As the 2016 US Election Circus stumbles towards its denouement in November the more jaundiced commentators frequently quote pithy one-liners written by H. L. Mencken.
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
“A Few Pages of Notes,” The Smart Set (January 1915)
An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it is also more nourishing.
“A Few Pages of Notes,” The Smart Set (January 1915)
Of all escape mechanisms, death is the most efficient.
A Book of Burlesques (1916)
Henry Louis Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956) was an American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English.
Known as the “Sage of Baltimore”, he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century.
As a scholar Mencken is known for The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States.
His satirical reporting on the Scopes trial, which he dubbed the “Monkey Trial”, also gained him attention.
He commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements.
Although many readers are familiar with his pithy one-liners they are less familiar with the [painfully honest] pithy prose penned by H. L. Mencken .
(From the Baltimore Evening Sun, July 1933)
When I speak of Anglo-Saxons, of course, I speak inexactly and in the common phrase.
Even within the bounds of that phrase the American of the dominant stock is Anglo-Saxon only partially, for there is probably just as much Celtic blood in his veins as Germanic, and his norm is to be found, not south of the Tyne and west of the Severn, but on the two sides of the northern border.
Among the first English colonists there were many men of almost pure Teutonic stock from the east and south of England, and their influence is yet visible in many characteristic American folkways, in certain traditional American ideas some of them now surviving only in national hypocrisies and, above all, in the fundamental peculiarities of the American dialect of English.
But their Teutonic blood was early diluted by Celtic strains from Scotland, from the north of Ireland, from Wales, and from the west of England, and today those Americans who are regarded as being most thoroughly Anglo-Saxons for example, the mountaineers of the Appalachian slopes from Pennsylvania to Georgia are obviously far more Celtic than Teutonic, not only physically but also mentally.
They are leaner and taller than the true English, and far more given to moral obsessions and religious fanaticism.
A Methodist revival is not an English phenomenon; it is Welsh.
So is the American tendency, marked by every foreign student of our history, to turn all political combats into moral crusades.
The English themselves, of course, have been greatly polluted by Scotch, Irish and Welsh blood during the past three centuries, and for years past their government has been largely in the hands of Celts, but though this fact, by making them more like Americans, has tended to conceal the difference that I am discussing, it has certainly not sufficed to obliterate it altogether.
The English notion of humor remains different from the American notion, and so does the English view of personal liberty, and on the same level of primary ideas there are many other obvious differences.
But though I am thus convinced that the American Anglo-Saxon wears a false label, and grossly libels both of the great races from which he claims descent, I can imagine no good in trying to change it.
Let him call himself whatever he pleases.
Whatever he calls himself, it must be plain that the term he uses designates a genuinely distinct and differentiated race – that he is separated definitely, in character and habits of thought, from the men of all other recognizable strains – that he represents, among the peoples of the earth, almost a special species, and that he runs true to type.
The traits that he developed when the first mixture of races took place in colonial days are the traits that he still shows; despite the vast changes in his material environment, he is almost precisely the same, in the way he thinks and acts, as his forefathers were.
Some of the other great races of men, during the past two centuries, have changed very noticeably, but the American Anglo-Saxon has stuck to his hereditary guns.
Moreover, he tends to show much less variation than other races between man and man.
No other race, save it be the Chinese, is so thoroughly regimented.
The good qualities of this so-called Anglo-Saxon are many, and I am certainly not disposed to question them, but I here pass them over without apology, for he devotes practically the whole of his literature and fully a half of his oral discourse to celebrating them himself, and so there is no danger that they will ever be disregarded.
No other known man, indeed, is so violently the blowhard, save it be his English kinsman.
In this fact lies the first cause of the ridiculous figure he commonly cuts in the eyes of other people: he brags and blusters so incessantly that, if he actually had the combined virtues of Socrates, the Cid and the Twelve Apostles, he would still go beyond the facts, and so appear a mere Bombastes Furioso.
This habit, I believe, is fundamentally English, but it has been exaggerated in the Americano by his larger admixture of Celtic blood.
In late years in America it has taken on an almost pathological character, and is to be explained, perhaps, only in terms of the Freudian necromancy.
Braggadocio, in the 100% American – “we won the war,” “it is our duty to lead the world,” and so on – is probably no more than a protective mechanism erected to conceal an inescapable sense of inferiority.
That this inferiority is real must be obvious to any impartial observer.
