Saturday, May 1, 2010

More on Mencken: Thoughts on "An American Credo"

I was surprised to find next to nothing on the Web regarding this remarkable book, written by the magnificent H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan.  I don't know Nathan at all; I've never read him.  So, I can't say to what extent he contributed.  What I've read so far seems gloriously Menckenish, however.

An American Credo purports to be a study of the American, or the Americano as Mencken would say, circa 1920, and we were apparently a sorry lot back then.  Alas, I think Mencken would find us no less sorry now, and for much the same reasons.

I am somewhat surprised at the extent to which members of the primary Christian religious heirarchy of the United States are being lambasted.  Mencken was never fond of institutionalized religion, of course, but he seems to view the clergy as particular scoundrels.  Interestingly, the Protestant clergy are mocked far more than the Catholic as being vain, ignorant and venal.  Although the Catholic Church is criticized for coming to dominate the secular governments of the larger cities, it is given credit for being wordly and tolerant, and its heirarchy is seen as more intelligent, though as an elite leading its flock by the nose.  Of course, the absurdity of Prohibition, which loomed over that time, was a monstrosity of exclusively Protestant creation, and it is difficult to understand how any human being of moderate intelligence and sophistication could have supported such a law--not just a law but a constitutional amendment, forsooth. 

The other great event of the time, naturally, was the recently ended First World War, and I confess to delight at the manner in which Woodrow Wilson is lambasted as a Titan, a prodigy, of craven dishonesty.  He was, according to the authors, a "man of morals" rather than a "man of honour."  Assured of the morality of each of his often fantastically inconsistent actions, he plowed through and trampled on the solemn pledges he made at every opportunity, serene in his self-righteousness.  Those who opposed him, being sinners, deserved the harshest treatment.

Dr. Wilson was a very peculiar man; we can only hope we won't see his like again at the head of our government.  But I fear that in such times as these such a person is bound to "rise" to the top of our politics.  I think this is yet another age when the person of morals (to be more modern and correct) will win out over the person of honor.  I can't help but think of those looming on our political horizon, Republican and Democrat, as terrifying moralists, intent on our compliance with their thoughtless take on what is right.  More and more our politicians become preachers, and so it seems do our intellectuals.  We need a new Mencken, I think.


  1. (Dan Smith, webcasual at dee pee bee ess em eye tee aitch dot com) I, too, stumbled across this--Project Gutenberg text--read it, wanted to know more about it, and am frustrated by the difficulty of finding much out. The first dozens of Google hits are all to copies of it. The Wikipedia article has nothing but the bare facts of composition and publication.

    I simply cannot tell how seriously they meant any of it. It doesn't seem funny enough to have been intended as humor, it doesn't seem serious enough to have been meant to be taken literally (the idea that lynchings only occur because there is no other entertainment--"The introduction of prize-fighting down there, or baseball on a large scale, or amusement places like Coney Island, or amateur athletic contests, or picnics like those held by the more truculent Irish fraternal organizations, or any other such wholesale devices for shocking and diverting the proletariat would undoubtedly cause a great decline in lynching.")

    Once you get through the preface and get to the items themselves, 488 of them, it is even more mysterious. Again, they are not very amusing, even in sequence, and they just go on and on. Did they think this was a half-serious sociological contribution? Did they just write them down off the top of their heads or was there any pretense at systematic research? I find it frustrating that they do not even comment on the possible degree of truth or falsehood in any of the statements.

    But then, Mencken himself is a rather mysterious figure to me. He was obviously a big intellectual celebrity of some kind, in the sense that American intellectuals writing in the 1930s, 40s, 50s will toss of references to him with the implication that everyone knows all about him. He is already a semi-obscure figure to me--I think I first became aware of him when our high school, in the 1960s, put on a production of "Inherit the Wind." I wonder if young people today even know the name.

    Maybe, in addition to the usual business of the rise and fall of fame, people whose celebrity is a result of periodical writing are particularly subject to it. Another mysterious figure to me, in a completely different way, is Damon Runyon, another writer whom everyone seemed to know about in the 1940s, already fading in the 1950s. I came to Runyon by being curious about the musical "Guys and Dolls," have read a dozen or so of his stories, and, meh, they're not bad, but he isn't any O. Henry or Jack London. I guess he was a newspaper sports columnist and extremely famous while he was writing...

  2. P.S. Do you think we are supposed to understand him as insulting Woodrow Wilson by referring to him as "Dr." rather than "President?"

  3. Oh yes. Mencken was something of an elitist, but had no fondess for the academic elite, and Wilson can be considered as among that group. Then again, it may refer to "Reverend Doctor" which is a formal title for certian Protestant Christian clergy. Mencken's writings are always sardonic in tone. They are humorous, but his is a dark, mocking humor, rather like that of Ambrose Bierce.