H.L. Mencken, Nietzsche and the Death of the Victorian Mainstream

Why should anyone bother studying this?

What relevance does it have to our own times? I would respond by saying it is worth knowing when, why and how our own age began and when, why and how the old mainstream crumbled.

The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:

“The Smart Set, like its predecessors of the nineties, referred often and with admiration to the doctrines of Friedrich Nietzsche. Of all the Europeans who repudiated the nineteenth-century world of scientific progress and moral advance, Nietzsche enjoyed the greatest popularity in prewar America. The Nietzsche vogue, running from the fin-de-siècle through various byways to Mencken and beyond, is a prewar phenomenon of the middle magnitude, clearly more important than the aestheticism of the imitation Yellow Book variety.

Nietzsche began to be talked about by advanced thinkers with the appearance of the first English translations. These started in 1896, and continued sporadically through the century’s first decade. In 1909-13 came the authorized translation of the complete works, edited by Oscar Levy, and at the same time a burst of Nietzsche interpretation, praise and denunciation which continued to the war.”

This will probably sound like a strange argument.

What on earth could Friedrich Nietzsche and H.L. Mencken of all people have to do with our current mainstream? Nietzsche and Mencken were famous for heaping scorn on Christianity. They were the sworn enemies of moralizing upper middle class progressive do gooders.

“He did serve, though, to help many young people who encountered him in these years break with the whole set of ideas in which they had been brought up. He was a most effective shocker: that was the deliberate purpose of his paradoxical and aphoristic style.

And Nietzsche put H.L. Mencken, as Mencken put Nietzsche, on the American map.

In Mencken, one of the most challenging and paradoxical figures in the history of American culture, all the European influences of the late nineteenth century came together with much that was intensely native and much that was irreducibly personal. Though by no means the doughy champion of the intelligentsia that he became after the war, he was already in the early teens a well-known and disturbing voice of rebellion. In the Baltimore Sun, in the Smart Set, and in a series of books culminating in A Book of Prefaces (1917), he was already giving voice to a whole set of ideas that later became familiar. More important, his invective style, always startling, sometimes embarrassing, at its best superb, sounded already, from time to time, its full trombone and tuba blast.”

H.L. Mencken was an important bridge between American youth culture and European naturalism and aestheticism in the 1910s and 1920s.

“In Nietzsche Mencken found, for one thing, a way of combing his naturalism and aestheticism. Despite his misunderstandings, Mencken really could draw from his early master much that he needed: nobody else was so deeply versed in European tradition and yet, without being at all an uplifter, so revolutionary. Nobody else could be quoted so aptly against women, Christianity, progress, and Anglo-Saxondom. Mencken’s own idea of the Nietzschean superman, lordly and masculine, disillusioned but cheerful, a chastiser and yet a yea-sayer, may have furnished some of the model for his own role.

More completely than anybody else so far, Mencken had by the early and middle teens raised the standard of battle against all three of the main elements of the dominant American culture. His dislike of the assumptions of practical idealism was central and pervasive. Any kind of absolute morality was to him a farce, and the cheerfulness that morality found in everyday life the height of vulgarity …”

Progressive liberalism didn’t go away.

Moralism is still a part of American culture. Progress is still a part of American culture. The fusion of Modernism though with American progressive liberalism in the 1910s and 1920s changed the character of Progressivism. It was like it was microwaved and came out secular and left-libertarian whereas before under the influence of the Social Gospel movement it had been religious and left-conservative.

The elitism, cosmopolitanism, secularism, relativism and iconoclasm of Nietzsche, Mencken and Modernism more generally was fully compatible with progressive liberalism. Progressives became a bunch of elitist assholes who prioritized cultural liberation from traditional norms. They read Nietzsche and Mencken and absorbed their elitism and alienation from the masses. They read William James and John Dewey and became cosmopolitan pluralists. They read Freud and H.G. Wells and took away sexual liberation from them. They were exposed to the avant-garde and took away aestheticism or the autonomy of aesthetics from ethics. From Modern philosophy, literature, art and psychology, they took away the central idea of the exploration, expression and liberation of the autonomous self who “lives” for “experience.”

How is elitism compatible with egalitarianism? How is progress which in the 19th century had meant humanitarian reform, material comfort, science and technology and moral improvement compatible with nihilism, irrationalism and gleeful transgression against traditional morality? Modern progressives have made this work. It is what distinguishes them from their ancestors.

