It has been said that the America of the 1920s was the decade of H.L. Mencken, the great literary cynic. When he covered the famous Scopes trial, the debate over evolution, for the Baltimore Sun, he was as much a celebrity as Clarence Darrow or William Jennings Bryan.
Mencken was described in revealing terms by his friend and fellow writer, George Jean Nathan, as "5 feet, 8 and a half inches in height and weighs about 185. . . . The things he dislikes most are Methodists, college professors, newspaper editorials (of which, in his time, he has written more than 10,000), Broadway restaurants, reformers, actors, children, magazine fiction, sex hygiene, "The Nation," soft drinks, women under 30, the nonconformist conscience, Socialism, good businessmen, the moral theory of the world, and the sort of patriotism that makes noise . . . He has good eyes and a gentle mouth, but his nose is upset, his ears stick out too much, and he is shapeless and stoop-shouldered."It was a fitting description for someone who was so hard on most of the rest of the world. Yet, for all his critiques, most of which appeared in the "American Mercury," lampooning and insulting most everything connected with the American political system, he touched a responsive chord. In 1927, Walter Lippman claimed that Mencken was "the most powerful influence on the whole generation of educated people." Lippman saw him as a writer peculiarly adept at relating to his readers. He called him "the Holy Terror from Baltimore" who was "splendidly and exultantly and contagiously alive. He calls you a swine and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live."
All politicians came under Mencken's acid pen, regarded generally as a contemptible group who advanced themselves at the expense of the public. "A good politician," he said, "is, under democracy, as unthinkable as an honest burgler or a virtuous harlot." Mencken heavily criticized President Woodrow Wilson as a Puritan, a reformer and an "uplifter of mankind." Besides, Wilson had also been a college professor. Mencken thought that Wilson was a hypocrite of the worst kind who talked about making the world safe for democracy but suspended human liberties at the height of the war effort.
Although Mencken disliked Harding, he considered his corruption overblown. "My conclusion, after due prayer, is that his friends actually made off with very little - that as politicians go, they were cheap and unimaginative fellows. Their rate of stealing, even as alleged, was far below the rate that is normal in Washington. Compared to the virtuosi who performed in the town in Wilson's day they were minnows trailing a school of whales."
Finally, "Silent Cal" Coolidge, was in Mencken's opinion, "the dullest and most ignored and obscure vice-president in history, suddenly pitchforked into the presidency. As governor of Massachusetts and as vice president he had been a laughing stock for those who watched him function - a thoroughly commonplace colorless person with a neat one cylinder intellect and a thoroughly precinct mind."
When Mencken was first asked to write a column for the Baltimore Sun by Charles Grasty, the editor and publisher, he was told it should be eye-catching and could deal with any subject at all "so long as it remain irresponsible and readable." Mencken tried to be the conscience of Baltimore, and no other columnist succeeded at doing the same thing until George Frazier did much the same thing for Boston beginning in the 1960s. Frazier did not become a national figure in the same way that Mencken did, but he was famous in the Northeast for his regular tendency to take on sacred cows and to do it with wit and elegance.
We have numerous columnists of genuine ability today who analyze most of the significant problems we see around us, but none of them generates the controversy of an H.L. Mencken. Even though they often criticize politicians and their programs, they don't do it with the same zest as Mencken. While most of us would probably enjoy a columnist who is positive and optimistic and upbeat, there is something to be missed about the writer of controversy - the one you read every day before you read the headline stories, just to see how angry he makes you, or to find a quotable quote to guide your day. Such a writer never lets the politicians off the hook. There always should be at least one Mencken around.