In the latest entry of his ongoing Libertarian Bookworm series, Timothy Sandefur writes about H.L. Mencken, in my opinion the finest essayist in American history and probably my single favorite writer, period. He mentions a new biography of Mencken written by Terry Teachout, which I had not heard about and would like to read. Teachout edited A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, the sequel to the original that Mencken himself edited as a sort of greatest hits book of his own writing. My copy of A Mencken Chrestomathy is quite something to behold, dogeared and worn from so many readings and re-readings, so many passages underlined, notes in the margins, binding all but ruined from use. Over the course of nearly 20 years, since I was a teenager, I have returned to it more times than you can imagine.
There are a couple of things that stand out in Mr. Sandefur’s review that I like very much. He recognizes, as most people do not, that cynicism and idealism are two sides of the same coin:
Mencken’s reputation as a cynic is well deserved, but like all cynics, Mencken was a man of deeply held principles and high—thus inevitably disappointed—idealism. The essays collected in the Chrestomathy make this clear. He despised quacks and charlatans because he admired the power of thought and reason so profoundly. Although he professed to scoff at everyone and everything, his undisguised admiration for people like Thomas Huxley, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Mark Twain, reveal the sincerity that were often overpowered by the noise of his other writings. Mencken rarely tried to salvage the title of idealist for himself, however. As with Twain, he used his title of humorist as a safe fortress from which to bombard his old enemies: faith, ignorance, superstition, group-think, compromise, slavery.
And, most importantly, he recognizes not only the lure of Mencken’s ideas, but the singular brilliance of his style as a writer:
Mencken’s writing style is an inimitable mix of cultural sophistication and American middle-class references. He moves giant words with ease, and in the next sentence sparkles it up with an equally deft use of slang. The result is a voice entirely his own, breaking every “rule” in the writer’s book, and ending up with delightful masterpieces of wit, fury, or grace. And the rhythm of his sentences show a great deal of poetic sensibility (at an early age, Mencken had written a lot of poetry, and he later credited it with giving him his sense of vocabulary and timing). My favorite example is the flawless sentence with which he begins “The Hills of Zion,” collected in the Chrestomathy: “It was hot weather when they tried the infidel Scopes at Dayton, Tenn., but I went down there very willingly, for I was eager to see something of evangelical Christianity as a going concern.” I could write for fifteen years and never mint a sentence that perfect.
Let me add a loud “Amen” to that sentiment. There are so many passages in Mencken’s writings that one could point to that compel the same reaction, the thought that it was absolutely perfect, not a word out of place – that it was written as well as one can possibly write. At its very best, great writing is like great music, it has a cadence and a rhythm and even a sense of melody and harmony. Mencken was an absolute master of this, his words crackling off the page with verve and wit. The very best example of that is the paragraph that Mr. Sandefur quotes from Mencken on Mencken, the very same paragraph that I quoted in slightly larger context 6 weeks ago in a Book Bytes column:
I believe in liberty. And when I say liberty I mean the thing in its widest imaginable sense—liberty up to the extreme limits of the feasible and tolerable. I am against forbidding anybody to do anything, or say anything, or think anything, so long as it is at all possible to imagine a habitable world in which he would be free to do, say, and think it. The burden of proof, as I see it, is always upon the policeman, which is to say upon the lawmaker, the theologian, the right-thinker. He must prove his case doubly, triply, quadruply, and then he must start all over and prove it again. The eye through which I view him is watery and jaundiced. I do not pretend to be “just” to him—anymore than a Christian pretends to be just to the Devil. He is the enemy of everything I admire and respect in this world—of everything that makes it various and amusing and charming. He impedes every honest search for the truth. He stands against every sort of good will and common decency. His ideal is that of an animal trainer, an archbishop, a major-general in the Army. I am against him until the last galoot’s ashore…
And I added a couple more sentences from the same essay at the end:
This simple and childlike faith in the freedom and dignity of man – here, perhaps, stated with undue rhetoric – should be obvious, I should think, to every critic above the mental backwardness of a Federal judge…
For liberty, when one ascends to the levels where ideas swish by and men pursue Truth to grab her by the tail, is the first thing and the last thing. So long as it prevails the show is thrilling and stupendous; the moment it fails the show is a dull and dirty farce.
There is something about Mencken’s style that I find invigorating, a unique mixture of intellectual heft with an impish mischeviousness that draws you in and holds you there. I heartily second Mr. Sandefur’s recommendation of Mencken’s writings.
P.S. The fact that we both focused on the same paragraph from the same essay of a man who wrote prodigiously by any standard is somewhat spooky. If Mr. Sandefur and I looked anything at all alike, one might begin to think that we were separated at birth.
P.P.S. You should also read his brief post on Clayton Cramer’s misrepresentation of Plato and Aristotle, which was part of the discussion with Jon Rowe on the timelessness of the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence that I discussed previously. In fact, you really should be reading Freespace every day, as well as Jon Rowe’s blog. They’re almost enough to make one like lawyers.
P.P.P.S: Timothy writes, in response to this post:
Although…I noticed he quotes me saying “I could write for fifteen years and never mint a sentence that perfect,” and then says “[l]et me add a loud ‘Amen’ to that sentiment.” Hm. I’ll try not to take that personally!
LOL. I of course meant that comment to be aimed at myself, not at Mr. Sandefur, whose writing I consider excellent. I just wanted to second the feeling he mentions, having felt that so many times while reading Mencken myself. “Damn, if I could just once write something that perfect” is a common thought while doing so.