“Mastering the Science”
The American author and journalist, Henry L. Mencken (1880-1956) is of interest to many for his scintillating style, never quite equalled since. It is 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. After a largely technical education and skipping university, he turned to journalism. He was a star at Baltimore’s The Sun until the early 1930s (when his nemesis F.D.R. was elected). He also had a notable career in New York as pundit and literary critic, especially at the literary journal The Smart Set and later, the opinion magazine The American Mercury.
Both dealt with culture and writing but the latter was more frankly political, showcasing Mencken’s animus in particular to the New Deal.
Mencken’s social and political ideas are, deservedly, less remembered than the way he wrote. He was an inconsistent thinker, one of those who claimed to see no difference between factions and loftily to stand above them, but things are rarely that simple as his late contemporary George Orwell showed with clear logic.
Due in part probably to his German-American ancestry, Mencken opposed America’s entry into WW I. He derided the “Anglomaniacs” who wanted to help Britain fight the Kaiser. This was seen as rooting for Germany and Austria but Mencken deepened his obstinacy, even ahead and during WW II.
After Pearl Harbor, this ensured permanent exile to the political and journalistic wilderness. Illness after WW II ended for practical purposes his career.
Still, his writing skill cannot be questioned.
He fervently opposed National Prohibition, as many upstanding Americans did then, of all stripes. He wrote not infrequently on beverage alcohol and was an avid home-brewer, for example, through the Volstead period. 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 beer man, he downplayed 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), written by Mencken with two others, shows a somewhat different picture. So do other passages of Mencken on beer.
The technicolor description of bock beer, indeed the chapter of which it is part, are some of the best booze writing by Mencken (clearly he authored these parts). The chapter should be read by connoisseurs of bibulous social history, as it consists in good part of a romp through the city’s beer halls and beer gardens.
The grandeur of the notes below on bock beer may stand alone in the annals of beer appreciation.
Note re images: all sourced via HathiTrust, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.