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September 12: H. L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken (1880)

H. L. Mencken

It was on this date, September 12, 1880, that the "Bard of Baltimore," Henry Louis Mencken – H.L. Mencken – was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was an Agnostic, his mother a Lutheran, and Mencken grew up with a disdain for all orthodoxies, especially Christian. In a letter to historian Will Durant he wrote:

What I got in Sunday school ... was simply a firm conviction that the Christian faith was full of palpable absurdities, and the Christian God preposterous. ... The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves groveling before a being who, if he really exists, deserves to be denounced instead of respected.

Mencken defined Sunday School as "A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents."*

A journalist from his youth, he started as a reporter and eventually landed at the daily newspaper where he spent the greater part of his career, the Baltimore Sun. As a social critic, he became an internationally recognized curmudgeon. His wit was sharp and he recognized no sacred cows save cigars, booze (especially during Prohibition) and his hometown cuisine. He wrote 28 books – including one on American English, his first love – and edited the magazines Smart Set and American Mercury.

His antipathy toward religion was well enough established that the Sun's editor made him promise to leave it alone in his column, "The Free-Lance." But when Methodist ministers railed at Mencken's criticism of the Anti-Saloon League, his editor gave him leave to return fire. Mencken really cut loose when covering the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.

In brief, this is a strictly Christian community, and such is its notion of fairness, justice and due process of law. ... Its people are simply unable to imagine a man who rejects the literal authority of the Bible. The most they can conjure up, straining until they are red in the face, is a man who is in error about the meaning of this or that text. Thus one accused of heresy among them is like one accused of boiling his grandmother to make soap in Maryland.... (July 11)
A preacher of any sect that admit the literal authenticity of Genesis is free to gather a crowd at any time and talk all he wants. ... But the instant a speaker utters a word against divine revelation he begins to disturb the peace and is liable to immediate arrest and confinement in the calaboose beside the railroad tracks... (July 15)
The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti- evolution law and the simian imbecility under it. ... The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions. The chief prosecuting attorney, beginning like a competent lawyer and a man of self-respect, ended like a convert at a Billy Sunday revival. ... What he said, in brief, was that a man accused of infidelity had no rights whatever under Tennessee law... (July 18)

Some of Mencken's best statements about religion were published in the magazines he edited. In the Smart Set he wrote,

To sum up: (1) The cosmos is a gigantic flywheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute. (2) Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it. (3) Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him a ride. (December 1920)

In American Mercury Mencken wrote,

The Jews fastened their religion upon the Western world, not because it was more reasonable than the religions of their contemporaries – as a matter of fact, it was vastly less reasonable than many of them – but because it was far more poetic. (January 1924)
The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing - that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe – that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms. (January 1924)
The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. (March 1930)

Mencken observed that respect for religious opinion has a downside:

Consider, for example, the matter of religion. It is debated freely and furiously in almost every country in the world save the United States. The result is that all religions are equally safeguarded against criticism, and that all of them lose vitality. We protect the status quo, and so make steady war upon revision and improvement.**

Mencken could neither speak nor write during the seven years between his stroke and his death. H.L. Mencken died in Baltimore on 29 January 1956, age 75. "When I die, I shall be content to vanish into nothingness," said Mencken. "No show, however good, could conceivably be good forever. ... I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it."†

* H.L. Mencken, ed., A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1949 ("a selection from my out-of-print writings" -HLM).
** quoted by Gore Vidal in the Foreword to The Impossible H.L. Mencken, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, ed., 1991.
† Laurence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Time, 1977. Mencken also said, "Death [is] the last and worst of all the practical jokes played upon poor mortals by the gods. ... The hardest thing about death is not that men die tragically, but that most of them die ridiculously. If it were possible for all of us to make our exits at great moments, swiftly, cleanly, decorously, and in fine attitudes, then the experience would be something to face heroically and with high and beautiful words. But we commonly go off in no such gorgeous, poetical way. Instead, we die in raucous prose – of arteriosclerosis, of diabetes, of toxemia, of a noisome perforation in the ileocaecal region, of carcinoma of the liver. ... Thus the ontogenetic process is recapitulated in reverse order, and we pass into the mental obscurity of infancy, and then into the blank unconsciousness of the prenatal state, and finally into the condition of undifferentiated protoplasm. ... The cosmic process is not only incurably idiotic; it is also indecently unjust" (A Mencken Chrestomathy, "Exeunt Omnes," pp. 136-137).

Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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