A Conversation with Mencken: Part One

Here I’ll have a discussion with the late H.L. Mencken regarding his interpretation of the fall of American letters. Why do we not carry American characters with us, and why when we go to think of one we come sometimes instead to their author’s character? There’s not a thing worth remembering in contemporary literature, not a thing which strikes into your heart as yesterday’s characters have; there are no hooks in me, so to speak, extant from anything born in the last twenty years. I agree with him that literary athleticism, or sheer ability hasn’t slowed among today’s cast of heroes but what do you feel when you put that book down? Do you show crow’s feet and reflect for a bit or do you hop up and do that thing you promised your SO you’d do yesterday, freshly aware of ANYTHING that’d ground you once more in THIS world?

Mencken: So far the disease. As to the cause, I have delivered a few hints. I now describe it particularly. It is, in brief, a defect in the general culture or the country – one reflected, not only in national literature, but also in the national political theory, the national attitude toward religion and morals, the national habit in all departments of thinking. It is the lack of a civilized aristocracy, secure in its position, animated by an intelligent curiosity, skeptical of all facile generalizations, superior to the sentimentality of the mob, and delighting in the battle of ideas for its own sake.

Me: So the United States lacks leadership, or a plausible example which to follow. An “aristocracy”, you call it; brings to mind Czarist Russia, if you don’t mind me saying so. Perhaps the populace has thus far fought to rid itself of such a hindrance?

Mencken: The word I use, despite the qualifying adjective, has got itself meanings, of course, that I by no means intend to convey. Any mention of an aristocracy, to a public fed on democratic fustian, is bound to bring up images of stockbroker’s wives lolling obscenely in opera boxes, or of haughty Englishmen slaughtering whole generations of grouse in an inordinate and incomprehensible manner, or of Junkers with tight waists elbowing American schoolmarms off the sidewalks of German beer towns, or of perfumed Italians coming over to work their abominable magic upon the daughters of breakfast-food and bathtub kings. Part of this misconception, I suppose, has its roots int he gaudy imbecilities of the yellow press, but there is also a part that belongs to the general American tradition, along with the oppression of minorities and the belief in political panaceas. Its depth and extent are constantly revealed by the naïve assumption that the so-called fashionable folk of the large cities – chiefly wealthy industrials in the interior-decorator and country-club stage of culture – constitute an aristocracy, and by the scarcely less remarkable assumption that the peerage of England is identical with the gentry – that is, such men as Lord Northcliffe, Lord Iveagh, and even Lord Reading are English gentlemen, and of the ancient line of the Percys.


Me: Yes, the image of stuffy, monacled Victorians in long tails and their corseted escorts appears to me. I bristle, and those heckles on the back of my neck are the fruit of a specific cultural upbringing, one which has only penetrated the populace more deeply since your time. Well, in the interest of polishing my definition of “aristocrat”, roll out the qualifiers.  I see the contrast inherent your latter-day examples and today’s flimsy imitations (which, by the bye, have no doubt only become more watery since your recording of them), but what is near the nut of this faulty perception, and why is it so widespread?

Mencken: Here, as always, the worshiper is the father of the gods, and no less when they are evil than when they are benign. The inferior man must find himself superiors, that he may marvel at his political equality with them, and in the absence of recognizable superiors de facto he creates superiors de jure. The sublime principle of “one man, one vote” must be translated in terms of dollars, diamonds, fashionable intelligence; the equality of all men before the law must have clear and dramatic proofs. Sometimes, perhaps, the thing goes further and is more subtle. The inferior man needs an aristocracy to demonstrate not only his mere equality, but also his actual superiority. The society columns in the newspapers may have some such origin; they may visualize once more the accomplished journalist’s understanding of the mob mind that he plays upon so skillfully, as upon some immense and cacophonous organ, always going fortissimo. What the inferior man and his wife see in the sinister revels of those amazing first families, I suspect, is often a massive witness to their own higher rectitude – to their relative innocence of cigarette-smoking, poodle-coddling, child-farming and the more abstruse branches of adultery – in brief, to their firmer grasp upon the immense axioms of Christian virtue, the one sound boast of the nether nine-tenths of humanity in every land under the cross.

Me: So you’re not a fan of Christians! Rather, I suspect you may not be a fan of the Christians’ own brand of hypocrisy, inherent in all but particularly visible when you claim you haven’t got any. Correct me if I’m wrong, also: what you’re saying is that the base people must identify with their leaders, or at least the image their leaders project of themselves. So perhaps in a land where history suggests a white, middle-class omnipresence, a black man might not be the best choice for President. The traditionalists will reject him, you think, the way a child might reject blue ketchup? Surely I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are these people anyway, who have such a grasp on what the citizenry should think it needs?

