16 May, 2006

From Mencken’s “My Life as Author and Editor”

Posted by alex in Alex Linder, books, Mencken at 1:58 pm | Permanent Link

[This book came out in the early nineties, an excellent collection, uncompleted, of Mencken’s descriptions of the various writers, publishers and businessmen and others he knew in first few decades of the 1900s.]

I had become convinced early in my newspaper days, and even before, that the distinguishing mark of th enormal Americano was his essentially moral view of the world, his tendency to color all values with concepts of rightness and wrongness, his inability to throw off the Puritan obsession with sin. There had been, of course, a revolution against Puritanism in New England, and it had gone so far on certain levels that the Boston area had been distinctly ahead of the country in general, intellectually speaking, for two generations, but even in the Boston area there were still plenty of surviving evidences of the old madness. Elsewhere, save on the Pacific Coast and in what I came to describe as “a few walled towns,” it was raging almost without challenge, and especially in the  South and the agricultural parts of the Middle West.

Both of the latter regions, in the first years of the new century, seemed to be virtually lost to civilization. In the South the Civil War had either killed off or driven out all save a small minority of the old gentry, and there remained only a rabble of poor whites preyed upon by a new class of barbaric exploiters, and in the Middle West the descendants of the pioneers were offering massive proof that the stock from which they had sprung, whatever its fitness to withstand heat, cold, thirst, hunger, insect bites and physical fatigue, had not left them any heritage of sense. The time was one of almost unimaginable intellectual backwardness — a low point in the always dipping curve in the pervading gloom — the Johns Hopkins University, what remained of Charles A. Dana’s New York Sun, the Bookman edited by Harry Thurston Peck, William Graham Sumner, James Huneker, George Ade and his fables in slang, the Stone & Kimball publishing venture in Chicago, the music of Reginald De Koven, the occasional flashings of the Adams family, et sic de similibus — but they were only points, elsewhere the murk was a solid black.

It was the heyday of some of the most banal eminentissimos that even the United States, up to that time, had ever known — William Jennings Bryan, T. DeWitt Talmage, Orison Swett Marden, Hamilton Wright Mabie, Lydia Pinkham, James Munyon, William Dean Howells, Edward Bok, David Belasco, and so on and so on. The spectacle they provided was a gaudy one, and I surely enjoyed it as much as most, but meanwhile my hand itched for a club to belabor them to the glory of God. I had, I believe, no more public spirit than a policeman or an archbishop, but I was full of lust to function, and before I was twenty-five it was already plain that my functioning would take the form of a sharp and more or less truculent dissent from the mores of my country. By the time I set to work on my Shaw book I was already becoming known, in the narrow circle I then inhabited, as one to whom the American spectacle, American ideas and ideals, the great body of Americans themselves, were predominantly more amusing than inspiring, and less admirable than obscene.

I doubt seriously that my German blood had anything to do with this reaction, at least on the conscious level. I had, before my first trip abroad in 1908, when I was already nearly thirty years old, little contact or sympathy with Germans, and my acquaintance with German literature, and even with German history, was of the meagerest. I recall well how, in preparation for my Nietzsche book, I had to bone up on German philosophy, and how dull I found most of it, not to say repulsive. My reading had been almost wholly in English literature, even at the expense of American, and I was so soaked in it that the high point of my first trip abroad was not my visit to Leipzig, the old home of my family, but that to London, where I was genuinely thrilled when George Fawcett took me down the Strand to the Temple and showed me the haunts of Thackeray and the grave of Oliver Goldsmith.

My Grandfather Mencken, as I have recorded in Happy Days, held himself aloof from the other Germans of Baltimore, and my father had an active distaste for them. My mother, who was pure German, spoke the language more or less, but it was not often heard in our house, and I had only the sketchiest knowledge of it when I entered F. Knapp’s Institute in 1886. The teaching there was done by the old-fashioned method of endless repetition, and though it made me familiar, if only by osmosis, with the sounds of th elanguage, it certainly did not give me anything properly describable as a command of even its elementary grammar. Whatever real acquaintance with it I acquired later on was picked up from German servant-girls.

