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Dec 2, 1976

A Gang of Pecksniffs / Letters of H. L. Mecken

“His science is not philosophy but rhetoric in the classical Greco-Roman sense. And of this, he was truly a master.”

A Gang of Pecksniffs

Edited and with an introduction by Theo Lippman, Jr.

Letters of H.L. Mencken

Edited by Guy J. Forgue

Both by H. L. Mencken

Reviewed by Randy Boehm Gang / Arlington House, 1975 / $8.95 Letters / Knopf, 1961 / $12.50

Over the years, American journalism has distinguished itself, if in no other way, by the striking individualists that haunt the profession. From William Randolph Hearst to Bill Loeb (perhaps the last of the dying breed), the field has produced one redoubtable individualist after another. Certainly one of the foremost trophies in this grand tradition is that of H. L. Mencken, whose libertarian forays into the American intellectual market still leave profound influence. It was Mencken who smashed the censorship of the mails, and it was Mencken who nursed the irreverent writings of Dreiser and Anderson, of Shaw and Nietzsche, of Anatole France and James Joyce, and of Sinclair Lewis and James Branch Cabell into popularity in America. And not least of all, it was Mencken’s American Mercury that established the spirit of cynicism toward democracy and politicians that was to become the mood of the “Roaring Twenties” and the credo of “the Forgotten Man.”

It is not only as a “doer” that Mencken stands out, however, but as an individual with extraordinary courage and exceptional style. He often battled against formidable odds in his fights against censorship, prohibition, and “brain trust” mandarins. His personal and professional security were often threatened, but he displayed remarkable strength in his disregard of danger. His was a Nietzschean contempt mingled with Rabelaisian playfulness. Once, he bound and published a volume of violent and outrageous attacks on himself by editorialists around the country, reaping a personal profit from their vitriolic efforts. Time and again throughout his long career, he resorted to comedy to gain the upper hand in affairs that would have crushed lesser men.

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At any rate, it is high time that Mencken’s ruminations on journalism find their way to public reassessment. Of all his many positions, Mencken wished most to be remembered as a “newspaperman.” One finds the selections in A Gang of Pecksniffs uncharacteristically earnest, and so it seems indeed that HLM felt that he had a serious contribution to make to the field. This is not to say that the usual Mencken erudition and charm are in any way absent in the present volume. On the contrary, these writings, many of which are culled from once published newspaper columns live up to Mencken’s cardinal principle of journalism, be amusing.

So long as journalism must by its very nature be a popular art form, why not give the populace the show it so deeply craves? Why not, indeed, thought Mencken. Since there is an inevitable subjectivity operating in reporting, the journalist should not waste it on a dull arrangement of facts. Better to breathe life into the story, to narrate as well as report. That, Mencken felt, is the key to good journalism. Nor did he feel that this approach would lead to journalistic irresponsibility. He seemed convinced that the profession was undergoing a sort of Darwinian teleology, that the lot of the journalist was improving with each generation. He noted that intelligent, educated, and catholic reporters were everywhere replacing the chronic drunks who infested the profession at the turn of the century. On this note of optimism, he concluded that the individual journalist would exercise his interpreter’s license in a responsible way. If anything, the vested interests of the publisher threaten to pervert the reporter’s account. Left to the devices of his own style, however, the reporter can be trusted to entertain without corrupting the facts too much.

Mencken’s second cardinal principle is political: Resist political propaganda from established politicians as well as from so-called reformers. In a memo to Paul Patterson, editor of the Baltimore Sun in 1937, Mencken wrote, “As for our general policy, I think it should be anti-Administration at all times…. [It should bring] … the power of sound information and impartial honesty against the immense effects of government propaganda, with its constant appeals to the lowest credulities of the people….” But the antiestablishmentarianism was tempered with an aristocratic suspicion of radicals: “I believe that the safe and rational course of the papers themselves is liberalism…. We should fight resolutely at all times for the chief liberal goods, all of them well tested and of the highest virtue, e.g., the limitation of governmental powers … and a press secure against official pressure. There is nothing for a decent paper in radicalism. If it suceeds in this country our function will be gone, and with it our liberties. They will be gone whether the radicalism that comes is from the Right or from the Left.”

