While glancing at a picture of a bunch of Harvard students holding a flag along with Mencken, captioned “Mencken was our God, and the American Mercury our Bible”, I couldn’t help wondering how a 20th century American journalist could evoke such burning passion in the minds of the very young. I had once read with puzzlement that my favorite novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand showed him the manuscript of her first novel, calling him the greatest representative of a philosophy to which she wanted to dedicate her life. I had loved Rand’s caricature of H L Mencken (Austen Heller): “He had started as a literary critic and ended by becoming a quiet fiend devoted to the destruction of all forms of compulsion, private or public, in heaven or on earth. He could discuss the latest play on Broadway, medieval poetry or international finance.” I had read that according Mencken’s own judgment, “Notes on Democracy” was the worst book he had ever written. But, I was shocked speechless when I read it, as it was the greatest work I have ever read on the “blind worship of mere numbers”. Everything I had heard of “the man who hated everything” started suddenly making perfect sense to me. I can easily agree with Joseph Wood Krutch that Mencken was truly the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century.
When Facebook Social Interview once asked me which dead person I would want to bring back to life, without any hesitation I answered that it would be H L Mencken. When I later read in an article of a GMU Economist that if he could bring one person back to life for an evening of good food, stiff drink and sterling conversation, that person would unquestionably be H.L. Mencken, I thought that it was too much to be a coincidence. Could it happen that many of his readers have the same idea of fun, a similar fantasy that will never come true?
Nothing expresses the Mencken phenomenon better than these words of Murray Rothbard: “It is typical of American Kultur that it was incapable of understanding H. L. Mencken. And it was typical of H. L. Mencken that this didn’t bother him a bit.”
In a world where most libertarians believed and still believe in patriotism, in a world where chauvinism is condemned if among men sharing a common belief, but glorified if among ones sharing a common political or provincial frontier, Mencken was a thinker who marched to a different tune. He believed that “patriotism has been elevated in the modern world into an unparalleled congeries of imbecilities”. He was convinced that every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.
I often think of William Manchester’s word on Mencken: “Fifty years ago I spent my mornings reading to an old man who suffered, as I now suffer, from a series of strokes. He was a writer. He was H. L. Mencken. I have never known a kinder man. But when he unsheathed his typewriter and sharpened its keys, his prose was anything but kind. It was rollicking and it was ferocious. Witty, intellectual polemicists are a vanishing breed today. Their role has been usurped by television boobs whose IQs measure just below their body temperatures. Some journalism schools even warn their students to shun words that may hurt. But sometimes words should hurt. That is why they are in the language. When terrorists slaughter innocents, when corporation executives betray the trust of shareholders, when lewd priests betray the trust of little children, it is time to mobilize the language and send it into battle. I still miss him. America misses him more.”
William Manchester’s tribute to Mencken sets in our minds highly scrupulous standards which much of humanity would not even begin to understand. Yet, these are still the standards which all thinkers should strive to live up to.
But, there is another reason why I think Mencken’s analysis of democracy is unparalleled—–Because, what I feel about all this cannot be said in clearer terms than it was said by the bad boy of Baltimore:
“But I am, it may be, a somewhat malicious man: my sympathies, when it comes to suckers, tend to be coy. What I can’t make out is how any man can believe in democracy who feels for and with them, and is pained when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat?”