Saturday, September 12, 2020

Mencken’s disagreeable character

Henry Louis Mencken, one of the most famous and controversial US journalists of the early 20th century, was born 140 years ago today. Largely self-taught as a writer, his editorials and opinion pieces for The Baltimore Sun brought him early fame. A diary he kept from the age of 50 was sealed for 25 years after his death but, on being published in the late 1980s, revealed ‘disagreeable aspects’ to his character, notably racist and anti-semitic views.

Mencken was born on 12 September 1880 into a German-American family in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of a cigar factory owner. He attended private school, and Baltimore Polytechnic, and then, rather than go to college, he joined the staff at his father’s factory, where he worked for three years. When his father died, and the factory was taken over by his uncle, Mencken left to pursue a career in journalism. He became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, and, in 1906, joined the staff of The Baltimore Sun (where he would work at intervals through the rest of his life). He soon made a name for himself writing editorials and opinion pieces. From 1914 to 1923, he coedited (with George Jean Nathan) The Smart Set, a satirical magazine influential in the growth of American literature, and from 1924 he edited American Mercury (a magazine he had also founded with Nathan).

In 1930, after a seven year courtship, Mencken married Sara Haardt, a German-American professor of English and an author 18 years his junior. Unfortunately, she died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. During the Great Depression, Mencken opposed the New Deal, which cost him popularity, as did his open contempt for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and reservations regarding US participation in World War II. Apart from journalism, Mencken wrote widely. He is perhaps best known for his monumental study, The American Language, ranked as one of the top 100 influential books in the US. He also wrote on religion, ethics, politics, literature, women, and even baby care; and he published three popular volumes of reminiscences.

Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘Mencken was probably the most influential American literary critic in the 1920s, and he often used his criticism as a point of departure to jab at various American social and cultural weaknesses. His reviews and miscellaneous essays filled six volumes aptly titled Prejudices (1919-27). In literature he fought against what he regarded as fraudulently successful writers and worked for the recognition of such outstanding newcomers as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. He jeered at American sham, pretension, provincialism, and prudery, and he ridiculed the nation’s organized religion, business, and middle class.’ He died in 1956. Further information is also available at Wikipedia and the Mencken House website.

Mencken began to keep a diary from 1930, but, for several years after his wife’s death, he rarely made any entries. It was only from the early 1940s that he started keeping it again on a regular and systematic basis. On his death, at his request, the diary - some 2,000 pages of typescript - was sealed for 25 years in the vaults of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library. It was not until 1989 that Alfred A. Knopf published The Diary of H. L. Mencken as edited by Charles A. Fecher (republished by Vintage in 2012). ‘Here, full scale,’ according to the publisher, ‘is Mencken the unique observer and disturber of American society. And here too is Mencken the human being of wildly contradictory impulses: the skeptic who was prey to small superstitions, the dare-all warrior who was a hopeless hypochondriac, the loving husband and generous friend who was, alas, a bigot. Mencken emerges from these pages unretouched - in all the often outrageous gadfly vitality that made him, at his brilliant best, so important to the intellectual fabric of American life.’

Not only a bigot, in fact, but a racist and anti-semite - see the Los Angeles Times or The Paris Review. When interviewed about his book (see C-Span), Fecher acknowledged that some people might be ‘shocked and surprised’ by the ‘disagreeable aspects’ to Mencken’s character revealed in the diary, but those who had previously known his work would surely not have been so surprised. (The book’s publication led the National Press Club to question whether it wanted to change the name of its library - hitherto the H. L. Mencken Memorial Library. Fecher argued, in the same interview, that it should not be changed given that Mencken was ‘probably the greatest American journalist’. Nevertheless, in 1990 the library was renamed the Eric Friedheim Journalism Library.) The published diary can be borrowed digitally (briefly) at Internet Archive. Here are several extracts.

6 November 1930
‘When I got to New York yesterday afternoon from West Chester, Pa., I found a message from a Swedish news agency, saying that Sinclair Lewis had been given the Nobel Prize. It was splendid news to me, for it was very bad news for all the professors. The Swedes rubbed it in by saying that, after “Babbitt,” they were chiefly impressed by “Elmer Gantry.” This book, which is dedicated to me, aroused all the pedagogues and patriots at home, and got very few good notices.

