H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 2

The second half of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series carries on topically exploring issues as diverse as the application of the work ethic to artists to Prohibition. The articles continue Mencken’s assault on American conformity and democracy, but they are so wide-ranging that it starts to really seem that he is onto something. He even manages what can be seen as a critique of capitalism. However, he is not really opposed to it as exploitation of working people. The problem with capitalism and capitalists is that they are driven to banality by the pursuit of wealth (something Mencken does not really respect, although he understands it). That it also seems to drive workers toward the fad of socialism does not help matters. His criticism of capitalism (or at times state power) is derived from what he sees as the same ill of democracy. It forces most of us to lazy thoughts and conformity. The two most important essays in this volume after “The National Letters” are his explorations of Prohibition and marriage.

But let us start with “The Divine Afflatus,” which is mostly a criticism of the application of the work ethic to art. He questions the work of a journalist named Chesterton, for his argument that creative inspiration does not exist and that creativity is largely a function of how hard an artist works. Mencken relies that inspiration is variable and contextual and simply cannot be confined to a simple formula such as “write one thousand words a day.” At the end, he states his fear that the artist will become a manufacturer. As he probably well knew, many writers were already essentially manufacturers churning out stories for pulp magazines at dizzying rates.

“Scientific Examination of a Popular Virtue” is a brief questioning of the value of altruism. It is not some proto-Ayn Rand. Just an investigation about why people are so willing to do favors for others that seem to provide no pleasure to the favor giver and are based on lies. (Think of the professor trying to write nice things about an atrocious student essay.)
“The Allied Arts” is about music, painting, and stage. If you read Mencken you know he often has music in his mind. He cannot help himself but bring Beethoven or Wagner into the discussion. In fact, these seem to be his model of the great artists. His general thesis in “The Allied Arts” is that the vast majority of human beings simply cannot appreciate music and should not try. He is glad that rich people fund music but doubt that they understand it at all. He questions the gaudiness of the visual components of opera. As with literature, “the allied arts” are challenged by the same tendency toward mediocrity, stage is perhaps the most susceptible.

“The Cult of Hope” and “The Dry Millennium” are about reform, in particular Prohibition. The first essay is a warning against allowing criticism to be taken in by reform efforts. We have seen this before when Mencken expressed discomfort at criticism or literature becoming essentially an adjunct to political efforts. He praises Havelock Ellis for having the honesty to point out that no prostitute was more dangerous to a community than a vice squad. This is something contemporary Americans know well as they are finally approaching sanity on the “war on drugs.”

“The Dry Millennium” is a brilliant and funny assault on Prohibition, which was just being enacted. He rightly argued that it would be futile to abolish the consumption and production of alcohol, but more troubling was Mencken’s conviction that the masses would more or less embrace Prohibition. None of the general strikes by working people emerged in response to Prohibition. While the masses will eat up the reform fad, any “civilized” people will stay in Europe. Women will embrace it because it means their husbands will stay at home, even if it means the lubricating effect of alcohol on relationships will be muted for a while. For Mencken, the problem with Prohibition is that it will simply exacerbate the worst characteristics of Americans.

“Appendix on a Tender Theme,” the final essay in Prejudices: Second Series, is about marriage and love. It starts with an anatomy of a relationship from romance, to the breaking of the spell, to habit. Yet, there is something promising in relationships and in love, something that promises to liberate people. Love and sex and relationships are dangerous and not at all boring or banal, despite the constant efforts of the social hygiene folks to reduce marriage to a science. The problem comes with the later phase of the relationship, when it descents into repetition and habit. There is no room for creativity and art in this relationship. He mentions the struggles Wagner had with creativity while married to Minna Planer. Thus there is something antithetical to the artist and marriage. Mencken speaks in gendered terms here (the artist is always a man; the mental block always a marriage to a woman), but we can universalize the concept, given any pairing of a creative person with a person who thinks marriage is best built with bricks and bars.

