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Commentary: Of Mencken and self-expression

By John Diers Nov 10, 2016

My grandfather was a learned man, not in a scholastic sense, because he never attended a great university, but he loved books and spent hours at the library and with his personal collection that filled the shelves of what he called his “salon,” a spare upstairs bedroom in a simple house on West Minnehaha Avenue in St. Paul. Growing up, I loved that space. It’s where, and how, I learned about H.L. Mencken.

Mencken and grandfather were contemporaries. Grandfather admired Mencken’s writing. He owned several of his books and followed his newspaper columns. Both men possessed a contrary spirit, a razor sharp wit and a low tolerance for the verities of American life and culture.

Writing this column on the eve of Tuesday’s election, I thought about the two of them, and wonder how they would respond to the presidential candidates and cope with the issues that divide the country today.

Mencken had a low view of politics and politicians, writing that, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Democracy for Mencken was, “a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” and as for politicians, “If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.” In the 1920s he was the terror of lawmakers, the clergy, the chamber of commerce, businessmen and the so-called respectable citizenry.

Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore in 1880, the son of a prosperous German businessman and cigar maker. Mencken was a bookworm, but he never went to college. He read Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” at age 9 and went on to consume the works of Addison, Steele, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the complete works of Shakespeare, Kipling and Thomas Huxley before he finished high school. At 19 he discovered Friedrich Nietzsche, quit his bookish ways and the family business and resolved, “to lay in all the worldly wisdom of a police lieutenant, a bartender, a shyster lawyer and a midwife,” and went to work in the city room of the Baltimore Herald.

Mencken had a reputation as a boy wonder, and early on decided he would be the American Voltaire, the enemy of all puritans, the heretic in the Sunday school and the unregenerate harasser of bourgeoisie sensibilities. Today he’d be banished as politically incorrect, but in a career that spanned five decades he wrote 19 books, including a magnificent four-volume study of the English language, along with thousands of essays and newspaper articles. His reach spanned everything from the Scopes Monkey Trial to every national political convention from Teddy Roosevelt to Truman. He rubbed elbows with the great writers of the 1920s and 1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber and more.

Yet, Mencken’s popularity faded in the 1930s as unemployment rose and bread lines lengthened. It wasn’t fashionable to be cynical and mock the New Deal and government when the country was at its lowest ebb since the Civil War.

Still, it wasn’t his political views that distinguished Mencken. It was the strength of his writing, his use of metaphor, his ability to put words together, his turns of phrase and the rapier sharpness of his thinking. Mencken didn’t suffer fools or try to be polite. Nothing seemed to matter more to him than uncensored self-expression. He didn’t win friends, nor did he set any standards for politically correct journalism. But he remains a legend among American writers, and his words are unlikely to be forgotten. That’s why grandfather admired him; I do, as well, and wish that he were among us, today.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)

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