My grandfather, if he had lived, would have interested me in the Mencken family, if not in the German Kultur, but he died before I was twelve, and my father showed no concern about such things. It was not, indeed, until after his death in 1899 that I so much as examined the family documents and souvenirs that were kept in the bottom compartment of his old walnut secretary, and not until after World War I that I made any serious effort to find out who the early Menckens were and what they had done. The point of view that was to color all my writings probably came, in its essence, from my father, for he was a natural skeptic, and hence had a low opinion of the prevailing American scheme of things, but I don’t recall ever hearing him connect it specifically with the Puritan demonology. Thus I got nothing save a sort of framework from him: all the rest had to come out of my reading, and, once I had taken to journalism, from my observation of the American scene at first hand.

I believe today that the most powerful influence ever exerted on my thinking was that of Thomas Henry Huxley, who taught me to distrust moral certainty, and, in particular, to be very suspicious of those who had it. But I also got a lot from Thackeray and from many another English writer, and perhaps even more from Mark Twain. It was Mark, and not any racial or family interest, that turned my curiosity toward Germany and the Germans. When I first visited Germany, in 1908, A Tramp Abroad was my guide-book, though I did not carry it with me, and on my subsequent visits, ending in 1938, I covered nearly the whole of the route it lays down.

But in the years before 1912 I certainly did not think of myself as a German, though I was already conscious of my differentiation from the common run of Americans. If I ever pondered that differentiation at all, I probably thought of it, in the egoistic way of youth, as no more than an evidence of my superiority as an individual. This superiority, in the narrow world that I then inhabited, was certainly not imaginary: I actually got on much better than anyone else I was close to, and if good luck had something to do with it, then hard industry and an undeniable competence also had something to do with it. As for the common run of Americanos, I disdained them, not as members of a different species, but as inferior members of my own species.

Two things, I believe, served as the immediate catalysts of my dawning race consciousness. The first was my intimate contact with Percival Pollard in 1911, at the time he was writing his Masks and Minstrels of New Germany. He was a thorough-going Germanophile, and in our long talks he greatly widened my information about German ideas and doings and my understanding of the German character. When I reviewed his book in the Smart Set for August, 1911, my enthusiasm for the authro was a great deal more visible than my sympathy for his theme, but all the same the foundation was laid, and when I. A. R. Wylie’s The Germans followed in 1912 my review in March of that year resolved itself into a general defense of the Germans against the libels of the English propagandists and the ready credulity of American dupes. I discovered, reading it, that th edominant German ideas were also my ideas, and when they were attacked (as it seemed to me, ignorantly and viciously) by Price Collier in his Germany and the Germans in 1913, I fell upon both book and author with a good deal of heat (September, 1913). As I have said, Pollard laid the foundation for all this, but at least a part of it went back to my early enthusiasm for Mark Twain, and both influences were strongly reinforced by my second visit to Germany, in 1910.

But it remained for the shock of World War I to carry me all the way. Even in its preliminary rumblings I saw the beginnings of an inevitable struggle to the death between the German Weltanschauung and the Anglo-Saxon Weltanschauung, and it was quickly apparent which side I was to take myself. I, too, like th leaders of Germany, had grave doubts about democracy. I, too, felt an instinctive antipathy to the whole Puritan scheme of things, with its gross and nauseating hypocrisies, its idiotic theologies, its moral obsessions, its pervasive Philistinism. It suddenly dawned on me, somewhat to my surprise, that the whole body of doctrine that I had been preaching was fundamentally anti-Anglo-Saxon, and that if I had any spiritual home, it must be in the land of my ancestors.

