essays

Dec 2, 1980

The Sage at 100

Jeff Riggenbach honors the life and legacy of H. L. Mencken.

IT IS CONVENIENT TO begin, like the gentlemen of God, with a glance at a text or two. The first, a longish one, is from Huntington Cairns’s “Mencken of Baltimore,” published this year by Alfred A. Knopf as part of a festschrift called On Mencken, issued in honor of the centennial of H.L. Mencken’s birth. “Mencken,” Cairns wrote, “would live in no other city than Baltimore.”

During his lifetime many offers came to him as a newspaperman to establish a connection with some paper elsewhere, but he was never really tempted. He was deeply attached to his home,…and he saw Baltimore with the friends he made there as an extension of his home life. He observed in the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1931 that a Baltimorean was a special kind of person, he was not an average man. He was of Baltimore in the European fashion of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the best men were marked by adding their geographical localities to their names.

Not even the attraction of Periclean Athens could have taken him away from his native city, and his undying love for it despite all the changes it underwent during his lifetime is but one example of his extraordinary consistency. The unity of his thought, his work, and his life was phenomenal…. Mencken’s love for Baltimore was not only manifest, but manifold. Many times, in the Sun-papers and elsewhere, he wrote of his good fortune in having learned from its institutions, prospered from its food and drink, savored its atmosphere, suffered amiably its climate, enjoyed its people and the music he made with them and of them.

The emphasis in the last sentence of the foregoing passage is mine, not Cairns’s, but it belongs there all the same. For when Mencken wrote of his favorite city—which he did, as Cairns asserts, often—he wrote much more eloquently and at much greater length of its food and drink, and especially of its food, than of its institutions and atmosphere and climate and people. Witness his first national piece on Baltimore, the essay “Good Old Baltimore,” which appeared in the Smart Set for May 1913, when Mencken was 32. As reprinted by Cairns in On Mencken,“Good Old Baltimore” occupies 14 pages of which 7, fully half the total, are given over to culinary matters. “Even the fellow who denounces Baltimore most bitterly,” Mencken writes, “will tell you that, whatever the hunkerousness, the archaic conservatism of the Baltimoreans, they know, at all events, how to cook victuals.” Baltimore is, Mencken asserts, “by unanimous consent, the gastronomical capital of the New World.” Where else but in Baltimore, he demands, can you obtain the genuine Maryland oyster, “as large as your open hand”?

A magnificent, matchless reptile! Hard to swallow? Dangerous? Perhaps to the novice, the dastard. But to the veteran of the raw bar, the man of trained and lusty esophagus, a thing of prolonged and kaleidoscopic flavors, a slow slipping saturnalia, a delirium of joy!

And so to wax lyrical was still to say nothing of the Baltimore oyster potpie, “a poem and a passion, a dream and an intoxication, a burst of sunlight and a concord of sweet sounds.”

Oh, the mellowness of it! Oh, the yellowness of it! A rich, a nourishing, an exquisite dish! A pearl of victualry, believe me, and not for swine. The man who appreciates and understands it, who penetrates to the depths of its perfection, who feels and is moved by those nuances which transfigure it and sublimate it and so lift it above all other potpies under the sun—that man is…no mere footman of metabolism.

This, as I say, was in 1913. A quarter-century later, in the third chapter of Happy Days, the first volume of his autobiography, Mencken devoted 19 pages to a fond description of “The Baltimore of the Eighties.” And again, he devoted half his space to food and drink, especially food. He declared in his very first paragraph that Baltimore’s “indigenous victualry was unsurpassed in the Republic” during the last years of the nineteenth century, and that this fact was universally acknowledged by travel-book writers of the period. “Baltimore lay very near the immense protein factory of Chesapeake Bay,” he continued at the beginning of his second paragraph, “and out of the bay it ate divinely.” What followed was 2500 words of rhapsodic prose on the glories of Baltimore crabs, terrapin, oysters, vegetables, and beer.

