On Mencken and Waugh

H.L. Mencken at his desk in the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun.

Ardmore, Ireland.

Reading Mencken’s diaries and yet another book about E. Waugh. Both are cursed by their admirers, young blimps on the make, looking around for role models. Cultists latch onto the bullying displayed in Waugh’s diaries and letters, while imitators like Emmett Tyrell of The American Spectator manage to ape Mencken’s loutishness but without his fun or learning.

A prodigious worker all his life, Mencken lamented near the end that he had not worked even harder. There was always something waiting to written. “If I am alive two or three years hence,” Mencken wrote in his diary in 1931, “I shall tackle Homo Sapiens, a large treatise on the human race setting forth all my ideas on the subject. My plan is to document it heavily…After that, what? I scarcely know. I’d like to do a psychological autobiography, describing the origin and growth of my ideas…I’d also like to do a book on government.”

In 1964, two years before his death, Waugh confessed to Christopher Sykes: “My life is roughly speaking over. I sleep badly except occasionally in the morning. I get up late. I try to read my letters. I try to read the paper. I have some gin. I try to read the paper again. I have some more gin. I try to think about my autobiography. Then have some more gin and it’s lunch time. That’s my life. It’s ghastly.”

Mencken hated Roosevelt for his success in getting America into the war, but I could find in the diary no admiration for Hitler and a few disobliging remarks about Nazis. Alfred Knopf, publisher of Mencken’s American Mercury, had famously reproved Mencken for being credulous about Hitler. The diary’s editor, Charles Fecher, declares that the entries establish that Mencken was an anti-Semite, a charge against which he had previously defended him.

Evidence for the anti-Semitism is mostly to be found in Mencken’s constant naming of people as Jews or Jewesses, but that is not the end of it. There is a bland account of the eviction of a member of Baltimore’s Maryland Club on the grounds that he had concealed his Jewish origins, and a couple of other entries suggest that Fecher was right. But he should have elaborated that by the same token Mencken was prejudiced against blacks and indeed crackers, out of certainty, it seems clear, that they were of inferior genetic material. Mencken was a keen eugenicist, but then so was much of the American liberal elite–more so than the conservatives.

One of Mencken’s most ferocious entries, made on July 19, 1944, concerns mountain folk of North Carolina near Roaring Gap, “supposed to be inhabited by ‘the only pure Anglo-Saxons left in the United States.’” They turn out, on acquaintance, to be a wretchedly dirty, shifty, stupid and rascally people.” Mencken raves on about their predatory rampages through the homes of summer residents of Roaring Gap, concluding with their “hostility to all growing things,” which he contrasts with the “more civilized” horticulture of Negroes, who have very pretty gardens (“though their tastes naturally runs to the more gaudy colors”) and who take good care of their houses, though “the colors used are garish, but they are at least niggerish, and the occupants plainly take some pride in the appearance of their house. No linthead or mountaineers [sic] ever shows any feeling for beauty. They all live like animals, and are next door to animals in their habits and ideas.”

– January 14, 1990.

This is excerpted from The Golden Age is in Us.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.