H.L. Mencken

October 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Henry Louis Mencken was an American journalist. Mencken’s sometimes cynical and acerbic writings attacked the holy ideals of his age, including religion, business, government and the press. Today, he is best remembered for his coverage of the Scopes “Monkey” trial. Gene Kelly played a thinly fictionalized version of him in the film Inherit the Wind.

Mencken was an outspoken atheist and antitheist. He was also a proponent of libertarianism, an admirer of Nietzsche and a disbeliever in democracy. His aim in writing was not to improve society, but to make life “measurably more bearable for the civilized minority in America.” (Autobiographical Notes, 1925, 165).

Descended from a successful German family, Mencken viewed German culture as superior; in one letter to Isaac Goldberg, he wrote “there are only two types of music: German music and bad music” (May 6, 1925). In his diaries, he wrote “unkind” things about black people, Jews and other minorities. His many disparaging remarks about Anglo-Saxons, both public and private, have rarely been remarked upon.


H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken.

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. ––Men versus the Man: A Correspondence between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H.L. Mencken, Individualist, 1910.

Generalizations, indeed, all have their limits – even this one. Apply them often enough, and you will come inevitably upon some disconcerting exception…. But because philosophy is long and life is short we must assume, even when we can’t entirely believe, that [things] fall into groups and classes, else we could never hope to study them at all. ––ibid.

The American, in other words, thinks that the sinner has no rights that any one is bound to respect, and he is prone to mistake an unsupported charge of sinning, provided it be made violently enough, for actual proof and confession. ––A Book of Prefaces, 1917.

What, ladies and gentlemen, in hell or out of it, are we to do with the Ethiop? Who shall answer the thunderous demands of the emerging coon? For emerging he is, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and there will come a morn, believe me or not, when those with ears to hear and hides to feel will discover that he is to be boohed and put off no longer – that he has at last got the power to exact a square answer, and that the days of his docile service as minstrel, torch and goat are done. When that morn dawns, I pray upon both knees, I shall be safe in the Alps, and not below the Potomac River, hurriedly disguised with burnt cork and trying to get out on the high gear. ––”Si Mutare Potest Aethiops Pellum Suam” in the Smart Set, September 1917.

The black has learned the capital lesson that property is necessary to self-respect, that he will never get anywhere so long as he is poor. Once he is secure in that department he will take up the business of getting back his plain constitutional rights. ––ibid.

It is only the savage, whether of the African bush or of the American gospel tent, who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely. ––Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918.

Your true savage, reserved, dignified, and courteous, knows how to mask his feelings, even in the face of the most desperate assault upon them; your civilized man is forever yielding to them. Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes. ––In Defense of Women, 1918.

If the average man is made in God’s image, then a man such as Beethoven or Aristotle is plainly superior to God, and so God may be jealous of him, and eager to see his superiority perish with his bodily frame. All animal breeders know how difficult it is to maintain a fine strain. The universe seems to be in a conspiracy to encourage the endless reproduction of peasants and Socialists, but a subtle and mysterious opposition stands eternally against the reproduction of philosophers. ––ibid.

A painting of H.L. Mencken. Artist unknown.

Nothing is more patent, indeed, than the fact that charity merely converts the unfit––who, in the course of nature, would soon die out and so cease to encumber the earth––into parasites––who live on indefinitely, a nuisance and a burden to their betters. ––ibid.

[T]he 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. ––ibid.

[T]he proof of an idea is not to be sought in the soundness of the man fathering it, but in the soundness of the idea itself. One asks of a pudding, not if the cook who offers it is a good woman, but if the pudding itself is good. ––ibid.

When we appropriate money from the public funds to pay for vaccinating a horde of negroes, we do not do it because we have any sympathy for them or because we crave their blessings, but simply because we don’t want them to be falling ill of smallpox in our kitchens and stables, to the peril of our own health and the neglect of our necessary drudgery. ––ibid.

The black man, I suppose, has a fairly good working understanding of the white man; he has many opportunities to observe and note down, and my experience of him convinces me that he is a shrewd observer––that few white men ever fool him. But the white man, even in the South, knows next to nothing of the inner life of the negro. ––”The Negro as Author,” 1920

The thing we need is a realistic picture of this inner life of the negro by one who sees the race from within––a self portrait as vivid and accurate as Dostoyevsky’s portrait of the Russian or Thackeray’s of the Englishman. The action should be kept within the normal range of negro experience. it should extend over a lone enough range of years to show some development in character and circumstance. It should be presented against a background made vivid by innumerable small details.

The negro author who makes such a book will dignify American literature and accomplish more for his race than a thousand propagandists and theorists. ––ibid.

