The Man Who Was Anti-Everything
`MENCKEN was an anti-Semite,'' Charles Fecher states in his introduction, ``clearly and unequivocally.'' And that feature of H.L. Mencken's character has been the most salient ingredient of nearly every review of this diary, in some cases to the exclusion of any other discussion. Which is unfortunate. The diary is valuable for many reasons, only some of which have anything to do with Mencken himself. It tells valuable stories about people in the arts and letters of the period; it provides rich political profiles and sketches of men of power; and it contains quasi-essays about the state of American journalism at the time.
That Mencken was anti-Semitic will not surprise anyone who has read much of his other writing. He was anti-everything. Few authors or composers pleased him. Fewer politicians. Whole blocks of people were roasted and discarded. Some by their profession - lawyers for example; others by geography - Southerners were the worst. He had scant regard for the British and disliked being on their side in wars. He excoriated religions, sects, cults, and any popular movement. He even disliked most editorial writers and columnists. Given all that, why should he not be expected to slur Judaism as well?
Fecher, a Mencken scholar, tries to explain how Mencken's character could separate his loathing for a group from his respect and even tenderness for individual members of that group. The author of ``Mencken: A Study of His Thought,'' published by Knopf in 1978, Fecher tries earnestly. But the thing cannot be explained to anyone's satisfaction.
Mencken held a position in American journalism and literature seldom equaled, but he did so (and has continued to be on anyone's essential reading list) by exercising two things: his proclivity for obloquy and his phenomenal output of written words. His wit was blunt and loud, purposely lacking in finesse, but he seemed to go after things that needed a good battering. His appeal was that he never, in the midst of his attacks, looked back over his shoulder to see how the thing was playing. And the heroic blunderbuss ferocity of the attack carried the argument.
And yet there was a certain honesty in his approach. If he felt that a man was a boob or a fool, he used those words, rather than looking about for some sniffy pejorative more acceptable at the table. He seemed to avoid self-importance himself, coming back to his unpretentious house in Baltimore after dining with literary and political luminaries.
The diary is worth reading, even if you have no particular interest in the author, for two reasons. First, it is very frank history - Mencken provided that it be sealed until 25 years after his death. And second, it is reassuring because Mencken is so dead wrong in his predictions and Jeremiads.
For example, he predicted the demise of the American newspaper to radio. He was wrong, and for me, that takes the fear out of current predictions that newspapers will be eradicated by television. He portrayed America as greed-ridden and ignorant, which description is still being made to little effect. And he railed at our sloppy, loud and cacophonous democracy, led by venal boobs and myopic fools. But his observations were made effectively 50 years ago, and critics are still saying the same things. All of which leads me to the conclusion that 50 years hence, they will still be at it, and the country will still be here.
Two surprises come out of the diary. First, that Mencken kept himself unconcerned about the progress of World War II (there is almost no mention of the progress of the conflict). And second, that he admits, with some finality, that in spite of being a second generation German-American, after 62 years he found it ``impossible to fit myself into the accepted patterns of American life and thought.'' He writes, sadly, ``After all these years I remain a foreigner.''
Running through the diary is also a sad and tender love story. Mencken married late in life, at 50. His wife, Sara, died four years later. His recollections of their brief happiness, which occur annually or more often, are heart-stopping (see excerpt below).
Mencken's diary is funny, outrageous, authoritative and tender in turns. That it also confirms a criticism of him as indulging in ugly anti-Semitism is too bad and hard to get around. But his writings are clear and precise, and like nearly all of the millions of words he turned out in his lifetime, they are interesting.