Above all, A Gang of Pecksniffs is a charming history of professional journalism, with the salient features put into perspective by a master story-teller. There are essays on some of the giants of the field, Hearst and Pulitzer, for example. And there are comments on almost every aspect of the newspaper business, foreign correspondents, editors, publishers, and reporters. Three of Mencken’s speeches are included, and there is a partial transcript of an interview. Mencken’s great virtue as a commentator is his ability to abstract the ridiculous from the solemn, and especially from the obscene. Each of subjects he focuses on have their shortcomings traced down and burlesqued in the grand Mencken style. The blasts are outrageous, but they are always sincere.

Mencken seems to have discovered that the ridiculousness of the obscene could be used as a goad for reform. For each of his burlesques there is a motif of moral exhortation, if not to the perpetrators of the obscene, then at least to the “intelligent minority.” He must be ranked with the greatest of writers in his ability to impose the logic of folly upon-the reader. His essay on Hearst reveals much that was common to himself: “He made a burlesque of the whole ‘God-save-us’ scheme of things…. He proved that what the populace really wanted was simply a roaring show…. The proletariat taken to a palpable circus became cynical, and it remains so to this day. It is still exploited, to be sure, but it no longer worships its exploiters.”

A more broad, and far more interesting example of Mencken’s social commentary is found in The Letters of H.L. Mencken. Here the burlesque of American culture and politics covers a period of forty years, from 1908 to 1948. It pictures the American scene from the halcyon days prior to the First World War through the fiasco of two world wars, the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition, and over the Great Depression. The correspondents include: Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Edgar Lee Masters, Sinclair Lewis, and Upton Sinclair, a virtual Who’s Who of early twentieth century American literature.

The usual good humor rings all through this long tome. Indeed, there is so much good humor over so prolonged a period that one must stand back and marvel. HLM witnessed a decline in popularity throughout the thirties and suffered many other disappointments, including the deaths of many loved ones. But his cheerful letters continued to pour forth. If he wasn’t writing to encourage a struggling young writer, then he was consoling a veteran in the writer’s bouts with depression and loneliness. And there were always such pranks as the Maryland Mad-stones and the religious salutations. Even as he watched intimate friends succumb to the lunacy of political messianism (Dreiser became a Communist and Pound a Fascist) or fall into alcholism (Fitzgerald and Lewis), Mencken stood firm, withstanding internal degeneracy as well as external persecution with the shield of his humor.

The scope of the Letters generally parallels the author’s shifting personal interests. The earlier letters tend to be concerned with literature while the later correspondences are more political. As editor of Smart Set and later of the American Mercury, the author enjoyed a vantage point for observing American culture and politics that alon makes his letters imperative reading for the student of Americana. The fact that Mencken was, personally embroiled in many historic events over his long career as the dean of American iconoclasts lends an intrinsic fascination to the narrative. One becomes engaged in his early war with the Comstocks and government censors in behalf of Dreiser and other literary rebels. His attack then moved on to the sham of World War I censorship for which he was often decried as a German agent-provocateur. Unshaken by base appeals to patriotism, Mencken proceeded to lambast the war effort and protested vainly against the censorship it entailed.

No sooner had World War I departed than Prohibition was foisted upon the American public. Again Mencken took to the charges. His personal correspondences are delightful and defiant as his public blasts: “All is lost including honor. But I have enough good whisky, fair wine and prime beer secreted to last me two solid years…. I sold my motor car and invested the proceeds in alcohol….

“Another great crusade is already underway. It is against copulation. A government bureau has been established to spread the news that the practice is not necessary to health…. In the Middle West there is a growing movement against tobacco. In a few years you will see a republic that is chemically pure. Pray for the day.”

