Mencken and Me: Indiscreet charms of the bourgeoisie

According to legend, Alexander the Great slept every night of his short life with two things under his pillow—his knife and his copy of The Iliad. Someone mentioned this to a friend of mine, and, in that spirit of marking decline we're so prone to these days, asked him "Wouldn't you be surprised to hear that George W. Bush slept with The Iliad under his pillow?" My friend, a 90-year-old Democrat, replied that he'd be less surprised to hear that Bush slept with the knife under his pillow—and had used a very thin pillow.

As a boy of 14, already identified as a troubled adolescent, I slept with a baseball under my pillow—a ball autographed by Del Ennis that I imagined was much coveted (a few older hands might remember Ennis, especially if you hail from Philadelphia)—and beside my pillow, or never further than my bedside table, a copy of the yellow Vintage Mencken published in 1955, edited by Alistair Cooke. Our respective choices explain in part why Alexander conquered Asia and I became an English major and a columnist. God knows Mencken was belligerent, even warlike in his popular persona, but he and I were among those who know almost from infancy that our anger will be expressed with the pen, not the sword. We sense also that there is something appalling about bloody Achilles, the irresistible prima donna, sulking in his tent.

What is it that brings a boy—or a man or, more rarely, a woman—to find comfort in the verbal extravagance and exuberant prejudice of Henry Mencken? In this age of political correctness and elaborate, infuriating systems of rhetorical taboos, it's amusing to see each wave of protest against Mencken's defenseless bones, as women, blacks, Jews, Muslims, and most ethnic groups rediscover that at some point he disparaged them and called them names that have long since become capital crimes in the media and in the academy. Yet it was my own tribe, the rural Anglo-Saxon, that he despised most venomously and to whom, in his most spirited moments, he scarcely granted full membership in the human race. There's a classic passage in "Happy Days," classic for the way it unites the redneck and the African-American, cringing together under Mencken's lash:

". . . a great many anthropoid blacks from the South have come to town since the city dole began to rise above what they could hope to earn at home, and soon or late some effort may be made to chase them back. But if that time ever comes the uprising will probably be led, not by native Baltimoreans, but by the Anglo-Saxon baboons from the West Virginia mountains who have flocked in for the same reason, and are now competing with the blacks for the poorer sort of jobs."

Isn't that refreshing? My people, the mountain baboons. The truth is that Mencken, in his beleaguered German-American chauvinism, so loathed the Anglo-Saxons on both sides of the Atlantic that he'd have exulted to see our Motherland overrun by the Kaiser—or even, at one point, by the Fuhrer—and Buckingham Palace converted to a Biergarten and Hofbrauhaus. But somehow this bigotry didn't trouble me, even though my grandfather's dining room was decorated with portraits of the six queens of England, with Victoria in the place of honor over the sideboard and Bloody Mary brooding in the darkest corner.

Apparently it didn't trouble my grandfather either; he was the one who presented me with my Vintage Mencken. Middle-class Anglo-Saxons, notoriously smug, aren't quick to take offense at mere verbal assaults and impertinences. There was a time—Mencken's time, which may have ended with the Great Depression—when outrageous exchanges between clever people were considered good sport, not grounds for public demonstrations and emergency legislation.

If there's one pejorative that describes my kind and excellent grandfather, that word is "complacent." Like Mencken, who was eight years older, he was the pampered first son of a successful businessman, a son of whom much was expected as long as it ended in the family business. The more I read about Mencken, the less difference I see between the German and English legacies, or between urban and rural—my family was as dyed-in-the-wool smalltown as the Menckens were urban—and the more I sense an almost identical class heritage. The American bourgeoisie that developed between the Civil War and the First World War, as opposed to the plutocracy of robber barons, was characterized by self-reliance, scrupulous honesty, supernatural self-confidence—which my father inherited from his father and I have somehow misplaced—and an amiable, often droll contempt for individuals with different experiences and beliefs.