About Hunter Wallace 9677 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent

49 Comments

  1. Yeah, too bad Nietzsche and Mencken stood miles above any backwards-looking rube who currently writes for the “Dissident Right.”

    The Bible won’t save you, lads. This war is on the ground, not in the clouds.

    • If you think about it, it makes sense.

      What is the biggest difference between America in 1912 and 2020? Back then, America was a confident Anglo-Protestant country. Protestantism was the dominant culture. Traditional morals also reigned supreme. All of this has been discarded since 1912.

      Nietzsche and Mencken proposed getting rid of Christianity and traditional morality and thought this would be an improvement because it would unleash the creative energies of the “higher men” who were held back by the slave morality of the masses. In 2020, the backwards-looking rubes have fully absorbed what was a radical message at the time as it has trickled down from elites.

      No one needs to be held back by the grip of religion or morality. No one has any obligation to anyone else. We are free to be self-absorbed narcissists and to indulge in every whim or appetite that strikes our fancy. In fact, this is how we should run the country.

      What are the consequences of our elites having this mindset? Again, it is a question only backwards-looking rubes ask. It is self-evident that we have culturally progressed since 1912!

      • “This happened in 1912, and look at us now.”

        Der, correlation does not equal causation. Serial killings rose along with the popularity of Ronald McDonald, but only a dummy would connect the two.

        You’d make a better case that the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 caused the current mess.

        The reason the right will lose is because they keep looking backwards.

        • The reason the Right keeps losing is because it has incorporated liberalism, modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism into its creed which are utterly incompatible with conservatism. Then it fights on the moral terrain of the -isms and -phobias. The value of exploring the past is that it allows us to see why, when and how all this garbage became part of the Right in the first place.

          • You are going to need some new vocabulary if you want to say that the right is liberal, modern, and cosmopolitan. What is the left if the right is liberal? There is a certain point when you bend the definitions of words so far they lose meaning.

        • He just told you the cause retard. He said that the narcissism Nietzsche and Mencken unleashed on the elites trickled down into everyday society and caused people to no longer care about greater society and only about themselves which, in turn, caused the social decay we see today because the traditional maintainers of our culture and society have abandoned it.

          Is this our “great” elite? The “Ubermensch?” Someone who either has the reading comprehension of somebody with the mental age of 9 or who selectively reads into things to carefully maintain their own frangible view of themselves?

          And by the way, anybody who throws out “muh correlation ekwels causation” shit should go back into the midwit bin and call each other hypocrites all day along with any other suface-level stupidity or unproductive argument you may have.

          • Don’t mistake the ruling archons of this world with an élite. Nietzsche had liberals of his time and ours pegged as “the flies of the marketplace”. good article, though. The Victorian period was great in many ways, but too many things were changing too fast for it to endure long.

        • You mean Ronald McDonald had nothing to do with serial killers? I think you’re wrong. I bet Ted Bundy and Charles Manson ate at McDonald’s at least once, probably had Happy Meals too, with the little toy inside.

          • @Terry Smith…

            “The federal reserve act has played a part in the evilness that has befallen our republic.”

            Absolutely, My Friend, and yet, if you are familiar with that saga, you are well aware that The Rothschild’s manage to get their grip on this country, right from the start, they, at the beginning of Washington’s first term, have resunken their fangs into this country.

            Only Andrew Jackson managed to extricate us, though his hard won victory was given away some 80 years later by Woodrow Wilson – the very politician who, in 1912, campaigned against it, and, as well, ever getting involved in a European War!

            If The Lincoln Administration layed the soil for the fall of this country into the abyss, then The Wilson Administration made sure that it, and, indeed, much of the West, grew into it so far that it would never return.

            Indeed, The Wilson Presidency was a disaster for the entire world, for even today, we are still living well within it’s shadow.

  2. Looking back to my experiences growing up in this country during the 1960s & 70s, it is very clear that all the -isms were already fully there.

    What they were not so much as they are today was wildly out of whack.

    In the end, when you wonder how we got from being proud of the United States of America and being proud to be a part of that, it comes down to tinkering.

    Yes, tinkering is to blame; and really, there are only two categories of tinkering – one being with a mind to do good and the other with a mind to get away with something bad.

