The Last of the Menckenians: Struggling with an American Iconoclast
By Michael DownsFebruary 2, 2024
Stabbing the air with Mencken’s own knifepoint wit, our ghost (a retired history professor) noted this curious fact: God created the elegant and efficient human hand yet also gave us tonsils and the appendix. We must conclude that the concept of a universe “run by a single God must be abandoned,” said Mencken’s ghost, and “in place of it we must set up the theory that it is actually run by a board of gods.”
We in the 216-seat theater, a mere 30-some of us, chuckled at this literary cosplay. The occasion of our gathering was the annual meeting of the Mencken Society, a group that exists, as its president, Darryl G. Hart, reminded us that morning, “to promote the works and sensibility of H. L. Mencken,” which, he added, “seems to me is still a valuable task.”
Maybe so. But, as the many empty chairs in the auditorium suggested, the presence of the columnist, literary editor, intellectual skeptic, and oft-quoted writer of aphorisms seems these days to be ghostlike, fainter than in past decades, even here in his hometown. His pithy and bombastic lines are ideally suited for a 21st-century Twitterscape: “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under” or “The universe is run idiotically, and its only certain product is sorrow.” Yet these days, he might be better known for the descriptive adjective “Menckenian” than as a writer whose works are actually read.
The society’s meeting intentionally coincided with Mencken Day, an annual acknowledgment by Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library of its debt to Mencken, whose bequest left books, papers, money, the role of literary executor, and profit from his copyright to the library, itself a beloved Baltimore institution. Yet last year, the library announced an end to its publication of Menckeniana, the 62-year-old journal dedicated to Mencken and his works. Per the library, subscriptions 40 years ago numbered 700 but fell to 83 for the final issue. The Mencken Society provides the subscriber base, and its membership has also shrunk to about 90. “It’s painful,” Hart told me.
I haven’t joined the society, but if you glimpsed me in the auditorium that day, you’d think I belonged. I’m a white man, my hair wispy, my chin bristles gray. Society members that day—mostly men, mostly white—appeared older than 50, with some pushing octogenarian status.
My interest in Mencken confuses even me. I owe him nothing. I only started to read his work in the last few years. Our few connections are these: I live in Baltimore and I worked as a newspaper journalist. (Mencken called newspaper work “the life of kings.”) The Sage of Baltimore was not part of my life until 2021 when the Pratt Library invited me to give the annual Mencken Memorial Lecture, the big event on Mencken Day. So let’s say I’m less interested in Mencken than I am in the cultural phenomenon of Mencken and its diminishment. When I learned that the library had shut down Menckeniana, I was surprised. What did that decision suggest about Mencken, I wondered, about Baltimore, and about literary culture at large?
Born into a cigar-manufacturing German American family, Henry Louis Mencken graduated high school a few months shy of his 16th birthday; never attended college; went on to translate Nietzsche’s The Antichrist (1895); won a national reputation commenting on the famous Scopes Monkey Trial; fought censorship and Prohibition; championed writers such as James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald early in their careers; argued for skepticism and against dogma in the pages of The American Mercury and The Smart Set, magazines he edited; and wrote one of the most influential books about American English.
But he also supported Germany in both world wars, degraded the poor and uneducated, and left no doubt through his writings about his own antisemitism and racism, then complicated that noxious certainty with his writings against lynching and segregation. He wrote with a pyrotechnic vocabulary and an acid tongue. If you read Mencken in his day, he thrilled you; also, you might well have loathed him.
And what if you read, study, and argue about Mencken now, 100 years after his heyday? Well, you may be among those stalwarts who had to come to Baltimore from as far as Texas for fellowship based on Mencken and his writing. Who are these people, I wondered, who still champion Mencken despite slumping interest in his work and a culture that, especially now, wants little to do with his racism, no matter that The New York Times once called him “the most powerful private citizen in America”?
The Mencken Society was founded in 1976, two decades after Mencken’s death, and was cheered, drolly, by HLM’s newspaper home, The Baltimore Evening Sun, because “Mencken would have been dead set against it.” Since then, the society has donated money to help the Pratt conserve Mencken’s papers and other items, worked to preserve the row house that was Mencken’s longtime residence, and organized panels and conversations around the writer and his work. The society has taken active roles each Mencken Day, including hosting a gathering based on Mencken’s own Saturday Night Club, which met from 1918 until 1950 at Schellhase’s Restaurant for conversation, music, food, and beer.
