Dandy in Shirt-Sleeves
A Mencken Chrestomathy.
by H. L. Mencken.
Knopf. 626 pp. $4.50.
H. L. Mencken is a self-made eccentric, as some people are self-made auto mechanics or movie writers. Whatever charm he has is due to this air of purposive crankiness. Here, one feels, is a man of the most eminent common sense who has decided, for professional reasons, to act the crackpot. In a country where the great writers are all great natural eccentrics and village queers—Melville, Poe, Hawthorne, the names prove the point—the writer who comes by his solitary strangeness through resolution and training must fall almost automatically into a lesser category; the sweat of concocting effort, of an arduously engaged-in spiritual homework, cannot fail to give away his pose.
But still an eccentric. This man who has the appearance of an alert bartender in a fashionable hotel, who gives the impression of dandyish clothes, flamboyant shirts—and yet who writes as though those very same shirtsleeves were eternally rolled up and those carefully tended hands forever lubricated—imagines himself some sort of aristocrat infinitely aloof from the “boobs”! Of course, his lordly invective is not aimed at us; on the contrary, his very stentorian tone incongruously implies the most cozy kind of intimacy with us. It is the peculiarly American kind of intimacy achieved by shouting at the top of one’s lungs.
And yet, at one precarious moment in our country’s cultural history, from about the close of the First World War to the end of the Harding administration, it was this American eccentric, or rather half-eccentric, who, almost singlehanded, carried on the valuable critical function of beating America over the head with Europe. The Randolph Bourne generation had either died or fled to the Dome, and the coming crop of critics, the Edmund Wilson-Paul Rosenfeld generation, were still striving towards authority. H. L. Mencken was, for better or worse, the defender on American soil of the values represented by Beethoven, Conrad, Wagner, Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw. And he did quite well at the job, filling in the gap until better-trained, though perhaps not as spirited, assault troops were ready to take over.
If you look up the files of the magazine Smart Set, there you will discover lusty and humorous evidence of H. L. Mencken’s heroic stand. But not in this new collection of his out-of-print writings. Although he had a free field of his past work to choose from, Mencken has incomprehensibly given his best pieces the go-by—for instance, the articles on Theodore Dreiser and James Huneker and the satiric squib entitled “Want Ad,” which attacks the Genteel Tradition—and has shown a sad predilection for the decidedly second-rate in his own canon. This, as much as anything else, is eloquent of the decline and fall that has visited his later days.
But in his best days, when he was at the top of his skill, Mencken provided us with a type of intramural intellectual journalism which is too often either over-estimated or dismissed. If taken at its true worth as a species of reasonably well-informed opinion service for the benefit of the culture-hungry, it will be much easier to deal with. Thus, one can say that Mencken in his own way did for America what George Bernard Shaw and Jean-Paul Sartre have done in their capacities as cultural journalists for England and France; that is, he applied the ideas of other, more profound men to the current situation in life and letters, giving these views widespread dissemination through the medium of an energetic, colorfully fetching style. Of course, ideas thus appropriated and applied must inevitably suffer in the course of wider distribution—unlike such varied materials as automobiles, canned goods, and people, ideas have shown a malicious recalcitrance to mass production methods. Yet enough of their original flash remains to lend an aspect of liveliness to the enterprise.
So at this late date, and especially since Mencken himself has retired from active service, leaving his practice in lesser hands, examination of his work becomes the appraisal of a tendency in “popular culture.” No exhausting and exhaustive sociological research is needed, however. All one has to do is to read the current issues of Life and the New Yorker to come upon the assimilated but still visible traces of his impact. A style of mocking grandiloquence, a cynicism that knows itself too well, an overt or disguised assumption of cultural superiority on the part of the writer, a breezy, seemingly intimate acquaintance with the names of modern culture going hand in hand with a half-conscious hatred of what those very names stand for—each of these traits can be traced back to the originating Mencken swank.
For swank, in both cultural and social matters, is what Mencken affected most of all. His patent of aristocracy derived from a mysterious complex of circumstances: that he had read Nietzsche in his youth, that he could tell the difference between various vintages of Rhine wines, that he had no use for morality—which he curiously associated with the “boobs”—that he was conversant with and resigned to the pessimistic variety of the “facts of life.” But there was nothing in all this that could be considered really personal to Mencken: about ten or fifteen years ago one could walk into the city room of any fair-sized newspaper and find some aged and embittered reporter with exactly such a notion of himself. But just as Wyndham Lewis quite rightly said that if one could get an ox to talk he would talk like Ernest Hemingway—all life seen on the dead-level of sensation and things happening to you—so the artistic miracle of getting an embittered reporter to talk, to talk in his own strangely rakish tongue, has been accomplished through H. L. Mencken. To be sure, a reporter can’t possibly expect to be as artistic as an ox, for where the ox is engrossed in sensuous fact the reporter must make do with simulacra, artifacts.
Even H. L. Mencken’s quixotic development comes clearer in the light of his journalistic proclivities. His mind was subjected to two distinct intellectual shocks: grazed by Nietzsche, transfixed by James Huneker. Grazed because, after all, Nietzsche was only a book, not a personage. But transfixed by the living flesh of a critical Kappelmeister and king-pin: James Huneker ensconced behind his Lager at Luchow’s. (At last! a newspaperman who referred familiarly to Strindberg and Berlioz instead of Teddy Roosevelt and Billy Sunday!) Indeed, Mencken’s crude Nietzscheanism sounds like something acquired at second hand—by gossiping with Huneker himself; the sketchy outline of thought that one picks up in the intermittences of a rowdy café conversation.
But the conglomerate influence, Huneker-Nietzsche, gave Mencken one marked advantage over all subsequent American critics: it gave him an Enemy. And if one regards the critical task as that of isolating and marking out the Enemy, holding him up to ridicule and harrying him with invective, then H. L. Mencken is a successful critic. He certainly never had any doubts concerning the identity and whereabouts of his targets: in all their evanescent forms and characters—from reforming politicians and blue-nose teetotalers to phony evangelists and censorship hounds—he tracked the Philistines down and bombarded them with untiring comic zest. His foe was ultimately a contrived, composite figure, the “mob-man” of democracy, recently freed from the salutary constraints of a hierarchical social system and on a rampage of unmatchable gaucherie. Unfailingly disgusted and entranced by the spectacle, Mencken brought to his job the creative élan of a comic artist. Taking the dispersed and flaccid material afforded by everyday life in a democracy, he pounded and banged and pummeled it into greatly exaggerated and therefore thoroughly recognizable shapes. It is this feat of exuberant and joyous exaggeration that connects Mencken, however remotely, with the most gifted of comic writers. Moreover, the fact that his long list of foes was made flauntingly recognizable, when they were not openly named and then assaulted, was valuable: the recipients of the dead cats and rotten tomatoes of Mencken’s scattering but often deadly rhetorical fire could not avoid recognizing themselves; they were, in short, made self-conscious—an advance over the undisturbedly pure state of unconsciousness that had somehow prevailed before Mencken’s eruption on the scene.