There’s simply no getting around it. Baltimore was to H.L. Mencken as Los Angeles was to Raymond Chandler or Dublin was to James Joyce: the foundation of his literary character, the seminal element in the complex and brilliant personality whose distinctive voice seems to deliver Mencken’s many works like so many sardonic orations. And to H.L. Mencken, Baltimore was food.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Mencken also saw a good deal more than the city of Baltimore in culinary terms. Is he famous as a critic of literature? “There is,” he wrote in 1917, in one of the best known of his literary articles,

no such thing as a flawless masterpiece. Long labored, it may be gradually enriched with purple passages—the high inspirations of widely separated times crowded together—but even so it will remain spotty, for those purple passages will be clumsily joined, and their joints will remain as apparent as so many false teeth. Only the most elementary knowledge of physiology is needed to show the cause of this zig-zagging. It lies in the elemental fact that the chemical constitution of the blood changes every hour, almost every minute. What it is at the beginning of digestion is not what it is at the end of digestion, and in both cases it is enormously affected by the nature of the substances digested. No man, within twenty-four hours after eating a meal in a Pennsylvania Railroad dining car, could conceivably write anything worth reading. A tough beefsteak, I daresay, has ditched many a promising sonnet, and bad beer, as everyone knows, has spoiled hundreds of sonatas. Thus inspiration rises and falls, and even when it rises twice to the same height it usually shows some qualitative difference—there is the inspiration, say, of Spring vegetables and there is the inspiration of Autumn fruits.

“Man is what he eats,” Feuerbach wrote in 1850—and so, therefore, are his books. “Some books,” as Francis Bacon put it in 1597, “are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” I cite both aphorisms as they appear in A New Dictionary of Quotations, selected and edited (1942) by H.L. Mencken.

Is Mencken famous as a music lover, amateur musician, and writer on musical subjects? “The genuine music-lover,” he wrote in 1918, “may accept the carnal husk of opera to get at the kernel of actual music within, but that is no sign that he approves the carnal husk or enjoys gnawing through it.” Seven years later, in a letter to a friend, he passed along his sister’s recipe for “chicken a la Creole” and recommended the dish for its ability to “produce an agreeable melancholy, like the music of Chopin.”

Is Mencken famous as a detractor of democracy? “Democracy,” he wrote, in one of his most characteristic utterances on the subject,

is that system of government under which the people, having 60,000,000 native-born adult whites to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out a Coolidge to be head of the state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies.

Is Mencken famous as a critic of American culture? The reason is nowhere so plainly on display as in his 1927 essay on “Victualry as a Fine Art”:

What ails our victualry, principally, is the depressing standardization that ails everything else American…. The American hotel meal is as rigidly standardized as the parts of a Ford, and so is the American restaurant meal…. The bill-of-fare is the same everywhere, and nowhere is it interesting. Within the past year I have been in the heart of New England and in the heart of the South. In both places the hotels offered the same standardized cuisine. In neither was there any culinary sign that I was not in Chicago or New York.

What Mencken demanded of cookery, in the end, was the same thing he demanded of everything and everyone else: that it be individual, that it be unabashedly, unapologetically itself—which is why his work is so astoundingly all of a piece, and why his philosophy of cookery is, in effect, his philosophy of life. And why not? As James Boswell puts it, on page 221 of Mencken’s Dictionary of Quotations, “Man is a cooking animal. The beasts have memory, judgment, and all the faculties and passions of our mind, in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook.” And whatever a man may cook up, be it a plate of scrambled eggs, a novel, a symphony, or a critical essay, he should season it, whether with herbs and spices or with his own distinctive personality, his own unique perspective on life, until he achieves a blend that is unmistakably his, a piece of work that fits him “tightly and yet ever so loosely, as his skin fits him… which is, in fact, quite as securely an integral part of him as that skin is,” a piece of work which is an “outward and visible symbol” of the man who made it.

Mencken certainly seasoned his own work in this fashion; over-seasoned it, some would say. It was not for nothing he was known as the Sage of Baltimore. And the sheer, mind-numbing volume of his output! The prodigy of it! By his own estimate, he produced “well beyond 5,000,000 words” of published copy in a career that lasted half a century. A little old fashioned long division will tell you that that reflects an average output of about 100,000 words per year, enough words to fill every page of a 333-page volume every year for 50 years. A shelf of books at least six feet long, and each and every one of them so highly seasoned, such a bracing, invigorating, exquisitely idiosyncratic blend of literary hot peppers, fresh mint leaves, and more than a dash of bitter herbs, that American literature has never recovered from the shock of the very first taste. Mencken wrote in 1948 that a good deal of the 5,000,000 words he had ushered into print were devoted to “journalism pure and simple—dead almost before the ink which printed it was dry. But I certainly do not regret that I gave so much of my time and energy, especially in my earlier years, to this journalism, for I had a swell time concocting it, and in its day it got some attention.”