The day is saved, as every one knows, by the powerful effects of habit. The acquisition of habit is the process whereby disgust is overcome in daily life—the process whereby one may cease to be disgusted by a persistent noise or odor. One suffers horribly at first, but after a bit one suffers less, and in the course of time one scarcely suffers at all. Thus a man, when his marriage enters upon the stage of regularity and safety, gets use to his wife as he might get used to a tannery next door, and vice versa. I think that woman, in this direction, have the harder row to hoe, for they are more observant than men, and vastly more sensitive in small ways. But even women succumb to habit with humane rapidity, else every marriage would end in divorce. (290)

We have to (as usual) try to get beyond the sexist language to see the heart of the matter. Marriage endures because we are slavish and cowardly and easily seduced by routine. Our art sucks for the same reason.

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H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 1

Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series is dominated by his masterpiece essay “The National Letters.” For readers of the first volume of Prejudices, there is nothing here unexpected. For much of the volume, Mencken sets aside the literary criticism and begins making broader social and political commentary. Mencken rests his analysis of these other subjects on the same general theory: America is a cultural wasteland of conformity and stupidity. However, by moving toward an analysis of democracy (as in his reading of Prohibition) and of institutions (as in his reading on marriage), we start to see a diagnosis that may lead to a cure. This post, however, will focus on the first three essays in the “second series,” considering respectively the history of American letters, Roosevelt’s political career, and the South.

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“The National Letters” begins with the vision of Emerson and Whitman of creating a true American literature. Whether inspired by the North American environment and climate or its political distinctions, nineteenth century writers believed that it was possible to break off the burden of Europe. This is dangerous from the beginning. For Mencken, the lack of a national aristocracy was part of the problem facing American culture. This is not praise for wealth of elitism. Mencken tended to think that the American capitalist class led the pack in terms of banality and conformity. What the aristocracy had—for better or for worse—was access to wealth that could lead to an independent life. Unlike American politicians, the aristocrats did not need to care what the majority thought. Unlike the American capitalist class, they did not need to worry about fashion or trends. They could create (or at least support people who could create). Mencken often uses the term “aristocracy.” He does not really seem to mean a landed class of heredity nobility, but rather a class with the capacity of intellectual autonomy. The American artists who come through democracy with a genuine creativity do so with great difficulty and may emerge harder for it, but it is nevertheless a rare thing.

So let us come right out and say it. Mencken’s position, if correct, is the best aesthetic argument for something like a basic income. Oscar Wilde stated it directly in The Soul of Man Under Socialism. He argued that under socialism, people will be freed from the mundane emotional burdens from which charity arises. It seems that point is that creative people will not need to spend their time (1) at mundane jobs, (2) producing works that satisfy the demands of the market, (3) get bogged down in political arguments that turn art into polemics, and (4) worry about meeting the needs of spouses, children, parents, and fellow citizens. We could all become aristocrats, each potentially independent. Obviously Mencken does not argue this (at least not in the first two volumes of Prejudices), but I think his essays lead us to a similar position as Wilde’s.

The bulk of “The National Letters” zips through the different strata of American culture. The vision of the prophets is unfulfilled. Puritanism ensured that New England’s soil would be sour for generations. The proclaimed rebel writers of Greenwich Village are trendy and vapid. Little needs to be said of the voluminous nonsense coming out of popular magazines, films, and novels. Of the Saturday Evening Post, Mencken writes: “Appealing primarily to the great masses of right thinking and unintelligent Americans, it must necessarily print a great deal of preposterous tosh.” (169) Anything original (warming my heart he mentioned Frank Norris’ Vandover and the Brute), seems instantly foreign. The problem is that America lacks a class of people who are materially and intellectual capable of being independent (that lacking of an aristocracy stuff). This is not to say that aristocracy is necessarily good, but that democracy, by crushing aristocracy, replaced it with nothing that could sustain a creative class, a cultural creativity and honesty that could match its political vision. The solution is not a return to European social structures, but a raising of “the mob” to “intellectual autonomy.” (He sees some hope in “purging”
the American plutocracy as well, but they are in general as ridiculous as the masses, and perhaps more so because they do not have the excuse of poverty.) In the end, Mencken rejects any solution, but reminds his readers that creativity is born in rebellion against the nation, whatever those values may be. Democracy is not the problem so much as democracy being a national creed and club used to beat down dissent.

