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?

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

  1. Sorry I can’t comment on this.Good luck on reviving this blog.I’m pleased that you are,and won’t remain a museum.I recently came back here through your Philip K.Dick WordPress blog,and looked over my past comments.

      • Good.Philip K.Dick and the few others I commented on,i would have wrote differently of now.I might revise some of them one day.

        I think I shall have to read Menken one day.

      • I am going to take it slow with him. I am planning 12 posts. I do really want to reconcile democracy and creativity. So far Mencken doubts that is possible. I would not being doing this blog if I did not think equality and individualism were compatible concepts.

        Essentially I like Menken because unlike most thinkers of America, he knew there was a contradiction in American values. And he never tired of exposing professors as frauds. Which they mostly are.

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