The society has also been affiliated with Menckeniana, founded in 1962 by Betty Adler, a Pratt employee who created the first issue via typewriter and mimeograph machine. “We aim,” she wrote in her editor’s note, “for the standards that would have pleased HLM: thought-provoking subjects, pungently presented. If controversy about ideas and issues is engendered, we will be delighted.” Society members have often written the articles that filled Menckeniana or served as editors or on the journal’s board.
Heidi Daniel, the library’s director from July 2017 to December 2023, declined through a media contact to talk about her decision to kill Menckeniana. Numbers that the Pratt provided show that the library has been phasing out the journal in recent years, going from quarterly to annual and from print to digital. The final paper issue in 2019 cost about $400 to print. The Pratt also paid $3,500 annually for a retired scholar to edit the articles, and the finalized journal was put together by an in-house designer. In ending its role with Menckeniana, the library announced that the Mencken Society was welcome to find another publisher.
At the society’s September meeting, Hart put the problem of Menckeniana at the top of the agenda. A historian with a PhD from Johns Hopkins, Hart is a specialist in American intellectual thought. One of his most recent books is 2016’s Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken. He knows well Mencken’s barb that defines a historian as “an unsuccessful novelist.” At Hillsdale College in Michigan, Hart teaches a Mencken seminar every other fall. Hillsdale is a conservative campus, but he affirms that Mencken—a nonbeliever and boozer who mocked Puritans and evangelicals—“is not a darling of the conservatives.”
Hart wanted the society to discuss Menckeniana but also how to increase the society’s membership. Baltimore journalists, Pratt employees, and some Baltimore-area academics had made up the bulk of the society for decades. But those people had in large part died off. Another recent death had further cracked its foundation: probably no one knew more about Mencken than Vincent de Paul Fitzpatrick. He had written his dissertation on Mencken and Theodore Dreiser, curated the Pratt’s Mencken holdings since 1980, and maintained a Mencken bibliography for years, each day gathering mentions in news or scholarship. Two days before his fatal heart attack at age 73, he regaled visitors to the Pratt’s Mencken Room with details from the writer’s life, including how Mencken loved the American idiom, “the language,” Fitzpatrick said, “heard in baseball parks and bars.”
In the auditorium that morning, Bob Brugger—past society president, now retired from his work as a history editor with Johns Hopkins University Press—rose to call Fitzpatrick “a consummate gentleman. Always helpful to a fault, and generous.” How could such a nice guy as Fitzpatrick, he wondered, dedicate so much of his life to the vituperative Mencken? How could any of us? he added, looking from face to face. “We are all gentle people,” he said. The answer seemed to be that members of the society share respect for Mencken’s skepticism as an intellectual practice, without any of them sharing his style. “I don’t think any of us are bomb throwers of the sort in Mencken’s club,” Brugger said. “If it still exists.”
If that club doesn’t exist, Mencken himself may be to blame. The publication of his diaries in December 1989 showed him writing in disparaging, cruel, and vile ways about Black and Jewish people. Ever since, most conversations about Mencken and his cultural value require reckoning with his racism. That September day, such a reckoning came during the Mencken Memorial Lecture. The library invited DeWayne Wickham, a renowned journalist who hails from Baltimore, to offer the talk. When he took the stage, attendance in the auditorium had grown to about 50. About a third of them, like Wickham, were Black.
Wickham told us that he grew up only about two miles as the bird flies from Mencken’s longtime residence, though separated by decades and by “power and privilege.” Since the diaries, he noted, some defenders have pointed to writings in which Mencken seems to champion Black America, especially Black writers. Wickham rejected those arguments, finding racist language and attitudes amid Mencken’s praise. In one of his several examples, Mencken’s positive review of Alain Locke’s literary anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), Mencken ended by noting that, despite their talent, Black writers and poets would create little improvement in Black America’s culture because “[t]he vast majority of the people of their race are but two or three inches removed from gorillas: it will be a sheer impossibility, for a long, long while, to interest them in anything above pork-chops or bootleg gin.”
“So,” Wickham concluded, “was H. L. Mencken a racist? I’ll leave it to you to decide.”
During the post-talk Q and A, a white man (I would later learn that his middle name is Mencken) suggested that people might consider Mencken an elitist rather than a racist because Mencken hated everybody. Mencken’s writings famously attack a wide range of characters, including Southerners, evangelical tub-thumpers, idealists, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Palestinians, jazz fans, university professors, and countless others.
A Black man then rose and asked the central question: given Mencken’s self-damning racism and hatred of nearly everyone he saw, why do we even have a day recognizing this man?
“This is one of the things we’re going to forever struggle with,” replied Wickham, making a statement that could apply to most things Mencken. To read him is to struggle. He allows for no easy agreement on any topic, ever. Wise in one moment, foolish in another. Kind here, cruel there. His literary salvos, often breathtaking in their brio and audacity, can make you forget your quarrel with their substance.
