Bilder Aus Schöner Zeit

The title is the caption of some drinking notes the author and critic H.L. Mencken included in one of his Prejudices books. A six-volume series from the 1920s, it presented essays on politics, literature, and society. The German means portrait of a lovely time, or era.

A selection of the essays was published in 1958 by author James Farrell. It was reprinted at least once, and the pieces are amongst Mencken’s most remembered writings.

Short as it is, the Bilder provides a capsule of memorable evenings out in pre-Prohibition America. Pabst’s “very dark” Kulmbacher is memorialized. So is musty ale in Washington, the ditto at Keen’s steakhouse in New York, different American forms of lager, Chianti in New York, a gin-and-vermouth cocktail, and much else.

The beer was often “got down”, as Mencken would put it, at sessions of the Saturday Night Club. This was a group of friends – doctors, professors, professional musicians, writers – who met to drink beer and often to play music. An image of the group c. 1914, drinking from lidded steins in Baltimore hotel, is preserved in the Maryland Digital Archives. Mencken is at the far left.

The Herr Abner referred to ran the Abner-Drury brewery in Washington. The way Mencken refers to him suggests the brewery’s pilsner rivalled Mencken’s king of beers, the true pilsner of Bohemia. Abner’s beer was probably Royal Pilsen, which appeared after Repeal for a time. Generally, Mencken was lukewarm on American lager and therefore, those he mentioned must have been particularly good. He didn’t omit Michelob, a rich all-malt beer which, as I have speculated earlier, must have tasted close to fine Czech lager.

Even in these brief notes, the Mencken humour surfaces. He mentions “twenty or thirty” Bass Ale nights, and then “five or six hundred” pilsner nights, showing where his brewing sympathies lay, but also a glimmer of his well-known anti-“Anglomania”.

It’s the same, or more so, when he mentions “two or three hot scotch” nights, as Scotch whisky came low on his totem of libations.

In this vein, beer is barely mentioned in the London chapter of his book Europe After 8:15, although Mencken gives English ale a partial compliment by likening its “acrid grip” to a fine Munich bock. George Sala used the same term, acrid, about 60 years earlier to describe London porter in a gin palace. I’d guess Mencken knew that reference and reprised it. In any case, and in this light, acrid suggests simply very bitter from English hops, not anything spoiled or sour. It is indeed not a surprise English beer had this character then – some of it still does.

I wonder what Mencken would think of the restored, and then some, American beer scene of today. He might, first, express surprise the Republic still exists, as in a 1930s article he projects that it will “blow up” (meaning simply, dissolve or end) within 100 years. As a firm supporter of all-malt beers from Bavaria and Bohemia, I think he would find many of the tastes favoured today, in his inimitable words, like “hot acids and lye”. But everyone’s bilder is relative to time, space, and taste – maybe even the curmudgeon of Baltimore would allow that.

Note re image: The image above is from the Washington, D.C. paper beer label pages at www.chosi.org, here.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 


4 thoughts on “Bilder Aus Schöner Zeit

  1. I think it’s not exactly true that he was lacking in education. His highest degree was a high school diploma, but he was an astonishingly voracious reader of everything, from pulp style fiction to philosophy and he was furthermore a great conversationalist, among the wits of the Algonquin Roundtable and more serious intellectuals, and leading politicians and scientists. He was not overmatched in any way by the writers he edited at The American Mercury.

    But I agree that he dismissed complex thinking — maybe not all the time, but typically when it contained any kind of explicit moral component. I think like a lot of cynical people, he took shortcuts in his thinking. He loved the clarity and reductionism of aphorisms and rules of thumb, and I think that a lot of his prejudice was based in that type of thinking.

    Having said that, he was a forceful voice against a lot of ugliness in his world. I think there was an element of his contrariness that liked to stand up against lynching and led him to support WEB Dubois even when his basic character had such a low opinion of African Americans.

    In the end I don’t think there’s any good explanation for the contradictions except for the “no duh” statement that he was a deeply conflicted man. I can’t imagine the world would be better off if there were a lot like him, but I’m glad there was one.

