The Last of the Menckenians: Struggling with an American Iconoclast (Michael Downs, February 2, 2024, LA Review of Books)

The publication of his diaries in December 1989 showed him writing in disparaging, cruel, and vile ways about Black and Jewish people. Ever since, most conversations about Mencken and his cultural value require reckoning with his racism. That September day, such a reckoning came during the Mencken Memorial Lecture. The library invited DeWayne Wickham, a renowned journalist who hails from Baltimore, to offer the talk. When he took the stage, attendance in the auditorium had grown to about 50. About a third of them, like Wickham, were Black.

Wickham told us that he grew up only about two miles as the bird flies from Mencken’s longtime residence, though separated by decades and by “power and privilege.” Since the diaries, he noted, some defenders have pointed to writings in which Mencken seems to champion Black America, especially Black writers. Wickham rejected those arguments, finding racist language and attitudes amid Mencken’s praise. In one of his several examples, Mencken’s positive review of Alain Locke’s literary anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), Mencken ended by noting that, despite their talent, Black writers and poets would create little improvement in Black America’s culture because “[t]he vast majority of the people of their race are but two or three inches removed from gorillas: it will be a sheer impossibility, for a long, long while, to interest them in anything above pork-chops or bootleg gin.”

“So,” Wickham concluded, “was H. L. Mencken a racist? I’ll leave it to you to decide.”

During the post-talk Q and A, a white man (I would later learn that his middle name is Mencken) suggested that people might consider Mencken an elitist rather than a racist because Mencken hated everybody. Mencken’s writings famously attack a wide range of characters, including Southerners, evangelical tub-thumpers, idealists, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Palestinians, jazz fans, university professors, and countless others.

A Black man then rose and asked the central question: given Mencken’s self-damning racism and hatred of nearly everyone he saw, why do we even have a day recognizing this man?

“This is one of the things we’re going to forever struggle with,” replied Wickham, making a statement that could apply to most things Mencken. To read him is to struggle. He allows for no easy agreement on any topic, ever. Wise in one moment, foolish in another. Kind here, cruel there. His literary salvos, often breathtaking in their brio and audacity, can make you forget your quarrel with their substance.

Mencken Society people read HLM, I learned that Saturday, in large part for that struggle. They are readers who want to think and feel complicated things about a complicated writer. To read Mencken, Hart told me, you have to say to yourself, “I’m going to get skewered. Part of the pleasure of reading someone like that—you really have to stay on your toes.”

Aficionados don’t read Mencken because they expect to agree with him. They read him for the adrenaline jolt. That jolt hits because Mencken delivers scorn with wit and reason. He vivifies his 21st-century fans just as he did for readers in the previous century. “He calls you a swine, and an imbecile,” wrote critic Walter Lippmann in 1926, “and he increases your will to live.”

Visit the Pratt’s special collections and you can find a copy of The Great Gatsby with a note inscribed from Fitzgerald to Mencken asking for a positive review. You can also find a lock of hair from Edgar Allan Poe and another from his wife, Virginia.

Baltimore loves Poe, whose visage you see on T-shirts and tattoos. A festival dedicated to him less than a month after Mencken Day filled a weekend with musical acts, performers reciting his work, a film debut, and a parade with a costume contest. Poe is recognized even by the city’s NFL team, the Ravens, and its mascots Edgar and Allan. Nevertheless, Poe, like Mencken, is an intellectual figure whose legacy is complicated by a sordid personal life: he met his first cousin Virginia in Baltimore and married her when she was 13 and he was 27; he died a mysterious death and is buried at the city’s Westminster Hall next to his child bride.

Poe gave much more to literature than Mencken did. The detective and horror genres owe him everything, and through his criticism, he helped define the short story. But he never loved Baltimore as Mencken did.

Yet Baltimore’s love for Mencken used to be stronger and more complicated. In 1965, the mayor gave a speech at the city’s German Day celebration lauding Mencken: “Because he was an extremely bold and forthright critic,” said Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin, “he made enemies […] Thus, to this day, one finds honest and otherwise intelligent people who are unable to understand why so much of Baltimore delighted in Mencken while he lived and still cherishes his memory.”

These days, not quite. Consider the Pratt’s own treatment of Mencken Day. In 2012, the library’s much-loved director, Carla Hayden (now librarian of Congress), introduced the Mencken Memorial speaker. For Wickham’s lecture, the highest-ranking library employee in the room was the head of special collections. Mencken’s following took a blow with the diary’s publication, but also the city has changed: Baltimore’s population has shrunk to about 60 percent of its previous size, and six of every 10 residents are now Black. As Wickham’s lecture showed, Mencken is a harder sell to those who most keenly feel his racism. Why have a day for this man when the city’s populace can look instead to Ta-Nehisi Coates or Lucille Clifton?

“Do you teach Mencken?” I asked a local journalism professor whom I recognized at the Mencken Society meeting. No, she said. You can’t teach a column or two of Mencken in a survey course without glossing over his history. And to gloss over the history, I said, means you could be criticized for glossing over his history.

The longer I pay attention to Mencken, the more one thing becomes clear: to wrestle with Mencken is also to wrestle with the United States and American culture—and not just as it was in his time. To wrestle with Mencken is to wrestle with the country and the culture as it is now.