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Commentary: Mencken and the inferior man

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A neo-Confederate sympathizer recently posted a blog entry extolling the virtue of writer H.L. Mencken, who died in 1956. He claimed he was saluting progress in race relations. Al Barger admits the only books he has ever read are those of Ayn Rand. It shows. If he had an even middling understanding of American history, the distorted views of it he expresses would not occur. But, of more interest for this entry, is why Barger is attracted to Mencken.

First, let’s consider who the writer was. Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore 15 years after the end of the Civil War. The core belief of the Old South, that some people are better than others, would influence him his entire life. He would embrace the myth of the genteel Southern aristocracy while dismissing most Americans as ‘boobs’ for decades. An irony of Mencken’s career was that the petit bourgeoisie that championed him did not realize he looked down on it.

Mencken began working as a newspaper columnist in his teens. His most prominent role was as founder and editor of the American Mercury, from 1925 to 1933. The magazine reflected Mencken’s romantic delusions about the South.

To try to understand the southern identity in historical terms is to quickly realize that over time there have been many Souths: the sunny South, the savage South, the agrarian South, the Jim Crow South, the violent South, the cracker South, the frontier South, the antebellum South; H.L. Mencken’s Old South, populated by “men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct and aristocratic manners — in brief, superior men — in brief, gentry,” the suffering South, the moral South, and the list goes on.

To have a gentry, one must have riffraff. Mencken considered everyone inferior to his “superior men.” But, he believed Jews and blacks to be most inferior of all.

Much of the biography about Mencken has been lightweight, focusing on the humor of his writing and admiring his idiocyncracies. However, reporter Terry Teachout has produced a book that takes a more critical look at the Sage of Baltimore.

To cut right to the thorniest issue: Mencken, Teachout writes, “was an anti-Semite”; that fact “cannot now reasonably be denied.”

However, for a long time it was denied, or danced around, by well-meaning people, including Jews, who wanted to give Mencken the benefit of the doubt in weighing his racial tolerance against his racial insensitivity. But even former defenders, such as Joseph Epstein, have also come to this conclusion after viewing the posthumous evidence.

Mencken respected the civil rights of blacks, but thought them inferior. He liked Jews and had many Jewish friends, but subscribed to the stereotype that they were pushy and consequently brought on the troubles that befell them.

. . .His anti-democratic, anti-American, pro-German sentiments loom much darker and less benign here than in previous biographies.

But, the best source on Mencken and racism is Mencken himself.

I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.

Mencken believed that people of African descent were inherently inferior. He would be considered a ‘scientific’ racist by today’s standards. Furthermore, he opposed efforts to remove the Negro from what he considered the race’s natural, savage state.

. . .the negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience; that he must remain the inferior of the stronger and more intelligent white man so long as he retains racial differentiation. Therefore, the effort to educate him has awakened in his mind ambitions and aspirations which, in the very nature of things, must go unrealized, and so, while gaining nothing whatever materially, he has lost all his old contentment, peace of mind and happiness.

He did not change his mind, despite efforts of several African-American intellectuals to influence him.

But the fact remains that the Southern whites have to deal with the actual Negroes before them, and not with a theoretical race of African kings. These actual Negroes show actual defects that are very real and very serious. The leaders of the race, engrossed by the almost unbearable injustices that it faces, are apt to forget them.

Mencken’s explicit racism is still papered over in some quarters..

Why would Al Barger embrace H.L. Mencken? Having known my share of conservative white men with king-sized egos and limited ability over the years, I believe I understand him. Though Mencken’s literary reputation has not held up particularly well, he used to be considered the superior man he thought himself to be by his peers. Barger is not a person of achievement. His blog entries, which are replete with ‘because I said sos’ and bereft of any research or analysis, reflect that. They would embarrass a person able to realize how lacking in any redeeming quality they are. But, if a much more intelligent man of letters, H.L. Mencken, held the same belief in the inferiority of African-Americans he does, that elevates the belief. . .in his opinion. In reality, Mencken’s belief in white supremacy just confirms he was a racist. It does not make racism “the truth,” as Barger asserts.

Barger’s attempt to rationalize his warped viewpoint by associating it with a famous writer is not uncommon behavior in these times. Increasingly, the far Right is attempting to rewrite history to support racial divisions in our society. It declares Abraham Lincoln a tyrant, says the Civil War was not fought over slavery and asserts there is nothing wrong with racism. But, as is true here, such conclusions are little more than pretexts for deeply held prejudices.

Reasonably related

Al Barger previously:

Claimed slavery was not the cause of the Civil War.

Attacked Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant who harmed the country.

Note: This entry also appeared at Silver Rights.

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About The Diva

  • A reader of the entry in which Al Barger quotes Mencken (in a very Bargerian way) asked about putting the writer into perspective. Though the length of a blog entry precludes an in-depth look, I believe this one explains Mencken’s views on race, and how they influenced his life and writing, fairly well.

    If you are not up on Mencken, I don’t think it necessary to rush to the library and load up on books. His reputation as a writer is pretty much history. The American Mercury articles, for which he was most famous, did not travel well and now are of little interest. Mencken has had a slight rebirth, along with Ayn Rand and other writers with conservative leanings, but that is more political than literary. Unless you are a paleo-conservative, your time can be better spent.

  • I happened across this essay, H. L. Mencken: Neo-Confederate, at Lew Rockwell.com. I don’t agree with everything in it, but think it does say useful things about Mencken’s relationship to the South. I am not sure Mencken would want to be claimed by the neo-Confederate movement, though. They are not genteel enough.

  • There is an another online essay citing Terry Teachout‘s analysis of Mencken here. It includes reference to Mencken’s over identification with Germany, which led him to praise Nazi leaders later in life, among other interesting material.

    This passage captures the big picture well:

    Even in success, Teachout explains how Mencken was always conflicted internally, between populism and elitism, between civilized criticism and blatant prejudice. The book makes no attempt to absolve him of his obvious streak of racism, anti-Semitism in particular, though the author does point out that once he wrote a piece, for which he received death threats, condemning lynching, which at that time was not uncommon, as well as the fact that he employed and befriended many Jews, even at a time when it was not considered compulsory for white businessmen to practice equality. Mencken’s contradictory nature is evident, particularly for a man whose prose came off as the epitome of self-assuredness.

  • bhw

    Diva, I’ll be checking out Mencken in more depth in a few weeks after things settle down here for me. That last quote you posted kind of summarizes what I’ve read about him thus far, that he was a walking contradiction in many ways.

  • Thank you, bhw. I was beginning to wonder if posting information about H.L. Mencken from solid sources is a bad thing-:). Where can one go and see mainstream literary criticism dismissed as ‘making up facts’? Only at BU. U? Un-critics.