The Vintage Mencken – H.L. Mencken (ed. Alistair Cooke)

1951, reprinted 1990

I picked up this Mencken book after seeing his name used many times in the same sentence as Twain.
Before then I hadn’t heard of him, but fortunately Amazon had a good guide to him and the Book Den had it in stock.
Selected by Alistair Cooke, this is a fairly decent overview of the man, starting off with Mencken’s memories of Baltimore, the city he rarely left, and ending with an essay on death.
Mencken was one of the original crusty curmudgeon journalists, chomping on a cigar, attacking the typewriter, and assailing all preconceived notions, left and right. He’s not exactly a fan of democracy, either, if by that you mean mob rule. In one of the most fascinating long articles near the center of this collection, “The National Letters,” he takes on the paltry (up to the time of writing, 1920) contributions made by Americans to world literature. (Hemingway and Steinbeck were right around the corner, but miles away, and that doesn’t necessarily mean Mencken would have liked them.) His view that it is our inherent Puritanism, coupled with a pleasant moderation, which has led to weak lit is close to Robert Hughes’ view of American art before the Modern era. yet Mencken’s prescription is for the creation of a true aristocratic class. This is a hard thing to parse, but he doesn’t mean the rich either, who have all the money in the world but no sense of heritage or class. (He has a lot to say about the idiotic rich, as well.)
Elsewhere, his look back at the Wilsonian era is notable for its parallels to life under Bush: fearmongering (Germans instead of terrorists), a leader who speaks in sound bites without substance, a cowed press and academia, intolerance of dissent. But enough of me, here’s some choice quotes by Mencken that should give you some taste:

Civilization is at its lowest mark in the United States precisely in those areas where the Anglo-Saxon still presumes to rule. he runs the whole South–and in the whole South there are not as many first-rate men as in many a single city of the mongrel North. Wherever he is still firmly in the saddle, there we look for such pathological phenomena as fundamentalism, Prohibition and Ku Kluxery, and there they flourish.”–from “the Anglo-Saxon”

Or how about this comparison found in a review of what we would now call a puff-piece bio on Wilson:

“This incredible work is an almost inexhaustible mine of bad writing, faulty generalizing, childish pussyfooting, ludicrous posturing, and naive stupidity. to find a match for it one must try to imagine a biography of the Duke of Wellington by his barber.”

Mencken also wrote many an epigram: “Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it.”
“Puritanism–The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Who knows what Mencken would have made of Bush, but I don’t think it would have been favorable. He certainly would have seen through the phony bravado and “common man” play-acting, as he does in his reports of politicians excerpted here (when FDR wins the nomination during a very tight convention night over challenger Al Smith, Mencken is sure it will spell upcoming defeat for the Dems.
For the insight into American tastes and politics, this book is worth reading. Although Mencken’s style is wordy, it still has bite. Charges of racism are refuted at least in this volume by his strong support of allowing blacks and whites to mix in public (in Baltimore, of course). He is quoted elsewhere as putting down the intelligence of the “negro,” but read alongside his even more vicious attacks on religion, corrupt politicians, and the great unwashed, Mencken lets them off easy.
Side note: This book’s previous owner, I would guess, looks to be an angry undergrad, full of righteous political correctness, who had gone through the book and checked off all the sentences where Mencken fails as a member of the 1990s. This, of course, is missing the point, but these wrongheaded annotations almost seem appropriate to this volume.

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