[T]here is the generalization that the average negro is unreliable, that he has a rather lame sense of the sacredness of contract, that it is impossible to count upon him doing what he freely promises to do. This unreliability, it seems to me, is responsible for a great deal of the race feeling that smoulders in the South. The white man is forced to deal with negroes daily, and it irritates him constantly to find them so undependable.

True enough, it is easy to prove that this failing is not met with in negroes of the upper classes, and it may be even argued plausibly that it is not intrinsically a negro character–that the pure and undebauched African is a model of honor. 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. ––ibid.

Henry Louis Mencken

H.L. Mencken.

What [the negro race] needs most, of course, is a fair chance in the world, a square deal in its effort to rise, but what it needs after that is honest and relentless criticism. ––ibid.

The late war [i.e. World War I], awakening all the primitive racial fury of the Western nations, and therewith all their ancient enthusiasm for religious taboos and sanctions, naturally focused attention upon Nietzsche…The Germans, with their characteristic tendency to explain their every act in terms as realistic and unpleasant as possible, appear to have mauled him in a belated and unexpected embrace, to the horror, I daresay, of the Kaiser, and perhaps to the even greater horror of Nietzsche’s own ghost. The folks of Anglo-Saxondom, with their equally characteristic tendency to explain all their enterprises romantically, simultaneously set him up as the Antichrist he no doubt secretly longed to be. The result was a great deal of misrepresentation and misunderstanding of him. ––from the introduction to The Antichrist, 1918.

Most of this denunciation, of course, was frankly idiotic––the naïve pishposh of suburban Methodists, notoriety-seeking college professors, almost illiterate editorial writers, and other such numskulls. In much of it, including not a few official hymns of hate, Nietzsche was gravely discovered to be the teacher of such spokesmen of the extremest sort of German nationalism as von Bernhardi and von Treitschke––which was just as intelligent as making George Bernard Shaw the mentor of Lloyd-George. In other solemn pronunciamentoes he was credited with being philosophically responsible for various imaginary crimes of the enemy—the wholesale slaughter or mutilation of prisoners of war, the deliberate burning down of Red Cross hospitals, the utilization of the corpses of the slain for soap-making. I amused myself, in those gaudy days, by collecting newspaper clippings to this general effect, and later on I shall probably publish a digest of them, as a contribution to the study of war hysteria. ––ibid.

On the Continent, the day is saved by the fact that the plutocracy tends to become more and more Jewish. Here the intellectual cynicism of the Jew almost counterbalances his social unpleasantness. If he is destined to lead the plutocracy of the world out of Little Bethel he will fail, of course, to turn it into an aristocracy––i. e., a caste of gentlemen––, but he will at least make it clever, and hence worthy of consideration. The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world. But whenever you find a Davidsbündlerschaft making practise against the Philistines, there you will find a Jew laying on. Maybe it was this fact that caused Nietzsche to speak up for the children of Israel quite as often as he spoke against them. He was not blind to their faults, but when he set them beside Christians he could not deny their general superiority. Perhaps in America and England, as on the Continent, the increasing Jewishness of the plutocracy, while cutting it off from all chance of ever developing into an aristocracy, will yet lift it to such a dignity that it will at least deserve a certain grudging respect.

But even so, it will remain in a sort of half-world, midway between the gutter and the stars. Above it will still stand the small group of men that constitutes the permanent aristocracy of the race––the men of imagination and high purpose, the makers of genuine progress, the brave and ardent spirits, above all petty fears and discontents and above all petty hopes and ideals no less. There were heroes before Agamemnon; there will be Bachs after Johann Sebastian. And beneath the Judaized plutocracy, the sublimated bourgeoisie, there the immemorial proletariat, I venture to guess, will roar on, endlessly tortured by its vain hatreds and envies, stampeded and made to tremble by its ancient superstitions, prodded and made miserable by its sordid and degrading hopes. ––ibid.

[In America] the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy. ––”On Being an American,” 1922.

So far as I can make out there is no record in history of any Anglo-Saxon nation entering upon any great war without allies. The French have done it, the Dutch have done it, the Germans have done it, the Japs have done it, and even such inferior nations as the Danes, the Spaniards, the Boers and the Greeks have done it, but never the English or Americans. Can you imagine the United States resolutely facing a war in which the odds against it were as huge as they were against Spain in 1898? The facts of history are wholly against any such fancy. The Anglo-Saxon always tries to take a gang with him when he goes into battle, and even when he has it behind him he is very uneasy, and prone to fall into panic at the first threat of genuine danger. ––”The Anglo-Saxon,” 1923.

This reluctance for desperate chances and hard odds, so obvious in the military record of the English-speaking nations, is also conspicuous in times of peace. What a man of another and superior stock almost always notices, living among so-called Anglo-Saxons, is (a) their incapacity for prevailing in fair rivalry, either in trade, in the fine arts or in what is called learning–in brief, their general incompetence, and (b) their invariable effort to make up for this incapacity by putting some inequitable burden upon their rivals, usually by force. The Frenchman, I believe, is the worst of chauvinists, but once he admits a foreigner to his country he at least treats that foreigner fairly, and does not try to penalize him absurdly for his mere foreignness. The Anglo-Saxon American is always trying to do it; his history is a history of recurrent outbreaks of blind rage against people who have begun to worst him. ––ibid.