With the close of Prohibition, Mencken’s favorite target became the New Deal, with its brain trust of technocrats and its appeals to popular emotions. He long foresaw the advent of the Second World War, and once again committed himself an isolationist. But this time around, he declined direct confrontation with the United States War machine: “My belief is that Roosevelt will horn into the war at the first chance. He is, to be sure, still bellowing about keeping the United States out of it, but no rational man takes such talk seriously…. It will be impossible for me to write anything or more accurately, to print anything. I’ll probably do what I did the last time; that is, devote myself to a job that has nothing to do with the current carnage.”

The most interesting aspect of Mencken’s correspondence during the thirties is that dialogue he maintained with old friends who had slipped into political messianism. Mencken’s own popularity was at low ebb during this period, but he suffered his fortune without abandoning his convictions. With characteristic spirit he wrote Ezra Pound in 1937, “My dear Pound: … Why not remove those obscene whiskers, shake off all the other stigmata of the Left Bank, come home to the Republic, and let me show you the greatest show on earth? If after six months of it, you continue to believe in sorcerey, whether poetical, political, or economic, I promise to have you put to death in some painless manner, and to erect a bronze equestrian statue to your memory alongside the one I am setting up in honor of Upton Sinclair.”

While a year earlier in an exchange with Sinclair, Mencken teased, “I admit that you have done more or less hollering for free speech but how much of it did you do during the war, when free speech was most in danger? My recollection is that you actually supported Wilson…. I am against the violation of civil rights by Hitler and Mussolini as much as you are, and well you know it. But I am also against the wholesale murders, confiscations, and other outrages that have gone on in Russia. I think it is fair to say that you pseudo communists are far from consistent here.”

Mencken’s suspicion of ideology is summarized nicely in a letter to B.W. Huebsch, “The radicals, as usual, are wrong. I am still against quacks of all sorts, and especially against radicals. Stalin seems to be swindling them in the grand manner, and I am naturally delighted. The pious mind was made to be rooked, whether by the religion of Jahweh or the religion of Marx.” HLM equated ideology with religion (another of his bete noirs playfully bastinadoed throughout his correspondences), and so felt it beneath the dignity of an intelligent and civilized man. Personal autonomy and individual dignity were his sacred cows.

His revulsion at the rightest and leftest ideologies of the thirties cannot be mistaken for abject nihilism, however. Because Mencken was not a fool does not mean that he was unprincipled. In describing a biography of himself by Earnest Boyd, he confided, “Boyd’s book is certainly not bad, But he overlooked two things. First the fact that my whole body of doctrine rests upon a belief in liberty. Second, that I am far more an artist than a metaphysician.”

These two statements summarize a great deal of what one may expect to find in the Letters of H.L. Mencken. True, he is no political philosopher in the technical sense, but neither are most so-called intellectuals, past or present. Mencken was as he himself insisted, a “newspaperman.” He is primarily an interpreter of human actions and especially of human character. And this, alas, is a highly subjective business, far closer to the hit and miss judgements of a Dr. Johnson than the precise categories of a Kant. He supplements his disinclination for abstractions with historical understanding and practical experience. These he proceeds to expound in a robust and forceful prose style. His science is not philosophy but rhetoric in the classical Greco-Roman sense. And of this, he was truly a master.

His commitment to individualism governed his thinking on both culture and politics. “I believe that each first rate man like each work of art is unique,” he wrote. These opinions seem to have been formed by his early reading of Nietzsche, or perhaps, as others insist, they were congenital. His attraction to Shaw, Conrad, Dreiser et al. was founded more on their boldness than on any intrinsic critical merits of their work. Politically, he believed that government in general (and democracy in particular) constitutes a conspiracy of the inept against the superior individuals of the race. It is, as he remarks elsewhere, “the natural enemy of all decent and productive men.” He made the art of burlesquing it a favorite subject in his letters, which is one of the many virtues of this collection.