Damning Words–a Biography of H. L. Mencken

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“Love him or hate him” goes a frequent saying.  But with H. L. Mencken, it is possible to do both.  He was a vicious attack dog toward Christianity and religion in all forms.  He could unleash powerful vitriol against the American South, working class people, American culture, and America in general.  But he was also capable of being incredibly funny, engagingly readable, and often right on target.

The life of Mencken is told in the book Damning Words: the Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken by Dr. D. G. Hart.  It is published by Eerdmans and is part of their Library of Religious Biography series.  (I have quite a few volumes of that series.)  Dr. Hart has previously written such fine books as Calvinism: A History and biographical studies of J. Gresham Machen and John Williamson Nevin.

Mencken was and never ceased to be a newspaper man, a journalist, a scribbler in the heat and passion of the newsroom working to get the latest edition out.  He was a cynic, a curmudgeon, a skeptic, a doubter, and a critic.  He could find the worm in every apple of pleasure.  It is apt that the cover of this book pictures him sitting in front of a typewriter.  That is where he lived so much of his life.  But it was far from being a dull or limited life.  He dwelt in the fascinating world where words live and meet, join together, reproduce, and create new sentences, paragraphs, pages, and ideas.

Maybe more than any other American, he should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He would have rejected it if he had won, by the way.  Worldly and brazen in many ways, Mencken spent much of his life living with his mother and taking care of her and other family members.  For a few years (after he turned fifty), he was happily married.  His wife, Sara, was ill when they married, and they knew it would be a short-lived marriage.  He was nevertheless devoted to her.

Perhaps one of the most attractive things about Mencken was his opposition to the New Deal and to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  He was largely what we would call a libertarian.  At the same time, he was out of touch with the nation and its economic crisis in the 1930’s, so he really never grasped what was going on in the hearts and minds of the populace.  It was this same willingness to venture opinions when they went against the grain that gained him friends and foes and cast him in many battles of the times.  Mencken’s life, as the title suggests, is a study of the times in which he lived and the religious issues of that age.

The big religious conflict that Mencken was associated with was the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.  For a number of reasons, Mencken loathed William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan, a 3 time Democrat Presidential nominee and loser, was a prominent evangelical and opponent of Darwinism.  A great orator in his day, he was not on his best game at the Scopes Trial.  While he was bested by Darrow on the witness stand, Bryan grasped some of the more dire implications of Darwinian thought.  Implications is a mild term considering some of the actual statements found in the eugenics-oriented biology texts of that time.

In Mencken’s eyes, Bryan could do nothing right.  Bryan’s death almost immediately after the trial ended did not elicit any sympathy or kind words from Mencken.  Along with the attacks on Bryan, Mencken went after various forms of the Christian faith of his time. Granted, there were aspects of Victorian moralism that were held up as Christian, but were not really defining of the Faith.

Mencken was a street fighter in many of his literary battles.  He railed against enemies high and low, in general and in particular. His forte was the newspaper column.  In fact, he is the prototype of many today who write columns bewailing various cultural and political issues.

But Mencken was also a largely self-taught scholar.  At several points, Hart reminds us that Mencken had only a high school education, and the school he attended was vocationally based.  From his youth, he read.  All of his life, he cultivated a rich harvest with words.  His book The American Language was and still is a major linguistic source.  He wrote several volumes that were loosely constructed as memoirs of his life.  He also published many of his columns in book form.

At a time when few Americans were reading Friedrich Nietzsche (okay, few have ever read Nietzsche), Mencken wrote a book analyzing the German philosopher.  Prior to that, he had written a book about the plays of George Bernard Shaw.  One wonders what Mencken would have done if he had pursued a higher education and landed a safe position in academia.  (Translate that as “he would be forgotten today.”)

Any reading of the life of Mencken is bound to give moments of joy alongside of some very sad thoughts.  Mencken’s last years–particularly 1948 to 1956–were quite depressing.  A stroke had impaired his ability to read and write, but he lived on.  His literary and newspaper careers had faded along the way.  The Great Depression and World War II changed the world and his reading public.  Making matters worse, Mencken was German by heritage and disposition.  While no defender of the Third Reich, he was out of step with the times.

Lots of writers, particularly journalists, enjoy their day in the sun. Later, they are forgotten.  Who still reads William Allen White, Richard Harding Davis, or Edward R. Murrow?  But Mencken is still read, loved, and quoted.  He is often good for a quote.  There is no way I would teach on Puritanism without referencing his quip:  “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

I don’t agree with it, but I always get a chuckle out of it.

A year or so ago, I wrote two article for PorterBriggs The Voice of the South titled “The Skeptic and the Theologian” that can be found here and here.  

In these two articles, I dealt with Mencken and a fellow citizen from Baltimore, theologian J. Gresham Machen.  I wish I could have read Hart’s book before I wrote the articles.  I don’t think it would change any content, but it would have enhanced my love for Mencken’s gifts and sorrow over his views and life.