Mencken Society people read HLM, I learned that Saturday, in large part for that struggle. They are readers who want to think and feel complicated things about a complicated writer. To read Mencken, Hart told me, you have to say to yourself, “I’m going to get skewered. Part of the pleasure of reading someone like that—you really have to stay on your toes.”
Aficionados don’t read Mencken because they expect to agree with him. They read him for the adrenaline jolt. That jolt hits because Mencken delivers scorn with wit and reason. He vivifies his 21st-century fans just as he did for readers in the previous century. “He calls you a swine, and an imbecile,” wrote critic Walter Lippmann in 1926, “and he increases your will to live.”
Visit the Pratt’s special collections and you can find a copy of The Great Gatsby with a note inscribed from Fitzgerald to Mencken asking for a positive review. You can also find a lock of hair from Edgar Allan Poe and another from his wife, Virginia.
Baltimore loves Poe, whose visage you see on T-shirts and tattoos. A festival dedicated to him less than a month after Mencken Day filled a weekend with musical acts, performers reciting his work, a film debut, and a parade with a costume contest. Poe is recognized even by the city’s NFL team, the Ravens, and its mascots Edgar and Allan. Nevertheless, Poe, like Mencken, is an intellectual figure whose legacy is complicated by a sordid personal life: he met his first cousin Virginia in Baltimore and married her when she was 13 and he was 27; he died a mysterious death and is buried at the city’s Westminster Hall next to his child bride.
Poe gave much more to literature than Mencken did. The detective and horror genres owe him everything, and through his criticism, he helped define the short story. But he never loved Baltimore as Mencken did.
Yet Baltimore’s love for Mencken used to be stronger and more complicated. In 1965, the mayor gave a speech at the city’s German Day celebration lauding Mencken: “Because he was an extremely bold and forthright critic,” said Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin, “he made enemies […] Thus, to this day, one finds honest and otherwise intelligent people who are unable to understand why so much of Baltimore delighted in Mencken while he lived and still cherishes his memory.”
These days, not quite. Consider the Pratt’s own treatment of Mencken Day. In 2012, the library’s much-loved director, Carla Hayden (now librarian of Congress), introduced the Mencken Memorial speaker. For Wickham’s lecture, the highest-ranking library employee in the room was the head of special collections. Mencken’s following took a blow with the diary’s publication, but also the city has changed: Baltimore’s population has shrunk to about 60 percent of its previous size, and six of every 10 residents are now Black. As Wickham’s lecture showed, Mencken is a harder sell to those who most keenly feel his racism. Why have a day for this man when the city’s populace can look instead to Ta-Nehisi Coates or Lucille Clifton?
“Do you teach Mencken?” I asked a local journalism professor whom I recognized at the Mencken Society meeting. No, she said. You can’t teach a column or two of Mencken in a survey course without glossing over his history. And to gloss over the history, I said, means you could be criticized for glossing over his history.
The longer I pay attention to Mencken, the more one thing becomes clear: to wrestle with Mencken is also to wrestle with the United States and American culture—and not just as it was in his time. To wrestle with Mencken is to wrestle with the country and the culture as it is now.
Mencken can’t rehabilitate his reputation. There’s no talk show circuit. No fresh writings to show that he is growing wiser. Mencken is preserved at his funny, smart, skeptical best—but also at his worst. Yet widespread audiences exist for other dead artists and intellectuals who lived flawed lives—Poe married a 13-year-old.
Are Mencken’s sins the reason he is less read? Or does his shrinking relevance have more to do with the value of his writing? Because they knew I was grappling with these questions, the Mencken Society invited me to their version of the Saturday Night Club and to share my thinking, unformed as it was.
The society’s dinner took place in a narrow row house just a block from the library. Over beer, chicken schnitzel, vegetarian brats, and two types of German potato salad, I came to better know these Menckenians. There was the retired orthopedic surgeon whose Mencken awareness began during his interview for medical school when a professor suggested they commiserate over Mencken’s death. The soon-to-be-surgeon had majored in English at another university but had to admit not knowing any writer named Mencken. “What kind of chicken-shit school doesn’t teach you Mencken!” the professor roared. Now the surgeon sits on the society’s board. He’s the one who gave his son “Mencken” as a middle name.
Also in attendance were a Washington, DC, lawyer whose career involved defending the environment; an arts writer from New London, Connecticut; a software engineer and Baltimore neighborhood historian; an affiliate minister with the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore; and a former legislative writer from Pennsylvania who is also active with the International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society (a much larger organization).
