Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rediscovering H. L. Mencken

I've spent the past few days re-reading The Bathtub Hoax by H. L. Mencken. As a college freshman, I first encountered Mencken and read everything by him I could find. Mencken turned out to be the biggest influence upon me as a writer, and his political and social views-----he was a "libertarian" long before the termed was coined-----shaped, and continue to shape, my social and political views.

Mencken wrote vigorous yet elegant prose; his writing combined both power and delicacy. He was a keen observer of people and society, and never was hesitant to make his opinions and feelings clear. Mencken was a practitioner of what is today called "the conversational style" (although he would've surely disdained and mocked the term). For Mencken, writing was a one-to-one conversation between an author and the reader, an act of intensely personal communication. He never hid behind such formalisms as "your author" or "the reader," nor did he geld his writing with such timidities as the passive voice. Reading Mencken for the first time was like my first taste of undiluted vodka-----it was a shock to my system and left a burning sensation. And I futilely tried to model my own writing on Mencken's. I like to think I eventually developed my own style as I matured as a writer, but it's obvious "my own style" has many elements of Mencken in it. Some are purely stylistic, while others are attitudinal. As an example of the latter, it was from Mencken that I picked up the technique of deliberately provoking readers by directly challenging their beliefs and assumptions. Mencken did so for a worthwhile reason, namely to get readers to analyze why they believed certain things to be true or just, and I often do the same (although I usually try to soften the blow with some humor).

While re-reading The Bathtub Hoax, I was repeatedly astounded at how often Mencken's social and political observations, mostly made in the 1920s and 1930s, are still very relevant today----or perhaps even more so than when originally written. Take, for example, the following paragraphs from an essay titled "Notes on Government" which was published in 1926:

The light began to dawn, I believe, at the precise moment when the prohibitionists ceased arguing that prohibition would cure all the sorrows of the world, and began arguing that it ought to be submitted to because it was the law-----in other words, at the moment when they introduced the doctrine of law enforcement. That doctrine, it soon became obvious, had little foundation in logic; it was almost purely mystical. What it amounted to was a denial that the citizens of a free state had any natural or inalienable rights at all. If, by whatever chicanery, a law was passed ordering them to cut off their children's ears, then they were bound to obey. If, by the same chicanery, a law was passed prohibiting them to wash the same ears, then they were equally bound to obey. It needed little gift for ratiocination to penetrate to the absurdity of this doctrine. Or to grasp the fact of its extreme antiquity. Even a moron could see it was simply the ancient dogma of the king's divine right in a new false face. It could not be disentangled from the concept of the citizen as a mere subject. Above him stood an occult something called the government, a force distinct from the people and superior to them. Did the people, under democracy, create it and give it the breath of life? Then, once created, it was nevertheless distinct from them and superior to them. They were forbidden to resist it.

When Mencken wrote the above, it was in reference to the Prohibitionists of the 1920s. Today, their ideological descendants are everywhere, hectoring us about too many "trans fats" (whatever the hell they are) in the foods we eat, not being sufficiently "green" and energy efficient, not using enough sunscreen, etc., etc. Mencken identified those ideological descendants as "wowsers," a word he first used in 1926 in an essay titled "Yet More Hints for Novelists":

Since the earliest days, as every one knows, American jurisprudence has been founded upon the axiom that it is the first duty of every citizen to police his neighbors. There is no such thing in this grand and puissant nation as privacy. The yokels out in Iowa, neglecting their horned cattle, have a right, it appears-----nay, a sacred duty!----to peek into my home in Baltimore and tell me what I may and may not drink with my meals. A Methodist preacher in Washington, inspired by God, determines what I may receive in the mails. I must not buy lottery tickets because it offends the moral sentiments of Kansas.