Mencken: But this bugaboo aristocracy, as I hint, is actually bogus, and the evidence of its bogusness lies in the fact that it is insecure. One gets into it only onerously, but out of it very easily. Entrance is effected by dint of a long and bitter struggle, and the chief incidents of that struggle are almost intolerable humiliations. The aspirant must school and steel himself to sniffs and sneers; he must see the door slammed upon him a hundred times before ever it is thrown open to him. To get in at all he must show a talent for abasement – and abasement makes him timorous. Worse, that timorousness is not cured when he succeeds at last. On the contrary, it is made even more tremulous, for what he faces within the gates is a scheme of things made up almost wholly of harsh and often unintelligible taboos, and the penalty for violating even the least of them is swift and disastrous. He must exhibit exactly the right social habits, appetites and prejudices, public and private. He must harbor exactly the right political enthusiasms and indignations. He must have a hearty taste for exactly the right sports. His attitude toward the fine arts must be properly tolerant and like exactly the right books, pamphlets, and public journals. He must put up at the right hotels when he travels. His wife must patronize the right milliners. He himself must stick to the right haberdashery. He must live in the right neighborhood. He must even embrace the right doctrines of religion. It would ruin him, for all opera box and society column purposes, to set up a plea for justice to the Bolsheveki, or even for ordinary decency. It would ruin him equally to wear celluloid collars, or to move to Union Hill, NJ, or to serve ham and cabbage at his table. And it would ruin him, too, to drink coffee from his saucer, or to marry a chambermaid with a gold tooth, or to join the Seventh Day Adventists. Within the boundaries of his curious order he is worse fettered than a monk in a cell. Its obscure conception of propriety, its nebulous notion that this or that is honorable, hampers him in every direction, and very narrowly. What he resigns when he enters, even when he makes his first deprecating knock at the door, is every right to attack the ideas that happen to prevail within. Such as they are, he must accept them without question. And as they shift and change in response to great instinctive movements (or perhaps, now and then, to the punished but not to be forgotten revolts of extraordinary rebels) he must shift and change with them, silently and quickly. To hang back, to challenge and dispute, to preach reforms and revolutions – these are crimes against the brummagem Holy Ghost of the order.

Me: The gauntlet; what does it do to a person? Brings to mind what I felt like in my first year of pre-school. I had, the whole of my early development, been my own captain, wheeling around the countryside some ten miles from the nearest town. Nature was mine to learn of and in its bosom I grew steadily until thrust into those turgid institutional waters. Only then did I get beat nearly every (physically and emotionally) into something which would sluice well through the program. I’m grateful for the experience but it was just that: a crucible in which I became someone new. Of course each major turn I’ve weathered has had that same edge-rounding effect but what of Washington? Of law school, or business school?

Perhaps some who enter into these programs aren’t so unaccustomed to the water temperature but of course, some are and enter into them with my same idealism, the idealism which told the Incans that the world’s threats could only ever be as deadly as what their jungle could render. Of course I’m speculating, but the promise of wealth and power glow dimly just beyond the threshold of graduation and I wonder; which ones make it through? What tools did they use to hack through the competition? Which is the weightier of their lessons: an exhaustive knowledge of their concentration or the ability to make it appear as though their exhaustive knowledge matters whatsoever? And given that not today but just yesterday these graduates would step into the role of peopling the ragged American aristocracy, would that not imply that what we’ve dealt ourselves is an upper class of straw men, of gutted imitations no more ready to set an example for the peons than they’d be to imagine some new angle by which we as a country might be improved?

Mencken: Obviously, that order cannot constitute a genuine aristocracy, in any rational sense. A genuine aristocracy is grounded upon very much different principles. Its first and most salient character is its interior security, and the chief visible evidence of that security is the freedom that goes with it – not only freedom in act, the divine right of the aristocrat to do what he jolly well pleases, so long as he does not violate the primary guarantees and obligations of his class, but also and more importantly freedom in thought, the liberty to try and err, the right to be his own man. It is the instinct of a true aristocracy, not to punish eccentricity by expulsion, but to throw a mantle of protection about it – to safeguard it from the suspicions and resentments of the lower orders. Those lower orders are inert, timid, inhospitable to ideas, hostile to changes, faithful to a few maudlin superstitions. All progress goes on on the higher levels. It is there that salient personalities, made secure by artificial immunities, may oscillate most widely from the normal track. It is within that entrenched fold, out of reach of the immemorial certainties of the mob, that extraordinary men of the lower orders may find their city of refuge, and breathe a clear air. This, indeed, is at once the hall-mark and the justification of an aristocracy – that it is beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions. It is nothing if it is not autonomous, curious, venturesome, courageous, and everything if it is. It is the custodian of the qualities that make for change and experiment; it is the class that organizes danger to the service of the race; it pays for its high prerogatives by standing at the forefront of the fray.

No such aristocracy, it must be plain, is now on view in the United States. The makings of one were visible in the Virginia of the later eighteenth century, but with Jefferson and Washington the promise died. In New England, it seems to me, there was never any aristocracy, either in being or in nascency: there was only a theocracy that degenerated very quickly into a plutocracy on the one hand and a caste of sterile Gelehrten on the other – the passion for God splitting into a hunt for dollars and a weakness for mere words. Despite the common notion to the contrary – a notion generated by confusing literacy with intelligence – New England has never shown the slightest sign of a genuine enthusiasm for ideas. It began its history as a slaughter-house of ideas, and it is to-day not easily distinguishable from a cold-storage plant. Its celebrated adventures in mysticism, once apparently so bold and significant, are now seen to have been little more than an elaborate hocus-pocus – respectable Unitarians shocking the peasantry and scaring the horned cattle in the fields by masquerading in the robes of Rosicrucians. The ideas that it embraced in those austere and far-off days were stale, and when it had finished with them they were dead: to-day one hears of Jakob Bohme almost as rarely as one hears of Allen G. Thurman. So in politics. Its glory is Abolition – an English invention, long under the interdict of the native plutocracy. Since the Civil War its six states have produced fewer political ideas, as political ideas run in the Republic, than any average county in Kansas or Nebraska. Appomattox seemed to be a victory for New England idealism. It was actually a victory for the New England plutocracy, and that plutocracy has dominated thought above the Housatonic ever since. The sect of professional idealists has so far dwindled that it has ceased to be of any importance, even as an opposition. When the plutocracy is challenged now, it is challenged by the proletariat.


Me: Or, not at all (as it stands). But perhaps I’ve come upon your intended irony in the remark “challenged by the proletariat”. At the moment I have to run, but I’ll lend answer to this directly. See you in Part Two.

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