When World War I actually started I began forthwith to whoop for the Kaiser, and I kept up that whooping so long as there was any free speech left in the United States. That period, unhappily, was not prolonged. By the spring of 1915 it was obvious that Wilson would take his American lieges into the war soon or late, and by th autumn it began to be evident that an honest discussion of the issues would presently be impossible. I thus quit my job on the Baltimore Evening Sun and made plans to go abroad, to see something of the German Army in action before it would be too late.

Unhappily, it was impossible for me to break away from my new and increasing magazine duties until the end of 1916, and when I returned in March, 1917, free speech was completely suspended, and for two years I was pretty well hobbled. As I have recorded, I refused absolutely to acquiesce even formally in the current American balderdash about the causes, purposes and ultimate aims of the war, and I even managed, from time to time, to sneak sneers at them into my book reviews and other writings, but in the main I had to mark time. This marking time, of course, was extremely disagreeable, and I was by no means disposed to take my disabilities lying down. Back in the first months of the war I had begun to think of a book that would set forth my objections to the whole Puritan Kultur in a large and positive way, and before I went abroad at the end of 1916 I put most of it together. When I returned in March, 1917, all that remained was to make it printable in war time.

This was A Book of Prefaces.

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  7. 10 Responses to “From Mencken’s “My Life as Author and Editor””

    1. James McElroy Says:

      Bravo. I wonder if he knew the great Douglas Reed (“The Controversy of Zion.”)

    2. Carpenter Says:

      How unusual it is to see a writer describe WW I not as a struggle between democracy and dictatorship, as we hear repeated over and over, but as a struggle between cultures, between weltanschauungs as Mencken calls them.

      How sad, how Germans were eager to blend in with the rest, never defending their home country. Mencken’s story of how German wasn’t heard often in their home, and of how his father remained aloof of the other Germans around them, is telling. This willingness to blend in is great for the harmony of a society, which is why Nordic peoples are always the most harmonious, but it is devastating when your culture is under attack.

      The Puritanism he criticizes, I am of two minds about. On the one hand we need restrictions on people’s behavior, I don’t see how it could be any other way; hedonism is destructive, and will be used and intensified by those who control large swaths of the people with it.

      On the other hand, those taking discipline to an extreme are boring. And I suppose Mencken means, with Puritanism, also certain ideas about how all you need is a belief in God and all people as brothers in Christ, and things will go well. An egalitarianism, and a greyness that gave birth to hostility toward those who are better, those who are stronger, those who are more successful than the great mass and show equality to be a lie and democracy a joke.


      I will be honest and say I don’t know enough about Mencken’s critique of Puritanism to be sure of this.

    3. D.H. Lawrence Says:

      One of the great Free Spirits and most brilliant stylist… Alas, we can count such rare brave thinkers on one hand: Thoreau, Emerson, Twain, Mencken…then comes the judeo censhorship (strangely marking the same infamous year of 1917 when the judeo-Bolsheviks started their reign of terror in Russia.)

    4. Olde Dutch Says:

      I own a nice little collection of book and essays by & about Mencken. You can too, if you peruse used bookstores. Often first editions of collections of Mencken’s essays are available for a buck and a half. That’s a $1.50.

      Mencken does have his limits. He related well to the 1848 German immigrants and their descendents, but, he never connected with the spirit of the older more rural German colonials. Could be he was a city boy, rather than a country boy; when a good proportion of the Germanics still lived in the country.

      I can’t recall any mention of the estimable Georgian Tom Watson by Mencken. Even though Watson strongly opposed American entry into WWI, and was a gifted publicist himself.

      Naturally, Mencken touts Drieser, and forgotten Hunecker, but, really does little to develop other Germanic literary talent.

      Old H.L. was just a little too self centered, to make the kind of connections that could have made getting into WWI a little harder for the jew and the anglophile.

