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.


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)


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.

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