Monday, September 12, 2016

Mencken: A Sage Is Born

Mencken, on the right, celebrating the end of Prohibition in 1933

Henry Louis Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore," was born on this day in 1880. He was a leading journalist and author on the American scene, humorist, and a student of the American language. Mencken's stature seems to be on the rise over the last few decades. I'd guess it's because we experienced a concurrent rise in many nation-wide opportunities to watch logic, practicality, and skepticism destroy a multitude of political pretenders and their policies regardless of political persuasion.

The Sage of Baltimore at his residence in September 1955

After all these years, the Sage of Baltimore - Henry Louis Mencken - still has so much to tell us about the American experience. In his day he invented the term "booboisie" to refer to the masses who didn't read much, know much or even care much about their lives as citizens of a democratic republic. Today we could easily apply his term to the masses who are well-schooled but not well-educated, who apply emotion rather than reason and logic to their decision making, and who align themselves with coalitions of self-interests wrapped in collectivist totalitarianism. Another term for the modern-day "booboisie" is "moonbat". I think Mencken would have a even more colorful term for them if were still with us. And oh would he have a time with our political and social landscape today.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost office thereby.

As much as I enjoy reading all of Mencken's work, the autobiographical books remain my favorites. His three-part "Days" series, Happy Days(1940), Newspaper Days (19441), and Heathen Days (1943) should be essential reading. They cover life and times from birth through 1936, the most productive and positive time in his life. After the mid-30's, Mencken fell a bit out of fashion as his curmudgeonly persistence began to grind on the American psyche. His perceived sympathy with German nationalism helped undermine his reputation into the 40's.

Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

Those who want the full story should read Terry Teachout's, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2003). Teachout is a superb writer who treats his subject with objectivity and warmth. I also enjoyed the biography by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers but did not find it as readable.

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.


Photos and Illustrations:

H.L. Mencken Collection, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore


Democracy is.... "Notes on Journalism," Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1926;
Puritanism is.... " Sententae," The Citizen and the State, p.624;
If, after I.... "Epitaph," from Smart Set (December 1921)

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