That it certainly did. By 1920, when Mencken’s career as a professional writer was scarcely two decades old, his dispatches in the Baltimore Sun, the New York Evening Mail, and his monthly magazine, The Smart Set, had made his name a household word, had seen him denounced from pulpits and state legislatures all over the country as a destroyer of American civilization, and had won him more than a few threats of lynching if he so much as set foot in certain states or parts of states. By 1925, college and university students nationwide were debating the proposition “that the school of thought typified by Mencken is a harmful element in American life.” By 1928, his writings had brought such a deluge of denunciation down upon him that he could collect the most vituperative and splenetic of the lot into a book of more than 130 pages and publish it (to his personal profit) under the title Menckeniana: A Scbimpflexikon.

And what was the doctrine which aroused Mencken’s critics to such spluttering paroxysms of uncontrollable rage, which scalded the sensitive palates and raised hives on the delicate skins of clergymen and teachers and literary critics and public officials from Bangor to Seattle and from San Diego to Miami? As we have seen, Mencken’s doctrine was a kind of individualism—the kind that says to the individual: be yourself, realize yourself, be true to yourself, and whatever you do, do it your way, season it liberally with your personality, and let the mob, with its muling spirit of cringing conformity and abject creative sterility, be damned! Mencken demanded an American culture teeming with diversity and individual eccentricity, and an American language and literature freed from the narrow, European-minded rules and formulae of the schoolma’ams and schoolmasters, an American literature in which unclassifiable individuality of vision and expression was the only rule, an American literature of literally innumerable genres and movements, each consisting of a single writer. As he demanded creative, individual use of spice in his cuisine, so he demanded variety in his cultural milieu. He understood, with William Cowper, whom he quoted on page 1243 of his Dictionary of Quotations, that “variety’s the very spice of life.”

He understood also that variety could endure only in a society from which government had been extracted. “I am,” he wrote in The Smart Set in 1922, “a libertarian of the most extreme variety.” He was “against jailing men for their opinions, or, for that matter, for anything else.” And he considered that the ideal government would be one “which lets the individual alone—one which barely escapes being no government at all.” He believed, he said in 1930, “that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty.” But he was not sanguine about the prospects for getting rid of government, or even for reducing it to a tolerable minimum. The ideal of a government which barely escapes being no government at all, he said, “will be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I have passed from these scenes and taken up my public duties in Hell.” He was even dubious about the prospects of personal freedom in Hell. “The religion of Hell is patriotism,” he quoted on page 528 of his Dictionary of Quotations, citing as author his old friend James Branch Cabell, “and the government is an enlightened democracy.”

And if we look closely at the America Mencken observed and wrote about during his best years, the three decades between 1910 and 1940, it is hard not to sympathize with his pessimism. “Ask the average American,” he wrote in 1920,

what is the salient passion in his emotional armamentarium—what is the idea that lies at the bottom of all his other ideas—and it is very probable that, nine times out of ten, he will nominate his hot and unquenchable rage for liberty. He regards himself, indeed, as the chief exponent of liberty in the whole world, and all its other advocates as no more than his followers, half timorous and half envious. To question his ardour is to insult him as grievously as if one questioned the honor of the republic or the chastity of his wife. And yet it must be plain to any dispassionate observer that this ardour, in the course of a century and a half, has lost a large part of its old burning reality and descended to the estate of a mere phosphorescent superstition. The American of today, in fact, probably enjoys less personal liberty than any other man of Christendom, and even his political liberty is fast succumbing to the new dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful and others abhorrent and felonious. Laws limiting the radius of his free activity multiply year by year: it is now practically impossible for him to exhibit anything describable as genuine individuality, either in action or in thought, without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty.

“In no other country in the world,” he continued a few pages later in the same long, satisfying, and too-often neglected essay (his “Preface” to The American Credo), “is there so ferocious a short way with dissenters; in none other is it socially so costly to heed the inner voice and to be one’s own man.”

Did his readers desire examples? Mencken had them, and in plenitude. “The Boobus americanus,” he wrote,

is led and watched over by zealous men, all of them highly skilled at training him in the way that he should think and act. The Constitution of his country guarantees that he shall be a free man and assumes that he is intelligent, but the laws and customs that have grown up under that Constitution give the lie to both the guarantee and the assumption. It is the fundamental theory of all the more recent American law, in fact, that the average citizen is half-witted, and hence not to be trusted to either his own devices or his own thoughts. If there were not regulations against the saloon (it seems to say) he would get drunk every day, dissipate his means, undermine his health and beggar his family. If there were not postal regulations as to his reading matter, he would divide his time between Bolshevist literature and pornographic literature and so become at once an anarchist and a guinea pig. If he were not forbidden under heavy penalties to cross a state line with a wench, he would be chronically unfaithful to his wife. Worse, if his daughter were not protected by statutes of the most draconian severity, she would succumb to the first Italian she encountered, yield up her person to him, enroll herself upon his staff and go upon the streets. So runs the course of legislation in this land of freedom.