If I had to make one negative assertion about Mencken's personality, one I think I could defend, it's that he was somewhat deficient in empathy. He didn't come to grips with the Great Depresssion because—unlike Prohibition—it had a minimal impact on him personally. His cavalier endorsement of wholesale capital punishment in "Minority Report"—"If we had 2000 executions a year in the United States instead of 130, there would be an immense improvement"—is for me one of the least appetizing of his contrarian displays. It shows not only a limited ability to empathize with the accused, as if criminals and columnists come from different galaxies, but an uncharacteristic and contradictory impulse to place great faith in the judgment of juries and district attorneys. (And yet he carried on an extensive correspondence with prisoners; this is not the easiest man to pigeonhole.)

If Mencken failed to understand that people suffered real pain from his wrathful outbursts, it was because he himself had a hide as thick as Tyrannosaurus rex. This was an advantage typical of his class and his generation, as I remember them. My grandfather, who read The Smart Set in college and bequeathed Mencken to his sons and grandsons, would sit enthroned on his front porch under the trumpet vine, smoking a cigar, and deliver a running, often scathing and hilarious commentary on every unfortunate soul who passed by, on foot or by automobile. He called them by affectionate but condescending contractions of their surnames, like "old Bergie" (superintendent of schools Carl Bergerson) and "poor Farny" (Harold Farnsworth). As in "There goes poor Farny in that rusted-out Packard he expects to get him through the winter."

He showed no anger, ever, and no mercy. In his time my father was even less charitable. It was this easy contempt that I inherited, that I came in time to be ashamed of, and of which I have long struggled to cure myself. But then came the Reagan Revolution and I gave myself up for lost.

No one can ever compete with Mencken as a target for other people's invective. But with a thick hide of my own I've weathered tidal waves of abuse from my fellow Tar Heels, unleashed in equal volumes by Dixiecrat reactionaries who call themselves Republicans—shaming the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt my family followed faithfully for 100 years—and suede-glove fascists of the PC Left who take violent exception to my careless terms of discourse. But the only criticism that ever held my attention was a satirical song composed by an outlaw songwriter who called himself the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, a working-class troubadour who sported tattoos on every inch of skin between his navel and his Adam's apple. In his song, this Bertolt Brecht of the Bible Belt dismissed me as "the intellectual guru of the North Raleigh yuppies." It stung me because I always thought of myself as the champion of the underdog and, more like Mencken, the implacable enemy of the country-club, gated-community crowd that had only recently been designated "yuppies" in the national media.

I don't think the Rev. Wirtz was precisely on target, because I don't think he'd ever met enough yuppies to understand what makes them tick. But with the bloodhound's nose of the intuitive plebeian, he had sniffed out the middle-class privilege that often produces a belligerent enemy of middle-class beliefs. If you feel entitled, you feel entitled to protest. You don't sneer at the status quo if you're struggling and scheming to use it to your advantage, if your goal is to find a safe place for yourself within that same status quo.

Scorn is expensive. Perhaps it takes at least two generations of successful businessmen to create a great cynic like Henry Mencken. Though I may be more of a democrat, with a small "d," than Mencken, I think his contempt for democracy was entirely justified. Democracy honors the wisdom of the herd, and the herd has never proven itself worthy of that honor, never to the slightest degree. But to the Rev. Billy C. Wirtzes of the world, it's democracy, not property, that separates them from the serfs in Gogol's "Dead Souls" who are reduced to advocating their own floggings for the greater good of Russia—a level of "slave morality" even lower than those Mencken castigated.

It's a class thing, like so many of the most significant distinctions in this country where we refuse to talk about class. It takes a certain kind of family to incubate a critic, a columnist, a cynic, an iconoclast—someone with the serene self-confidence to assert in public that he is right and the herd, however vast or menacing, is not only wrong but ridiculous. I know what kind of family it takes because I grew up in one, and so, I submit, did Mencken. His grandfather, Burkhardt Mencken, he remembered as "generally confident and even somewhat cocky" and biographer Fred Hobson adds that Burkhardt showed "an independent spirit from the beginning, as well as a certain defiance of civil authority."

The expression on the face of his father, August Mencken, in a photograph Mencken himself took in 1895—that's my grandfather's expression to the finest shading: faintly amused, just slightly combative, thoughtful but supremely self-satisfied, sure of his place in the world. The cigar and vest and watchchain are identical, too, though I can't remember my grandfather in a derby. The details of Mencken's life in his father's home—the summer vacations and family holidays, the cult of baseball, the way neighbors and even police looked indulgently upon the misdemeanors of the children of respectable families, the piano-centered parlor, the cultural assumptions that were not always of the highest order but not known to be less—these discreet charms of the bourgeoisie that I knew in my own childhood almost bring me to nostalgic tears.

