WASHINGTON — Can you believe it? In the public prints, I have been called a “pipsqueak” and a “self-important pipsqueak” at that. The scene of the crime is the current Forbes magazine. The felon is Jonathan Yardley, an elderly book critic at the Washington Post. Yardley was asked by Forbes if any of the “current crop of right-wing pundits” is comparable to H.L. Mencken, the editor and critic best known for his work in the 1920s. I was referred to along with Ann Coulter (who apparently told CNN in 2006 that she is “the right-wing Mencken”), Mark Steyn, and P.J. O’Rourke. Yardley went on to say, “I don’t respect a single one of them, much less think that a single one of them deserves to be compared to H.L.M.”
I have read Yardley for years, often finding him informative though occasionally disingenuous. Certainly his disapproval of “self-importance” is disingenuous. When he hands down his judgments the organ music is rumbling in his head, the incense filling the room — the holy man hath spoken. As for the comparisons of me with Mencken, I would have thought that my appraisal of him seven years back would have disqualified me for further consideration. In The American Spectator I reviewed a couple of convincing biographies of “the Sage” and concluded that he was a very amusing, albeit wrong-headed, writer of brilliant prose, who by the 1930s “had become an anti-Semite, a racist, and a reactionary crank.” Yet, he was also a fine philologist and editor. The American Mercury, which he founded in 1924 with George Jean Nathan and Alfred A. Knopf, was an exhilarating departure from the musty magazines that preceded it, and the Mercury allowed him to become America’s first celebrity intellectual.
He was pronounced by the likes of Walter Lippmann and the editors of the New York Times as a powerful intellectual force. “The most powerful private citizen in the United States,” is how the Times put it. Still, after championing a wave of novelists in the 1920s and celebrating the musical masters of the 18th and 19th centuries, he showed no taste for later literary movements and almost no interest in any of the other arts. During years when Eliot, Pound, and Yeats were at work, Mencken dismissed poetry as “beautiful balderdash.”
Despite access to some of the finest minds of his time (he died in 1956, age 75), he missed practically every important historic current swirling around him. Though he claimed great interest in science, there is little evidence that he recognized the wonders on the horizon. He also missed the rise and fall of dictatorship, and dismissed democracy’s challenge to the dictators as demagoguery. Hitler struck him as “a shabby ass” and an Austrian William Jennings Bryan. As he saw it, World War II was “a wholly dishonorable and ignominious business. I believe that that will be history’s verdict upon it.” On large matters he was almost always wrong.
He was a very funny writer until his anti-democratic and anti-religious jokes overwhelmed his other jokes and lost the capacity to make readers laugh. That would be in the 1930s and 1940s. In those days he was largely out of the public eye. He attended to his great study of the American language and to notes and memoirs that did not come out until after his death, in some cases not until the 1980s and 1990s. The writings reveal an angry, often confused, bigot and crank. He did publish three merry volumes of autobiography, but they were so marbled with fictions as to suggest escapism. As was true through much of Mencken’s life, the popular press misperceived him. Time described him in 1943 as “[t]he nation’s comical, warm-spirited, outstanding village atheist.” The following year, the “warm-spirited” Sage publicly observed to the interviewer Bob Considine that World War II is “a better state than peace.” American soldiers enjoyed the war. President Roosevelt “will keep this war running at least until the end of his fourth term. He knows that if the war stops, he loses his war powers and his jobs.” That Time writer may still be at the magazine today.
As I say, on large matters Yardley’s Sage was almost always wrong. I think the best explanation for the cruelty of Mencken’s private thoughts, his bewilderment late in life, and his frequent misperception of his times, is provided by Terry Teachout, the author of a 2002 biography, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Mencken was incapable of perceiving the evil that stalks the world. The Sage, writes Teachout, “had no feeling for the darkness in the heart of man. He looked at evil and saw ignorance. To him Hitler was Babbitt run amok….”
I agree with Yardley. I am no Mencken.