Beer and Superior Civilization

As I mentioned earlier, the Baltimore-born author and critic Henry L. Mencken participated in a small circle of American writers and intellectuals, mainly based in New York, for whom the best traditions of Europe encompassed the finest beer. Europe meant here strictly Germany and Bohemia. I mentioned how, as late as 1928 with German instability growing and a new war on the horizon, George Jean Nathan was still writing semi-flippant rhapsodies on Europa’s beer, portraying (justly) Czech Pilsner Urquell as an unchanging avatar.

This beer had iconic importance for these men, indeed symbolically. The beer represented style and finesse in an ostensibly unpromising field, the everyman’s beer. Just talking about beer this way was an affront to Anglo-Yankee sensibilities, a provocation that became a lightning rod as Prohibition loomed ever closer.

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

Prefaces was a series. The first three volumes deal with writers Mencken felt of great importance in Anglo-American letters: Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, and James Huneker. The fourth is more a frontal assault on what Mencken viewed as Puritanical attitudes that hobbled a freer, more original American literature and social environment.

Literary and artistic modernism, which encompassed notions of dissent and social indiscipline (think Picasso, Futurism, Joyce) was a necessary evolution for American culture, in Mencken’s view.

Yet, Mencken typically was contradictory. Despite being a music lover he never developed an appreciation for jazz, for example, and let his moral relativity embrace an abominable flirtation with fascism. Also, his diaries take bourgeois-sounding pains to show why he didn’t abuse alcohol – hardly an edgy stance. He had plenty of social prejudices too, despite being a do-your-own-thing avatar.

His anti-Semitism, very evident in the diaries published long after he died in the 1950s, has permanently damaged his literary reputation.

Writing on the now-forgotten Huneker, he used a travel account Huneker wrote in 1915 (New Cosmopolis) to lyricize on the importance of Pilsner Urquell beer. Huneker had mainly visited European cities but also some American ones. Mencken portrays Huneker as fascinated by the beer to echo his own infatuation. In fact, Huneker made only a few approving references to the topic, consistent with an observant American-in-Europe, but nothing as over-the-top as Mencken implies.

Mencken evidently found an excuse to lyricise on the beer via Huneker’s more or less standard obeisance.

You can read, here, Mencken’s typically supercharged prose on the great brew of Bohemia. Note how he emphasizes in general the allegedly superior values of the Continent. I can’t extract a few lines, read the three pages to get the full Mencken effect (pp. 185-187).

Mencken demonstrates how, in some ways, he was distant from the Anglo-American temperament. It is inconceivable anyone would write about any British, much less American beer, in this way, even today. Michael Jackson tried creditably, but wasn’t at the same level.

It is impossible, probably, because an alcohol drink, no matter how good, always will have a limited cultural value outside (disappeared) old Europe. Mencken’s delirious riffing on Huneker’s approval of Bohemian cooking is the same thing, no one could write this way today. Even accounting for some satirical intent, Mencken clearly believed what he said. He wrote at a specific time recalling a world fast disappearing and certainly now lost. Fortunately, the beer remains, and is as good as ever, apparently.

Given how Mencken ended on the fringes of American letters and public life by 1940 (due to his incoherent Isolationism), clearly he never got his priorities straight. Still, he is remembered today, mainly for the scintillating way he wrote.

2 thoughts on “Beer and 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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