Book Review: The Vintage Mencken

Cover image of The Vintage Mencken

My partner and I just returned from a rather lovely holiday up the Oregon coast. While I was gone, this website was migrated from the WordPress.com server to a self hosted server. If you are a subscriber, the transition should have been nearly seamless. My first day and half back was spent fixing bad links and tweaking my setup (I’m a writer, not a web master, so I’m slow at that sort thing). It seems like I have things in order now, but if you run into any missing pages or bad links, please let me know in the comments or by sending a quick email to longhunt at yahoo dot com.

During the part of my holiday when I wasn’t birdwatching or eating sea food, I had time to get some reading in. One of the books that I finished was The Vintage Mencken, which is a collection of essays from H.L. Mencken’s newspaper columns and books. Mencken (1880-1956) was a prolific journalist and author throughout the first half of the 20th century. He is particularly known for deflating the literary and political figures of his day with stiletto-like wit and criticism. In his later career he also translated Nietzsche and wrote books on philology. Many of his works are now available either from Project Gutenberg or in various online archives. For those who have never read him, however, The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, is an excellent sampling of the best pieces over his entire writing career.

Mencken came up in the golden age of newspaper journalism, when print was nearly the only form of mass media. In his later writings he evidences a distaste for radio and motion pictures, which he obviously felt were hopelessly low-brow. Had he lived a century later, however (which would, coincidentally have made him about my age) he would surely have been a blogger. His mature style would have been perfect for it–compact, yet thoughtful, incisive, and relentlessly snarky. I think that any modern blogger could learn a great deal from reading his columns and essays. While doing so, however, it is hard not to be struck by how many issues have changed little in a century: education is still going down hill, Americans are still boorish when it comes to culture, letters, and foreign policy, and politicians are still far too influenced by money and lobbying groups. As bloggers in the 21st century we tend to assume that we are breaking new ground and that the issues we confront are new an unique. It does us well to remember that, while the names and media have changed, the nature of our work really hasn’t.

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

Nothing and no one were safe from Mencken’s iconoclasty. His favorite targets were populism, plutocracy, modern art, religious fundamentalism, and especially the bourgeoisie. Mencken himself came from a comfortable upper-middle-class background, he decided early to pursue the unpredictable life of a writer. While he never hesitated to poke fun at artists, there is no question that he considered himself one of their number. Like most of us who reject the comfort and stability of our bourgeois roots, he had little or no respect for the middle class. His true admiration was for an aristocracy that did not exist in the United States. He repeatedly warns against confusing plutocrats with true aristocrats,

…[P]lutocracy, in a democratic state, tends inevitably, despite its theoretical infamy, to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even be mistaken for it.  It is, of course, something quite different.

Bourgeoisie of “the country club and interior decorator stage of culture”  have no understanding of art, fear new ideas, and are hopelessly conformist. True aristocrats, on the other hand, protect culture and tradition, yet are willing to accept eccentricity. Most importantly of all, according to Mencken, the bourgeoisie are cowardly. Personal courage is the highest virtue to an aristocrat but the middle class idolizes stability and security,

The one permanent emotion of inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear–fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.  What he wants beyond anything else is safety.  His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that it will protect him from all hazards, and not only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind–against the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based. (p. 105)

Me may or may not agree with Mencken’s views. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I tend to agree with him. Even if you don’t buy into his platform, this book is a delightful view into the events and idiosyncrasies if early twentieth century life, and an excellent all-around example of expository writing.

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