Robert M. Thornton
Robert M. Thornton writes from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
I have been reading H. L. Mencken for over thirty-five years but it was only a short time ago when I realized why I enjoy him so much. Joseph Epstein wrote about encountering a man at a gathering of Mencken admirers and asking why he read him. The immediate response was "because he makes me feel good." Over the years I guess I knew that but had never articulated it. Mencken brought this off, explains Epstein:
. . . in part through comedy, in part through the energy that vibrates through his prose. In part through high intelligence joined to great common sense. [Mainly] he achieves his effect through the magical transfer of joi d vivre. Mencken took joy in life after looking at life critically and taking full measure of its darkest side, not out of any idiot optimism.
Epstein believes that the "extraordinary cleansing and vitalizing effect" Walter Lippman found in Mencken's prose sixty-five years ago is still to be found in it. He believes also that "Lippman may have been right, too, in attributing this wondrous effect to that fact that Mencken's blows "are directed by a warm and violent but an unusually healthy mind which is not divided, as most minds are, by envy and fear and ambition and anxiety."
In his essay "Rediscovering Mencken" (April 1977, Commentary), Epstein explained the influence of Mencken by quoting from an essay on Thomas Carlyle written by George Eliot in 1855:
The influence of such a writer is dynamic. He does not teach men how to use sword and musket, but he inspires their souls with courage and sends a strong will into their muscles. He does not, perhaps, enrich your stock of data, but he clears away the film from your eyes that you may search for data to some purpose. He does not, perhaps, convince you, but he strikes you, undeceives you, animates you.
H. L. Mencken, concludes Epstein "is such a writer."
Mencken also "makes me feel good" because he wrote exactly what he thought instead of watering down his ideas so as not to offend anyone. Albert Jay Nock commented sixty years ago that he admired Thomas Carlyle for "his cusseddness and his crusty readiness to say just what he thought about anybody and anything. . ." Nock was disdainful of the "awful surfeit of mush-and-water in the current writing about public affairs," which reminded him of
. . . the preacher who told his people that "unless you repent, as it were, and, as one might say, have a change of heart, you will be damned -- so to speak and, in a measure, go to hell." There was none of that sort of bilgewater in Carlyle's pronouncements.
This is equally true of Mencken, Nock wrote. He gives you the word with the bark on it. But however confident and outspoken, Mencken is refreshing because he retained a sense of his own fallibility. For instance, he replied to someone who called him a fool for something he had written "Dear Sir: You may be right. Very truly yours, H. L. Mencken."
Menken is refreshing, too, because although bombastic and unmerciful in his assaults on fanatics, phonies, fools, radicals, artistes, charlatans, quacks, world-savers and the self-righteous and pompous, he always leavened them with an unfailing sense of humor. He never became flustered, never wrote in anger. "There was no vindictiveness, no rage, no heave and sweat," wrote John Chamberlain. His deliverances were made
. . . with an air of great aplomb, as from an Olympian height, and there was always the grin and the dancing points of light in Mencken's eyes when the last sentence had been committed to paper. This Olympian attitude made him singularly easy to take . . .
Another reason why Mencken refreshes the spirit is that he never claimed his views were wholly objective, untainted by even a hint of subjectivity. He "had amazing prejudices," wrote Samuel A. Nock:
. . . but he never pretended they were anything else. Such things were part of his vast gusto, his love of living, his fascination with all that went on about him and those concerned in it. He showed as one vigorous way of living a full and happy life.
In our time, of course, prejudice is a bad word -- often a fighting word used to flail our enemies -- because for most people it means disliking persons simply because they are of a certain race, gender, class, or nationality instead of "judging" each individual by the content of his character.
Nock was using the word in its innocent sense of prejudgement and so did Richard Weaver in an essay written thirty years ago, "Life without Prejudice." There he explained the value of healthy prejudices in a society and invoked Mencken in support of his thesis. In the 1920s Mencken "wrote a brilliant series of essays on men, life, and letters" and "he gave them a title as illuminating as it was honest -- Prejudices." What he meant was that these views were "based on such part of experience as had passed under his observation." He did not apologize because some figures were praised while others were damned. Above all, there was no canting claim to "objectivity." He knew that most convictions rest upon "imperfect inductions, or samplings of evidence, and he knew that feeling is often a positive factor." One might expect that Mencken's "unfairness" would "leave him unread and without influence," but just the opposite was the case, probably because many "found in him a man whose prejudices had more of reality than the slogans and catchwords on political banners."
Rationalistic men, declared Weaver, are more intolerant than prejudiced men because they believe their judgments are reasoned conclusions and wholly objective so should never be challenged. The person, on the other hand, who admits his prejudices, the subjective nature of his conclusions, is usually "more human and humane." He understands that "a prejudice may be an unreasoned judgment . . . but an unreasoned judgment is not necessarily an illogical judgment." The man of strong prejudices is not a "political and social menace" but often a helpful citizen. The chances are greater that:
. . . he will be more creative than the man who can never come to more than a few gingerly held conclusions or who thinks that all ideas should be received with equal hospitality.
After all, wrote Weaver, "there is such a thing as being so broad you are flat."
In his splendid essay, Weaver draws upon the ideas of John Grier Hibben who some fifty years before wrote an essay entitled Defense of Prejudice. While reason may determine the tone, wrote Hibben, prejudices produce the overtones of character. The overtone gives a distinctive quality to sound and, in a similar manner:
. . . character may be regarded as having its peculiar timbre. There is a certain ring about a man's character -- it is true or false, pleasing or unpleasing, harmonious or discordant, as the case may be.
Then, firing a salvo of words that should have the enemies of prejudices hoisting the white flag or beating a hasty retreat, Hibben makes it perfectly clear why prejudice is so vital to a man's character:
We love a man on account of his prejudices; we hate him also for a like reason. Strip a man of his prejudices, and only the commonplace remains. Individuality is the projection of our prejudices. Remove the prejudices and the individual is merged again with the crowd. He is only one of many. He no longer appeals to our imagination. There is no more of interest or charm or power about him. Character without a dash of prejudice is insipid. A man without a fair amount of prejudice in his nature always lacks intensity of conviction. There may be a glow of intellectual light, but there is a conspicuous absence of fire and driving power. Theirs is often a certain judicial poise of mind which reveals itself in a tolerance that is an indication of weakness rather than strength. Such a man never lets himself go. He always sees two sides to every question, and can never commit to the one or the other. Freedom from prejudice is often indicated by a vacillation which is pitifully weak and ineffectual. *
"Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition." --Thomas Jefferson