    In this I am reminded of the doctor who, in attempting to both improve the patient, yet profit from the process, keeps tinkering with the patient until the patient is tortured and then graveyard dead.

    And so it was that, about a decade back, I did what many Americans would have thought wild and unfounded : ——– I threw a funeral in my back yard, said a very tearful goodbye to her, gave her all my thanks, and then put up her up a slate tombstone.

    ———————————–THE UNITED STATES—————————————–

    BORN of European Genius, Inventiveness, and Industry in the 17th century.

    DIED a protracted death in the 21st, by compulsive and venal tinkering.

    May God rest her soul, even though she was far from Him at the time of departing.

    Long live The Southern Confederacy who shall rerise in her stead.

  3. Museums and history are graveyards. They’re dead.

    In terms of the living, Richard the clown Spencer just equated oath keepers, patriot prayer, and other right wing groups to be the same level as antifa. He also declared that tweets are the ultimate revolutionary act of today’s world.

    These historical articles would be more relevant if cited along side contemporary examples of comparison and contrast. It would also help if the subjects being discussed were quoted instead of just merely discussed.

      • Some people think Spencer is controlled opposition, well I just think he’s a clown.

        Instead of allying with the right, he just declares everyone an enemy, especially those on the right. He has spent years ridiculing Trump supporters instead of making allies with them. Richard is crazy, he literally thinks Trump supporters are the enemy and nationalists need to become Marxists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Now the clown has endorsed Joe Biden. Why? Because Richard Spencer is a clown and he’s nuts. He does not have the best interests of nationalists / populists in mind.

        Why did Spencer makes enemies with Lana Lokteff, No White Guilt, and Nick Fuentes? Is that helpful at all? Richard is a man-child who picks a fight with everyone that doesn’t subscribe to his morbid Marxist world view.

        People say social media companies killed the Alt Right with de-platforming. I think what really killed the Alt Right was Richard Spencer.

        Trump is not our enemy, he’s not a globalist. Trump supporters are not our enemy. Anybody who says they are is unwittingly or willingly helping to kill the populist unity in this country that did not exist before Trump came along.

    • Stewart Rhodes of Oath Keepers is a gate keeper. His organization is a mechanism to control ex-military members and their like-minded comrades. Pay attention to where they dare not tread, eg., the Bundy standoff. Oath Keepers had an opportunity to take a full stand with those men and did practically nothing (individual members of the organization did).

      • I tried to like Mencken, and sometimes still do read him. But the hatred of the core Americans that he had always seeped out and stank like sewage. Two (minor?) things really turned me off: 1) He wrote of visiting western PA and hating the domestic architecture. WTF? Houses that he saw are still there and are practically and utilitarianistically built. They look fine and they are strongly built. 2) He championed his black neighbors in Baltimore over his “Anglo Saxon” neighbors, at least in how they kept their yards. He wrote that the blacks (women, of course) were great gardeners who livened up the backyards with great floral displays, while the “white trash” (not necessarily his words, but that’s what he meant) would turn their yards into barren compacted dirt. Was it that way then in the 1930s? I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but can anyone say that Baltimore is a garden city now that it’s entirely black?

        • Yes, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D. Maryland) apparently thought Baltimore was a garden city after Trump basically called it a shithole. Of course, the Prophet Elijah had stupid written on his face in six inch tall letters but the was smart enough not to get within ten miles of the place except when he absolutely had to to make a campaign appearance and even then he was gone before sundown.

    • You’re at the wrong website if you’re complaining about history being discussed. If you can’t grasp that history is talked about here as a way to learn about how we got to the decayed state we’re in, and that paying attention to those lessons shows a way to get out of this mess, you won’t get much out of anything written by HW.

  4. “Traditional morality” was already being destroyed by liberalism, that is why Nietzsche pulled the ripcord. Christianity is just primitive liberalism, and thus was not being so much undermined by liberalism as simply replaced.

    You want to dismiss Nietzsche by making him responsible for liberalism, even though you know it’s a fraud, because you’re offended by his critique of Christianity but like pretty much everyone else can’t meet that critique on its own terms, no one can, so enter “Modernism.” The most you do is point at earlier Christians and say “well, they were racist too!”

