A Mencken for the Millennials

I have three shelves filled with books I use for reference. On a variety of subjects, I’ve gathered, read, underlined and consulted these book for over 45 years. And from time to time I’ll go back and reread one, start-to-finish, just to see how much I’ve changed, and if my underlinings then are as pertinent now as I once thought they were. I recommend this practice.

Two of those I’ll cite today, both compilations of essays and rants of H L Mencken, Prejudices (Vintage 1958) and The Vintage Mencken (1955), both of which were published for sale in college book stores after his death in 1955. My copies were already well under-lined when I picked them up last month, for the first time in over 20 years, and the third time in over 40.

With this third reading I have now come full circle about Mencken, from loving him to hating him to understanding him, even admiring him. My, how I have changed, or, as Obama says, “evolved.”

In the late 60’s I was first recommended to Mencken because of his “scathings,” his barbed sarcasm and vitriolic, colorful name-calling. He was the most virulent, mocking wordsmith on the planet, and while his scathings insulted the soft-word-turneth-away-wrath gentry where I was raised, it suited perfectly the smug, wannabe-elite college man of 1969…every bit as much as it did, I learned 20 years later, the Arrow Shirt Man at Rutgers in 1920.


Mencken fed us clever-sounding words and bombastic ways to defame people and things we didn’t like, from snippy English graduate assistants to campus anti-war crusaders. And he used words that are no longer recognized in the common tongue today, archaic but faintly familiar, yet decidedly American, not foreign. Not pretentious (high-falootin’), they were nonetheless exotic, giving us a feeling of exclusivity without having to dress into tweeds. With a certain piquancy and irreverent bite, and delivered in a certain way, even the middle class border collie knew he’d had his heels nipped by a prize-winning wolfhound.

Mencken wrote, and rarely spoke in public, so my pards and I had to transpose his stuff for table-talk. So, we could sit around a pitcher of beer and cigarettes, just as Mencken did over wine and cigars, and throw barbs at the booboosie, whether anti-war protesters, pious Baptist Student Union squares, hicks from West Virginia, or homely girls who wore no makeup.

So at that first reading of Mencken’s essays in the 60s, I paid almost no attention to his philosophy on politics, politicians, government (which I shared here a little over a week ago), religion, journalism, and a host of other subjects. I went straight to his mockery, underlining every snippet. It was like skipping over the short story by Hunter Thompson and going straight to the Playboy centerfold. I knew nothing of the literary and political history of Mencken’s era, and cared less that he hated Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, Methodists (apparently because they caused Prohibition), socialism, Reds, chiropracty, farmers, politicians, print journalists, and even FDR. He felt more kindly toward homely girls and cops on the beat than all of them combined.

And he feared no one. He clearly was not in the business of making friends, or perhaps even keeping them. He cared less for being a somebody inside Washington or New York circles, or who invited him to dinner, or not. Even in his own trade, journalism, he pounced on the media of the day just as often, and as robustly, as he did a congressman, a Prohibition agent or YMCA secretary. (There’s a teachable lesson here.) He was immune to media payback, going to bed every night knowing he was right, even when he wasn’t.

What Mencken stood in favor of was a much shorter list, but freedom of speech and thought were highest among them, and in the days of Woodrow Wilson suppressing it, he double-dared Wilson or his henchmen to arrest him. And they didn’t. Nor could their press diminish him. (There is yet another lesson here.)

I never knew these things until only recently. I didn’t even know that college men of the 1920’s were as enamored with Mencken’s sarcasm as was mine…his American Mercury magazine in their coat pockets exposed like a Gucci raincoat, a sign of an exclusive club membership…and for the same reasons. As with me, Mencken filled their check-out baskets with the most mellifluous array of epithets to shower upon their social inferiors; the hayseeds, Rotarians, Presbyterians, Georgians, store clerks, ice-wagon drivers, fishmongers, waitresses, etc. They liked Mencken for he gave them a Pocket Dictionary of Sneers to carry in their jackets, underlined exactly where I underlined mine fifty years later. (There’s a lesson here, too.)