As a longtime newspaperman, Mencken knew first hand what he was talking about. He had seen the effects of laws regulating private conduct and had seen their enforcement “by police who supply the chance gaps in them extempore, and exercise that authority in the best manner of prison guards, animal trainers and drill sergeants.” He had himself been transformed into a criminal by the enactment of Prohibition in January of 1920. And within six more years he would himself be arrested and jailed in Boston for selling subversive literature, namely, a copy of his magazine, The American Mercury. A decade before, his commentary on American foreign policy had been indirectly but very effectively silenced by government when a series of vigorous prosecutions of outspoken activists and writers who, like Mencken, opposed U.S. participation in World War I, frightened the Baltimore Sunpapers into dropping him as a columnist for the duration of the conflict. Mencken hated laws against what today would be called victimless crimes, and he hated them for good and personal reasons. It is hardly surprising, then, that he devoted so much of his energy during the 1920s to lampooning and vilifying them. At the time, such laws were arguably the greatest clear and present danger to the freedom of Americans.

But times change. With the 1930s came repeal of Prohibition, a new freedom for writers to express themselves as they liked—and the New Deal and a growing threat of American involvement in another European war. As a libertarian, Mencken reasoned that meddling in a man’s business was just as heinous a violation of individual freedom as meddling in a man’s private life. And he knew that taking a man’s money and using it to finance an orgy of destruction and murder profits nobody but government; he knew that war is both the health of the state and the plague of civilization.

Saying so in print, however, made him more enemies, and more vociferous ones, than anything he had written in the ’teens and ’twenties. If his name had been notorious then, it became anathema in the ’thirties and ’forties. Not a few of his less scrupulous detractors tried to use his opposition to American involvement in World War II as evidence that he was a racist, and specifically an advocate of anti-Semitism. Many of them bolstered their arguments with out-of-context references to Mencken’s pet distinction between “the superior man,” the natural aristocrat, and the mob, “the undifferentiated herd.” One or two of them, like the detestable Charles Angoff, bolstered their arguments with “remembered”—that is, invented—snatches of Mencken’s conversation. All of them, however they cooked up their arguments, were wrong. Mencken believed that some men were better than others, all right, but not on account of such accidents as their race or their color or their nationality or their religious background or their socio/economic class. He believed that some men were better than others because some men were more competent and creative than others. But he believed in freedom for everybody. He believed that progress was possible “only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say.” And he saw that “the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men.”

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Fortunately, times have changed again since the days when all this was so grievously misunderstood. Mencken’s idea that a man should do his own thing and be left alone about it, that he should realize himself and leave others unmolested to realize themselves is fast becoming the conventional wisdom. His libertarian doctrine that that government is best which governs least grows daily in respectability and influence, as does his belief that “in the long run all battles are lost, and so are all wars.” And his own books are coming back into popular favor.

To my way of thinking, this is exactly as it should be. I believe that H.L. Mencken had a clearer vision of life, that he came nearer to its elementals and was less deceived by its false appearances, than any other American who has ever presumed to manufacture generalizations, not excepting Emerson, Thoreau, or even Mark Twain. I believe that, admitting all his defects, he wrote better English, in the sense of cleaner, straighter, vivider, saner English, than either Melville or James. I believe that four of his works—The American Language, the Prejudices,Notes on Democracy, and The Days of H.L. Mencken—are alone worth more, as works of art and as criticisms of life, than the whole combined output of Hawthorne, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow. I believe that he ranks well above Hemingway and certainly not below Poe or Miller or Faulkner. He was one of the great writers of all time, the full equal of Cervantes and Dickens, Swift and Oscar Wilde. He was and is one of the few authentic world-class giants of our national literature.

How could it be otherwise? Before technological advance displaced it from its role as a preservative, sage was used, like many other spices, not only to make dishes individual in flavor, but also to make them last. And the spicy, everlastingly individual flavor the Sage of Baltimore put into his books not only made them unmistakably his; it also made them endure. We celebrate this year the centennial of his birth. He would have been 100 years old September 12, had he lived. But it is no matter that Mencken has been dead this past quarter-century. His works live. Like old wine or old cheese, they only improve with age. And like the oysters of his native Baltimore, they are things of prolonged and kaleidoscopic flavors; they are nourishing and exquisite dishes. They are pearls of literature, believe me, and not for swine.

Jeff Riggenbach is executive editor of LR.