The effort is always to penalize [a foreigner] for winning in fair fight, to handicap him in such a manner that he will sink to the general level of the Anglo-Saxon population, and, if possible, even below it. Such devices, of course, never have the countenance of the Anglo-Saxon minority that is authentically superior, and hence self-confident and tolerant. But that minority is pathetically small, and it tends steadily to grow smaller and feebler. The communal laws and the communal mores are made by the folk, and they offer all the proof that is necessary, not only of its general inferiority, but also of its alarmed awareness of that inferiority. The normal American of the “pure-blooded” majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed, and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen. ––ibid.

The Klan is actually as thoroughly American as Rotary or the Moose. Its childish mummery is American, its highfalutin bombast is American, and its fundamental philosophy is American. The very essence of Americanism is the doctrine that the other fellow, if he happens to be in a minority, has absolutely no rights––that enough is done for him when he is allowed to live at all. ––”Clinical Notes” in The American Mercury, March 1925.

The thing that makes life charming is not money, but the society of our fellow men, and the thing that draws us to our fellow men is not admiration for their inner virtues, their hard striving to live according to the light that is in them, but admiration for their outer graces and decencies – in brief, confidence that they will always act generously and understandingly in their intercourse with us. We must trust them before we may enjoy them. Manifestly, it is impossible to put any such trust in a Puritan. With the best intentions in the world he cannot rid himself of the delusion that his duty to save us from our sins. ––Notes on Democracy, 1926.

The intellectual heritage of the race belongs to the minority, and to the minority only. The majority has no more to do with it than it has to do with the ecclesiastical politics on Mars. ––”The Golden Age of Pedagogy,” from the Baltimore Evening Sun, June 6, 1927.

The plain fact is that neither the whites nor the blacks know where they are heading. I have read as much as most men and yet I can never formulate a plausible picture of the relation of the races say fifty years hence. ––from a letter to George S. Schuyler, May 15, 1929.

The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered they lack any of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display. ––Treatise on the Gods, 1930.

Alone among the animals, [man] is dowered with the capacity to invent imaginary worlds, and he is always making himself unhappy by trying to move into them. Thus he underrates the world in which he actually lives, and so misses most of the fun that is in it. That world, I am convinced, could be materially improved, but even as it stands it is good enough to keep any reasonable man entertained for a lifetime. As for me, I roll out of my couch every morning with the most agreeable expectations. In the morning paper there is always massive and exhilarating evidence that the human race, despite its ages-long effort to imitate the seraphim, is still doomed to be irrevocably human, and in my morning mail I always get soothing proof that there are men left who are even worse asses than I am. ––The Living Philosophies, 1931.

That Negroes, in more than one way, are superior to most American whites is something that I have long believed. I pass over their gift for music (which is largely imaginary) and their greater dignity (which Dr. Eleanor R. Wembridge has described more eloquently than I could do it), and point to their better behavior as members of our common society. Are they, on the lower levels, somewhat turbulent and inclined to petty crime? Perhaps. But that crime is seldom anti-social…Professional criminals are rare among Negroes, and, what is more important, professional reformers are still rarer. The horrible appetite of the low-caste Anglo-Saxon to police and harass his fellow-men is practically non-existent among them. No one ever hears of Negro wowsers inventing new categories of crime, and proposing to jail thousands of their own people for committing them. Negro Prohibitionists are almost as rare as Catholic Prohibitionists. No Negro has ever got a name by pretending to be more virtuous than the rest of us. In brief, the race is marked by extraordinary decency. ––”The Burden of Credulity,” February 1931.

I think the Negro people should feel secure enough by now to face a reasonable ridicule without terror. I am unalterably opposed to all efforts to put down free speech, whatever the excuse. ––from a letter to George S. Schuyler, June 15, 1931.

Race relations never improve in war time; they always worsen. And it is when the boys come home the Ku Klux Klans are organized. I believe with George Schuyler that the only really feasible way to improve the general situation of the American Negro is to convince more and more whites that he is, as men go in this world, a decent fellow, and that amicable living with him is not only possible but desirable. Every threat of mass political pressure, every appeal to political mountebanks, only alarms the white brother, and so postpones the day of reasonable justice. ––from a letter to Walter F. White, December 6, 1943.

