Books

The Sage Of Baltimore

“The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries.”-H.L.Mencken

“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 fact, quite the contrary, for it confirmed his estimate of his fellow-countrymen.  It is no more than he would have cheerfully expected.”-Murray N. Rothbard

When on an internet forum someone snarled: “H.L Mencken was arrogant. He was snobbish. He thought he knew better.” someone wrote right below: “Yes, but he also knew better.”

H. L Mencken never doubted facts which even modern day scholars swallow hard.  He was fully convinced that there are people who can learn and that there are people who cannot. And that nothing much can be done about the latter. In short, Boobus Americanus will always be Boobus Americanus. Aam Aadmi will always be Aam Aadmi.

Mencken knew that trying to reform them is not much different from trying to straighten a dog’s tail by laying it in a pipe for hundred years. He once wrote: “The ideal government of all reflective men is one which lets the individual alone – one which barely escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe, 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.”

Unlike our bland libertarians bent on reforming the world, Mencken was a terrific writer. Joseph Wood Krutch called him the greatest prose stylist of the 20th century. Mencken knew more about the American language than anyone who has ever walked on earth. He held that any man who thinks clearly can write clearly. Mencken is undoubtedly the wittiest defender of individual liberty of all times. So, the American public forgave his gravest sin, as expressed by statements like: “H. L Mencken made a full time career out of insulting the American public, and the American public loved him.” As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’ biography, “The American Iconoclast” tell us, Mencken’s invectives were amusing to the point that all a book needed to sell was to be criticized by the great H. L. Mencken—in his Smart Aleck manner. 

In the America of 1920’s, Mencken’s vocabulary was new to readers. Many readers wondered what words like “rabble rouser”, “apocryphal” and ‘lagniappe” meant. Mencken even coined words like “booboisie” and “bibliobibuli”. One reader said that he consider it a great achievement that he could digest the Mencken column “without due aid from the dictionary.” A newspaper wrote that Mencken’s ‘sputterings’ “show an absolute ignorance of the laws of God and man (and grammar), and utter disregard of morality and decency.” In its advertisement, the newspaper “Sunday Sun” announced: “Mencken is not neutral.” Once he wrote to his publisher Alfred Knopf: “All I ask is that you make The American Language good and thick. It is my secret ambition to be the author of a book weighing at least five pounds.”

One reader wrote in: “I have no doubt that the author of your articles is some crazy old bachelor who has been jilted by a woman too sensible to marry him,” Another said:  “He drinks, I am sure.” Mencken published all of them, as he knew that the public loved abuse. He would tell his staff: “This is a place for frank discussion, not for the exchange of polite nothings.” In the morning, when he stepped in to the office, the first thing Mencken did was to cheerfully read the huge pile of abusive mails. When the letters from the readers grew, he moved to a new office and hired a carpenter to make space for his files. When his mother asked him, “What are you doing, Henry?” he replied: “I am stirring up animals, mother.” But, when Mencken’s column was temporarily suspended, readers demanded: “O, give us Mencken or give us death!”

When Life Magazine once asked him: “Which would you rather be called—‘The Sage of Baltimore’ or ‘The Man Who Hates Everything’?”, Mencken who suffered from a series of strokes replied: “I don’t care a damn what you or anyone else calls me, just as long as you don’t call me an old dodo sneaked out of the dissecting room. I’m 66 years old, I work hard all the time, and while it is perfectly true that I may be snatched into heaven tomorrow I am still going strong today. I have written five books since I was 60, and all of them sold better than any of my previous books. In the present case, it is a little inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible to any public office of trust or profit in the Republic.”

My introduction to H. L. Mencken was through Austen Heller, a star columnist in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. In those days, I had no idea that Austen Heller was based on H. L Mencken, who Ayn Rand considered the greatest living representative of the philosophy to which she wanted to devote her own life to:

“Heller was the star columnist of the Chronicle, a brilliant, independent newspaper, arch-enemy of the Wynand publications; that Heller came from an old, distinguished family and had graduated from Oxford; that 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; that he had been cursed by preachers, bankers, club-women and labor organizers; that he had better manners than the social elite whom he usually mocked, and a tougher constitution than the laborers whom he usually defended; that he could discuss the latest play on Broadway, medieval poetry or international finance; that he never donated to charity, but spent more of his own money than he could afford, on defending political prisoners anywhere.”

