Beer As Symbol of Superior Civilization

As I have mentioned earlier, Henry L. Mencken was part of a small circle of European-influenced critics and writers for whom the best traditions of Europe encompassed its finest beer. Europe here meant strictly Germany and Bohemia. I mentioned how, as late as 1928 with German instability and war clouds looming, George Jean Nathan was still writing semi-flippant pieces on the importance of Europa beer quality, and portraying the Czech Pilsner Urquell as an unchanging talisman.

This beer had an iconic importance for these men, a symbolic one in fact. It represented the height of European style and sophistication in the ostensibly unpromising subject of the citizen’s beer. Just talking about beer this way was an affront to Anglo-Yankee sensibilities, one of their intentions and something which became a lightning rod as Prohibition marched ever closer.

It would be surprising that Mencken didn’t turn his lyrical gifts to this shared interest, and he wasn’t to disappoint.  He chose his pistol in A Book Of Prefaces, written in 1917 with the war in full swing in Europe, now with America’s full involvement, of which he disapproved. The book does not address war questions – a critical stance would have been unpublishable anyway – but rather is a work of literary and social criticism.

It deals serially with three writers Mencken felt were of great importance in Anglo-American letters, people he thought un- or under-appreciated: Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, and James Huneker. The fourth “preface” was more a frontal assault on what Mencken viewed as Puritanical attitudes hobbling a freer, more original American literature and social environment. Literary and artistic modernism, with their related notions of dissent and social indiscipline (think Picasso, Futurism, Joyce) was a necessary evolution for the improvement of American culture in Mencken’s view.

(Mencken typically was contradictory, as he never developed an appreciation for jazz, for example, and let his sense of moral relativity descend to an abominable flirtation with fascism. Also, in his diaries, he takes bourgeois-sounding pains to show why he wasn’t an alcohol abuser – hardly devil may care.).

In his essay on the now almost-forgotten Huneker, he uses a tour Huneker wrote of American and mostly European cities in 1915 (New Cosmopolis) as a chance to lyricize on the importance of Urquell beer. He appropriates Huneker’s alleged fascination with Urquell’s merits as a springboard for his own similar idea. In fact, Huneker’s book (I checked) makes a few approving references to this beery topic, but nothing approaching the characteristic Wagnerian Mencken approach.

Still, Mencken needed an “excuse” to talk about the beer and evidently found one via Huneker’s manifest, and uncontroversial, liking for a consumer commodity.

Here, you can read Mencken’s typically supersonic encomium to the (certainly) great brew of Bohemia; note how it is used symbolically to mark Huneker’s supposedly superior Continental sensibility. I can’t extract just a few lines, you don’t get the full Mencken effect unless you read three pages going in this type of discussion (see at least from 185-187).

Mencken shows in this way how un-English and un-American he was. It is inconceivable anyone could write about any English, much less American beer, in this way, then but even now. It is impossible because an alcoholic stimulant, no matter how good, always will have a limited cultural value in this world. Mencken, like Huneker, admired the great achievements and high emotional quotient of European music. This affective perspective is applied to the topic of foodways, indeed you can read in the same book Mencken’s delirious approval of Huneker’s liking for Bohemian cooking.

Despite all the achievements in our food and beverage life since WW II, nothing approaches the kind of veneration Henry Mencken demonstrated in this area. As a satirist, one wonders whether he was really serious, but I think in Prefaces he was.

One can argue, given how the man ended on the fringes of American life and international morality by 1940 (his incoherent isolationism), that he didn’t get his priorities straight. However, from the point of view of modern beer criticism, his comments on Urquell anticipate some of the ways we talk about beer, and wine and whisky, today. Few modern writers though could equal a wound-up Mencken.



2 thoughts on “Beer As Symbol of Superior Civilization

    • It was German on both sides. His father was a well-off tobacco merchant. Mencken left school at 15, but had a good technical high school education for the time. He was a newspaperman from a young age, like Jackson, and self-taught for the most part. His German roots certainly influenced his social and political attitudes, and finally it came to haunt him. Not so much during WW I, but WW II. He tended to equate both sides, fascist and the FDR interventionist stance, i.e., as equally culpable, and thought the war not fighting for that reason. Despite being immersed as you can see in the history of English literature and language, he liked to present himself as anti-English. This is why IMO he never praises, or hardly, English beer, to him German lager extending to Bohemia (really part of the latter tradition) was best in the world. He was influenced by the Social Darwinist movement of the day. Still, he was a great prose stylist, that has to be conceded, and he is remembered for that and also his learned history of the American language, which in American terms is a Samuel Johnson-like achievement.


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