    On another personal note, I was surprised to find out just now that my daughter used to take dance lessons in the building where Mencken lived with his wife for a few years. Their old apartment was in a building that is now part of the Baltimore School for the Arts, and the building now includes a theater named in honor of Tupac Shakur, who attended the high school dance program. Mencken and Tupac have to be one of the oddest couples in US history. Maybe that pairing would have amused both of them.

    • I know he was very well-read and he had to be to hold those jobs at the Smart Set and American Mercury. But you can be well-read and seem to handle ideas well, but not really know how to think abstractly. That’s what liberal arts and other higher education give you – he left school at 15, it was a trade school basically, or technical high school. I am sure it was a good education for the time, but later, when he dismisses psychology and other social sciences as taught at university, I feel I can see his limitations. He admired the John Hopkins doctors though – of course there was some self-interest there. His love of music speaks more to the affective than intellectual sense, IMO.

      In the interview on youtube, I am sure you know it, he proudly states that he never attended university and wouldn’t change anything. I find it ridiculous that anyone would say that.

      I know about the position against lynching and his support of some black intellectuals. It fits with his theory of upper caste people, hence presumably his association with many Jews throughout his career.

      But the diaries are pretty harsh stuff, if you’ve read them, he sounds at time like a street tough and the description of the Germany trip in the 30s shows obvious fascist sympathies.

      That said, I agree he stood up for the extreme right of free speech, and the people who do that often are not the most palatable as we know. He was also very funny often in his writing. Irving Babbitt called it intellectual vaudeville, with which I’d have to agree.

      That is interesting about Tupac and the former Mencken-Haardt apartment house. I think he would be flabbergasted at modern society frankly, he wouldn’t get it at all. To understand modern life and American democracy, you have to accept the fundamental equality of all in society and he could never do that. London was similar, but so were many at that time, G.B. Shaw especially but Eliot too, Pound an extreme example. It really was a different time…

      Gary

  2. By happy coincidence, I’m reading Heathen Days right now, and have reached the chapter on Prohibition.

    I think you’ve done a great job talking about the contradictions of the man. A lot of modern day Mencken fans try to minimize or explain away the terrible sides to the man, and quite frankly I think he’d have little use for people like that — he’d respect honest adversaries more than suck ups. At least, he’d have more respect after stewing over their insults for a while — in the short run, he’d fire back with both barrels.

    In the context of alcohol, one of the great contradictions of the man is the way he hated FDR in spite of the fact that Roosevelt was a leader in overthrowing Mencken’s justly hated Prohibition. I think part of it was that he doubted FDR’s motives, which is certainly a little odd, since Mencken was generally bemused by the way politicians shifted positions as it suited them, and had little tolerance for crusaders who held to deep moral points of view.

    But then you don’t read Mencken for consistency. Or even necessarily truth, as judged by his open admission for faking facts in his newspaper days. What’s great about reading Mencken is the easy access to a clever, boundlessly energetic mind who fortunately had considerable sympathy for the human condition and outrage at injustice, qualities which manages to provide something of a counterbalance to the sometimes stunning and willful bad judgment he was also capable of showing.

    • Thanks, Greg, nicely put. He wasn’t alone in thinking of people in terms of categories, many did then, but of course not everyone. Jack London was a kind of analogue, except for the alcohol issue, London turned against it as you may know later in life.

      His comments on Jews and blacks, also white hillbillies, are pretty vicious when you read the diaries published in ’89. He would talk that way sometimes about other groups, even his own, but there is a denigrating factor about Jews that seems special to him. His father was anti-semitic, e.g. he would announce to people he was a non-Jewish German merchant (I read this in one of the bios), so he probably got a lot of it from that.

      Also, he wasn’t really well-educated. He tended to dismiss complex thinking, vs. the verbal pyrotechnics at which he was so good, and this lead him astray I think, e.g. to buy the superficial theories of race theorists. On the other hand, subtle thinkers like T.S. Eliot were very much prey to the anti-Jewish animus, so maybe that way to look at it only goes so far.

      At the end of the day, one has to take him for what he was – a flawed thinker, inconsistent and hypocritical, but a stylist who will never be equalled.

      Gary

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