Should I Forgive H.L. Mencken?

When I endeavor to admire men of the past, I often find myself thwarted by limitations in their thinking which are symptomatic more of their age than of their incapability.

There are technologies in thought just as in other areas of human accomplishment, and they are purchased in the same way as revolutions in medicine, communications, or military technologies: by the slow accumulation of discoveries on the part of many individuals, few of whom were working towards the same ends.  There are giants, but they are very rare, and they stand on the shoulders of many smaller men.  Secularism, equal moral standing for other races and religions, democracy, woman’s suffrage: perhaps it is as unreasonable to expect people to have anticipated these revolutions as it would be to have expected them to sit down and build an atom bomb from scratch.

Abraham Lincoln, during the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, said:

“I will say then that I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”

George Orwell, a man whose mind I admire perhaps more than any other, in 1934 wrote (to a woman!), “I had lunch yesterday with Dr. Ede.  He is a bit of a feminist and thinks that if a woman was brought up exactly like a man she would be able to throw a stone, construct a syllogism, keep a secret etc.” (George Orwell: An Age Like This 1920-1940: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, p. 136)

These men were clear, brave, and forward thinkers; it is probably unreasonable to expect them to have been perfect.  But it is always disappointing when men who saw so much fail to see things which seem to obvious, and so important, to us now.

I have always enjoyed H.L. Mencken, and admired him in the same way, but to a lesser degree, that I admire Orwell: as a man who was little susceptible to the pressures of conventional thinking and who told the truth as he saw it, clearly and well.  However, as anyone who has read much of his work knows, he was prone to assertions like this one:

“They [Jews] strike other people as predominantly unpleasant, and everywhere on earth they seem to be disliked.  This dislike, despite their own belief to the contrary, has nothing to do with their religion: it is founded, rather, on their bad manners, their curious lack of tact.” (Treatise on the Gods, p. 286)

I believe that Mencken was smarter than that, and, if he wasn’t, he should have been.  If Mencken had believed, from the faith in which he was raised and which he had never examined, that Jews were going to hell, one might then plead that, though he was wrong, he was a victim of his context.  But he didn’t; he derived his own pseudo-empirical anti-semitism, and I don’t feel that I can see past that.  It doesn’t diminish his writerly skill, but it absolutely mitigates against my admiration for him as a thinker.

I don’t believe that, in this case, saying, “Yeah, well, when he was writing, anti-semitism was prevalent” solves this problem – what I admired about Mencken was his ability to see through the prejudices of lesser minds.  I see this not as a failure of his time, but a failure in his calling.  And I hold it against him.

Image of Mencken taken from Wikipedia.

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