H.L. Mencken: Semi-forgotten genius or a flawed but talented figure?

Photo (cc) 2013 by Paul Sableman

I recently attempted to fill one of the many gaps in my education by reading an anthology of work by H.L. Mencken, a Baltimore-based journalist of some renown during the first half of the 20th century (“The Vintage Mencken,” edited by Alistair Cooke). I came away disappointed.

Though I had already prepared myself for his well-advertised racism and antisemitism, I hadn’t realized that he was a misogynist as well. And, though he could certainly turn a phrase, many of his pieces do not hang together with any sort of coherence. For example, the longest — a critical essay about Theodore Dreiser — begins by mocking him, moves on to trashing him and then concludes with the observation that maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. I say this without any personal insight into Dreiser, as I don’t believe I’ve ever read him, not even his best-known novel, “Sister Carrie.” I just thought it was odd that Mencken couldn’t make up his mind.

Some of Mencken’s writing, of course, was satisfying. I particularly enjoyed this description of life as young reporter and how it had deteriorated into something approaching factory work:

Whether or not the young journalists of today live so spaciously is a question that I am not competent to answer, for my contacts with them, of late years, have been rather scanty. They undoubtedly get a great deal more money than we did in 1900, but their freedom is much less than ours was, and they somehow give me the impression, seen at a distance, of complacency rather than intrepidity. In my day a reporter who took an assignment was wholly on his own until he got back to the office, and even then he was little molested until his copy was turned in at the desk; today he tends to become only a homunculus at the end of a telephone wire, and the reduction of his observations to prose is commonly farmed out to literary castrati who never leave the office, and hence never feel the wind of the world in their faces or see anything with their own eyes.

Some of Mencken’s best pieces are obituaries of the famous and the infamous, and he especially rises to the occasion following the death of William Jennings Bryan. “He was, in fact,” Mencken writes, “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses…. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the barnyard.”

Good stuff, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Hunter S. Thompson’s monumental sendoff of Richard Nixon, which remains in a class of its own.

I enjoyed Mencken’s putdown of Woodrow Wilson, who has only gradually come to be regarded as one of our worst presidents. (“[H]e knew better than they did how to arrest and enchant the boobery with words that were simply words, and nothing else.”) Then again, Mencken disdained Franklin Roosevelt and even expressed some misgivings about Abraham Lincoln, offset by his grotesque nostalgia for the Confederacy.

I guess the best way to understand Mencken is not as a half-forgotten genius but, rather, as a flawed but talented writer who will probably continue to fade into obscurity.

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Apocalypse now: When political fervor turns religious

Painting by Frederic Schopin (1804-1880) depicting the First Crusade — “Battle delivered under the walls of Antioch between the crusaders led by Bohemond and the army of Karbouka, general of the Sultan of Persia, June 1098” (via Time.com)

Previously published at GBH News.

In the spring of 2016, as it was beginning to look like Donald Trump might actually win the Republican presidential nomination, I attended a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School by Michael Ignatieff, a prominent Canadian politician and academic. He was appalled by Trump’s rise, as were we all. But I was struck by his peculiarly Canadian analysis.

“Politics,” he said, “should be boring.”

American politics for the past half dozen years has certainly not been boring. Rather than simply voting (or not) and otherwise paying little attention to what’s going on in Washington, we have been riveted by the spectacle — elated when our candidates win, horrified when they lose.

You might even say we now approach politics with something approaching a religious fervor. And, in fact, that is exactly what is going on. As the country becomes increasingly secular, too many of us have turned to politics in our search for meaning.

“Americans overall are moving away from organized religion, particularly the mainline faiths,” writes Linda Feldmann in The Christian Science Monitor. “And that shift has dovetailed with the rise of an intense form of partisan politics that some see as quasi-religious, providing adherents with a sense of devotion, belonging, and moral certitude.”

This is not a healthy development. Political life is important. As Barack Obama once said, “Elections have consequences.” All kinds of issues depend on who wins and who loses — reproductive rights, public health, tax policy and whether children will be separated from their parents at the border and locked in cages, to name just a few.

But a society in which we can get along and work cooperatively with one another depends on keeping a certain distance from politics. If we come to believe that politics, like religion in its more fundamentalist manifestations, is a clash between good and evil, and that our side is always good and the other is always evil, then it becomes impossible to reconcile ourselves to defeat, to acknowledging that the other side is legitimate and has a right to wield power. No wonder we are so polarized.

Politics-as-religion comes in several different varieties. The most potent and dangerous can be seen on the Trumpist right, which has come to regard the former president as someone who is fulfilling God’s destiny. A poll cited by the Monitor found that the proportion of church-going white Protestants who believe Trump had been “anointed by God” rose from about 30% to nearly 50% between May 2019 and March 2020.

Now, this might seem like the opposite of a move away from religion. But I would argue that it’s part of the increasing secularization of society. Rather than embracing the purely spiritual, Trump-supporting Christians are finding meaning by rallying around a corrupt, womanizing charlatan because he makes them feel good about themselves.

Nor is that the only sign that this particular brand of Christianity is becoming more secular. The New York Times reported on Sunday that the leadership of the overwhelmingly white Southern Baptist Conference is facing a challenge from the right. Among the issues: the right-wingers are upset at the conference’s embrace of critical race theory. It’s hard to imagine a more worldly, less spiritual concern than that, but it’s certainly in keeping with evangelical Christianity’s alliance with the Republican Party.

What is happening on the left is quite different but nevertheless cut from the same politics-as-religion cloth. The left has been becoming increasingly secular for years, and many have turned to working on social-justice issues — not only because they believe in them, but because such work fills a space that religion once filled.