In the evening I was at the Philip Goodmans’, and they discovered that Lewis and his wife, Dorothy Thompson were in town. We called upon them at their hotel in 50th street at 11 p.m. Lewis, when we got to the hotel, was in his dressing-gown. There was a bottle of whiskey on the table, but he was fairly sober. When the Associated Press called him up with the news he thought it was a joke. Convinced at last, and asked what he had to say, he said, “Another great wet Democratic victory!” The A.P. did not send this out. He and his wife are going to Stockholm in a few weeks. After that they plan to go to Russia.

Lewis, of course, made a great mistake in not refusing the Nobel Prize, as he some time ago refused (at my suggestion) the Pulitzer Prize. If I had got to him in time I’d have tried to induce him to do so. But by the time Goodman and I arrived it was all over. Dorothy was all aglow. She would have fought my proposal, and no doubt beaten me. She married a novelist somewhat in decay, and far gone in liquor - and now finds herself the wife of a Nobel prizeman, with a triumphal tour to Sweden ahead of her.

Nathan told me today that Ralph Barton, the comic artist, lately attempted suicide by poison. He has been in a low state for months, and has done very little work. Nathan says he moans for his third wife, now married to Eugene O’Neill, and has proposed to her that she leave O’Neill and return to him. She naturally refuses. O’Neill is now rich and has a country place in France.’

11 November 1938.
‘H. R. Knickerbocker, foreign correspondent for Hearst, was in Baltimore last night delivering a lecture. I met him later, and for the first time. His appearance rather astonished me. He was born in Texas and is the son of a Protestant preacher, but he looks decidedly Jewish. He has the reddish hair of a blond Jew, along with the faint freckles and pinkish eyes.

He told me that he was well acquainted with Hitler, and used to see him relatively frequently in the days before Hitler came to power. At that time there were rumors that Hitler’s iron cross was bogus, and Knickerbocker one day ventured to ask him about it. Hitler said that he had got it in the following manner:

During the war he was a dispatch rider, and one day he was sent across a part of the front that was a kind of No Man’s Land. The Germans assumed that there were no Frenchmen in it, but when he had got half way across Hitler heard French voices and on investigation found that there were a number of Frenchmen in a dugout. Hitler approached the only entrance and barked several loud orders, hoping to convince the men within that a considerable German party was above. The trick worked, and in a few minutes Hitler had the Frenchmen coming out one by one, their hands in the air. He was armed only with a pistol, but inasmuch as they came out wholly unarmed, he was able to line them up and march them back to the German lines. It was for this exploit that he received the iron cross.

Knickerbocker said that the story was told to him in the presence of an English correspondent. When it was finished Hitler said politely: “If these Frenchmen had been either Englishmen or Americans the chances are that I’d not be here.”

Knickerbocker said that Hitler in his private relations is a very amiable fellow, and has a considerable sense of humor. But whenever he gets on public matters he begins to orate. Knickerbocker said that he’ll start in an ordinary tone of voice and that in a few minutes he’ll be howling like a stump speaker, with his arms sawing the air.

Knickerbocker is also acquainted with Mussolini. He told me that Mussolini hates Hitler violently, and will undoubtedly walk out on him at the first chance.’

16 October 1941
‘I spent a couple of hours at Schellhase’s last night with Sinclair Lewis. He is in Baltimore to put on a play called “Good Neighbor,” by Jack Levin, a 26-year-old Baltimore advertising agent. I dropped in at Ford’s to pick him up, and found him back stage in the midst of a group of actors who seemed to be mainly Yiddish. He introduced me to several of them, but I didn’t catch their names.

Lewis is on the water-wagon, and during our sitting drank nothing but iced coffee. Toward the end of the evening he asked for a plate of chocolate ice cream. After we had been at Schellhase’s for an hour or more his girl showed up. She is a young Jewess rejoicing in the name of Marcella Powers, and has a part in “Good Neighbor.” She turned out to be a completely hollow creature - somewhat good-looking, but apparently quite without intelligence. Lewis told me in her presence that he had been hanging up with her for more than a year.

Before she саmе in he said that he had left Dorothy Thompson finally a year or so ago. He said that life with her had become completely impossible. She is a born fanatic and spends all of her days in howling and ranting against the wickedness of the world. Lewis told me that this oratory finally wore him down to such a point that he had to flee.