The building where we ate belongs to a private club of the sort where men used to smoke cigars and discuss weighty matters. One of its rooms was dedicated to an editorial cartoonist whose career with Mencken’s paper, The Evening Sun, began in 1923. Framed cartoons filled the walls and reminded me of how satire, including Mencken’s, thrived in that era. Not so much now, I think. This past summer, the McClatchy newspaper chain laid off three Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonists in one day; Kevin Siers, one of those terminated, explained to The Washington Post that the cartoonists’ salaries amounted to diddly-squat, so cost cutting wasn’t the reason. Instead, he blamed a corporate culture troubled by satire. “They’ve convinced themselves and the industry that readers no longer appreciate good editorial cartoons,” Siers said, “when I feel that it’s the boardroom itself that is uncomfortable with our satire.”
When our postprandial conversation began, I raised this point and several others. We talked about political satire and how these days it is often written by and for those who agree with the satirist. Consider Jon Stewart. Did you ever watch The Daily Show expecting him to anger you? No, you expected to laugh as Stewart cozily skewered people you disagree with. Mencken’s satire was different, intended to anger everyone. We turned to Dave Chappelle, maybe today’s most Mencken-like satirist. Most of the Menckenians didn’t know Chappelle but were interested to learn how the two are alike: thriving on criticism, insulting everyone including the audience, making people laugh, making them cringe, and cultivating an outsider go-it-alone status. Chappelle seems to follow the same advice that Mencken claimed to have received from an older writer: a good show “is one with slaughter in it.”
We asked whether people, especially in today’s literary culture, are too nice an audience for hard-core satire, and (Twitter trolls aside) how unwilling they are to offend. We noted the care we’re encouraged to take in all communication. I mentioned that my email app recently asked whether I’d like it to review my messages for “politeness” and “geopolitical sensitivities.”
In his 1991 introduction to a book of Mencken’s writings, Gore Vidal wrote that Americans are generally unable “to cope with wit or irony, and even the simplest jokes often cause unease, especially today, when every phrase must be examined for covert sexism, racism, ageism.” How much more the case, I asked the room, in 2023?
Someone mentioned that the alt-right has adopted Mencken as one of their own. Everyone who spoke objected to this development. Mencken, they said, belongs to no political wing—he hated all government and everyone in it. We also spoke of Claire Dederer’s recent book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma (2023). In it, she takes on the problem of people like Woody Allen and Pablo Picasso, who make worthwhile art but whose lives trouble us. She emphasizes that people can both despise—even loathe—the artist and still love the art. And then we adjourned, though even as we stepped out into the Baltimore night, we couldn’t stop talking about Mencken.
This story does not end with an obituary for Menckeniana. Rather, a resurrection. On Mencken Day, Hart announced that the society had been in conversation with the Baltimore Bar Library, which wanted to take on the job of publishing Menckeniana.
“We feel an obligation,” the library’s president, George W. Liebmann, later told me. He sent me a copy of the library’s summer newsletter, in which he wrote: “As a Baltimore cultural institution, it seems appropriate for the Bar Library to do its part to preserve the memory of one of the most influential and distinctly Baltimorean of Baltimore writers.”
That word, “obligation,” befits Mencken. It speaks to a historical duty, a wreath-laying, a need to remember that a writer typed some 10 million words (by his own estimate) and changed the United States. But it also means that Mencken’s actual work matters less. What matters is to remember the fact of him.
I get that. No one needs to preserve Poe’s memory, because people still read Poe. I love reading Poe. Mencken’s writing, it turns out, doesn’t much interest me except as artifact. On the page, he’s a brat, an enfant terrible, smarter than most but stuck in a kind of adolescence. When I agree with him, the rightness of his arguments—despite the genius of his prose—seems obvious. When he’s wrong, he is so off the mark as to be ludicrous. Even when he makes me chuckle, I wish he would find his way to a cleverer maturity, a more nuanced view.
What interests me most is the historical example of Mencken: once, in the United States, a writer shunned dogmatic responses, pushing readers to think more shrewdly and to challenge even themselves, and readers turned to him. So I’m glad for the continued publication of Menckeniana and for the Mencken Society no matter how small its membership. The society’s work reminds me that this country and its democracy require that, in every era, a writer step up and think skeptically in the best sense, to seek favor with no one, to accept being wrong in pursuit of truth, and to do so with wit and whatever in that moment constitutes eloquence.
In 2023, I don’t need to read Mencken. I do, though, yearn—as unchallenged dogmas, shouted outrage, and siloed thinking rive the United States—to read some writer somewhere who, in the best ways, deserves to be called Menckenian.
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