The American

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
(Oxford University Press)
Part I
Those of us who had the misfortune to be conceived during the Great Depression had to live through an even worse depression known as "The Eisenhower Years." Students who were in school or university were saddled with poltroons who believed, somehow, that they should murder free speech and thus save the country: John Foster Dulles, Alan Dulles, Rep. Francis Walter, Senators Joseph McCarthy and Pat McCarran, J. Edgar Hoover. They used the menace of "Reds" to wreck the Bill of Rights.

In high school we were forced to hide under our desks during mock atom bomb attacks. In college, we were wary of writing or even thinking outside the box: speaking one's mind on politics was tantamount to being disloyal to the Land of the Brave. After school, many of us hid in alcohol or seventy-hour work weeks.

But at the same time a few of us were discovering thinking that began to show us a way out of such puerility: Paul Goodman, Richard Hofstader, Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, James Baldwin, and, most of all, the astute, literate observer of the "booboisie." In those uneasy times, Mencken's writings were treasures, delivering us from the humbugs who spouted their virulence in the pulpits and the halls of Congress.
  • When the president of Rutgers University blamed a wave of student suicides on "too much Mencken," Mencken's proposal that there be a wave of suicide among college presidents was greeted "with a roar of student approval."
  • On being asked his opinion of the candidate of the Progressive Party, Henry L. Mencken said "Everybody named Henry should be put to death ... If somebody will do it for Henry Wallace, I promise to commit suicide."
  • On American culture: "It is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life ... This leaves the field to the intellectual jellyfish and inner tubes."

§     §     §

Ms. Rodgers' book, long as it is --- 550 pages of text, almost 100 pages of notes --- is a treasure. It presents us, in language worthy of its subject, a fair and full picture of That Man from Baltimore who for almost half a century held a country in his spell by denouncing, equally, tinpot politicians, quack professors, poltroonish businessmen, Southern Baptists, and other dolts. As a special prize, Mencken offers, sweet raisins in the pie, hundreds of salty quotes, gleaned from letters, writings, notes, unpublished manuscripts, books and magazine articles and personal conversation. Many are pronouncements to warm the soul, especially for those of us who have often felt, still do, the heavy hand of those who kill our freedoms in the name of protecting them.

At the same time, Mencken gives us the picture of an age --- the 1920s --- that was as fully foolish as our own.

  • On World War I: "Once the world is made safe for democracy, all that will remain will be to make democracy safe for the world."
  • On beer: "It has transformed me from a puny youth into the magnificent specimen of Angle-Saxon manhood that I am today."
  • On President Harding: "He is of the intellectual grade of an aging cockroach."
  • On Harding's Speeches: "It is the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through the endless nights."
  • On hay fever which made him miserable most of its life: "It is worse than leprosy. It is unaccompanied by the salve of sympathy. It hasn't even the kindness to kill."

§     §     §

As much as we favor this biography, we could dispense with Ms. Rodger's need to delve into Mencken's complex relations with the ladies, including Aileen Pringle, Sara Haardt, Marion Bloom. Mencken's personal fiddlings, including his life-long obsession with women who were "bold, bad, haughty, violent," is not all that interesting, for he was but a charming, slippery, cigar-toting Don Juan, as hungry for love as any of us. He once referred to "the sweet and dreadful passion of love. It is as tenderly personal and private as a gallstone."

His gallstone was finally extracted by Ms. Haardt, in 1930. Their marriage took place when he was fifty. Of all the women who wanted him, and there were, evidently, more than a baker's dozen, Haardt had a strange attraction for him. That is, according to Rodgers, she was expected to die within three years.

These suppositions about what went on in Mencken's heart before and after marriage belong in the Who-Cares? Department, and are the only splotch in what is otherwise a masterful picture of a master of savage, savory writing. An examination of Mencken's style is worthy of a book of its own.

Unlike other polemicists, he always injected a surprise word, a merry twist, an out-of-the-blue reversal of thought to help the stiletto to penetrate. For instance, he wrote in a review of Clive Bell's Civilization a delightful aside on the state of Oklahoma:

    The typical Oklahoman is as barbarous as an Albanian or a man of Inner Mongolia. He is almost unaware of the ideas that engage the modern world; in so far as he has heard of them he is hostile to them. He lives and dies on a low plane, pursuing sordid and ridiculous objectives and taking his reward in hoggish ways. His political behavior is that of a barbarian and his religious notions are almost savage. Of urbanity he has no more than a traffic cop. His virtues are primitive and his vices are disgusting.

This from a man whom many in the United States of the 1920s had often described as "disgusting."

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