H.L. Mencken: a man without a category
Although long dead, today is H.L. Mencken’s birthday. He is one of the most over-read writers by intellectuals and one of the more under-read writers by everyone else. This is mostly because he did not write a famous book, nor was he known for one specialty or subject in which he wrote. Instead, he wrote broadly, unsparingly about anything and everything that touched his mind. It led him to be, in my mind, one of the first self-published blog-style writers, publishing his own newspaper over most of his life that mostly featured his own ramblings, criticisms, rants, and expertly crafted short (or long essays). Much of the books bound under his name are simply the collections of his smaller writings.
I first found out about Mencken when scouring Powell’s Books maybe 15 years ago. A small alt-weekly newspaper had launched in Portland by the name of The Portland Mercury and I was curious as to the name: why “mercury?” Through acquaintances and a little digging I found out that it was a nod to The American Mercury, the widely circulated newspaper out of Baltimore, MD, founded in 1924 by the incomparable H.L. Mencken. It was in Powell’s that the connection locked in when I picked up a massive green book that included nearly all of his short writings from the Mercury between the years of 1924–1950, just a few years before he died.
Through the years, I have dipped in and out of that large book and collected a few others of his shorter writings like, A Second Mencken Chrestomathy and Notes on Democracy. These, like many of his books, do not include one long argument, but ten thousand tiny arguments that, when put together, make something not only marvelous, but thoroughly entertaining. Because of this, Mencken’s work operates outside of the usual boundaries of American letters. Christopher Hitchens said of him that his style and output was so unique that it places him near Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass. In other words, he was a one of a kind, confusing to publishers in the best of ways. How do you sort and arrange the work these men put into the world through their own means?
Mencken was irreverent, brash, unfair, and extremely skilled. His prose is deft, often rude, and always humorous. He should be more known for his one sentence takedowns of any given person or city. He is credited for the term “Bible-belt” (Mencken was one of the more outspoken atheists of those published in the 20s and 30s), he called Philadelphia “an intellectual slum” and of Boston, he simply said: “A potter’s field; a dissecting-room.”
His best work is through the 1920s and 30s, when he cut through a lot of the bourgeoise baloney about “literature,” claiming that much of the celebrated writers of the time had no actual impact on the real world. Fitzgerald sold books but did he do anything to curb greed? The Great Gatsby seems to only have proliferated our desire for cash. Of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mencken said him and the Transcendentalists had “a profound lack of influence upon the main stream of American thought…one searches the country in wain for any general reaction to the cultural ideal that he set up.” He’s not wrong, you know. As Eugene McCarraher argues, perhaps the only real impact these writers actually had was providing their readership with yet another clever way to worship Mammon.
“Contrarian” is a word often used for Mencken, and it is accurate. He rarely liked anything. He was, by all accounts, a sour, unpleasant person. He was a curmudgeon too, seemingly out of place in his time. He often seemed to believe he was for a time long before the industrialists and roaring twenties’ culture, but I cannot help but read him and think he was not ahead of his time, but behind it. His writing would have been perfect for Twitter, podcasts, and blogs. His tone, in some ways, created the general cynicism that is celebrated today on the internet. I go back to Mencken a lot because his prose has what so much of Christian writing lacks: balls.
For the technological advances in his day, Mencken started his own paper, but I wonder what he would do with all of this technology. Would he have his own vanity website and podcast network? It is probably because of his limitations that Mencken’s writing has survived. Today, maybe he would be just another crotchety Twitter profile, seething and spinning yarn on the edges of the internet. Maybe not. I guess it’s best he was where he was, in the midst of a changing technological world in between two massive warns, writing endlessly for a paper that circulated his voice, and kept it echoing forever.