Looking at this diagnosis of American arts from the context of collections like The Library of America or even a university anthology, it is hard to sometimes take seriously. What about Twain? What about Norris? These are authors Mencken praises. What is important to remember is that Mencken was not looking at American letters of the period the way we do: as a serious of gems preserved and studied generation upon generation. He was surrounded by piles of garbage. The everyday nonsense published by the press. But when he compares American letters to other countries he is not comparing the gems. He is comparing the highlights of the European tradition with the piles of refuse that cluttered his mental landscape. So, I am not sure Mencken is entirely fair. He uses Beethoven and Wagner as example of the greatness of German art and Nietzsche as evidence of originality of thought without perhaps realizing that for every Beethoven there were dozens of court charlatans. Anyway, enough on “The National Letters.”

In Theodore Roosevelt, Mencken saw the promise of an innovative political thinker corrupted and mislead by democracy. In a sense, Roosevelt was a symptom of the problem facing America culture. He was a believer in good government and had more in common with a turn-of-the-century European statebulider than the other “progressive” of the era, Woodrow Wilson. But he had to embrace the language and style of mob politics.

Roosevelt, for all his fluent mastery of democratic counter-words, democratic gestures and all the rest of the armamentarium of the mob-master, had no such faith in his heart of hearts. He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority. He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen. He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern, almost of a Napoleonic of Ludendorffian pattern—a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights. (221–222)

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Mencken goes on to describe Roosevelt less as an autocrat and more of a craftsman of governance. But as he had to work with what Mencken called the “third-rate” parts of the American people, there is not much he could do, except win the popular victories and fall just short of greatness. When the other option was the moralism and naivity of Wilson, maybe Mencken was onto something. Has the United States had a president since Johnson that really understood how to use power, not just how to acquire it?

“The Sahara of the Bozart,” Mencken’s condemnation of the cultural wasteland of the South, if an entertaining read, but ultimately mean-spirited and of not very much use. Of the off-putting characteristics of this essay, the most important is his apparent preference to the pre-Civil War South to the contemporary one. I do not think this is rooted in racism. Mencken was active against lynching and seemed to have nothing but contempt for the white racists who ran the South in his day. Instead he seems to assume that the Old South must have had more culture the “New South.” This is probably due to the same myopia that allows him to see the trash heap of American letters, but just barely make out bright stars across the Atlantic. The post-Civil War South created more talented writers, white and black, than the Old South. Mencken surveys the south and wonders why he cannot see symphony orchestras, operas, writers. I take him on his word that opera houses did not exist in the South (they did not in my hometown either, but we had phonographs). Of course, he does not even consider blues. He is apparently unaware—or disinterred in—black writers. To make matters worse, the entire article is plagued with discussions of tainted blood lines and the like. Maybe he just meant “blood” as a metaphor for creativity. That makes this more difficult to interpret: “It is highly probably that some of the worst blood of western Europe flows in the veins of the southern poor whites, nor poor no longer.”

Oh well, I think he got this one wrong.

H. L. Mencken, “The Prejudices: First Series” Part 2 (1919)

Okay, first things first. Let’s start spelling Mencken’s name right. I botched that on the last post (fixed now but I do not want to be accused of a cover-up). I hope a third spelling does not appear by the end of the series. (Menckhen?)

H. L. Mencken ends his Prejudices: First Series on a high note by praising three writers who he thought provided hope that American letters was not an endless desert of conformity and utility. These three writers are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. Most of the work continues his savage criticism of writers who failed to have the inspiration and creativity of those masters. Herman Melville did not make the list and a glance at the index shows that Mencken did not write on Melville positively or negatively (at least not in the Prejudices). These were published before the so-called “Melville revival” and it is possible he was not particularly aware of him. I wonder if he would have found him a peer of Emerson, Poe, and Whitman.

