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Heeding the Sage of Baltimore

A new edition of H.L. Menckenís Prejudices captures the legendary journalist at his corrosive best

Damon W. Root
September 10, 2010

On July 27, 1925, the great journalist and literary critic H.L. Mencken published his obituary for the left-wing populist, Christian fundamentalist, and three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in the Baltimore Evening Sun. “Imagine a gentleman,” Mencken wrote, “and you have imagined everything that he was not.” Bryan had been “deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all beauty, all fine and noble things.” Mencken practically danced on his grave.

Less than two weeks earlier, the two men had been together in Dayton, Tennessee for the sensational trial of John Scopes, the public school teacher arrested for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Bryan was there to aid the prosecution while Mencken filed scathing reports about the persecution of “the infidel Scopes” and quietly strategized with the defense. “Convert [the trial] into a headlong assault on Bryan,” Mencken told defense attorney Clarence Darrow. And so Darrow did, grilling the aged populist on the witness stand about his biblical literalism and hostility to science. A week later Bryan was dead.

It was a major event in Mencken’s long career, and it came in the midst of a particularly influential period. The same busy stretch of history that produced the Scopes “Monkey Trial” also saw President Woodrow Wilson’s wartime suppression of free speech and civil liberties, the prohibition of alcohol, the South’s bloody epidemic of lynchings and racial terrorism, and the birth of the modern welfare-warfare state. An atheist, an individualist, and a classical liberal of extreme Jeffersonian tendencies, Mencken railed against them all, collecting many of his best attacks in the six-volume series of books he aptly titled Prejudices.

Originally published between 1919 and 1927, Prejudices was Mencken’s attempt to “insert some rat-poison” into the country’s political and literary life. It did the trick. Now, thanks to Prejudices: The Complete Series, a hefty new two-volume set published by the Library of America, today’s readers can taste Mencken’s rat-poison pen for themselves.

Whether he was denouncing alcohol prohibition (“the criminal, in the public eye, is not the bootlegger and certainly not his customer, but the enforcement officer”), moral crusader Anthony Comstock (“a good woman, to him, was simply one who was efficiently policed”), or government itself (“in any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen”), the overriding theme of the series remained steady: individual liberty versus the tyranny of the majority.

Take Mencken’s horror at the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, which he called the “Wilson hallucination.” Under the terms of Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917, it became illegal to criticize the U.S. government during wartime. Among the victims of this vile law was the radical union leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who spent three years rotting in federal prison for delivering an anti-war speech. Facing strong pressure to pardon Debs once the Great War was over, liberal hero Wilson flatly refused. “Magnanimity was simply beyond him,” Mencken wrote. “Confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor Debs, all his instincts compelled him to keep Debs in jail.” Mencken was no fan of Debs’ left-wing politics, of course; Mencken once described the typical Progressive as “one who is in favor of...more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty.” He simply hated government criminality in all its ugly forms.

Similarly, at a time when most leading Progressives (including Wilson) supported racial segregation and turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Jim Crow South, Mencken attacked the lawlessness of “Klu Kluxry” and routinely praised (and published) the work of black writers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and George Schuyler. Indeed, White later said that Mencken pushed him to write his first novel, The Fire in the Flint, and then helped him secure a publisher. Zora Neale Hurston was a major Mencken fan. And according to the Harlem Renaissance giant James Weldon Johnson, “Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any other American then writing.”

Because the last volume of Prejudices came out in 1927, readers of this handsome new edition unfortunately miss one of Mencken’s most perceptive critiques of majoritarianism, his 1930 American Mercury assault on Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. First appointed to the Court in 1902, Holmes became an icon to the reform-minded thanks to his dissenting opinions in cases like Lochner v. New York (1905), where Holmes attacked the majority for striking down a maximum working hours law. Mencken dug deeper, surveying Justice Holmes’ votes to uphold alcohol prohibition, prohibit foreign-language teaching during wartime, permit forced sterilization, and keep Eugene Debs locked in prison. “Over and over again, in these opinions,” Mencken wrote, Holmes “advocated giving the legislature full head-room, and over and over again he protested against using the Fourteenth Amendment to upset novel and oppressive laws, aimed frankly at helpless minorities.” This wasn’t responsible judging, Mencken concluded, it was judicial abdication.

Today, with our simplistic Red-Blue political divide, Mencken’s hostility to both church and state would find no comfortable home. That’s too bad. As Prejudices makes abundantly clear, the world is a better place when there’s someone like H.L. Mencken standing athwart the majority yelling “stop!”

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Damon W. Root is Senior Editor


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