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.

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.


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?
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:

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?

James Weldon Johnson, Editorials and Essays

In 1914, James Weldon Johnson became an editor of the newspaper The New York Age, a major African-American activist origin with its roots in the nineteenth century. He would spend the next ten years writing daily editorials for the newspaper. In addition to these editorials, Johnson was an active essay writer and book editor. His work in these areas seems to fall into roughly two areas: articles about African-American cultural or artistic expressions, and articles that can best be defined as propaganda for black activists. Both of his areas of interest remain of interest, but I suspect his work on black culture will have a longer shelf-life.


As you would expect, many of the New York Age editorials take on the political issues of the day, such as Wilson’s expansion of Jim Crow policies into Washington D.C., the production of The Birth of a Nation¸ the Great Migration, the 1919 Race Riots in Chicago, and service in World War I. As far as I can tell, most of his positions on these issues line up pretty closely with W. E. B. Du Bois. The black nationalist argument against serving in the military in World War I was rejected by both because they saw it as a way to reaffirm the importance of black America to the nation. Johnson’s criticism of Marcus Garvey is also similar. In their opinion, Garvey was a megalomaniac who undermined the struggle for social equality by fighting for separation. The Great Migration is an expression of the cultural, social, and economic strength and autonomy of black America, not a deep desire to flee the South or seek separation from America (although perhaps from the white South). There articles are interested to look at and actually provide a good summary into this strain of early twentieth century black thinking.

I would like to talk more about Johnson’s cultural logic, because it is where he seems to really shine and where he goes beyond propaganda and politics. His starting point is the fundamental creativity of black people—and it seems all non-whites. It is not just that blacks made a measurable contribution to American cultural life (the narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man lists four), suitable to be recognized and “celebrated.” Johnson argues instead for an almost Afrocentric position. In an article on “the poor white musician,” he wrote:

The truth is, the pure white race has not originated a single one of the great, fundamental intellectual achievements which have raised man in the scale of civilization. The alphabet, the art of letters, of poetry, of music, of sculpture, of painting, of the drama, of architecture; numbers, the science of mathematics, of astronomy, of philosophy, of logic, of physics, of chemistry; the use of metals and the principles of mechanics were all invented or discovered by darker and, what are, in many cases, considered inferior, races. (619)

Of course, Johnson lived in an era where racial thinking was dominant and it is forgivable that he extends the artificial concept of race to pre-modern achievements (this seems to be the major sin of Afrocentrism).

He makes the same point about contemporary black writers, writing a bold defense and celebration of Claude McKay. (“No Negro poet has sung more beautifully of his own race than McKay and no Negro poet that equaled the power with which he expresses the bitterness that so often rises in the heart of the race.” (647)) If he is defending McKay, he is certainly seeing a deeper purpose of art than mere political propaganda.

Aside from the a collection of the editorials, the Library of America anthology has seven essays and a few chapters from Black Manhattan, Johnson’s exploration of New York after the Great Migration. These were all published between 1919 and 1930. Three of them—“The Riots,” “Self-Determining Haiti,” and Lynching—America’s National Disgrace”—are best looked at as political tracts on some of the major racial issues of the period, specifically colonialism and racial violence. “The Riots” is a succinct argument for the virtue of self-defense against violence, especially when the government fails to protect people through the law. The right of self-defense then falls to the people. “The Negroes saved themselves and saved Washington by their determination not to run, but to fight—fight in defense of their lives and their homes. If the white mob had gone on unchecked—and it as only the determined effort of black men that checked it—Washington would have been another and worse East St. Louis.” (658) This is an important article for the people of Ferguson to re-read today.

“Self-Determining Haiti” is the only essay in this collection that deals directly with US colonialism in the Caribbean, which has been a long-standing question for African Americans since the days of Toussaint. Here, Johnson focuses on the 1914 US occupation. Johnson argues that while there are numerous economic and political causes of the invasion, the root of all US imperialism was racial prejudice. Important for us is the reminder of the collaboration of financial interests and racism. He writes: “And this is the people whose ‘inferiority,’ whose ‘retrogression,’ whose ‘savagery,’ is advanced as a justification for intervention—for the ruthless slaughter of three thousand of its practically defenseless songs, with the deaths of a score of our own boys for the utterly selfish exploitation of the country by American big finance, for the destruction of America’s most precious heritage—her traditional fair play, her sense of justice, her aid to the oppressed.” (687) Notice with me how his language works to fit his own position and his own advocacy within the American tradition.

Johnson’s interest in lynching is about its role in souring race relationship, more than to make an argument for a need for greater legal order. It is takes for granted that lynching is outside of the law, but the solution is not necessarily more law. In fact, there was no shortage of courts in the early twentieth century South. No one was lynched because of a court backlog. If anything lynching was a weapon of white supremacy, which was itself backed by the institutional power of states. Nevertheless, Johnson concludes that the solution to lynching is “good government,” but perhaps that means a bit more than a new anti-lynching bill.