Such are the laws of the greatest free nation ever seen on earth. We are all governed by them. But a government of laws, of course, is a mere phantasm of political theories: the thing is always found, in inspection, to be really a government of men. In the United States, it seems to me, the tendency is for such men to come increasingly from the class of professional uplifters. It is not the bankers who run the ostensible heads of state, as the liberals believe, nor the so-called bosses, as the bosses themselves believe, but the wowsers. . . . . . Thus we are run by wowsers-----and wowser is an Australian word that I hereby formally nominate for inclusion in the American language. . . . . . What does it mean? It means precisely what you think of inevitably when you hear it. A wowser is a wowser. He bears a divine commission to regulate and improve the rest of us. He knows exactly what is best for us. He is what E. W. Howe calls a Good Man. So long as you and I are sinful he can't sleep. So long as we are happy he is after us.

And nothing has changed in the 62 years since Mencken wrote those words, except perhaps things are worse now. Wowsers now come from the left and right sides of the political spectrum and in all manner of guises. Those who are tormented by the idea of someone eating trans-fats are no different from those who are horrified by the notion of adults gambling with their own money in a casino; both are busybodies who can't stop sticking their noses into the private lives of persons engaging in peaceful activities they happen not to like. We are entirely too polite toward wowsers. We need to tell them to go to hell more often and, if that fails, we need to be more profane and threatening toward them. Instead of listening politely like Oprah and then thanking them for sharing their gibberish with us, maybe we should instead take them out back and bullwhip some sense into them.

Many called Mencken a cynic. He certainly did not take an optimistic view of the human condition, as the following illustrates:

What lies beneath all this is simply an ancient fact, noted long ago by William James, and before him by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and before him by the Greeks, and before the Greeks by the first human politicians. It is the fact that the race of men is divided sharply into two classes: those who are what James called tough minded, and demand overwhelming proofs before they will believe, and those who are what he called tender minded, and are willing to believe anything that seems to be pleasant. It is the tender minded who keep quacks of all sorts well fed and active, and hence vastly augment the charm of the world. They find it wholly impossible to distinguish between what is subjectively agreeable and what is objectively true.

Is that cynicism? No. Instead, it is a powerful, simple statement of an unfortunate truth. In the paragraph above, Mencken neatly explains why so much goes wrong in the world, why so many grand schemes crash and burn, and why so many people waste their money on miracle diet pills, no-money-down real estate investments, and psychic weekends in Sedona, Arizona. If such foolishness was confined to the private sphere-----if it went no further than some goobers really thinking they can make $5000 a day from home with their own internet business-----it wouldn't be a big deal. But unfortunately our social institutions (like schools) and government are now overrun by the tender minded, the sort who sincerely believe everyone can be above average with the proper instruction and that you have solved a problem by passing a law. Trying to engage the tender minded in a rational dialogue is like trying to teach your dog to conjugate irregular French verbs. You'll only get frustrated for your efforts, and if you persist too long you'll go insane.

While he never attended college, Mencken was a believer in education. But it was "education" of a special sort, as he wrote in 1927:

The discovery of fraudulence, I believe, is one of the principal aims and achievements of true education, if not the first of them all. A man soundly fitted for life is not one who believes what he is told, as a schoolboy believes, but one trained in differentiating between the true and the false, and especially trained in weighing and estimating authority. If the young man at college learns nothing else save the fact that many of the bigwigs of the world are charlatans, and that positions and attainments do not necessarily go together, then he has learned something of the utmost value. The tragedy of the world is that the great majority of human beings never learn it.

I need to stop before I quote the entire text of The Bathtub Hoax. (The book's title comes from one of Mencken's essays, an entirely fictitious/satirical account of how the bathtub was invented in Cincinnati in 1842; despite its obvious ridiculousness, his essay was, to Mencken's delight/horror, taken as absolute fact by most readers.) If you want a definitive survey of his work, I recommend A Mencken Chrestomathy.

Mencken was kept well away from impressionable high schoolers when I attended four decades ago, and I suppose that is even more the case today. Indeed, America would be even more querulous, have many fewer people willing to quietly submit to established authority, and show much less empathy to those suffering from self-inflicted wounds if the majority of the population had some exposure to Mencken. You could make a strong case those would all be bad things.

On the other hand, we'd have fewer damn fools running loose if Mencken was part of our educational curricula, and that would be a very good thing. A very good thing indeed.