The main impression that arises from H. L. Mencken’s diaries is of the unlikelihood of their author as the leading American writer of his day. He was a man with no sympathy whatever for the national enterprise; in one typically dolorous entry, he says, “My grandfather, I believe, made a mistake when he came to this country. . . . I have spent all of my 62 years here, but I still find it impossible to fit myself into the accepted patterns of American life and thought. After all these years, I remain a foreigner.” He was not a creature of the literary or journalistic demimonde either. His closest friends were solid, prosperous burghers: professors at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, executives of the Baltimore Sunpapers, and, in New York, the publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf rather than his fellow writers. His idea of a good time is conveyed by a passage written after the death of his friend Max Brodel, a medical illustrator and a fellow member of the Saturday Night Club, which was the locus of Mencken’s weekend entertainment for many years:

It has been the custom of the club since the beginning to end every evening of music with a waltz, and usually it has been one of Strauss’s, though the library also contains many by Waldteufel, Gungl, Komzak and Niehrer. Max always welcomed this postlude. “I begin to feel beerish,” he would say—and the moment the piano lid banged down we’d be off to the beer table. No members of the club ate and drank more heartily. He was, in fact, a really gargantuan eater . . . .

Maryland is for crabs

Although Mencken was, unlike anyone who’s around today, enormously influential as both a political commentator and a literary critic, he conveys in the diary no sense of real engagement with either field. For all of his adult life he disapproved of the basic condition of American politics, and the figure he disapproved of most of all was Franklin Roosevelt (“a fraud from snout to tail”); to the extent that he found any politicians tolerable, they were conservative Republicans like Robert Taft and Joseph Ritchie, the governor of Maryland, whose following among intellectuals was probably limited to Mencken.

In the final phase of his career, the only political cause that truly interested him—opposition to American involvement in World War II—was one he felt (probably rightly) that he couldn’t get away with writing about, so the particulars of his views about it remain a mystery. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine that if he had set down his case against the war, it would seem anything but embarrassingly wrongheaded today. There is not a hint in the diary that Mencken perceived Adolf Hitler as either dangerous or evil. In general, very oddly for a journalist, Mencken had no interest in the idea of the nobility of a writer’s participation in public life. In one entry he says proudly about his writing, “It is free of moral purpose”; in another, “The one obligation I recognize in this world is my duty to my immediate family.”

Burgher king

During the years before 1930, when the diary begins, Mencken championed the work of many of the great writers of his day, such as Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and Scott Fitzgerald. By the time of the diary, though, Mencken had stopped writing literary criticism, and almost all of the literary commentary in the diary has to do with how pathetic his writer-friends (including all of the above and, especially, the now long-forgotten Joseph Hergesheimer) had become, thanks to alcoholism, financial imprudence, and physical infirmity. He doesn’t seem to be reading new books; there is only one entry in which he praises other writers’ work, and even in that case he is quick to denigrate the authors of the two books he admires: Will Durant (Caesar and Christ) for being “only a popularizer, and full of unwarranted pretensions,” and John Gunther (Inside Asia) for being “in general . . . a third-rater.” A typical willfully nonliterary passage on another writer is this account of a meeting with T.S. Eliot:

An amiable fellow, but with little to say. He told me that his father was a brick manufacturer in Missouri. No talk of religion. We discussed magazine prices. He charged 7/6 a copy for the Criterion. He believes that J.C. Squire’s effort to increase the circulation of the London Mercury by reducing its price from 2/6 to 1s. a copy has been a failure. I drank a quart of home-brew beer, and Eliot got down two scotches. A dull evening.

The diary’s much-discussed anti-semitism, rather than seeming out of character, is entirely of a piece with its picture of Mencken as an anti-New Deal conservative lunching comfortably at the Maryland Club. There are two broad varieties of anti-semitism: the kind animated by the idea that there is a Jewish conspiracy to ruin the world, and the country-club kind, in which Jews are seen as “pushy” and otherwise socially distasteful. Mencken subscribed to the latter view, as no doubt did most of his friends. The apparent paradox of his many business and social associations with Jews can be explained in part by pointing out that most of his Jewish friends were of German rather than Eastern European origin and probably shared some of his distaste for the Jewish immigrants of the 1880-1920 period. For example, he reported that Alfred Knopf (who was Jewish) was considering moving his publishing company from Manhattan to the suburbs because “He realizes himself that there are now too many Jews in his office. Once he gets to Westchester County he should be able to find supplies of labor of a more desirable sort.”

If Mencken was not, attitudinally, an ordinary querulous old Republican, there is nothing in the diary to prove it. The one government agency for which he had kind words was the Navy, because of its gentlemanly cast. He was dead set against all aspects of modernity: sound in motion pictures, automobiles, labor unions, air conditioning, airplanes, bureaucracy, psychology, radio, television. He was convinced that the world was getting steadily worse in every way, and he made no exception to the rule for himself. He was profoundly hypochondriacal, and pleased that he had fathered no children who might have to endure the horrors of the future. The three institutions he cared about most—the Sunpapers, the Hopkins medical school, and the Knopf publishing house—were all, to his mind, in a state of alarming decline. The one blessing of the stroke that tragically ended his ability to work in 1948 was that it may have partially shielded him from postwar America, which he surely would have despised even more than the periods he was able to write about.