In the next post, I will look at Johnson’s cultural writings and poetry in more depth.

Charles Brockden Brown: “Edgar Huntly” (1799)

The third work by Charles Brockden Brown that I will look at is Edgar Huntly, published in the same year as the massive Arthur Mervyn. As in Arthur Mervyn and the earlier work Wieland, Brown is interested in defining an American culture as opposed to Europe. Edgar Huntly is different in that while the previous two works looked to the corrupting influences of the Old World and the city, this work considered the American frontier as a space of alternatives. We are not left to sympathize with the frontier entirely, since it is as bizarre, violent, and corrupting as the European-style city, but it is clearly an American gothic in the “wilderness.” With Edgar Huntly, Brown achieved a clear independence from the European gothic. Brown clearly states this as his goal in the preface to the novel.

America has opened new views to the naturalist and politician, but has seldome furnished themes to the moral painter. That new springs of action, and new motives to curiosity should operate; that the field of investigation, opened to us by our own country, should differ essentially from those which exist in Europe, may be readily conceived. The sources of amusement to the fancy and instruction to the heart, that are peculiar to ourselves, are equally numerous and inexhaustible. It is the purpose of this work to profit by some of these sources; to exhibit a series of adventures, growing out of the condition of our country, and connected with one of the most common and most wonderful disease or affections of the human frame. (641)


The novel begins with Edgar Huntly recovering from the death of his friend Waldegrave. At the same time he sees a man digging a grave in the woods, while sleepwalking. He eventually confronts this man—who turns out to be the red herring villain of the story Clithero (of course a foreigner)—about his actions. Clithero tells the story about how he killed an vile man in Ireland who tried to rob him before moving to America. So he is a murderer but not of Waldegrave. After sleepwalking himself (an affliction Huntly is not aware he has yet), he wakes up deep in the forest. The wilderness seems to drive him to a murderous rampage of his own, climaxing in the liberation of a white woman captured by the local Indians. In the process of freeing her, he kills several Indians, crossing clearly into the boundary of savagery. At one point he meets Clithero who retreated to the forest after confessing his past crimes to Huntly. He also descends into savagery, but retains some degree of human solidarity seen in the aid he gives to Huntly. In the end, sacrifice and benevolence and solidarity help the characters survive what is a truly horrific situation.

Much in this work is familiar to readers of Brown’s other novels: the mysterious and possibly malevolent stranger, a lost past, a woman’s virtue under threat, and locals saturated with the feeling of the uncanny. What is very new is that the forest is the site of so much of the action. For Brown, it is also a space of dangerous liberty, crystalized with stories of Indian violence, but also of whites going native. At one point, the wilderness seems to change someone into a beast.

My eye was not caught by movements which appeared like those of a beast. In different circumstances, I should have instantly supposed it to be a wolf, or panther, or bear. Now my suspicions were alive on a different account, and my startled fancy figured to itself nothing by an human adversary. . . . He moved upon all fours, and presently came near enough to be distinguished. His disfigured limbs, pendants from his ears and nose, and his shorn locks, were indubitable indications of a savage.” (814)

The titular character’s encounter with an Indian woman named Queen Mab is to me particularly memorable. She is described as fully of nature, and therefore a symbolic danger to the Edgar Huntly (she is too old to pose much a danger, she is presented as part of the uncanny wilderness and does help Indians commit violence against whites), but she is also entirely free holding domino only over animals and being servant of no one.

Her only companions were three dogs, of the Indian or wolf species. These animals differed in nothing from their kinsmen of the forest, but in their attachment and obedience to their mistress. She governed them with absolute sway: they were her servants and protectors, and attended her person or guarded her threshold, agreeably to her directions. She fed them with corn and they supplied her and themselves with meat, by hunting squirrels, raccoons, and rabbits. (821)

The significant of Queen Mab cannot be overstated. Brown ended the novel with how Queen Mab “defied her oppressors” by aiding Indian raiders.

When looked at as part of Brown’s entire work, Americans are left in a rather uncomfortable position. Certainly the European influence, whether framed in family history, wealth, and urban society, is dangerous and a source of the uncanny. At the same time, the American wilderness is a dangerous and mysterious other taking American freedoms to their radical and dangerous limit. America must overcome both of these with virtue and benevolence. But is this not a very dangerous place to rest a people’s cultural heritage?


From now until early July I will be updating this blog much less often.

First, this blog will not stopped. I now keep Zora Neale Hurston’s folklore in my backpack. I will post on it as I feel so moved.

I will be focusing on my new project, which is a Philip K. Dick re-read and analysis. It can be found at http://philipkdickreview.wordpress.com

I hope this will tie into my upcoming book on Dick’s lessons for us in late capitalism.

I will also be looking for a job. It has been a nice year, but I feel the need to start teaching again. This requires some degree of focus. I also need to do some writing in the field of history. With the publication of my book Work, Class, and Power in the Borderlands of the Early American Empire, I have been at a loss about what to do next. I have idea. Too many in fact. That is the problem.