And it was because of this segue between the Mencken of the 20s and the 60s, vis a vis college men, that caused me to revisit him in the 1980s, when I saw Mencken tendencies in my teenage son, just looking for that certain word to nail some classmate’s hide to the wall who’d made a comment about his Members Only jacket.

“Where in hell did he get this attitude?” my wife and I both wondered. So I pulled those books out and reread the underlined portions. It seems Mencken, in middle age, touched a universal chord with some twenty-somethings that was a cut above what the average songsmith or poet, or hipster could provide.

So I barred him reading them, for in that second reading I did an about face, and came to believe Mencken was probably the meanest man who ever picked up a typewriter and heaved it at a church organist. I made a list of his incurable sins, only lately to revise them: while probably not an atheist, he was as violently and mocking anti-religion as Christopher Hitchens, every standard three-insult fusillade carrying at least one reference to a church, Methodist and Baptist highest on his hit list. Still he never said a single word against God or Christ, only their subsidiaries. While probably not a racist, he believed virtually every ethnicity, except the German, the French and a few rare literary English, to be congenitally defective, especially the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic (Irish and Scot) and Afro-American. He believed they were so without merit as unable to appreciate even the simplest blessing of liberty, or how to manage it. Or to better themselves. None had even the vaguest idea as what had been bequeathed to them in America. But he hated the socialists and eugenicists who wanted to enslave them or put a large number of them to sleep even more. Mencken believed, in America, even the lowest born could make his own way if he would only work, of which there was an abundance. With money so easy to come by, if just more of them would improve themselves. Faster. He wished there were fewer of them to make fun of, and more of them to raise themselves up so as to join him, sitting around a well-appointed table, with red meat, wine and cigars, to join in making fun of the others.

While most libertarians, and all leftists, define themselves by who they are not, and take joy in their elite station, Mencken lamented it, was even angry about it. (And therein too, lies a teachable lesson.)

He was so wrong about so much, but Mencken never lived to see his social prejudices largely proved wrong. But his insights into human frailty and politics proved more true than even he could have imagined, to wit (1922):

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Mencken was a h8ter, but with a little h. And he was the absolute contrarian, as insufferable in print as Ann Rand and Karl Marx were in real life. Did I tell you that he had mentored Miss Rand in her early days?

Mencken died in 1955, but suffered a stroke in 1948, so was unable to think clearly or write the last seven years of his life. Had it not been for that stroke he probably would have joined Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Karl Hess and others in founding the libertarian movement in America, for it was a natural company for him to join…at least until they would have likely thrown him out, as they eventually did Miss Rand, for being unruly and insufferable.

Hayek once wrote that he’d rather be read closely than read often. It took me forty years to understand that beneath Mencken’s bombast there are many deeper meanings. He once wrote in an essay on literary criticism that the first job of the critic is to ascertain what it is the author is trying to say, and then, how well he does it. He went on to say that most critics fail in this endeavor, usually out of personal vanity. We see this every day in almost every news and opinion column.

It took me three readings to find out what Mencken was trying to say. The teachable lesson isn’t his substance, for that is largely understood by conservatives, cultural and political alike, nowadays, but how he said it, and how he hooked an otherwise uncatchable brook trout, the college male, with a fly he hand-tied himself.

So, it was in this third reading of Mencken, that I by-passed all my underlined “scathings” (which I’ll some day share here) such as “more crowded than the babies in Presbyterian hell,” or “the assistant to the secretary of the Chief Clerk of the Division of Audits and Disbursements, Bureau of Stationery Supplies, Post Office Department”..etc., and tried to find things useful in him that can be used by our side against the left today, for anyone who can find that many ways to cuss a cat, profanity without real cursings, and be pied piper to a crowd the Left has owned since the Sociology Department was deemed a “science” at state university, is worth a little analysis.

Mencken clearly despised the Left, stupidity, phoniness, indifference, insincerity, the press, even capitalists, though not wealth creation and free markets. (About the common man, like most libertarians, he had a general disdain for the C-student, about which he was as wrong as he was the core philosophy of religion.)

