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A second look at Mencken


Northhampton, Mass. -- OVER THE YEARS, though at different times of my life, two of my journalistic heroes have been former Evening Sun iconoclast H. L. Mencken and Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould, who is both a scientist and a superb science writer. But not until recently had I suspected a connection between the two. That's because their subject matter is so disparate -- or so I had thought.

Then, in an unexpected way, Mr. Gould helped me to begin the process of looking more closely at Mencken, and I ended up almost taking the latter off my heroes' list, even of relegating him to the mental bin in which I keep people whose ideas offend me the most, like Rush Limbaugh. There is so much I still find admirable about the many-faceted Mencken, however, that I didn't quite do that. But I came close.

This is not so much because of the anti-Semitism Mencken sometimes betrayed in the diaries published in 1990 (although that is a factor) but more because of a feature that could have been seen all along, but rarely was. Mencken biographers have tiptoed around it for decades. It is a particularly virulent brand of social Darwinism, manifested in Mencken's dislike for the ordinary people he liked to call "the booboisie." He included in his indictment alleged political panderers to the "boobs" such as William Jennings Bryan and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Mencken was most influential in the '20s -- more even than Mr. Limbaugh is today -- but millions of Americans, including myself, were still reading him decades later. I loved especially his scathing contempt for preachers and thought police of all stripes -- from New England Puritans and Bible Belt fundamentalists to inflated pedagogues and pompous Rotarians. He was a self-described Dionysian who loved pilsner beer and despised Prohibitionists and other moralistic party-poopers. At times -- as in his attacks on the notorious red-baiter, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer -- he even seemed to represent a degree of progressive thought. It was great fun romping with Mencken through this hagiography, and that was what I had remembered about him.

Mr. Gould, on the other hand, writes about such arcane subjects as, say, the question of whether geological events happened very slowly or with catastrophic rapidity (a question largely resolved now in favor of the latter, in part by Johns Hopkins scientists). One specialty of his is Darwinian evolution; such issues as the speed of geological events have a bearing on how evolution happens.

But he also often writes about public policy issues related to science, and he has become probably the leading U.S. opponent of social Darwinism, the belief (to point to a feature which obsessed Mencken during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency) that social programs are useless because "genetically unfit" recipients won't improve even if their environments are improved.

And now for the connection. In November 1987, Mr. Gould's regular column in Natural History magazine was devoted to defending William Jennings Bryan, a "populist" Democratic presidential candidate (in 1896, 1900 and 1908) who late in life took up the Christian fundamentalist cause of "creationism" in opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution -- and who, for years, was at the top of Mencken's list of political "quacks and mountebanks."

For "populist," I think it is fair to read "liberal." Bryan opposed U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, supported women's suffrage, was solidly behind a graduated income tax and wanted the United States to stay out of World War I (indeed, he resigned as Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state over that issue).

Mr. Gould sought to learn how Bryan's transition to fundamentalism could occur, and he found a persuasive explanation: Bryan never actually gave up his liberal views; rather he believed his anti-evolution stance was a natural extension of them. Scientifically unsophisticated, he had failed to make a distinction between respectable Darwinian science and its pseudo-scientific cousin, social Darwinism, and he opposed both.

Bryan had been spurred to join the anti-evolution cause by learning of German social Darwinism, a particularly virulent version of this doctrine which justified military destruction of evolutionarily "unfit" cultures long before Adolf Hitler ever came on the scene. Although Mr. Gould agrees with Mencken that Bryan's opposition to legitimate Darwinian science was a "Yahoo" stance, he admires Bryan's opposition to social Darwinism.

I had read Mr. Gould's column on Bryan (in which Mencken was only briefly mentioned) at the time it appeared and I found it compelling enough to alter my views on Bryan; but I didn't pursue the Mencken connection any further at the time.

But I did remember Mencken's savage attacks on Bryan. Indeed, many Americans since 1925 when Bryan died -- five days after the end of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in which he was a special prosecutor -- have believed he was a charlatan; that's due, by in large, to Mencken's brilliantly crafted invective in The Evening Sun -- not only in his coverage of the John T. Scopes trial but also in his Bryan obituary column. Scopes was a schoolteacher who taught the theory of evolution in defiance of Tennessee law. He was convicted and fined but the rulings were later reversed.

Spurred by the Gould article, I recently reviewed a larger sampling of Mencken's work, and I am appalled. His writings are profoundly undemocratic, cruelly so, to the point where he called the 25 percent of American working people out of jobs in the Great Depression "the incompetent unemployed" of whom the hangman "could make a quick and durable job." He labelled desperate farmers in the Great Plains "the anthropoids of the dust bowl," and he attacked FDR's proposal for Social Security in high dudgeon (even though a distant Mencken relative, Germany's Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, had introduced Europe's first Social Security system in the 19th century).

In his coverage of a revival meeting near Dayton, Tenn., at the time of the Scopes trial, Mencken had described praying, laying on of hands and speaking in tongues as "barbaric grotesqueries" practiced by "half-wits" -- and then presumed to describe these comments as "anthropology."

A perennial object of Mencken's invective were white Southern sharecroppers, and when he wrote about them he rarely failed to mention their endemic hookworm infestation as a way of pointing to their backwardness. That is a vintage social Darwinist trick, of course. Somehow, susceptibility to poverty-related diseases such as hookworm (and pellagra, which is caused by a dietary deficiency) were seen by social Darwinists as evidence of genetic defects.

Mencken had established a scholarly reputation with a 1907 book on the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who had furnished much of the philosophical fuel for the German social Darwinism that so repulsed Bryan. Nietzsche was a many-faceted thinker, but Mencken chose to emphasize his social Darwinism, which he found highly praiseworthy. It seems clear this informed his thinking during much of his life.

Bryan said he believed "that love rather than hatred is the law of development," and Stephen Jay Gould thinks he probably was sincere. That may be what Mencken most disliked about him.

Richard H. Gilluly was an editorial writer for The Sun for 12 years in the 1970s and 1980s. He writes from Massachusetts.

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