In Mencken's Shadow

By  |  November 18, 2014
Photo: NARA Photo: NARA

When the American South searches its memory—and its institutional memory is powerful, to judge from prejudices and resentments with virtually prehistoric antecedents—it invariably revisits two great enemies who tower above the rest. Never mind Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln or the turncoat president Lyndon Johnson, who only sped the twinned, doomed institutions of slavery and segregation toward final resting places where not even the most unreconstructed Southerner dares to mourn them. It’s the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and the Baltimore polemicist Henry Louis Mencken who provoke the most passionate curses from Confederate descendants with long memories.

Sherman cut the South in two, on his infamous "March to the Sea." He severed the spinal cord of the Confederacy, which never again entertained hopes of victory or even a favorable armistice.

Sherman burned his path through the South with bullets and torches. Fifty years later, the acerbic Mencken burned a wider path through its ego, through the fragile self-respect that the South had rebuilt during the painful passages of Reconstruction. Mencken, the legendary cultural arsonist, set his fires with words only, but with language so barbed and contemptuous, so marinated in disdain that it may have left deeper scars than Sherman’s regiments.

Mencken’s famous essay “The Sahara of the Bozart,” published in the New York Evening Mail in 1917, is remembered best—and resented most—for its hilarious dismissal of all cultural achievement “below the Potomac”:

Not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera-house, or a single theater devoted to decent plays . . . you will not find a single Southern prose writer who can actually write. When you come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like—there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud flats and the Gulf. Nor a historian. Nor a philosopher. Nor a theologian. Nor a scientist. In all these fields the South is an awe-inspiring blank—a brother to Portugal, Serbia and Albania.

“If the whole of the late Confederacy were to be engulfed by a tidal wave tomorrow,” he concluded, “the effect upon the civilized minority of men in the world would be but little better than that of a flood on the Yang-tse.” The scandalized South responded—to Mencken’s cackling delight—with an explosion of public indignation, an apoplectic barrage of ad hominem counter-assaults on the Sage of Baltimore. And when the South’s cultural climate improved noticeably in the next decades, at least in the fields of literature and the fine arts, Mencken gleefully took full credit for what is now known as the Southern Renascence. Sometimes overlooked, during the South’s furious defense of its aesthetics, was the fact that Mencken’s essay was really aimed at bigger game, and a much deeper indictment of the Mind of the South.

“The most booming sort of piety, in the South, is not incompatible with the theory that lynching is a benign institution,” he reminds his readers. “Two generations ago it was not incompatible with an ardent belief in slavery.” Point, game, and match, if history is the referee. And Mencken, writing with typical fearlessness at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was at its most popular and dangerous, goes on to taunt the South with his own genetic hypothesis—that the region’s depleted aristocracy, repository of all its talent and intellect, had never stooped to breed with white trash and thus left all its blue-chip DNA to the children of African slaves and mixed-race mistresses. The poor whites who inherited the South, according to Mencken, had been inbred until they were little better than chimpanzees in trousers, drowning in the stagnant gene pool that created Theodore Bilbo, David Duke, and Jesse Helms. For “stirring up the animals,” as he loved to say and loved to do, he could hardly have administered a more potent stimulant.

Mencken’s next encounter with Dixieland was deep in enemy territory, in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, where he was an eyewitness reporter of the notorious Scopes “Monkey” Trial, the state of Tennessee’s attempt to punish the high school science teacher John Thomas Scopes for teaching Darwinian evolution in his classroom. Mencken had disparaged fundamentalism all his life—laughed at it, chiefly—but he had never eyeballed its excesses and adherents at point-blank range. “I set out laughing and returned quivering,” he told his friends. The ignorance and passion of the Bible Belt’s most unredeemed paleo-Christians actually frightened the fearless Mencken, who asked and expected so little of his fellow human beings.

H. L. Mencken never changed his mind about the Mind of the South. The historic, unflattering book of that title, which made a celebrity of W.J. Cash in 1941, was an expansion of Cash’s essay that Mencken had published as editor of The American Mercury in 1929. In 1931 Mencken once more crossed swords with the worst of the South, when alynch mob in Salisbury, Maryland,hanged, burned, and mutilated a black man who had murdered his white employer. In spite of cancelled subscriptions, boycotts against its advertisers, and death threats against the editors and their famous columnist, theBaltimore Sun had the courage to publish Mencken’s tirades against this atrocity and the local newspapers that had whitewashed it. Deploring “the brutish imbecilities” of the Ku Klux Klan and the gullibility of “poor white trash,” Mencken wrote that the state’s Eastern Shore “has been sliding out of Maryland and into the orbit of Arkansas and Tennessee, Mississippi and the more flea-bitten half of Virginia.” He invited the entire Eastern Shore to secede from the state of Maryland and join the subhuman South where it belonged.   

No Southern state was spared the particular sting of Mencken’s contempt. In the “Bozart” jeremiad of 1917 he wrote, “Virginia is the best of the South today, and Georgia is perhaps the worst. One is simply senile; the other is crass, gross, vulgar and obnoxious. Between lies a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence.” “Between,” of course, would be my home state of North Carolina. Rereading and rethinking Mencken as I have been, a few years into this twenty-first century, it’s become clear to me that a progressive Southerner’s fondest dream was always to prove H.L. Mencken wrong.

It hasn’t been a hopeless dream. It would take pages to list the successes, the sources of justifiable pride in literature and the arts, in the years since the man from Baltimore made such fun of us. The racist politics of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and Jesse Helms seemed thoroughly outdated and repudiated not so long ago. Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the death of Jim Crow, there have been three white Southern presidents black Americans could vote for and trust. The legacy of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton has been a rich one, in the fields of civil rights and civil relations between the races, and historians should never minimize their Southern origins or the great social thaw they represented.

The political fortunes of African Americans and many white liberals may have improved noticeably when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, but his historic election has been an ironic tragedy for the progressive South. No sooner did a non-white candidate claim the White House than legions of Tea Party troglodytes came crawling up from Jim Crow’s grave, tipping the electoral scales in divided states like North Carolina and turning most of the Deep South and the Appalachian South into a fortress of Republican reaction where white hegemony—Mencken wouldn’t have been afraid to say “supremacy”—is back in the driver’s seat and back in style.

Mencken would have nodded his great complacent-looking head, sagely and sadly. He would not be surprised by the new wave of illiterate legislators who strip state budgets of funding for education and the arts, not even by arch-philistines like Georgia congressman Jack Kingston, who dismisses the arts in general as “the favorite of the Left.” He would be appalled but not surprised to read that three freshman at the University of Mississippi, in the spring of 2014, placed a noose around the neck of the campus statue of James Meredith, the first black undergraduate to attend Ole Miss, and adorned the statue with a Confederate flag. He might be surprised by the $27 million Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, built by fundamentalists in 2007 to argue, with exhibits showing human/dinosaur interaction among other comic features, that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and was slapped together in a week, as related in the Book of Genesis.

If a man as cynical as Mencken could be personally discouraged by any human stupidity, he might sigh perceptibly to hear that nearly half of America’s citizens, and more than half of all Southerners, actually believe to this day that the earth is less than 10,000 years old (the Butler Act banning evolution from Tennessee’s public schools remained on the books until 1967). Wherever Mencken is now—and no doubt many Southerners hope that it’s a very hot place—he must be shaking his head and saying “I told you so,” just as he said so often when he lived among us.

Hal Crowther is the author of four collections of essays, including Unarmed But Dangerous, Cathedrals of Kudzu, and Gather at the River, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s prize for criticism. He just published a book on H. L. Mencken.