Important to our Cause, he was unafraid of, and indifferent to, the same people that our select and elect today must bow and scrape to please or at least keep from offending. He honored no such alliances.

If you want to change media, especially the fear of it, find men who are not afraid to offend them. Only men who are content to live wholly within their own skins, alone, can do this. A very few, indeed, can apply, but God, the damage they can do to the Left’s purposes.

A Mencken for the Millennials

Mencken hated almost everything in America we hate today, government, politics and politicians, all of who have lost their way. Despite his age in the 1920s, he had an amazing ability to connect to college aged males with 5000 word essays which they would never really understand until at least that third reading 40 years later. What they thought they gained were the scathings, and how to make them up, how to deliver them; a certain rat-a-tat cant that could be modified to fit almost any situation. But imbedded in them were the seeds of real thinking, real ideas. This was Mencken’s hand-tied hook, and his real medicine.

For any enterprising writer/personality with a large enough bullhorn, and the hutzpah to go in there and drag some millennials away from their slime pits of mediocrity can make a large dent in the Left’s academic and political plantation, this can be a valuable strategy.

Stealing souls away from the Culture Trust’s holding cell is no small matter but still a worthwhile endeavor. Knowing they will be all discarded like so many blonde doxies at a

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Clinton Library picnic once the Arabs sign the checks, a friendly ladder down with a note attached might even be the Christian thing to do.

But how? Five thousand words? Two-three minute YouTube speeches or 200 word posts are more like it. Venue is everything. This requires some planning. A strategem.

What matters to the college youth of today, (think Occupy) as in Mencken’s day, is still that majesty in style, authority, and bombast, and (I think) that same hint of command of exotic language.

To this Mencken said,

“Perhaps the most valuable asset any man can have is a superior air, a talent for sniffiness and reserve”.

As he proved, the most daring, the most provocative words, delivered authoritatively and cleverly, touching all the “honest” hot buttons on the modern youth’s psyche (they really are very close to libertarians and conservatives on a number of “liberty” issues, only don’t know it because of the impoverishment of their current accommodations), could deprive the Left of much of their projected firepower.

This requires essentially reaching down into a sea of stupidity and convincing a large number that is exactly what it is they are drowning in, then pulling them out in such a way that they can poke fun at the lost swimmers left to drown…and for no apparent higher cause. The rest will come to them in time.

Of course, today, old print formats don’t work. Nor will a bald, round-faced man and a cigar. (I don’t think.) Mencken had a style which can be transposed easily to short sketches, either written or delivered orally. Well done, it would probably beat O’Reilly’s self-important oratorios by a mile. Just replace Mencken’s favorite bogeymen such as religion (actually some of that still works, sorry), or the hick-farmer rube, with more modern-day replacements such as journalists, college professors or government bureaucrats. But give them new names, as Mencken did the Medical Trust.

Go after the pop culture, but peel it like an onion, in layers, not in big bites, making it seem uncool, ordinary. Turn it into a salad, not a stew.

Steer clear of policy issues directly. Liberal policy flaws should be dealt with through euphemisms, not head-on attacks. I’m not sure that Mencken ever wrote anything directly aimed at Presbyterians, or most political figures, but he burned them less directly by identifying them, as the “baby hell” comment above, or associating them with a story of a dog that had been hit a car, “writhing, just like a Democrat hit by the truth.” (my words, not HLM’s) into any subject Mencken wanted to rant about; bad journalism, bad art, bad writing, bad music, bad government, or less-than mediocre politicians, he could weave the United Brethren, Baptists, Scot-Irish, Scandinavian farmers, with a barrage of contempts for the ideas behind socialism, and never once mention the Fabians or Marx. KISS.

You can transpose this method for the minimum wage, immigration, the imperial presidency, then imbed the truths and the ideas underneath the scathings, then watch those seedlings grow. Mencken wouldn’t tell you what to think about the sins of the minimum wage, but rather what to think about the sins behind the thinking about minimum wage.

Let the scathings do the rest.

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