A writer’s writer

Why, then, was (and is) Mencken so much admired by other writers? Walter Lippmann called him “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people.” Edmund Wilson harbored some doubts about Mencken but wrote him admiring letters even during his communist phase in the thirties. The diary has been much defended this year. What is the source of his appeal?

Mencken was extremely dedicated to his craft, and, unlike all the contemporaries he disapproved of, he makes a good role model of literary constancy. He had a Germanic devotion to arbeit, as well as to music and beer. In his prime, he wrote 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. Even in his mid-sixties he turned out a book a year. Near his 65th birthday, he wrote, “Looking back over a life of hard work, I find that my only regret is that I didn’t work even harder.” He was entirely indifferent to money and fame, those corrupters of so many American writers, and absolutely untouched by the desire to curry favor through his writing. He was so self-motivated that he turned out a memoir of his early career more than 3,000 typed pages long that he had no intention of publishing because it was even more frank than the three volumes of memoirs he did publish. The prose style of the diary, initially off-putting because it is so plain compared to that of his work for publication, is winning in the long run because it is so consistently impeccable and graceful; in fact, the diaries might make a better stylistic monument than his bombastic essays, which, read today, carry a hint of the artificial voice of a 19th-century medicine-show barker.

Personally, Mencken was a man of great decency. The diary records the maintenance of many friendships, some of them dating back to earliest boyhood; most of the entries mention a lengthy “gabble” or “palaver” with this or that old-timer. He lived modestly in the house where he grew up. He did many favors for people who were in no position to repay them. He regularly visited an old uncle in a rest home, and offered to pay for his care. He answered thousands of letters from people he didn’t know, usually on the day he received them. He was adamantly and admirably rooted in his hometown of Baltimore. He was an uxorious husband.

But these virtues cannot by themselves account for the magnitude of Mencken’s reputation. Part of the rest of the explanation is that he helped to invent the concept of the independent intellectual in this country. Before Mencken, most leading critics of American life and letters were stuffy academics; Mencken himself, self-taught, self-employed, entertaining, and popular, demonstrated to younger writers like Wilson that they need not become professors. The heyday of the American intellectual, which ran roughly from World War I through the 1960s (when intellectual life outside the universities began to disappear again), was at least arguably ushered in by Mencken.

Eggheads and yokels

It is impossible, though, to dismiss the suspicion that there is a darker side to the cult of Mencken—that the real common ground between him and the intellectuals was an antidemocratic spirit. It is no secret that Mencken disliked democracy. One of his books, Notes on Democracy, makes his feelings about it perfectly clear, and in many other published works he makes no effort to disguise his preference for a pre-capitalist aristocracy as the ideal form of social and governmental authority. The fundamental reason for this conviction was that Mencken considered the great mass of people to be inherently inferior; any society controlled by them was bound to be second-rate, and there was no better example than the United States.

Mencken was full of ethnic prejudices—it’s surprising that the anti-semitism of the diary made news, because his oeuvre is full of anti-semitic statements; in 1922 he characterized the pogrom-fleeing immigrants from Eastern Europe as “Jews too incompetent to swindle even the barbarous peasants of Russia, Poland, and Rumania”—but he also despised ordinary native-born Americans. By far the most vituperative passages in the diary are directed at the general run of “yokels,” “boobs,” “morons,” and “imbeciles,” and, in particular, at the migrants from Appalachia to Baltimore Mencken charmingly referred to as “lintheads,” “anthropoids,” or “vermin.” When FDR died, Mencken noted the occasion in his diary by saying, “He was the first American to penetrate to the real depths of vulgar stupidity. He never made the mistake of over-estimating the intelligence of the American mob.”

It is difficult to see what principled defense there would be today for Mencken’s core beliefs; indeed, the political triumph of conservatism in the 1980s was based on its shedding its elitist tradition and embracing populism. (The chief contemporary organ of Mencken-worship, The American Spectator, doesn’t have the nerve to engage in true Menckenism, which would surely today include a hatred of Ronald Reagan, who is exactly the kind of hearty, positive-thinking, nonintellectual public figure that Mencken most disliked.) As a general principle, democracy has had a pretty good run over the past half-century; it would be impossible to claim that it had been discredited in any way. Hitler, among others, made it permanently impossible for ethnic put-downs to seem lighthearted and funny, as they must have in Mencken’s heyday. Intellectually, Mencken belonged to a tradition of complete uninterest in common people (his idol was Friedrich Nietzsche, and he considered Don Quixote “almost unreadable”) that seems to have come to a dead end.