“A lot of people my age have found our spiritual home in the movement to restore and expand civil rights,” Bentley Hudgins, a transgender activist from Atlanta, told the Monitor. Then there is the left’s emphasis on language and the ideology of “cancel culture” — exaggerated by its critics, perhaps, but nevertheless a real phenomenon.

Now lest you think I’m engaging in bothsides-ism, painting the right and the left with the same brush in terms of their move away from religion and toward politics, let me assure you that I’m not. As Molly Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes in the Times, “It should be possible to hold one party responsible for voter suppression and the Capitol riot while recognizing that pseudoreligious ideologies and purity cults have multiplied on both ends of the political spectrum.”

But I do think we would all benefit if both sides turned down the temperature and stopped viewing politics in apocalyptic terms that are better suited to religion than to co-existing in a common culture.

Writing in The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid makes a provocative argument — that religion can offer a less fraught way of looking at the world than politics “by withholding final judgments until another time — perhaps until eternity.”

“Can religiosity be effectively channeled into political belief without the structures of actual religion to temper and postpone judgment?” he asks. “There is little sign, so far, that it can. If matters of good and evil are not to be resolved by an omniscient God in the future, then Americans will judge and render punishment now.”

The great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson used to say that he would pull a Gideons Bible from the nightstand at whatever hotel he was staying in and page through Revelation looking for inspiration.

“I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation,” he once said, “than from anything else in the English language — and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.”

But though Thompson may have been melding politics, journalism and religion, he was aiming for a purely literary effect. Today, the politically engaged — let’s call them over-engaged — are moving past the religion but keeping the fervor. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for us.

George McGovern, 1922-2012

George McGovern was the only presidential candidate I ever worked for. In the fall of 1972 I was a 16-year-old junior at Middleborough (Mass.) High School and a McGovern volunteer. Mainly I made calls to supposedly undecided voters, and was informed by more than one that I was working for a “communist.”

McGovern was one of the most decent people ever to seek the presidency, and I was sorry to learn of his passing this morning. I don’t know what kind of a president he would have been — I suspect he would have made Jimmy Carter look like a decisive executive by comparison. But he had a war hero’s aversion to war, and his generous spirit would have been welcome qualities in any of the presidents elected since his failed 1972 campaign. Needless to say, he would have been vastly superior to Richard Nixon, who defeated him in that historic landslide.

In April 1978, when I was a Northeastern co-op student working at the Woonsocket (R.I.) Call, I covered a speech McGovern gave in Boston, and took the photo you see here. It would probably take me half a day to find the clip, and it wouldn’t be of much account anyway. But I had just read Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” and I remember asking McGovern if Thompson’s description of McGovern’s reasoning for dropping Thomas Eagleton from the ticket was accurate.

McGovern paused a moment, and then confirmed Thompson’s account. I thought it was a remarkable admission. Thompson had written that McGovern believed Eagleton’s mental illness was so severe that he had concluded he couldn’t run the risk of his becoming vice president — or, possibly, president. In 2005, McGovern told the New York Times: “I didn’t know a damn thing about mental illness, and neither did anyone around me.”

The last time I saw McGovern was in 1984, four years after he had been defeated for re-election to the Senate. He was running for president again and was taking part in a debate among the Democratic candidates. It might have been at Harvard, but I’m not entirely sure. It seemed that time had passed him by, and indeed he wasn’t a factor in what turned out to be a two-man race between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart.

During the debate, McGovern sharply criticized the federal government’s decision to break up the AT&T monopoly two years earlier. Even then, it seemed like an old man’s lament. With the passage of time, it became clear that the break-up unleashed technological innovation that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. McGovern’s era was over, as even liberal Democrats had moved on.

After that, McGovern faded from view. It is to Bill Clinton’s credit that he gave the former senator useful work, and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Still, his declining years could not have been happy ones, as he lost two of his adult children following long struggles with alcohol abuse.

George McGovern was one of the great public figures of the second half of the 20th century. Simply put, he showed us all a better way. It was not his fault that we chose not to take it. And now his voice has been stilled.

Update: You’re going to see a lot of fine tributes to McGovern in the days ahead. This one, by Joe Kahn of the Boston Globe, is well worth your time.

Three must-reads from today’s Globe

Manager of the Year?

I usually make the New York Times my first Sunday read, but there’s so much local news going on that I reached for the Boston Globe instead. I’m glad I did.

1. Was it Hunter Thompson who coined the phrase “to make a jackal puke”? Whoever it was, it definitely applies to Todd Wallack’s story on Massachusetts CEOs who reward themselves with ever-larger compensation packages even as their revenues dip and they lay off workers. Special bonus: the poster boy for this bad behavior is Sean Healey, husband of former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who paid himself $18 million in 2009 — a 73 percent increase over the previous year.

2. Red Sox  beat reporter Amalie Benjamin has a terrific overview of the disappointing season that ends today. She correctly observes that Terry Francona should get Manager of the Year for his skillful handling of a team decimated by injuries and underperformers. Then again, Francona should get Manager of the Year every year. While you’re at it, give a listen to general manager Theo Epstein’s interview with the “Sports Hub” (98.5 FM) — so interesting I found myself driving around on Friday so I could catch the whole thing.

3. I have no intention of seeing “The Town,” but I have little doubt that columnist Kevin Cullen’s profile of Charlestown lawyer Charlie Clifford, defender of small-time bank robbers, is a hell of a lot more enlightening — not to mention entertaining.

Photo (cc) by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.