    Nietzsche was a white-supremacist. He was against petty nationalism because it was superficial and contradictory in a globalized world. His future was one of racial unification and domination of others. That is where the European right was always heading after the French Revolution. Nazism is a direct product of Nietzsche’s de-Christianization of European history. Mencken was literally just a fedora. Any attempt to fit Nietzsche into a rationalization of our contemporary “elites,” or assigning responsibility to him for our predicament is completely disingenuous and false, no exceptions.

    • 1.) I haven’t said anywhere that Nietzsche is a liberal. Obviously, he wasn’t.

      2.) I haven’t said that Nietzsche is responsible for liberalism. Clearly, liberalism existed long before Nietzsche.

      3.) I haven’t said that Modernism is liberalism. It is something entirely different. It is a sensibility or an aesthetic like Romanticism, not an ideology.

      4.) Nietzsche sought to destroy the claims of traditional religion and morality. This was his stated goal as an immoralist.

      5.) Traditional morality was fairly strong in the United States before Nietzsche began to influence rising elites in the 1910s. He wasn’t the only European thinker who was having an impact on the United States, but he was Americanized by Mencken and through him influenced the American intelligentsia of the 1920s.

      6.) Christianity is not “primitive liberalism.”

      7.) Nietzsche was a cosmopolitan elitist who hated nationalism and anti-Semitism. He wasn’t interested in racial unification. Instead, he was focused on elites and self realization.

      8.) You could say that many things are a direct product of Nietzsche’s de-Christianization of European history like the world we have now in which Christianity is no longer the hegemonic culture it was in his times.

      9.) Finally, liberal elites read Nietzsche and he influenced them, and what they took away from Nietzsche was his elitism and cosmopolitanism, the bankruptcy of Christianity and traditional morality, his self absorption and the belief that they had no obligation to the masses who Nietzsche called the herd animals.

  5. “How is elitism compatible with egalitarianism? How is progress which in the 19th century had meant humanitarian reform, material comfort, science and technology and moral improvement compatible with nihilism, irrationalism and gleeful transgression against traditional morality? Modern progressives have made this work.”

    Off topic—I guess—but what you wrote there reminds me of something I read in Entertainment Weekly, I think it must have been, oh, decades ago, while I was in one of the waiting-chairs at the shop where, in those days, I got my hair cut. In the first paragraphs of an article that was about heavy-metal music and that deftly divided that music into several sub-genres was a statement that that music was not to be dismissed, as the writer seemed to think it might be by some music listeners. “Say what you will about heavy metal,” he wrote, as I recall his text, “it’s the only cultural form that has successfully blended transvestitism and machismo.”

    • Ozzy Osbourne would agree with you. He said that in the late 80s videos he made, he looked like a transvestite truck driver. I guess at that point he was a puppet of his wife and other bad people.

  6. I recently read an article by a top Christian lawyer, discussing recent big defeats in the Supreme Court. Someone said to him: We need to build institutions, put together massive funding to fight this. The lawyer sighed, said he was old enough to remember a time, in the 1980s, when the Christian right had those things, and they still got crushed. That’s an important lesson. You hear people say: We need to build institutions, we need money, we need a new party, need to go independent of the GOP, etc. They’re missing the fact that we *had* all those things at one time, and somehow still got crushed. Powerful, persistent efforts were made in the past to achieve the goals of the alt-right, and yet all those institutions decayed and failed. The question is: Why? Why did the Christians get steam-rolled? Why did the old America get steam-rolled? Why won’t it just happen again if we build new institutions or parties? Can the direction of history be changed by changing people’s ideas? Or are there deeper causes? Those are fundamental questions.

    I tend to agree with Kaczynski (and Marx). Technology is the ultimate driver and its logic will dictate the evolution of human society. Human beings have no control over its destination. The system doesn’t exist to serve the needs of human beings; human beings are reshaped and disciplined to suit the needs of the system.
    https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ted-kaczynski-the-system-s-neatest-trick

    Where would we be without the industrial revolution? I suppose we’d still be living in material conditions like the 18th century. Slavery would probably return, with Plato’s/Aristotle’s justifications. Where would women be without fossil fuels and labor-saving machinery? Working hard in the garden and kitchen all day like their great great grandmothers. All of the poz is floating on top of a massive substructure of supportive technology. Technology is even more obnoxious now, with people are walking around with a device glued to their face all day long, pushing the hot buttons of their brain. Africans want to migrate to Europe because they see it (and porned out white women) on their phones. Its not a coincidence that virulent wokeness arose together with smartphone and social media.

