essays

Mar 1, 1978

A Festschrift of Insults

“Republication of the Schimpflexicon is a fitting tribute, a festschrift which Mencken would have welcomed.”

Menckeniana: A Schimpflexicon, ed. by Haardt and Mencken, Octagon, New York, 132 pp., $9.50.

After many years of inaccessibility, Sara Haardt Mencken’s unique tribute to her husband is back in print. Menckeniana: A Schimpflexicon (from der Schimpf, an insult) is a collection of some of the most vicious, ridiculous and unintentionally hilarious attacks ever printed. The contributors to this slim volume range from fever-swamp bible-bangers to KKKers to professors of literature, and they damn Mencken for every sin imaginable. These sins—real and imagined—include atheism, Germanism, libertarianism, Judaism, having a foreign name, Bolshevism, Toryism, loose living, diabolism, vulgarity, rum and Romanism, and being the Antichrist in the flesh. These carefully selected insults, complete with authors and sources, are arranged by topic, including zoological (“polecat,” “howling hyena,” “maggot,” etc.); genealogical “hunnish,” “a Negro by inclination if not by birth,” “Neanderthal,” etc.); statesman; critic; writer; ex cathedra; as an American; and so on.

Along with the predictably vitriolic religious fanatics, from the Chautauqua Yahoos of the Bible Belt to the orthodox right reverends in their pulpits, we are presented with a panoply of opponents of common sense, free thought and freedom— from the American Legion, to trendy Veblenites, to chiropractors, to single taxers, to republicans, to rotarians, to the Anti-Saloon League, to the Chicago Worker (“one of [capitalism’s] staunchest defenders … tells many lies and many more platitudes”), to one Rev. McConnell, writing in the Oklahoma City News (“A Radical Red. It’s a wonder decent people haven’t risen up and lynched him.”).

The Schimpflexicon was the product of Sara Haardt’s diligent search through the thousands of articles on Mencken and “Menckenism” which spewed forth from all over the country. The collection was arranged by Mencken and Haardt and published by Alfred A. Knopf, Mencken’s lifelong friend and the publisher of Mencken’s books and magazines, the Smart Set and the American Mercury. The introduction, signed only “The Publisher,” states: “Himself given to somewhat acidulous utterance, he [Mencken] has probably been denounced more vigorously and at greater length than any other American of his time, not even excepting Henry Ford, Robert M. LaFollette, Clarence Darrow, and Sacco and Vanzetti. Here there is room only to offer some salient specimens of this anti-Mencken invective—mainly single sentences or phrases torn from their incandescent context. Some were chosen for their wit—for there are palpable hits among them!—some for their blistering ferocity, and some for their charming idiocy.”

The examples chosen for this cornucopia of vituperation range from frustrating stupidity to blind hatred:

• “Mencken is connected with the New York World, the attitude of which toward Romanism and Rum the reader should know full well. From his name, he seems to be a Jew, or at least a German, and recently in an Alabama daily he was sneering at Genesis.”(Alabama Christian Advocate)

• “A MONUMENTAL jackass. A liar supreme. A bomb-thrower. His loyalty during the late war was questionable.” (The Easton [Maryland] Star);

• “When H. L. Mencken assails the Rotarian of today he is attacking the American people.” (Rabbi Louis Binstock, the Charleston [W. Virginia] Gazette)

For his brilliant posthumous attack on one of history’s most sanctimonious, puffed-up, demagogic wind-bags, William Jennings Bryan, (“If the fellow was sincere, then so was P. T. Barnum.”), Mencken earned the lofty contempt of Iowa’s Cascade Pioneer: “Of such a man this bloodless vivisectionist would viciously dismember with play of words and phrases and destroy the memory of the honorable American citizen as he lies dead, and strike at him with the fell purpose of destroying the ideals of men who believe in something dearer than the beliefs of the Darwins and the Darrows and the Menckens, and all that tribe of scoffers and scorners, who seek to make of the world as Godless chaos.”

Then there was Professor Edwin Sim, writing in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, who took up the cudgel for the man who tricked us into war: “What can be said of a man like Mencken who, in the presence of the broken body and spirit of the still living Woodrow Wilson, could refer to him frequently as ‘the late Woodrow’?” What indeed? Only that Mencken had been legally barred from the mails by Wilson’s war censorship, and had not been taken in by his tenuous claim to civility; that he saw Wilson for the wicked, little war-monger that he was, willing to sacrifice countless lives for his insipid yet fanatical Anglophilia.

Octagon has, in recent years, reprinted a veritable treasury of Mencken. Other Mencken works which have been rescued from inaccessibility and reprinted in library editions (in the original type, printed on cream paper, bound in sturdy, red cloth) include Treatise on Right and Wrong, Notes on Democracy, In Defense of Women, A Book of Prefaces, The Bathtub Hoax and other Blasts and Bravos, and the entire six volumes of Mencken’s famous Prejudices.Republication of the Schimpflexicon is a fitting tribute, a festschrift which Mencken would have welcomed.