    5. Roland Says:

      There are those who differ with Mencken on whether Puritanism ever existed in the Southron states. Maybe Mencken confused fundamentalism everywhere, in the U.S., with Puritanism. But during colonial times, the South was considered wayward and backwards, religiously, by Yankee culture, which was heavily influenced by its Puritan roots. Probably the Presbiterians and Methodists were stronger in the South, and possibly the Catholics. There later came fundamentalist movements in the religious life of Southroners, such as the Baptists, Pentecostals, and so forth.

      I’ve read some of Mencken’s assessments of the South, and I find much ignorance in them, although, I am a fan of Mencken’s wit and skewering preceptions even if he was wrong about some things.

    6. D.H. Lawrence Says:

      I can’t recall any mention of the estimable Georgian Tom Watson by Mencken. Even though Watson strongly opposed American entry into WWI, and was a gifted publicist himself.

      Naturally, Mencken touts Drieser, and forgotten Hunecker, but, really does little to develop other Germanic literary talent.

      Old H.L. was just a little too self centered, to make the kind of connections that could have made getting into WWI a little harder for the jew and the anglophile.

      I can agree with that. Thank you for your clarification. But, he was still a good, strong thinker. Perhaps, yes, biased vs. the South but being a Yank it was hard for him to overcome the Yankee prejudice (I wonder where they got it from? Nudge. )

    7. Olde Dutch Says:

      Odd, but, Mencken is considered a “Southern” literary figure, because his home town Baltimore is south of the Mason-Dixon line, and you don’t get much more “Southern” than the Eastern Shore of Maryland, also known as “Southern Maryland”.

      Mencken was just a little too infatuated with himself; and he was a city German of the 1848er variety.

    8. apollonian Says:

      Was Mencken Like Fish?
      (Apollonian, 20 May 06)

      This may be a little off the subject, exactly, but I’m presently reading memoirs of a real dolt named “Hamilton Fish,” Republican Congressman of 20s, 30s, and early forties, a great, so-called “opponent” of Jew-friendly FDR (who was probably Jew himself). Maybe Mencken was somewhat like Fish–no wonder the Jews won. Did Mencken fail to spot and identify the Judeo-oligarchal conspirators? Sen. Joe McCarthy didn’t–why he was murdered, obviously. Honest elections and death to the Fed. Apollonian

    9. Carpenter Says:

      Set out to find what Mencken thought about Puritanism, found a couple of quotes. It seems what he is criticizing is people being uptight, and not acceptant of other opinions:

      Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

      My whole life, once I get free from my present engagements, will be devoted to combating Puritanism. But in the meantime, I see clearly that the Puritans have nearly all the cards. They drew up the laws now on the statute books, and they cunningly contrived them to serve their own purposes. The only attack that will ever get anywhere will be directed – not at the Puritan heroes but at the laws they hide behind. In this attack, I am full of hope that shrapnel will play a part.
      Quoted in Edgar Kelmer’s The Irreverent Mr. Mencken [1950], p.79

      …the great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom respectable. No virtuous man – that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense – has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading…
      Ibid.: “The Blushful Mystery”, p.198

      The thing that makes life charming is not money, but the society of our fellow men, and the thing that draws us to our fellow men is not admiration for their inner virtues, their hard striving to live according to the light that is in them, but admiration for their outer graces and decencies – in brief, confidence that they will always act generously and understandingly in their intercourse with us. We must trust them before we may enjoy them. Manifestly, it is impossible to put any such trust in a Puritan. With the best intentions in the world he cannot rid himself of the delusion that his duty to save us from our sins…
      Notes on Democracy, pp.174-5

      The trouble with Communism is the Communists, just as the trouble with Christianity is the Christians.
      Treatise on the Gods, p.51

      [Letter to Percy Marks, 3 Feb (25?)] The Puritan is simply one who, because of physical cowardice, lack of imagination or religious superstition, is unable to get any joy out of the satisfaction of his natural appetites. Taking a drink, he fears that he is headed for the gutter. Grabbing a gal, he is staggered by thoughts of hell and syphilis. Observing that other men do such things innocently, he hates them.
      Letters of H.L. Mencken, p.278

      I am not only wrong, it appears, I am also immoral – the familiar step in Puritan logic.
      The Young Mencken: “Answers to Correspondents”, p.525

    10. Carpenter Says:

      Mencken on the Negro – he seems to have believed that a) the Negro is inferior, b) the Negro is oppressed, and c) the Negro is never a Puritan and that is good. The Ku Klux Klans and similar attempts to hold the races separate he seems to have opposed as … Puritan?