The objection to sterilizing criminals is mainly theological, and hence irrational…Certainly the chances that he will produce criminal children are sufficiently strong to justify subjecting him to the trivial injury and inconvenience of sterilization. On the one hand the sentimentalists argue that crime is a disease, and on the other hand they deny that it runs in families. All human experience is against this. Nine out of ten professional criminals come from families that are plainly abnormal. Even if it be argued that their criminality is a product of their environment…it follows that the environment they themselves provide for their children is very likely to produce more criminals. The theory that crime is caused by poverty is not supported by the known facts. The very poor, in fact, tend to be just as law-abiding as the rich, and perhaps even more so. ––A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1949.

No man can be friendly to another whose personal habits differ materially from his own. Even the trivialities of table manners thus become important. The fact probably explains much of race prejudice, and even more of national prejudice. ––ibid.

I believe that any man or woman who, for a period of say five years, has earned his or her living in some lawful and useful occupation, without any recourse to public assistance, should be allowed to vote and that no one else should be allowed to vote. ––ibid.

Portrait of H.L. Mencken. Artist unknown.

Portrait of H.L. Mencken. Artist unknown.

The more vocal and ambitious American Negroes talk constantly of their desire for all the common rights of the American Caucasian, but what they really have in mind, in most cases, is privileges––for example, his privilege of going at will into any society or environment that attracts him…What they forget is that color is the most crass and inescapable of all differentiations. The Caucasian is aware of it the moment one of them appears, and whether consciously or unconsciously it annoys him as an invasion of his natural human preference for his own kind. ––Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks, 1956 section 110.

The fact that what are commonly spoken of as rights are often really privileges is demonstrated in the case of the Jews. They resent bitterly their exclusion from certain hotels, resorts and other places of gathering, and make determined efforts to horn in. But the moment any considerable number of them horns in, the attractions of the place diminish, and the more pushful Jews turn to one where they are still nicht gewuenscht [not required]. ––ibid.

The more noisy Negro leaders, by depicting all whites as natural and implacable enemies to their race, have done it a great disservice. Large numbers of whites who were formerly very friendly to it, and willing to go great lenghts to help it, are now resentful and suspicious. The effort to purge the movies, the stage, the radio and the comic-strips of the old-time Negro types has worked the same evil. The Negro comic character may have engendered a certain amount of amiable disdain among whites, but he certainly did not produce dislike. We do not hate people we laugh at and with. His chief effect upon white thinking, in fact, was to spread the idea that Negores as a class are very amiable folk, with a great deal of pawky shrewdness. This was to their advantage in race relations. But when the last Amos ‘n’ Andy programme is suppressed the Negro, ceasing to be a charming clown, will become a menacing stranger, and his lot will be a good deal less comfortable than it used to be. ––ibid, section 232.

One of the things that makes a Negro unpleasant to white folk is the fact that he suffers from their injustice. He is thus a standing rebuke to them, and they try to put him out of their minds. The easiest way to do so is to insist that he keep his place. The Jew suffers from the same cause, but to a much less extent. ––ibid, section 272.

The theory that all the races of mankind have descended from one stock is whooped up assiduously by the prophets of egaltarianism, but there is really no support for it in the known facts. On the contrary, there is every evidence that man emerged from the primordial apes in two or three or even four or five distinct races, and that they survive more or less to this day, despite the wholesale intermingling that has gone on in civilized countries. In many of the isolated backwater of Europe––and of America too, as Appalachia witnesses––the traces of Neanderthal Man are much more evident than those of Cro-Magnon Man, who was vastly his superior. In any chance crowd of Southern Negroes one is bound to note individuals who resemble apes quite as much as they resemble Modern Man, and among the inferior tribes of Africa, say the Bushmen, they are predominant. The same thing is true of any chance crowd of Southern poor whites. It offers individuals so plainly inferior to the common run of Americans that it is hard to imagine them descending wholly from the same stock. ––ibid, section 379.

The Jewish theory that the goyim envy the superior ability of the Jews is not borne out by the facts. Most goyim, in fact, deny that the Jew is superior, and point in evidence to his failure to take the first prizes: he has to be content with the seconds. No Jewish composer has ever come within miles of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; no Jew has ever challenged the top-flight painters of the world, and no Jewish scientist has equaled Newton, Darwin, Pasteur or Mendel. In the latter bracket such apparent exception as Ehrlich, Freud and Einstein are only apparent. Ehrlich, in fact, contributed less to biochemical fact than to biochemical theory, and most of his theory was dubious. Freud was nine-tenths quack, and there is sound reason for believing that even Einstein will not hold up: in the long run his curved space may be classed with the psychosomatic bumps of Gall and Spurzheim. But whether this inferiority of the Jew is real or only a delusion, it must be manifest that it is generally accepted. The goy does not, in fact, believe that the Jew is better than the non-Jew; the most he will admit is that the Jew is smarter at achieving worldly success. But this he ascribes to sharp practices, not to superior ability. ––ibid, section 407.

Thanks to John Webb.

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