H. L. Mencken: Critic of American Life
by George H. Douglas

A favorable assessment of Mencken's lasting contributions to understanding American society. The author's style is influenced by Mencken's style to the point that sometimes I am not sure which one's words are being used. The book is repetitious at times. But it demonstrates Mencken's libertarianism.
"The trouble with Americans is that they keep their faith in ideals they have been taught from infancy even when it means rejecting the evidence of their own senses." (20) [One such belief is that all men are equal. RH]

"... muckrakers ... took haphazard, scattered reforms and do-goodism for serious social thought." (22)

Walter Lippmann said of Mencken: "He calls you a swine and an imbecile and he increases your will to live." (37)

"... he does not take every word out of the same bin. He playfully shoves the educated (and sometimes even arcane) word up against a common everyday word, or even a barroom word." (64)

"In Mencken's mind the freedom to play with language, to mingle the talk of a streetcar conductor or an ice wagon driver with that of a professor of classics is a distinctly American prerogative and distinctly American achievement." (65)

Mencken said there are some men whose minds "never get any further than a sort of insensate sweating, like that of a kidney." (69)

"A democracy is a government that must respond to the majority of the people, but the majority never rise above the level of adolescence in their mental processes." (74)

"He believed that the number of first-rate men remains constant, that human folly remains constant, and that no amount of breeding or social uplift will change the proportion of human blank cartridges to men of genuine intelligence." (75-76)

"Democracy is a condition of life in which people are set to worrying whether somebody somewhere is enjoying things that they are not, and take action to see that they don't. This is what Puritanism is also." (84)

With regard to envy, Mencken wrote: "It is the common possession of all men of the ignoble and incompetent sort, at all times and everywhere. But it is only under democracy that it is liberated; it is only under a democracy that it becomes the philosophy of the state." (84)

About John Milton, Mencken wrote that he: "was not a Puritan at all, but a libertarian, which is the exact opposite." (88)

"Nietzsche traces the origin of this kind of slave morality to the ancient Jews who had to compensate for their inability to stand up to their enemies by calling them sinners and evil-doers, thereby trying to capture for themselves virtues that they did not have. Naturally this 'morality of weakness' was transferred to Christianity (through the agency not of Jesus--a man after Nietzche's own heart--but the cowardly St. Paul) and, with the spread of Christianity, to the whole of European civilization." (95-96)

Mencken on the common man: "Man on the lower levels, though he quickly reaches the limit of his capacity for taking in actual knowledge, remains capable for a long time thereafter of absorbing delusions. What is true daunts him, but what is not true finds lodgment in his cranium with so little resistance that there is only a trifling emission of heat. ... He has a dreadful capacity for embracing and cherishing impostures. His history since the first records is a history of successive victimizations--by priests, by politicians, by all sorts and conditions of quacks. His heroes are always frauds. In all ages he has hated bitterly the men who were laboring most honestly and effectively for the progress of the race. What such men teach is beyond his grasp. He believes in consequence that it is unsound, immoral and of the devil." (100)

Mencken expressed his libertarianism explicitly: "so far as I can make out, I believe in only one thing: liberty" (124)

"An enlightened electorate requires a mass of enlightened individuals, and in Mencken's mind, a mass of enlightened individuals does not exist and will not exist, no matter how much we stuff the populace with the indigestible truths and facts of education." (127)

"The people rule, but they rule in name only--much as the king may be said to rule in a modern constitutional monarchy." (129)

"A democracy is run by politicians who have mastered the art of manipulating the mob, of soothing it with mellifluous words while swindling it under the table." (129)

Mencken recognized two kinds of politician: "The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots. The demaslave is one who listens to what these idiots have to say and then pretends that he believes it himself. Every man who seeks elective office under democracy has to be either one thing or the other, and most men have to be both." (131)

Mencken wrote: "a good politician under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar." (132)

About William Jennings Bryan, Mencken wrote" "His whole career was devoted to raising ... half-wits against their betters, that he himself might shine." (139)

About W. G. Harding's style of oratory, Mencken wrote: "It is a style of a rhinoceros liberating himself by main strength from a lake of boiling molasses." (146)

About how the yokelry reacts to speeches, Mencken wrote: "If a sentence ends with a roar it does not stop to inquire how it began. If a phrase has punch, it does not ask that it also have meaning." (147)

"The public will does not get expressed in a democracy, since the public is not fed the issues, but only the issues dressed up in a way that the politicians choose to dress them up." (148)

"Another theme in Sister Carrie is the theme of insect life, of a cycle of birth and death composed of meaningless flutterings and attractions. There is no better imagery for Mencken's view of American life. Americans are moths, beautiful moving creatures doomed to dash themselves against the thousands of lights which attract them." (159)

Year Read: 1999

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