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Mencken, apparently when young

When Mencken talks about writers that I do not really know much of, he sounds commanding, but every once in a while he brings up someone I do know and I wonder if he was perhaps being too hard. He attacks Percival Pollard for seeing some talent in Robert W. Chambers (author of The King in Yellow). Mencken then proceeds for about 400 words on Chamber’s failings. Perhaps I am seeing this through Lovecraft-colored glasses, but I always found Chambers brave and creative (exactly what Mencken seems to want). In the end, it is hard to see clearly what Mencken wanted in a writer. We know some of what he hateed (conformity, popular fashion, pseudo intellectualism, etiquette, clear and unpretentious prose). We know he admired originality, individuality, frankness, and honesty. We also know who his heroes were. Chambers is at fault for silly dialog and just plain bad writing. Certainly we need to add to the list, beauty. Actually, Mencken talks at length about beauty: beautiful things, beautiful women, and beautiful art.

He approaches this issue in a short essay on the literature of the social hygiene movement. As students of the early twentieth century know, “progressivism” was tied up with obsessions about the future of the white race. This was a function of Social Darwinism and the bad idea that races can decline and rise. Out of this came libraries of literature on the science of reproduction condensed for a popular audience. Much of it gave advice on siring and raising strong children. What bothered Mencken so much was the medicalization of sexuality. The social hygiene movement aimed to turn sex into a duty one performs for the nation or the race.

[T]hey are all founded upon a pedagogical error. That is to say, they are all founded upon an attempt to explain a romantic mystery in terms of an exact science. Nothing could be more absurd: as well attempt to interpret Beethoven in terms of mathematical physics—as many a fatuous contrapuntist, indeed, has tried to do. The mystery of sex presents itself to the young, not as a scientific problem to be solved, but as a romantic emotion to be accounted for. (117)

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Later he makes the direct point that what is most offensive about social hygiene is not its moralism (he does not seem to advocate promiscuity although he finds marriage terrible banal and ridiculous), but its ugliness:

In the relations between the sexes all beauty if founded upon romance, all romance is founded upon mystery, and all mystery is founded upon ignorance, or, failing that, upon the deliberate denial of the known truth. To be in love is merely to be in a state of perceptual anaesthesia—to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek god or an ordinary young woman for a goddess. But how can this condition of mind survive the deadly matter-of-factness which sex hygiene and the new science of eugenics impose? (119)

This was similar to his criticism of Thorstein Veblen. Veblen reduced consumerism to something ugly. This may be fine for some consumption, but Mencken believed that aesthetics can motivate us and that we have a tendency toward beauty. Furthermore, Mencken was troubled by the social hygiene cult because it seemed to be on the side of marriage, which he clearly believed was an institution of control. The problem of marriage is the same one that plagues American letters. The impulse to be original and rebellious is shouted down by the social pressure to conform. It is in this shouting down that beauty is destroyed.

What we have in marriage actually—or in any other such contract—is a constant war between the impulse to give that rebellion objective reality and a social pressure which puts a premium on submission. The rebel, if he strikes out, at once collides with a brick wall, the bricks of which are made up of the social assumption of docility, and the mortar of which is the frozen sentimentality of his own lost yesterday—his fatuous assumption that what was once agreeable to him would always be agreeable to him. (122)

Perhaps the most important article in Prejudices: First Series is “The Genealogy of Etiquette,” which comes at this same thesis in a more general way. He begins with a general assault on psychology as a yet unproven social science, but then tries to use then-recent discoveries in psychology to try to understand why conformity wins out over freedom. This is the old question anarchists have tried to answer for hundreds of years. Why can one man rule a thousand through a proclamation that his blood is the right blood? Why can the more essential values someone had created be tossed aside because of the opinions of the crowd? These seem to be different questions, but both seem to rest on a study of conformity. Mencken discusses a book by Elsie Clews Parson which attempts to get around the psychological origins of conformity. The conclusion of this book was that “not one of us is a free agent. Not one of us actually thinks for himself, or in any orderly and scientific manner. The pressure of environment, of mass ideas, of the socialized intelligence, improperly so called, is too enormous to be withstood.” (92)

What Mencken adds to this fact that we seem to know is that beauty is also impossible to experience or create in such an environment.