Though my father's family, Freethinkers long before they emigrated from Yorkshire, was not in any serious sense religious, my brother and I—exactly like Mencken and his brother Charlie—were sent to Methodist Sunday school to acquire some aquaintance with the Christian faith, in case we should ever need it. We know how savagely Mencken turned on the Methodists. As for me, I was no less precocious or obnoxious than the adolescent Jesus disputing his elders in the temple. I asked the hardest questions of the dumbest teachers—for instance, "Why should I love my enemies if God sends his to hell?"—and was widely identified as God's enemy before I was nine years old.

None of which troubled my father to any noticeable degree. He himself grew up privileged in the '20s, before the market crash and the Great Depression knocked some of the stuffing out of the middle class, and his self-regard was legendary. He once told us—after several martinis, to be quite fair—that there were four or five men in the world, no more, who clearly surpassed him in intellectual agility. My brother, himself no slacker in the satirical arts, began to introduce Dad to his friends as the Sixth Smartest Man in the World, or Number Six or Big Six, like Christy Mathewson. Though I am, like Mencken, the eldest son of an eldest son of an only son, and have spent most of my adult life dispensing opinions for a living, I do not exaggerate when I claim to be the most modest and least opinionated male my family has produced since the Civil War.

I knew these Menckens the first time I encountered them, felt the pull of class consanguinity right down to my DNA. Mencken himself never questioned his family's influence on his own unique development. "How did I get my slant on life? Heredity," he told an interviewer in 1926. "My ancestors for three hundred years back were all bad citizens . . . They were always against what the rest were for . . . I was prejudiced when I came into the world."

The rock-solid middle-class family that kept him, in his words, "fat, saucy and contented," was paradoxically the perfect nest for a nestling who set himself the task of dismantling Middle America brick by brick. At the same time it provided him with a character-forming mythology, a middle-class ideal that exalted respectable people—"decent" was a word Mencken used—people who pay their debts, live within their means, answer to no one. In his time, people who paid cash. My grandfather bought his automobiles with hundred-dollar bills. This ideal included the code of the gentleman: that the weak are not to be bullied and exploited, that other people are not stepping stones to goals, that truth is never the product of consensus, that money is a means not an end, that honor and reputation are more important than wealth and preference.

I grew up marinated in this code; so did Mencken. For businessmen like his father and my grandfather there was no conflict between the code of the gentleman the law of the marketplace; in fact they were viewed as a seamless fit. Judge for yourself how times and men and marketplaces have changed.

But Henry Mencken was a man of books, not of business. The middle class is proverbially boring, and in its heyday its talented, empowered sons and daughters would tend to romanticize the working class, and become Marxists, or romanticize the upper classes and aspire, at least, to become mandarins. Mencken, who was more of a romantic than he'd ever admit, leaned toward the second, the mandarin error. He demonized the Puritans as the poison in America's bloodstream and so offered his allegiance to their nemeses, the Cavaliers—an aristocracy of discriminating gentlemen that he and few others could discern, among the cleft-chinned louts in riding breeches chasing foxes. Though I briefly suffered from a similar delusion—it may be endemic to hyper-imaginative children of the stolid bourgeoisie—it was never one of the sturdier planks in Mencken's platform. (Mencken claimed German nobility on some collateral branch of his family tree; the only royalty in my family tree was Uncle Johnny Briar, self-styled "the Mum King," the Yorkshire greenhouseman who supplied the chrysanthemums for Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953).

To me there was always something fishy about Mencken's veneration of the mandarin James Branch Cabell. If anything can be said in defense of democracy, let's say that there's more promise in trying to educate a drooling mob—if a society actually wishes to educate it—than in waiting a thousand years for a dynasty of syphilitic halfwits to produce a philosopher king, or for some blueblood rabble of human foxhounds to produce, in Mencken's words, "a few first-rate men."