Whenever the Anglo-Saxon, whether of the English or of the American variety, comes into sharp conflict with men of other stocks, he tends to be worsted, or, at best, to be forced back upon extraneous and irrelevant aids to assist him in the struggle.
Here in the United States his defeat is so palpable that it has filled him with vast alarms, and reduced him to seeking succor in grotesque and extravagant devices.
In the fine arts, in the sciences and even in the more complex sorts of business the children of the later immigrants are running away from the descendants of the early settlers.
To call the roll of Americans eminent in almost any field of human endeavor above the most elemental is to call a list of strange and often outlandish names; even the panel of Congress presents a startling example.
Of the Americans who have come into notice during the past fifty years as poets, as novelists, as critics, as painters, as sculptors and in the minor arts, less than half bear Anglo-Saxon names, and in this minority there are few of pure Anglo-Saxon blood.
So in the sciences.
So in the higher reaches of engineering and technology.
So in philosophy and its branches.
So even in industry and agriculture.
In those areas where the competition between the new and the old bloodstreams is most sharp and clear-cut, say in New York, in seaboard New England and in the farming States of the upper Middle West, the defeat of the so-called Anglo-Saxon is overwhelming and unmistakable.
Once his predominance every where was actual and undisputed; today, even where he remains superior numerically, it is largely sentimental and illusory.
The descendants of the later immigrants tend generally to move upward; the descendants of the first settlers, I believe, tend plainly to move downward, mentally, spiritually and even physically.
Civilization is at its lowest mark in the United States precisely in those areas where the Anglo-Saxon still presumes to rule.
He runs the whole South – and in the whole South there are not as many first-rate men as in many a single city of the mongrel North.
Wherever he is still firmly in the saddle, there we look for such pathological phenomena as Fundamentalism, Prohibition and Ku Kluxery, and there they flourish.
It is not in the northern cities, with their mixed population, that the death-rate is highest, and politics most corrupt, and religion nearest to voodooism, and every decent human aspiration suspect; it is in the areas that the recent immigrations have not penetrated, where “the purest Anglo-Saxon blood in the world” still flows, I could pile up evidences, but they are not necessary.
The fact is too plain to be challenged.
One testimony will be sufficient: it comes from two inquirers who made an exhaustive survey of a region in southeastern Ohio where “the people are more purely Americans than in the rest of the State”:
Here gross superstition exercises strong control over the thought and action of a large proportion of the people.
Syphilitic and other venereal diseases are common and increasing over whole counties, while in some communities nearly every family is afflicted with inherited or infectious disease.
Many cases of incest are known; inbreeding is rife.
Imbeciles, feeble-minded, and delinquents are numerous, politics is corrupt, and selling of votes is common, petty crimes abound, the schools have been badly managed and poorly attended.
Cases of rape, assault, and robbery are of almost weekly occurrence within five minutes’ walk of the corporation limits of one of the county seats, while in another county political control is held by a self-confessed criminal.
Alcoholic intemperance is excessive.
Gross immorality and its evil results are by no means confined to the hill districts, but are extreme also in the towns.
As I say, the American of the old stock is not unaware of this steady, and, of late, somewhat rapid deterioration – this gradual loss of his old mastery in the land his ancestors helped to wring from the Indian and the wildcat.
He senses it, indeed, very painfully, and, as if in despair of arresting it in fact, makes desperate efforts to dispose of it by denial and concealment.
These efforts often take grotesque and extravagant forms.
Laws are passed to hobble and cage the citizen of newer stocks in a hundred fantastic ways.
It is made difficult and socially dangerous for him to teach his children the speech of his fathers, or to maintain the cultural attitudes that he has inherited from them.
Every divergence from the norm of the low-cast Anglo-Saxon is treated as an attentat against the common-wealth, and punished with eager ferocity.
It so happens that I am myself an Anglo-Saxon – one of far purer blood, indeed, than most of the half-bleached Celts who pass under the name in the United States and England.
I am in part Angle and in part Saxon, and what else I am is safely white, Nordic, Protestant and blond.
Thus I feel free, without risk of venturing into bad taste, to regard frankly the soi-disant Anglo-Saxon of this incomparable Republic and his rather less dubious cousin of the Motherland.
How do the two appear to me, after years spent largely in accumulating their disfavor?
What are the characters that I discern most clearly in the so-called Anglo-Saxon type of man?