He looks almost ghastly. His face is the dead white of a scar, and he is thin and wizened. He told me that he had a new novel under way, but said that he was in some doubt that he’d ever finish it. Its principal character is a large scale do-gooder - a former college president who sits on innumerable committees and is active in every good cause. Such an idiot, in his palmy days, would have been nuts for him, but I begin to doubt, as he apparently doubts himself, that he will be able to swing the job now. Obviously, he is in a state of mental collapse, not to mention physical decay. Long-continued drink and two wives of the utmost obnoxiousness have pretty well finished him. He seemed to be immensely delighted when I told him that both Cabell and Hergesheimer had told me at different times that they regard “Babbitt” as the best novel ever written in America.’

25 August 1943.
‘I went to Washington today to see Col. Livingston Watrous of the Army, deputy director of the Special Service Division. This division is in charge of all indoctrination work, and publishes a great variety of bulletins, papers, pamphlets and books for the soldiers. I was interested especially in its series of pamphlets on the countries that American troops are now quartered in, most of them containing sections on the local languages. Those for Australia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and Great Britain contain vocabularies of words differing in American and English. Watrous received me very politely, showed me many of the documents his men are preparing, and introduced me to some of his subordinates. He has very large quarters and a staff running to hundreds of officers and civilians. On his desk was a copy of “Heliogabalus.” He told me that he often re-read it, and asked me to autograph it, which I did.

His office is in the famous Pentagon Building at Arlington, which I saw for the first time. After the taxicab comes into sight of it there is a good mile of weaving through the maze of roads which surround it. The track doubles back on itself several times. Once inside, the visitor has to present himself at a reception desk, where very polite girls hear his business. Mine telephoned to Watrous, and then informed me that a guide would be sent down to show me to his office. She warned me that it might take the guide 15 minutes to get to the reception desk. Within ten minutes a young colored girl showed up, and I followed her along half a mile of corridors. I had been given a badge at the reception desk and had to show it when I entered the building proper. On my return I had to show it again, and also a pass that Watrous had given me, covering the pamphlets his secretary had wrapped up for me.

The Pentagon Building is so huge that it is downright comic. Also, it is extraordinarily ugly. It cost, so I have heard, more than $100,000,000, and houses nearly 100,000 jobholders. The surrounding grounds, broken up by the winding roads, are even more hideous than the building.’

3 May 1945.
‘It is a curious fact, but nevertheless a fact, that my piano technic seems to improve with age. I never practise, and seldom touch a piano save at the Saturday Night Club; in fact, the one in the house has not been opened for years. Nevertheless, I find it possible to play things today that would have stumped me a dozen years ago. Even my left hand is gaining more or less facility. In theory, the reverse should be the case, for my sight is naturally not quite as quick as it used to be, and my congenital incapacity for manual operations grows worse instead of better in other directions. But when it comes to playing second piano I am definitely better than I used to be.’

5 May 1945
‘Last night I finished reading the two volumes of the Diaries, Reminiscences and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, brought out in London in 1869, with Thomas Sadler as editor, and reprinted “from advance sheets,” by Fields, Osgood & Company of Boston the year following. So far as I know, it has never been reprinted since. I had heard of it for many years, but never came to looking into it until a few weeks ago, when I asked George Pfeffer, the old book dealer, if he had it, and he dug up a copy from his cellar. This copy was inscribed “Margaret J. Preston, 1870,” and had probably been in stock since before I was born, for Pfeffer’s predecessor, Smith, set up business in the 70’s. It turned out to be immensely interesting stuff. Robinson was a nonentity, but he had the faculty of scraping acquaintance with famous men, and with some of them he became very intimate. His recollections of Goethe, Schiller, the Schellings, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb and other eminentissimos of the early Nineteenth Century tell little about them that is unobtainable from other sources, but there are human touches that are very charming. Robinson was one of the first, if not actually the first Englishman to be educated in Germany, and his pictures of life at Jena, Weimar and Frankfurt in 1800 and thereafter are illuminating and instructive. He remained a violent Germanophile until his death at 92 in 1867. I am very fond of such books. They make capital reading for the hour or so between going to bed and falling asleep. I can’t recall ever falling asleep in fifty years, save on a few occasions when I was ill or much in my cups, without reading at least half an hour. The theory that the practise is damaging to the eyes seems to me to be buncombe. My eyes, despite some sclerotic changes, are perfectly good at 65. I not only read in bed every night; I also do nearly all my daylight reading lying down. I believe fully in the Chinese maxim that it is foolish to do anything standing up that can be done sitting, or anything sitting that can be done stretched out.’

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