Magazine | January 23, 2017, Issue

The Soul of Mencken

Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken, by D. G. Hart (Eerdmans, 272 pp., $26)

To appreciate this book, one has to try to project oneself back to an America where people of faith, instead of being on the defensive, dominated public life and culture. Henry Louis Mencken (1880–1956) considered himself the defender of all who felt oppressed by moralistic Christians. He railed against the reformers of his time: “a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen” who adopted a federal income tax, got the United States into armed conflicts, quashed unconventional opinions, prosecuted novels for obscenity, and wouldn’t allow Mencken or his friends to legally buy or drink beer.

D. G. Hart, a history professor at Hillsdale College, has a feel for the sheer range of Mencken’s work. Legendary for his productivity, Mencken was equally at ease reporting on crime, floods, and fires in his native Baltimore and assessing the work of such emerging fiction writers as Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, and Joseph Conrad. Not just his ebullient and well-crafted prose, but also his refusal to limit his subject matter, made him a pioneer of punditry. The young Mencken edited one Baltimore newspaper, then moved to another, becoming a columnist — he more or less invented the form — for the Baltimore Evening Sun while simultaneously co-editing a New York literary journal and writing freelance pieces for The Nation and other magazines. He then collected his columns, essays, and reviews, and published these collections as books — which no writer had done before, according to Hart.

The “Sage of Baltimore” excoriated his countrymen for their lack of culture. At the same time, he was irked by the “genteel tradition” of Anglo-Saxon Protestants: In the pages of The Smart Set and later The American Mercury, he championed realism and sexual frankness in fiction as a way of poking the genteel tradition in the eye. What makes these two stances consistent is that the German-American Mencken followed Continental models in art, literature, and politics. He wrote an admiring, but shallow, study of Friedrich Nietzsche, and his pro-German stance led him to oppose America’s entry into the First World War. (The Kaiser even wrote him a fan letter from exile after the war.)

Hart speaks of “Mencken’s bad-boy swagger” and the lapidary skill with which he went after “Puritan smugness and cocksureness.” Yet Hart wishes to correct a certain view of Mencken. Nonbelievers “seldom picked up on (and still don’t) Mencken’s praise for Christians when they deserved it,” he writes. Not only did Mencken admire certain aspects of G. K. Chesterton’s work and maintain cordial friendships with several clergymen, he simply wasn’t the worshiper of science that today’s secular humanists might assume he was. Psychology, for example, got the back of his hand: He called it “guesswork, empiricism, hocus-pocus, poppycock.” Nor did he defend advocates of birth control because he was a big fan of birth control; he did it, says Hart, because the birth controllers were subject to coercive government action.

Damning Words is part of a religious-biography series from Eerdmans, the well-known Christian publisher. Its author wants to explore “the way an agnostic tried to make sense of Protestant hegemony in the United States” and to show that a fierce critic of religious believers was also at times a nuanced one, offering more-intelligent arguments and observations than those we hear from today’s secular, progressive Left. Hart doesn’t try to claim Mencken for Christianity — he makes elaborate disclaimers in that regard — but he does try to draw Mencken closer to what he calls “the Augustinian tradition,” a hard-headed recognition of “human sinfulness and the incapacity of men and women to overcome its consequences.”

Hart says that Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian, “embodied Puritanism as Mencken understood it” — not only its “pinched aesthetic” (its inability to appreciate beauty) but its new reform impulse, which led the Christians of modern America to jettison their understanding of original sin. Confusingly, we are told elsewhere in the book that it was the Baptists and the Methodists (not the Presbyterians) who most typified the “new Puritanism” for Mencken. (He wanted Democratic governor Al Smith of New York, a Roman Catholic, to win the presidential election of 1928 “if only to rebuke ‘the Methodist-Baptist tyranny which now oppresses the Republic.’”) Harry Emerson Fosdick, whom Hart calls “arguably the nation’s most popular liberal preacher,” also enters this account; it was, writes Hart, Fosdick’s “uncritical support for democracy” that made him ditch the recognition of original sin.