Mencken berates America for its failure to produce an adequate aristocracy, and its failure to preserve what it had long enough to save us from the Puritan baboons. But the whey-brained House of Windsor is a painful example of what happens when an aristocracy wears out its welcome.

It's ironic that Mencken, middle-class to the bone, sworn exterminator of the genteel pretensions of most of his countrymen, romanticized some long-lost class of enlightened squires writing learned treatises in paneled libraries, in the lulls between Europe's wars. Because he himself was the representative, the strutting epitome of a class that promised civilization so much more.

We're used to Mencken's portraits, often caustic or condescending, of his famous friends. But Theodore Dreiser's droll description of Mencken the Boy Wonder is a priceless piece of prose that turns the tables, and adds immeasurably to our comprehension of the Mencken phenomenon:

"There appeared in my office a taut, ruddy, blue-eyed, snub-nosed youth of twenty-eight or nine whose brisk gait and ingratiating smile proved to me at once enormously intriguing and amusing. More than anything else he reminded me of a spoiled and petted and possibly over-financed brewer's or wholesale grocer's son who was out for a lark. With the sang-froid of a Caesar or a Napoleon he made himself comfortable in a large and impressive chair. . . ."

There he is to the life—the burgher prince. Do we ever see him more clearly? The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed standard-bearer of an unbowed, unbenighted bourgeoisie that was one of the finest flowers of this republic—the first middle class in history that rose up entirely unburdened by thousands of years of feudalism and the humiliations of caste. With its gene pool replenished by the 19th-century immigrants, with a fresh mix of bloodstreams that had never before been combined (Mencken had an Anglo grandmother), America boasted, for a few fleeting, splendid decades, a new class that could think for itself and speak for itself, with or without the leadership of the fading aristocracy or the elusive intelligentsia that never lived up to Mencken's expectations.

When Mencken writes about "a new aristocracy" of artists and writers, it always sounds like a pipe dream to me. Yet he himself was living proof of something more vital and more unique. People who didn't come from this class, who haven't studied its history and literature with full comprehension, don't quite know how to take Henry Mencken.

Conservatives celebrate his hatred for democracy, and for FDR and the New Deal, and conveniently forget that he held the whole chorus line of Republican presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt through Herbert Hoover, in similar contempt. (And according to Fred Hobson, actually voted for FDR in 1944 because he saw so little in Dewey.) Those who draft him for a conservative icon deceive themselves grossly if they doubt that he'd have made a roaring satirical bonfire of Ronnie Reagan and Maggie Thatcher—and cheerfully tossed Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader into the flames. Victim-group liberals scandalized by his insensitive language choose to forget that he was a powerful enemy to the racists and lynchers of his day, and the first influential critic and editor to promote the work of black writers and of many, many women.

It's just impossible to reconcile the Promethean Mencken, the Enlightenment philosophe, with Mencken the mossback misanthrope; you'll split your head trying. Like every authentic freethinker, Mencken was both a radical and a reactionary, depending on the case at hand. I think of my father when his fellow Republicans called him a liberal because he was soft on—well, fill in the blank. "I'm not a liberal," he said, "I'm a logical—and you're not."

But the key to Mencken, I believe—and the key psychological bridge between the class he came from and the aristocracy he overrated—is what Ford Madox Ford, in "Parade's End," calls "the passionate Tory sense of freedom."

The first time I read that phrase, I experienced the same frisson of recognition that hit me when I read about Mencken's family. I loved Grandpa Burkhardt Mencken for his "defiance of civil authority." Though both my father and grandfather were trained in the law, friends from more timid families—like my wife—were always scandalized to learn that I obey only the laws I agree with, along with a few I'm afraid to break.

I know I've always had that extreme, almost irrational sense of personal freedom—of course Mencken had it—but where did it come from? It's a legacy, I believe, from the first middle class that was ever free enough—personally, politically, historically—free and fearless enough to develop a libertarian obsession once unique to the landed gentry, to the blooded Tory. There was once this confident, irresistible middle class, a formidable yeomanry of farmers and small businessmen that prosperity created and that not even the great wars and the Great Depression could thoroughly destroy. Corporate metastasis destroyed it in a few brief decades. And along with it, I would argue, most of this country's potential to live up to its fanfare and its own best instincts.