I may answer at once that two stick out above all others.
One is his curious and apparently incurable incompetence – his congenital inability to do any difficult thing easily and well, whether it be isolating a bacillus or writing a sonata.
The other is his astounding susceptibility to fears and alarms – in short, his hereditary cowardice.
To accuse so enterprising and successful a race of cowardice, of course, is to risk immediate derision; nevertheless, I believe that a fair-minded examination of its history will bear me out.
Nine-tenths of the great feats of derring-do that its sucklings are taught to venerate in school – that is, its feats as a race, not the isolated exploits of its extraordinary individuals, most of them at least partly of other stocks – have been wholly lacking in even the most elementary gallantry.
Consider, for example, the events attending the extension of the two great empires, English and American.
Did either movement evoke any genuine courage and resolution?
The answer is plainly no.
Both empires were built up primarily by swindling and butchering unarmed savages, and after that by robbing weak and friendless nations.
Neither produced a hero above the average run of those in the movies; neither exposed the folks at home to any serious danger of reprisal.
Almost always, indeed, mercenaries have done the Anglo-Saxon’s fighting for him – a high testimony to his common sense, but scarcely flattering, I fear, to the truculence he boasts of.
The British empire was won mainly by Irishmen, Scotchmen and native allies, and the American empire, at least in large part, by Frenchmen and Spaniards.
Moreover, neither great enterprise cost any appreciable amount of blood; neither presented grave and dreadful risks; neither exposed the conqueror to the slightest danger of being made the conquered.
The British won most of their vast dominions without having to stand up in a single battle against a civilized and formidable foe, and the Americanos won their continent at the expense of a few dozen puerile skirmishes with savages.
The total cost of conquering the whole area from Plymouth Rock to the Golden Gate and from Lake George to the Everglades, including even the cost of driving out the French, Dutch, English and Spaniards, was less than the cost of defending Verdun.
So far as I can make out there is no record in history of any Anglo-Saxon nation entering upon any great war without allies.
The French have done it, the Dutch have done it, the Germans have done it, the Japs have done it, and even such inferior nations as the Danes, the Spaniards, the Boers and the Greeks have done it, but never the English or Americans.
Can you imagine the United States resolutely facing a war in which the odds against it were as huge as they were against Spain in 1898?
The facts of history are wholly against any such fancy.
The Anglo-Saxon always tries to take a gang with him when he goes into battle, and even when he has it behind him he is very uneasy, and prone to fall into panic at the first threat of genuine danger.
Here I put an unimpeachably Anglo-Saxon witness on the stand, to wit, the late Charles W. Eliot.
I find him saying, in an article quoted with approbation by the Congressional Record, that during the Revolutionary War the colonists now hymned so eloquently in the school-books “fell into a condition of despondency from which nothing but the steadfastness of Washington and the Continental army and the aid from France saved them,” and that “when the War of 1812 brought grave losses a considerable portion of the population experienced a moral collapse, from which they were rescued only by the exertions of a few thoroughly patriotic statesmen and the exploits of three or four American frigates on the seas” – to say nothing of an enterprising Corsican gentleman, Bonaparte by name.
In both these wars the Americans had enormous and obvious advantages, in terrain, in allies and in men; nevertheless, they fought, in the main, very badly, and from the first shot to the last a majority of them stood in favor of making peace on almost any terms.
The Mexican and Spanish Wars I pass over as perhaps too obscenely ungallant to be discussed at all; of the former, U. S. Grant, who fought in it, said that it was “the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
Who remembers that, during the Spanish War, the whole Atlantic Coast trembled in fear of the Spaniards’ feeble fleet that all New England had hysterics every time a strange coal-barge was sighted on the sky-line, that the safe-deposit boxes of Boston were emptied and their contents transferred to Worcester, and that the Navy had to organize a patrol to save the coast towns from depopulation?
Perhaps those Reds, atheists and pro-Germans remember it who also remember that during World War I the entire country went wild with fear of an enemy who, without the aid of divine intervention, obviously could not strike it a blow at all – and that the great moral victory was gained at last with the assistance of twenty-one allies and at odds of eight to one.
But the American Civil War remains?
Does it, in-deed?
The almost unanimous opinion of the North, in 1861, was that it would be over after a few small battles; the first soldiers were actually enlisted for but three months.