Mencken spent large amounts of money defending the freedom of speech. His radical views cost him two newspaper jobs: once for criticizing Woodrow Wilson and then for damning Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At the end of his life, he would tell his friends that he had begun to believe that virtue doesn’t pay. Mencken once wrote in his diary: “I fear I am in for it.”

 He was also one of the greatest polymaths of all times. In the words of Alfred Knopf: “Mencken’s gifts were singularly varied. He was surely one of the great newspapermen of his generation, and of his books probably those dealing with the American language will be longest remembered. He took on the professional philologists and beat them at their own game. He knew more about medicine and the law than any other layman who has passed my way. And he was always reading books about religion.”

When Mencken went to a lecture at Goucher College where he would meet his future wife Sara Haardt, the youngest member of the faculty, he said, “I will tell them how to catch a man.” Sara Haardt would later say that Mencken sounded like a young boy showing off before his girl. After a while, Sara walked into the room of an older professor and said, “I’m going to marry that man!” Her friend replied: “Well, that will take some doing.”

Mencken held that “No unmarried woman can be polite to a bachelor without beginning to speculate how he would look in a wedding coat. This fact, which is too obvious to need proof, makes friendly dealings with them somewhat strained.” According to Marion Rodgers: “She possessed a rare quality that Mencken had always admired in women: a talent for listening tempered with insight, understanding, and wit, not always devoid of a certain acidity. James Cain would later write that Sara “could see through most people.” Mencken once wrote to her: “I suspect that I am mashed on you.”

Unsurprisingly, in “In Defense Of women, Mencken wrote: “A man’s women folk, whatever their outward show of respect for his merit and authority, always regard him secretly as an ass, and with something akin to pity. His most gaudy sayings and doings seldom deceive them; they see the actual man within, and know him for a shallow and pathetic fellow. In this fact, perhaps, lies one of the best proofs of feminine intelligence, or, as the common phrase makes it, feminine intuition. The mark of that so-called intuition is simply a sharp and accurate perception of reality, an habitual immunity to emotional enchantment, a relentless capacity for distinguishing clearly between the appearance and the substance. The appearance, in the normal family circle, is a hero, magnifico, a demigod. The substance is a poor mountebank.”

His publisher Alfred Knopf wrote in a tribute: “His public side was visible to everyone: tough, cynical, amusing, and exasperating by turns. The private man was something else again: sentimental, generous, and unwavering—sometimes almost blind—in his devotion to people of whom he felt fond. He spent a fantastic amount of his time getting friends to and from doctors’ waiting rooms and hospitals, comforting them and keeping them company there.” When Mencken informed his friend Theodore Dreiser of his ailing mother with whom he had lived till the age of 45, Dreiser had nothing to say. Mencken broke with him saying: “The episode caused me to set him down as an incurable lout. Of all the other evidences of behavior during our friendship, none seemed so gross and disgusting. I simply can’t get on with those indifferent to common decency. On his lifelong habit of breaking with friends, Mencken once said: “I see no way to avoid it.”

Sara Haardt, a writer overshadowed by her illustrious husband once said “Henry is Victorian, though he won’t admit it. So am I.” When Sara was diagnosed of tuberculosis, Mencken said: “A brave gal you are indeed! I hadn’t suspected half your difficulties.” When she died, he wrote to a friend: “When I married Sara, the doctors said she could not live more than three years. Actually, she lived five, so I had two more years of happiness than I had any right to expect.” After his death, for many years, Mencken was broken to the point that he would not mention her at all in his diary entries.

Mencken once wrote on his High School sweet heart: “Looking back, it seems almost inconceivable that kissing her could have been the stupendous experience it actually was. Her folks inhabited a suburb and we used to take long walks along the winding roads. She had a way, whenever we came to a favorable spot, of halting suddenly, turning toward me, holding out her arms and closing her eyes. Nothing was ever said. As for me, speech was as impossible as flying. The experience was simply colossal, overwhelming. Sometimes, as we resumed our walk, I’d be literally shaky in the knees, like a man just emerging from some shattering shock. But it was very chaste kissing.  She was a girl intrinsically reserved and virginal. I have never known another woman to kiss so exquisitely. I daresay I loved this [girl]. If so, my detractors should make note of it, for it was a love infinitely idealistic and sublimated—a passion almost disembodied. It died, I suppose, of mere attenuation—it was too delicate to live.”

 But, nothing sums up the Mencken phenomenon better than his credo:

“I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty, and that the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.

I believe in complete freedom of thought and speech – alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.

I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run. I believe in the reality of progress.

But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than to be ignorant.”

 

 

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