What is easy to see, however, is how neatly Mencken’s writing during his great decade, the twenties, fit into the belief-system of most American intellectuals, even though they were miles to the left of Mencken politically. Mencken had three great gripes then, all of which most intellectuals would have heartily agreed with: American involvement in World War I, Prohibition, and the booster culture that produced President Warren G. Harding. In all three cases, it is possible to see the real source of Mencken’s views as simply his primary loyalty to Germany and German culture—that would explain his feelings about the World War I (and World War II, for that matter), the civilizing effects of liquor, and the anti-intellectualism of American life. Most other intellectuals didn’t share Mencken’s feelings about Germany, but they identified the war, Prohibition, and Harding with the dominance of a bland, conservative, business-oriented ethos from which they felt excluded. All of the books that formed the foundation of the intellectual “opposition culture”—Randolph Bourne’s War and the Intellectuals (the war was a munitions-industry plot), Harold Stearns’s Civilization in America (there isn’t any), and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit (businessmen are idiots) were entirely consistent with Menckenism. Mencken’s relative silence on political matters after 1930 helped obscure how far apart he and most other intellectuals really were.

Snob story

Specific issues aside, Mencken’s antidemocratic beliefs were always hard to miss, but antidemocracy has always been the secret vice of the intellectuals. As far back as the 1840s, Washington Irving was explaining his expatriation to England by saying that, while America had “the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery,” only Europe possessed “the refinements of highly cultivated society.” By the 1920s, by intellectuals’ lights, this country had lost its sublimeness, but remained a howling wilderness as far as culture was concerned. In Western Europe, scholars and artists were godlike figures, celebrated by their whole societies; in America, they were outcasts. The national tone seemed to have been set by the Elks Club. Mencken’s diatribes against the numbing flood of nationalistic PR were received by other writers as courageous and thrilling. His pummeling of the unappreciative masses was obviously also pleasing to intellectuals—and it still is. Just a couple of months ago, an A-list of American writers (Auchincloss, Ellison, Galbraith, Hersey, Mailer, Miller, Schlesinger, Styron, Vonnegut) defended the Mencken diary in a letter to The New York Review of Books by pointing out that in addition to being anti-Semitic and anti-black, “It also contains discourteous remarks about most races, nationalities, and professions; in fact, Mencken’s harshest words are directed at ‘the only pure Anglo-Saxons left in the United States . . . a wretchedly dirty, shiftless, stupid, and rascally people.'” It’s amazing that at this late date intellectuals are willing to renounce racism but not snobbery, which is their hidden link to Mencken; but that is where we still are.

To put the best face on it, American intellectuals’ misgivings about the American people might turn out to be an artifact—one of the last remaining—of our country’s youth. Historically, snobbery was a way for American writers to establish their bona fides with their superiors in Europe, by demonstrating that they shared the European conviction that the United States was uncivilized. Even in the twenties, Mencken was able, without fear of appearing ridiculous, to portray this country as being clearly a province of Europe in such areas as science, medicine, painting, law, literature, criticism, philosophy, music, diplomacy, politics, and finance: “Everything American is a bit amateurish and childish . . . . The most conspicuous and respected American in nearly every field of endeavor, saving only the purely commercial . . . is a man who would attract little attention in any other country.”

For intellectuals who felt ashamed about this state of affairs, the booboisie served as a kind of excuse, as well as a justification for feelings of superiority. But now this country has been a leader in all the fields Mencken mentioned for at least a generation, so the need for an excuse no longer exists. One of the ironies of the American cultural ascent, when it’s considered in the light of Mencken’s writing, is that it was accomplished in large part precisely because we aren’t the kind of aristocratic society he liked. Relatively few of the people who have led this country to cultural leadership emerged from the privileged classes. Mencken himself, who never went to college and who rose to prominence on the basis of his appeal to a popular audience, probably would not have become a great figure if his family had remained in Germany, as he wished.

Now that American intellectuals no longer need an explanation for their country’s cultural shortcomings, all that remains as an impetus to put down the common people is the need to feel superior, and that is a base motive that thinking people ought to rid themselves of. Mencken was probably right in believing that intellectuals will never be as celebrated in the United States as they were in Goethe’s Germany, but that doesn’t constitute a license to sneer. Sneering actually works to the detriment of most intellectuals’ political goals because it has helped convince most Americans that liberals are elitists not to be trusted. Right now intellectuals have a big opportunity to help redefine American culture: the collapse cd communism will inevitably lead to a period of intense reexamination of our national purpose. It’s time for them finally to come to terms with the life of the country.

Mencken fans might argue that a dose of the old man’s medicine is needed now more than ever, because a wave of obnoxious self-satisfaction always follows the winning of a war, even a cold one. They’d be only half right: that danger exists, but it can be headed off without resorting to booboisie-bashing. There is a long and noble tradition in this country of comically deflating official pomposities and pieties without at the same time condemning most Americans as fools. Mark Twain did it in Huckleberry Finn, and so did the frontier humorists who were his precursors. More recently, the movies and television provide a wealth of examples, from the Marx Brothers to the very funny and subversive new prime-time cartoon show, “The Simpsons.” Intellectuals now could play an important part in redirecting the country’s concern to problems like economic stagnation and ghetto poverty, on whose solution the future of the United States rests. Were Mencken alive today, he would point out that the creed that has swept over the world is nothing more than a mass desire to eat McDonald’s hamburgers at shopping malls. In that sense he provides a wonderful guidepost for intellectuals: Think of what he would say, let it crystallize in your mind, and then be sure not to say it yourself.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.