H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: First Series” (Part One)

The outside hope of returning to the United States has encouraged me to try to revive this blog. Whatever virtues exist in Taiwan, there is the overwhelming reality that everything takes longer. Work days are longer. Getting places takes longer. Lines take longer to negotiate. It is almost as if the entire infrastructure of the society is designed to prohibit leisure. This is not to say that there is not idleness, but the banality of that idle time (on buses, on trains, standing at 100-second stop lights) actively discourages doing anything with your time. As an example, I get up at 5 to take a 5:45 bus to take a 6:11 subway to take a 7:00 bus to begin a three hour commute. Or, like today, I may find myself on standby for the 9:00 bus and fated to be late to class at 1:00. (Thankfully this is a once a week burden, but my commute other days are similarly odious). As long as I stay here, I fear this will be my life. What I do not understand is the general contentment of such a life by the vast majority of young Taiwanese. They will never be able to buy homes in Taipei. There is little hope for a substantial rise in wages above cost of living. And like me, they are standing in line and waiting standby. Worst, of course, is the burden this places on ability to be creative or even slightly productive. My writing has slowed to a crawl. I find I have little new to say. Making matters worse, I need to teach British history. I have a hard time believing anything meaningful can be done on a bus or a train. (Those who have more luck can give me advice.) My hope here is that will can triumph over banality. At the very least I need to make my mind active again and jotting down some ideas inspired by American writers is always good for that.

One thing that you notice reading these articles from the perspective of the 21st century is how what we read from that era only scratches the surface of what was available (although Mencken warns us not to be too eager to plunge into some of that stuff). The authors that he brutally exposes as caterers to popular taste are almost all forgotten now. At the same time, some of the authors he praised are equally unknown to this fairly well-read historian.

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In an article on Mary MacLane (another author I did not really know of before), Mencken sums up part of the problem with American letters.

We have our spasms of revolt, our flarings up of peekaboo waists, free love and “art,” but a mighty backwash of piety fetches each and every one of them soon or late. A mongrel and inferior people, incapable of any spiritual aspiration above that of second-rate English colonials, we seek refuge inevitably in the one sort of superiority that the lower castes of men can authentically boast, to wit, superiority in docility, in credulity, in resignation, in morals. We are the most moral race in the world; there is not another that we do not look down upon in that department; our confessed aim and destiny as a nation is to inoculate them all with our incomparable rectitude. In that last analysis, all ideas are judged among us by moral standards. (75)

Is this why we are still plagued with political correctness? Is political correctness the last sigh of a people who cannot imagine anything more transformative than propriety? I tend to agree that it is better to be kind than hurtful and it costs us little to try to avoid language that we know is hurtful. Still, I wonder what Mencken would have said about the current fad for tone policing and trigger warnings. Would he see it as basically a retreat into moralism?
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For me, one of the most personal aspects of Mencken’s writings is the utter uselessness of most academic writing. I am only comforted in knowing that not much has improved and that my boredom with academic writing has a long history. For as long as there have been universities, there have been professors with nothing useful to say but cannot stop from talking. The first essay in Prejudices explores the work of J. E. Spingarn, an academic turned U.S. Army officer, who argued that the work of a critic was to honestly describe an artist’s intention and understand their “creative passion.” Hovering over this idea for Mencken is the inability of most academic critics to see beyond their own prejudices and theories. He frankly things most are incapable to achieving what Spingarn desires:

[Spingarn’s approach] presupposes that [the critic] is a civilized and tolerant man, hospitable to all intelligible ideas and capable of reading them as he runs. This is a demand that at once rules out nine-tenths of the grown-up sophomores who carry on the business of criticism in America. Their trouble is simply that they lack the intellectual resilience necessary for taking in ideas, and particularly new ideas. The only way they can ingest is by transforming it into the nearest related formula—usually a harsh and devastating operation. (5 – 6)

