his ideas he excoriated them irreparably, and concluded: “From end to end you will find the same tedious torturing of plain facts, the same relentless piling up of thin and overlabored theory, the same flatulent bombast, the same intellectual strabismus.”
In short, Mencken recognized from the start that Veblen’s ideas were “simply Socialism and water.” He prized human liberty too highly to be carried away by the growing academic mania for collectivism. Like Herbert Spencer, he sensed that “all Socialism involves slavery.” He brought in the minority report.