Author and journalist, Henry L. Mencken (1880-1956) is of interest to many on account of his scintillating style, one never equalled since. It’s of cinematic scale, an unlikely combination of stately Victorian and American razzmatazz. Another way to put it: Dickens meets the Jazz Age.
Mencken was Baltimore-born and raised, and was considered a star at Baltimore’s The Sun for the first third of the 1900s. He also had a noted career in New York as literary critic, especially his work on the The Smart Set and The American Mercury.
Mencken’s social and political ideas are, deservedly, much less remembered, or if they are, it is frequently with derision. He was an inconsistent thinker, one of those who claim to see no difference between the factions and despise them all even though in civilizational contests, things are never that simple. (Plus ça change…).
Probably due to his German-American roots, he opposed American entry in WW I. He deprecated the “Anglomaniacs” who wanted to help Britain – America’s cultural taproot – exit the morass of 1917. This was seen as rooting for the Kaiser. He repeated this obstinacy, digging himself in deeper, for WW II. This ensured permanent exile to the political wilds, and his undoing as a pundit.
In 1938, he wrote a case for Japan’s hegemony in the far east. He said virtually nothing about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, which broke relations with many Americans, Jewish and other, he had worked or socialized with in the inter-war years. The publisher Knopf stood by him, but on rather flimsy grounds from what I can see.
Mencken claimed to be the ultimate libertarian but the limits of that philosophy were tested by forces he never really understood. At all events, pressroom cynicism and c. 1900 social Darwinism worked (maybe) on the American stage in the William James and Taft era: it didn’t suit the lethal fascisms of 1914-1945. But he couldn’t muster the intellect or will to rise to the new challenge.
Still, his literary talent endures; that no one can question.
Mencken was a fervent opponent of National Prohibition, and wrote frequently on beverage alcohol. He was an avid homebrewer, for example, through Volstead. But even in beeriana his inconsistency shows. In a late 1940s radio interview you can hear on youtube, when asked about his reputation as a beerman, he downplays it, saying he favoured the “wine of the country” and if it was beer he drank that.
The extract below, from Europe After 8:15 (1914), authored by Mencken with two others, shows rather a different picture. So do other writings of Mencken on the topic of the malt.
The Technicolor description of the bock beer experience, indeed the chapter it is part of, are some of the best things in Menckeniana (when you know Mencken well, it is obvious he wrote the Munich section alone). The chapter should be read in full by connoisseurs of bibulous social history, since it consists in good part of a romp through the city’s beer halls and gardens; meanwhile, savour the taste note on Munich bock. Its grandeur may stand alone in the annals of beer appreciation.
N.B. Not surprisingly, Michael Jackson was a fan of Mencken’s talent with language. One time I browsed a Cincinnati bookstore with him, spotted a vintage volume of Mencken’s The American Language, and made a gift of it to Michael on the spot. It was followed by a dinner in a German-American restaurant. Cincinnati after 8:15, you might say.
Note re images: The first image is available on numerous Internet pages and is believed in the public domain. The second three, from the book mentioned, was sourced via HathiTrust, here. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong solely to their lawful owners or authorized users. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.