The confusion continues with the appearance in Damning Words of William Jennings Bryan — whose Wikipedia entry associates him with every religious denomination mentioned in the previous paragraph save Roman Catholicism and who, in prosecuting John T. Scopes for teaching evolution in Tennessee in 1925, went down in history as the major Bible-believing punching bag of H. L. Mencken. Bryan believed in original sin, didn’t he? The legal, political, and social fiasco that was Prohibition received the support of Bryan, and of many Progressives and Protestants. But then, Woodrow Wilson, as president, vetoed the version of it that came to his desk (the Volstead Act; the veto was overridden by Congress). In trying to put this all together, we might have to say that Protestantism did not sit well with H. L. Mencken because it was too hard and judgmental (Bryan) and also because it was too soft (Fosdick). The only thing this Jewish reader came away certain of was that Hart, a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, finds Mencken’s critique — or critiques — of certain Protestant denominations congenial because he, Hart, has much to say in objection to these denominations.

The self-righteousness of Bryan, Wilson, and Wilson’s fellow Progressive Theodore Roosevelt certainly comes through in the entertaining Mencken rants that are included here. Mencken himself did not avoid a certain kind of self-righteousness — this book does not omit the unfair, even foolish, judgments he committed to paper. Yet the author winds up offering Mencken as a potential antidote for what has gone wrong with Christianity in America, which boils down to its general lack of realism about this fallen world. Hart laments that “Christians see only the best in people”; they could use a dose of Menckenian pessimism. Hart would like people of faith in the United States, instead of getting sucked into ideas of utopian social reform, or campaigns to ban alcohol or promote prayer and the reading of Scripture in the public schools, to turn inward and weigh their own shortcomings. To his sorrow, Christianity in America “morphed into a form of moralism and uplift, a sense that believers were more virtuous than unbelievers, and that the goal of the churches was to make more people ethical and thereby add to human flourishing. Mencken saw through that [and viewed it as] an abandonment of historic Christianity.”

There are, in this outside observer’s opinion, American Christians who do not consider themselves more virtuous than unbelievers. Granted, I can’t prove this. I do know that when Hart writes of his desire that Americans reassess the “assumption that religion unites” — that they reassess the validity of their “civil religion,” in his phrase — he goes off track. America’s “civil religion” doesn’t so much unite as it sets boundaries to the ways that disunity — which he correctly says is inevitable — can be expressed.

The first reference to “Christian Europe’s endless pursuit of war” comes four pages from the end of Damning Words. Why is the Old World’s sectarian strife downplayed? Because properly acknowledging it would draw attention to something the book never mentions: that those vapid Methodists, in America, do not set up artillery pieces in front of the rectory to shell the houses of worship of the uncouth Baptists, Episcopalians, Seventh-day Adventists, Catholics, Jews, or anybody else. The refraining from violence has everything to do with the civil religion that is so negatively portrayed in this book.

No doubt Mencken didn’t attend to this contrast between the Old World and the New, either. Least credible of all, when it comes to Hart’s Mencken, is the bending of this portrait of the journalist into the perfect agnostic to encourage a recovery of genuine Christianity. It is good to know that Mencken, especially later in his life, “displayed a sensitivity to matters of faith that his skeptical fans often overlooked.” It is quite right for Hart to set atheists straight about one of their heroes, who happens to have been more open-minded than they are. But “Mencken’s brand of self-skepticism” and “healthy dose of self-deprecation,” which, if emulated, might lend weight to one’s ruminations on these matters — these traits of Saint HLM just do not ring true. Mencken was skeptical about the world and the people in it, but, for the most part, he did not turn that skepticism inward. He once observed, Hart points out, that cynics are “among the most comfortable and serene of mammals; perhaps only bishops, pet dogs, and actors are happier.” As for the traces of self-deprecation, they are there to charm his readers, a tool in the toolbox of an often beguiling writer.

He was famous for being the opposite of brooding or introspective: This most productive and resourceful of writers admitted to finding writing lonely. And finally, the sufferings that Mencken endured after having a stroke at the age of 68, poignantly described by Hart, apparently led him to say: “It really is an outrage to be sick like this.” We read searing passages about a man who could no longer read or write. They allow us to form our own opinion of this parting shot, from Hart, at American Protestants gone soft: that “the people who took hope from the Christian message were far worse equipped to deal with the hardships of human existence than was Mencken.” Count me skeptical.

– Lauren Weiner is the associate editor of Law and Liberty (www.libertylawsite.org).

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