    • The moment when the US Supreme Court fully confirmed they are followers of the demons of hell –

      “In perhaps the most disgusting USA Supreme Court decision in history, in 1993 that court satanically declared it was perfectly all right to put to death an innocent man – so long as the man was sentenced to death following ‘proper procedure’.

      In this case of Latino US Navy Veteran Leonel Torres Herrera (1947-93), witnesses had come forward to say another man was guilty of the murder, and had even confessed it.

      But the USA Supreme Court ‘Justices’, claimed they could not ‘find’ any Constitutional right not to be put to death, just because you are innocent.

      Although 84-year-old Justice Harry Blackmun led angry dissenters, suggesting his colleagues were ‘murderous’, the court voted 6-3 to order that Herrera be sent to his death, and Texas governor Ann Richards seemed to relish putting this Latino to death too.”

      Those black-robed scum can ‘find’ ‘gay rights’ and ‘abortion rights’ in the US Constitution, they tell us … but they couldn’t ‘find’ a right not to be put to death when you are innocent

      Above quote from the ‘Guide for the Perplexed Victims of US Legal Corruption’

  7. “We need to build institutions, we need money, we need a new party, need to go independent of the GOP, etc. They’re missing the fact that we *had* all those things at one time, and somehow still got crushed. Powerful, persistent efforts were made in the past to achieve the goals of the alt-right, and yet all those institutions decayed and failed. The question is: Why? ”

    Neocons?

    • II feel sad when I see conservative libertarian types stand up for free speech, when their friends are being canceled by the Woke Mob. This one naive guy said if enough of us band together we can beat these people. He doesn’t understand they have control of the banking sector, and can and will cut his access to financial services if he becomes a problem.

      It is the reason I am seriously considering moving all my money into crypto. As long as our money is under their control we will never be free.

    • @Terry Smith…

      It often is that brilliant, highly talented, and deep people, who do not know Chryst, have to go to incredible lengths to deal with their insecurities.

      One of the characteristics you will see with this kind is that they have a long list of those they take a dim view of – usually at the top of that list the very Americans who make the country go – i.e. in Mencken’s time, all those who grew, distributed, and cooked the food that went in his mouth, those who built the furniture he put his shoes on, all those who fabricated the typewriters that conveyed his thoughts, built the buildings he was sheltered by, etc, etc – and yet, they had to be deridden and put down, because he could not live with himself any other way.

      Mencken had to think of himself as ‘above the rabble’, and, quite naturally, somebody had to be that ‘rabble’.

      It probably never occurred to him that the only rabble was that niggardly grinch-like terrain in his heart, where appreciation and caring for his brethren ought to have been.

      • He was of germanic heritage? From a border state. A man with a black heart and a mean mouth , during his time there was a rise of thee occult among the so called elite along with their lackey’s like mr.mencken. here and europe as well, that same darkness is very busy these days. He was no mere hater, he was one of the great minds of his time. Infected with the same racialism,occultism.and statism as his modernistic compadres in viena.

  8. Re: “The Nietzsche vogue (…) is a prewar phenomenon of the middle magnitude, clearly more important than the aestheticism of the imitation Yellow Book variety”:

    What is “Yellow Book”? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Yellow_Book The yellow cover was to associate it with yellow-bound French pornography. “The Yellow Book was a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897 (…) and lent its name to the ‘Yellow Nineties’ referring to the decade of its operation. It was a leading journal of the British 1890s; to some degree associated with Aestheticism and Decadence….”

    What is “Decadence”? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decadent_movement The Decadent movement “first flourished in France, and then spread throughout Europe and to the United States (…) The movement was characterized by self-disgust, sickness at the world, general skepticism, delight in perversion, and employment of crude humor and a belief in the superiority of human creativity over logic and the natural world.(…) Central to the decadent movement was the view that art is totally opposed to nature in the sense both of biological nature and of the standard (…) norms of morality and sexual behaviour.”

    The Opium Queen Age was also “yellow.”

  9. HW and Keith Woods are discussing Nietzsche and Mencken at the same time. Are they having a coffee klatch and putting their heads together? It’s like telepathy or something.

  10. You know there’s the beginnings of a really great book in all these posts. Probably a book that has already been written, but I think Hunter Wallace could put a new and more relevant spin on it.

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