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.

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