      I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it.
      Men versus the Man: A Correspondence between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H.L. Mencken, Individualist [1910]

      …the negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience; that he must remain the inferior of the stronger and more intelligent white man so long as he retains racial differentiation. Therefore, the effort to educate him has awakened in his mind ambitions and aspirations which, in the very nature of things, must go unrealized, and so, while gaining nothing whatever materially, he has lost all his old contentment, peace of mind and happiness.
      In Defense of Women

      When we appropriate money from the public funds to pay for vaccinating a horde of negroes, we do not do it because we have any sympathy for them or because we crave their blessings, but simply because we don’t want them to be falling ill of smallpox in our kitchens and stables, to the peril of our own health and the neglect of our necessary drudgery.
      The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

      The more noisy Negro leaders, by depicting all whites as natural and implacable enemies to their race, have done it a great disservice. Large numbers of whites who were formerly very friendly to it, and willing to go to great lengths to help it, are now resentful and suspicious.
      Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks

      One of the things that makes a Negro unpleasant to white folk is the fact that he suffers from their injustice. He is thus a standing rebuke to them, and they try to put him out of their minds. The easiest way to do so is to insist that he keep his place.

      A good part of this ignorance is probably due to the powerful effect of shibboleths. Every American is taught in school that all Americans are free, and so he goes on believing it his whole life – overlooking the plain fact that no Negro is really free in the South, and no miner in Pennsylvania, and no radical in any of a dozen great States.

      I think the Negro people should feel secure enough by now to face a reasonable ridicule without terror. I am unalterably opposed to all efforts to put down free speech, whatever the excuse.
      Letters of H.L. Mencken [1961]

      [Letter to Walter F. White, 6 Dec 43] Race relations never improve in war time; they always worsen. And it is when the boys come home the Ku Klux Klans are organized. I believe with George Schuyler that the only really feasible way to improve the general situation of the American Negro is to convince more and more whites that he is, as men go in this world, a decent fellow, and that amicable living with him is not only possible but desirable. Every threat of mass political pressure, every appeal to political mountebanks, only alarms the white brother, and so postpones the day of reasonable justice.

      But the fact remains that the Southern whites have to deal with the actual Negroes before them, and not with a theoretical race of African kings. These actual Negroes show actual defects that are very real and very serious. The leaders of the race, engrossed by the almost unbearable injustices that it faces, are apt to forget them.
      Quoted in Edward A. Martin’s H.L. Mencken and the Debunkers

      That Negroes, in more than one way, are superior to most American whites is something that I have long believed. I pass over their gift for music (which is largely imaginary) and their greater dignity (which Dr. Eleanor R. Wembridge has described more eloquently than I could do it), and point to their better behavior as members of our common society. Are they, on the lower levels, somewhat turbulent and inclined to petty crime? Perhaps. But that crime is seldom anti-social. It gets a lot of advertising when it is, but that is not often. Professional criminals are rare among Negroes, and, what is more important, professional reformers are still rarer. The horrible appetite of the low-caste Anglo-Saxon to police and harass his fellow-men is practically non-existent among them. No one ever hears of Negro wowsers inventing new categories of crime, and proposing to jail thousands of their own people for committing them. Negro Prohibitionists are almost as rare as Catholic Prohibitionists. No Negro has ever got a name by pretending to be more virtuous than the rest of us. In brief, the race is marked by extraordinary decency.
      Quoted in Charles Scruggs’s The Sage in Harlem [1984]