Mencken undiluted

R. Emmett Tyrell Jr, writing in The Wall Street Journal, is not impressed with the work of H.L. Mencken’s collected Prejudices series, which the Library of America has republished in two volumes and to which i have been devoting a little time every evening.

That the work is uneven, as Mr. Tyrrell, complains, cannot be denied. But even some of the articles casually tossed off contain glimmers of the echt Mencken.

Consider “Star-Spangled Men,” an essay on Americans’ fondness for the titles and gaudy vestments of the “Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows, Red Men. Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Knights Templar, Patriarchs Militant, Elks, Moose, Woodmen of the World, Foresters, Hoo-Hoos, Ku Kluxers”:

“There is an undertaker in Hagerstown, Md., who has been initiated eighteen times. When he robes himself to plant a fellow joiner he weighs three hundred pounds and sparkles and flashes like the mouth of hell itself.”

A man who fails to relish a sentence like that is just insensible.

Moreover, Mencken moves on in that essay to imagine the sashes, ribbons, and medallions that might be awarded to the patriots who, during the First World War, purged the curriculum of German language and literature, forced people out of their jobs, and informed on their neighbors during Attorney General Palmer’s Red Scare. Let the reader translate the sentiment to the present.

I have also admired “The Husbandman” since I encountered it at the callow age of eighteen. Mr. Tyrrell disparages it as a mere attack on farmers, but it is, of course, more than that. It is an attack on the militant fundamentalism that manifested itself in the Scopes Monkey Trial and William Jennings Bryan’s attempt to harness evangelical resentment for political ends:

“The mountebank, Bryan, after years of preying upon the rustics on the promise that he would show them how to loot the cities by wholesale and a outrance, now reverses his collar proposes to lead them in a jehad against what remains of American intelligence, already beleaguered in a few walled towns.”

Perhaps Mr. Tyrrell is more in sympathy with Mencken’s targets than with Mencken himself. At any event, he has my sympathy for having trudged through a thousand pages of prose of which he appears to have little or no appreciation.

If you would like to read a more sensitive review, I commend to you the article by Katherine A. Powers at Ms. Powers acknowledges that a few of the essays are “dull and stupid.” But, she says, “Mencken's flair for contumely and comic rancor are intoxicating, even to one who disagrees with him more than half of the time.”



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