The blog will begin again full speed this summer while I am in the United States with my daughter. I plan to spend the entire summer working on the Library of America’s collections of noir and crime and mystery novels while I make final revisions to the PKD book.

I will be back soon.


Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part Two

“Seeing Like a Mountain” in the second part of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac touches on the dramatic turn in his own mind about wildlife management. In earlier years, Leopold believed that the killing off of wolves would increase the deer population, thus ensuring the survival of deer (one type of wildlife) for the use of hunters. In a sense, this was seen in the early twentieth century as a mutually beneficial act, a way of mitigating the divide between the human need for outdoor sports and nature. “Seeing like a mountain” suggests the poverty of that view. Although he did look into the “green fire” of the eyes of the wolf, he did not need to in order to take the broader perspective. Leopold’s realization was that the mountain needed the wolves to prevent the destruction of the mountain ecosystem by uncontested deer populations. “I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn.” (116)


The second part of A Sand County Almanac branches out from Sauk County Wisconsin and draws from Leopold’s experiences in wildlife management and conservation across the country, particularly the Southwest, where he worked for almost two decades after he earned his degree. While the first part are more impressionistic, in which he hopes to allow the dynamics of the woods around his farm to speak for itself. Starting with part two, he embraces a more polemical tone challenging many of the assumptions about conservation that he embraced throughout his career. Centrally, his idea is that wildlife management is fundamentally flawed because it requires an intrusion by humans. Managing the wilderness means the end of the wilderness. “Thus always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” (89)

When reading this I was thinking of the consequences of this for human freedom. This goes beyond Leopold’s belief that human’s requires some relationship with nature to be free. What I considered was that even within human societies Leopold’s point about managing is true. James Scott’s books Two Cheers for Anarchism and Seeing Like a State argues about our preference for vernacular organizations rather that state-managed organizations. He shows how the vernacular order tends to look messy but work very well (the bartender providing mental health counseling or the local naming of roads to match their real purpose are two examples he gives), but state-run attempts at order (Stalin’s collectivization or general urban planning) tend to both destroy the vernacular order and make things objectively worse. We are reminded that dangerous, disorderly and often bizarre nature can teach us about the virtue of the vernacular in our own societies. A minor extension of “seeing like a mountain,” if you will.
A similar lesson about nature comes from “Cheat Takes Over,” an essay showing that “solidarity and co-operation among plant and animal pests” exists much like the human “honor among thieves.” While Kropotkin suggested that such mutual aid tended to exist only within species, Leopold sees it among entire subcultures of plant life, the “ecological stowaways.” (136—138)


The third and final section of A Sand County Almanac, titled “The Upshot” is made up of four essays. The first of these “Conservation Esthetic” takes on the dilemma of humans in industrial societies seeking wilderness, while that quest rapidly destroys that wildness. Mass-use of these resources necessitates (it seems) a degree of artificiality, whether it is a road or a pier or a restroom. Mass-use also seems to destroy the reason humans seek the wilderness, solitude and communion with nature. Leopold could not fully answer the questions brought up by democratic access to the commons, although he was burdened by it his entire life. It may be one of his most important questions for free societies to grapple with, as we all know too well.

“Wildlife in American Culture” makes the same point but goes deeper into the American affection toward nature. “Wildlife once fed us and shaped our culture. It still yields us pleasure for leisure hours, but we try to reap that pleasure by modern machinery and thus destroy part of its value. Reaping it by modern mentality would yield not only pleasure, but wisdom as well.” (160)

“Wilderness” begins to propose a solution. Some wilderness needs to be sustained for “the primitive arts of wilderness travel” such as hunting and foot travel. This may be undemocratic but as most of the woods are already conquered by the “mechanized recreation” this amounts to minority rights. Another part of wilderness needs to be sustained for science, mostly untouched so that they can understand how the land sustains itself. Finally, humans needs to devote some part of their land to “permanent wilderness.” This is only a “rear-guard” action, however. However, if this is the best we can do, we will expect wilderness to slowly decline.
This leads up to Leopold’s famous “Land Ethic,” the final essay of the A Sand County Almanac. Its beauty is in its simplicity. The Land Ethic consists simply of including the land (and now we can add oceans and air) to our ethical decision making process. It does not require accepting any of the metaphysical baggage that comes with some aspects of deep ecology. For Leopold it was as simple as extending our obligations to one another to the lands that we have power over. “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.” (176–177) Leopold does not fail to add that for many farmers at least (if not quite so much for the people partaking in “mechanized recreation”) this is in their self-interest anyway and an easy sell.


A Sand County Almanac came at the end of Leopold’s life. It was accepted for publication just days before his death of a heart attack after helping his neighbors with a fire. The rest of the Library of America collection consists of his assorted writings, his journals, and some of his letters. In the coming posts, I will explore Leopold’s ideas with an eye to his changing values as well as take on some of the very practical issues of the management of the commons in free societies.