“Mastering the Science”
The American author and journalist, Henry L. Mencken (1880-1956) is of interest to many for his scintillating literary style, never quite equalled since. It’s of cinematic scale, an unlikely combination of stately Victorian and American razzmatazz. Another way to put it is, Dickens meets the Jazz Age.
Mencken was Baltimore-born and raised, and considered a star at the city’s The Sun for the first third of the 1900s. He also had a noted career in New York as a pundit and literary critic, especially for his work on the journal The Smart Set and later, The American Mercury. Both dealt with culture and writing but the later was more frankly political, displaying Mencken’s animus in particular to Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Mencken’s social and political ideas are, deservedly, much less remembered than the way he wrote, or if they are, it is often with derision. He was an inconsistent thinker, one of those who claim to see no difference between the factions and loftily stand above them in the civilizational contests, but things are rarely that simple as George Orwell, a contemporary, showed with clear logic.
Apparently due to pride in his German-American roots, Mencken opposed America’s entry into WW I. He deprecated the “Anglomaniacs” who wanted to help Britain, a cultural taproot for America, exit the morass of 1917. It was seen as rooting for the Kaiser but Mencken deepened his obstinacy, especially before and early during WW II. This ensured permanent exile to the political and journalistic wilds after Pearl Harbor.
As an example of Mencken’s singleminded-ness, in 1938 he wrote a defence of Japan’s hegemony in the Far East. He wrote virtually nothing about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, which broke relations with many Americans, Jewish and other, who had worked or socialized with him in the inter-war years. The publisher Knopf stood by him, on rather flimsy grounds from what I can see.
Mencken claimed to be the ultimate libertarian but the limits of his philosophy were tested by forces he never really understood. Pressroom cynicism, to some degree an American cliche since the late 19th century, and early-1900s social Darwinism, worked perhaps in the William James and Taft eras, but didn’t suit the lethal fascisms of 1914-1945. Mencken couldn’t or wouldn’t summon the intellect or will to rise to a radically new challenge.
Still, his literary skill, mainly stylistic in our opinion, cannot be question.
Mencken fervently opposed National Prohibition, as many upstanding Americans did then, of all stripes, and he 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.