Is this a problem of democracy? For Mencken it seems to have been. Why do scholars force works into predetermined theories? Because of orthodoxy and the needs to match a work against the values of the majority (who for better or worse pay the critics salary). “They judge a work of art, not by its clarity and sincerity, not by the force and charm of its ideas, not by the technical virtuosity of the artist, not by his originality and artistic courage, but simply and solely by his orthodoxy. If he is what is called a “right thinker,” if he devotes himself to advocating the transient platitudes in a sonorous manner, then he is worthy of respect.” (6) It is important that these values are transient. We live in a liquid world and liquidity is orthodoxy. The most skillful at navigating their own thoughts (or more importantly their expressions) to what is popular that year or that month will be the most institutionally enduring. Those who are original (or stand for something as useless as beauty) are not likely to survive.

Many of the authors that Mencken takes down in Prejudices are those who blindly conform to shifting fashions and tastes. This is apparently what happened to H. G. Wells. Mencken does not understand why Wells could produce a few great works and countless pounds of mediocre text. It is not simply that he advocates socialism (something that Mencken believed was one of the more trite ideas of his day). It was that socialism appeared in Wells’ writing in the same way as dozens of other concepts. “He seems to respond to all the varying crazes and fallacies of the day; he swallows them without digesting them.” (17) On Irvin S. Cobb (the supposed heir to Mark Twain that I guess not one in a thousand 21st American can identify), Mencken makes no effort to hold back his scorn. Cobb’s sin was not so much bad jokes, but that his jokes were not original. That old jokes sell is not disputed and Menken can hardly fault Cobb for cashing in. That the popular author can dubbed the “heir to Mark Twain” was inexcusable. In the same way, Mencken no doubt did not trust the masses to appreciate original and honest writing, but was less forgiving of the educated elite who confused banal scholarship and banal thought for greatness.

In the first half of Prejudices: First the most detailed essay is an attack on the economist Thorstein Veblen. It is a humorous read, particularly when Mencken tries to make sense of Veblen’s incomprehensible prose. Veblen’s central idea is that those with money tend to spend it on things that uplift their reputation against others. They want to show off their wealth. Mencken agrees with Veblen that consumer choice is not based on individuality. Mencken thinks it is even worse. Consumer choice is based on conformity and banality. Although he does confess that consumers are able to occasionally think for themselves and value things regardless of others, they are in the end products of society. We buy nice things because we like nice things. We want to kiss pretty women (his example, not mine), because pretty women are more fun to kiss. While our ideas of beauty or niceness may conform to society we do not primarily purchase things to advertise our wealth to jealous neighbors. The real problem with Veblen is not his easily-exposed idea about the consumer choices of “the leisure class.” The real problem is that his ideas became yet another American fad. He concludes with another attempt to diagnose the problem of American letters:
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The thing to blame, of course, is our lack of an intellectual aristocracy—sound in its information, skeptical in its habit of mind, and, above all, secure in its position and authority. Every other civilized country has such an aristocracy. It is the natural corrective to enthusiasm from below. It is hospitable to ideas, but as adamant against crazes. It stands against the pollution of logic by emotion, the sophistication of evidence to the glory of God. But in America there is nothing of the sort. On the one hand there is the populace—perhaps more powerful here, more capable of putting its idiotic ideas into execution, than anywhere else—and surely more eager to follow the platitudinous messiahs. On the other hand there is the ruling plutocracy—ignorant, hostile to inquiry, tyrannical in the exercise of its power, suspicious of ideas of whatever sort. In the middle ground there is little save an indistinct herd of intellectual eunuchs, chiefly professors—often quite as stupid as the plutocracy and always in great fear of it. When it produces a stray rebel he goes over to the mob; there is no place for him within his own order. (46 – 47)

So here is our question as we go through Mencken’s Prejudices: Can a democracy think?