When, later on, it turned unexpectedly into a severe struggle, recruits had to be driven to the front by force, and the only Northerners remaining in favor of going on were Abraham Lincoln, a few ambitious generals and the profiteers.
I turn to Dr. Eliot again.
“In the closing year of the war,” he says, “large portions of the Democratic party in the North and of the Republican party, advocated surrender to the Confederacy, so downhearted were they.”
Downhearted at odds of three to one!
The South was plainly more gallant, but even the gallantry of the South was largely illusory.
The Confederate leaders, when the war began, adopted at once the traditional Anglo-Saxon device of seeking allies.
They tried and expected to get the aid of England, and they actually came very near succeeding.
When hopes in that direction began to fade (i.e., when England concluded that tackling the North would be dangerous), the common people of the Confederacy threw up the sponge, and so the catastrophe, when it came at last, was mainly internal.
The South failed to bring the quaking North to a standstill because, to borrow a phrase that Dr. Eliot uses in another connection, it “experienced a moral collapse of unprecedented depth and duration.”
The folks at home failed to support the troops in the field, and the troops in the field began to desert.
Even so early as Shiloh, indeed, many Confederate regiments were already refusing to fight.
This reluctance for desperate chances and hard odds, so obvious in the military record of the English-speaking nations, is also conspicuous in times of peace.
What a man of another and superior stock almost always notices, living among so-called Anglo-Saxons, is
(a) their incapacity for prevailing in fair rivalry, either in trade, in the fine arts or in what is called learning – in brief their general incompetence, and
(b) their invariable effort to make up for this incapacity by putting some inequitable burden upon their rivals, usually by force.
The Frenchman, I believe, is the worst of chauvinists, but once he admits a foreigner to his country he at least treats that foreigner fairly, and does not try to penalize him absurdly for his mere foreignness.
The Anglo-Saxon American is always trying to do it; his history is a history of recurrent outbreaks of blind rage against peoples who have begun to worst him.
Such movements would be inconceivable in an efficient and genuinely self-confident people, wholly assured of their superiority, and they would be equally inconceivable in a truly gallant and courageous people, disdaining unfair advantages and overwhelming odds.
Theoretically launched against some imaginary inferiority in the non-Anglo-Saxon man, either as patriot, as democrat or as Christian, they are actually launched at his general superiority, his greater fitness to survive in the national environment.
The effort is always to penalize him for winning in fair fight, to handicap him in such a manner that he will sink to the general level of the Anglo-Saxon population, and, if possible, even below it.
Such devices, of course, never have the countenance of the Anglo-Saxon minority that is authentically superior, and hence self-confident and tolerant.
But that minority is pathetically small, and it tends steadily to grow smaller and feebler.
The communal laws and the communal mores are made by the folk, and they offer all the proof that is necessary, not only of its general inferiority, but also of its alarmed awareness of that inferiority.
The normal American of the “pure-blooded” majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed, and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen.
This Anglo-Saxon of the great herd is, in many important respects, the least civilized of white men and the least capable of true civilization.
His political ideas are crude and shallow.
He is almost wholly devoid of esthetic feeling.
The most elementary facts about the visible universe alarm him, and incite him to put them down.
Educate him, make a professor of him, teach him how to express his soul, and he still remains palpably third-rate.
He fears ideas almost more cravenly than he fears men.
His blood, I believe, is running thin; perhaps it was not much to boast of at the start; in order that he may exercise any functions above those of a trader, a pedagogue or a mob orator, it needs the stimulus of other and less exhausted strains.
The fact that they increase is the best hope of civilization in America.
They shake the old race out of its spiritual lethargy, and introduce it to disquiet and experiment.
They make for a free play of ideas.
In opposing the process, whether in politics, in letters or in the ages-long struggle toward the truth, the prophets of Anglo-Saxon purity and tradition only make themselves ridiculous.
The Mencken – Complied by Alistair Cooke – 1955
Alistair Cooke, KBE (20 November 1908 – 30 March 2004) was a British journalist, television personality and broadcaster.
Outside his journalistic output, which included Letter from America and Alistair Cooke’s America, he was well known in the United States as the host of PBS Masterpiece Theatre from 1971 to 1992. After holding the job for 22 years, and having worked in television for 42 years, Cooke retired in 1992, although he continued to present Letter from America until shortly before his death.
Clearly, H. L. Mencken nailed the multifaceted Empire of Chaos 83 years ago.