H.L. Mencken was a journalist, an atheist, a libertarian and a Nietzschean. He shared Nietzsche and the Modernists contempt for the masses. No one in the 1920s had a greater negative impact on shaping the values and beliefs of young Losters and GIs in college rebelling against their Victorian parents than Mencken. Young people read The American Mercury on college campuses.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“Sinclair Lewis was the most popular serious writer of the 1920s. His first major work, Main Street (1920), sold well and drew critical acclaim. It depicted the ignorance, smugness, and meanspiritedness of small town life. Two years later he brought forth Babbitt, his most famous novel. George Babbitt represented the archetypal businessman of the late 1920s. Babbitt was a booster, gregarious, and narrowly conformist in his opinions, but beneath the noisy clichés hid a timid man who wanted to do better but was afraid to try. Both book titles passed into the language. “Main Street” symbolized the complacent bigotry of small-town life, and “Babbitt” became a symbol of middle-class materialism and conformity. Lewis, a social satirist with great descriptive powers, masterfully depicted the sights and sounds of 1920s American life. In other works he attacked the medical profession, religious evangelists, and manufacturers. His books sold well, making him rich and famous. Lewis became the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize for literature.”
As we have already seen, Mencken was not alone in this. The Young Intellectuals all loved Nietzsche. Sinclair Lewis was the most influential novelist of the 1920s. Sinclair Lewis in Main Street (1920) and Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) created the negative Modernist urbanite stereotype of rural and small-town America. Main Street had a cultural impact on par with Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it created a demonic image of the Heartland that had not existed before.
“H.L. Mencken was another prominent American writer of the decade. Mencken was a middle-aged journalist and language scholar who founded the American Mercury, a sophisticated magazine that carried modern poetry, short stories, reviews, and satire. Mencken savagely satirized every aspect of American life. Anything sacred or significant to the traditionalists was fair game for Mencken. At one time or another he went after the Ku Klux Klan, Rotary Clubs, funerals, the Boy Scouts, motherhood, home cooking, Prohibition, democracy, and religious fundamentalists. He especially disliked religious people, all of whom he called “Puritans” He defined a Puritan as someone “who lives in mortal fear that somewhere, somehow, someone might be enjoying himself.”
Mencken tore down Victorian culture in the 1920s.
It was H.L. Mencken, Emma Goldman, Randolph Bourne and other Young Intellectuals who created the negative stereotype of the “Puritan” philistine. By “Puritan,” they meant anyone who was a Victorian in values and was religious like Southern Baptists and was opposed to their cultural libertarianism. The actual Puritans had long lost their cultural grip over New England in the early 18th century.
“He wrote about the great American “boobocracy” and the “boobocratic” way of life. Once when a young woman, upset by his diatribes, asked him why he bothered to live in the United States, Mencken replied, “Why do people go to zoos”?
Mencken excelled at turning a phrase and coming across at selling himself as being far more sophisticated than he actually was in his time. He didn’t graduate from college. He didn’t have any specialized knowledge of the arts either and wasn’t even a Modernist in his tastes.
The following excerpt comes from Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas:
“While today it is commonplace to bewail the puritanical prudery and provincialism of American culture, the Puritans didn’t always have such a bad reputation. Only when early twentieth-century critics like Goldman, Mencken and Bourne started to excavate the past for the historical conditions conspiring against the free intellect did the modern conception of the Puritan develop. The radicals collapsed Nietzsche’s analysis of Christian asceticism and sentimentalism into a critique of the lingering effects of Puritan psychology and piety. While the philistines treated ideas as if they were merely decorative, the Puritan viewed them as disciplinary. In their efforts to find a usable past to critique what they regarded as a culture of rigid moralizing, the radicals discovered the wrathful “Puritan” who policed free thought, hounded liberated spirits, and damaged the free play of personality. …
Once the impressionistic archetype of the austere, self-righteous premodern Puritan began to take shape, it was relatively easy to survey American society – from the vice campaigns of the Progressive Era through the wartime hysteria to the postwar return to “normalcy” – and discover modern Puritans incapable of free thought and eager to police those who weren’t.”
I can already hear the objections now.
But … H.L. Mencken wasn’t a leftist! He was a right-libertarian!
In the 1930s, H.L. Mencken went after FDR during the Great Depression who was an enormously popular figure. Mencken’s audience shifted Left in the 1930s as he faded in influence. The audience remained a bunch of smug, elitist assholes who were alienated from the Heartland and many of those young people who loved Mencken in the 1920s grew up to become New Deal technocrats.
The Scopes Trial of 1925 was the biggest battle of the culture war in the 1920s and pitted Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan. The issue that was being contested was whether or not evolution could be taught in Tennessee public schools. The “Scopes Monkey Trial” was set up from the beginning as a media publicity stunt to heap ridicule and contempt on the backward American masses – all the Appalachian yokels that Mencken that was constantly railing about in The American Mercury.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“Not long after, a group of men gathered at a table in Robinson’s Drugstore, the social center of Dayton, a town of some two thousand people in the foothills of the Cumberlands, to discuss these events. They included George Rappelyea, a transplanted New Yorker who managed the local branch of the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company, a couple of attorneys, and the superintendent of the Rhea County schools. Rappelyea, a free thinker, hated the fundamentalism espoused by most of the locals and was upset by the anti-evolution law. He told his companions he had seen an article in a Chattanooga paper in which the American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend any schoolteacher willing to be a legal guinea pig and contest the law. With a certain amount of guile, Rappelyea pointed out that if such a trial were held in Dayton, it would attracted national attention and, even more important, tourist dollars and new businesses.
Who was to be the sacrificial lamb? Frank Robinson, owner of the drugstore and school board president, suggested John T. Scopes, a twenty-four old science instructor at the Dayton High School who doubled as athletic coach and substitute biology teacher. Unmarried, popular, and modest, he seemed ideal for the assignment. Scopes was summoned, perspiring from the tennis court …
“Out of this friendly conspiracy arranged over Coca-Colas emerged one of the most celebrated trials in American legal history. “The Monkey Trial,” as Mencken labeled it, brought the struggle between traditionalism and modernism and between Main Street and the metropolis out into the open. He was involved in writing the script from almost the very beginning. In fact, Scopes later remarked that the entire episode “was Mencken’s show.” Mencken pounced upon the story early on and the Baltimore Evening Sun, his paper, posted $500 bail for Scopes. What would have normally been a simple misdemeanor trial lasting but a few hours was transformed into a major media event, and Scopes became all but an afterthought because of the high-profile players attracted to the case.”
H.L. Mencken wasn’t a Modernist.
He was a highly self-conscious German-American, a Late Victorian Darwinist who idolized T.H. Huxley and a Nietzschean who hated Christianity and the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture. You could definitely say he was in “allyship” with the Modernists. At one point, H.L. Mencken and Theodore Dreiser were so close they were dating two sisters. H.L. Mencken and Randolph Bourne both loved Nietzsche and wanted to subvert Victorian culture and push American culture in a more libertarian direction.
Mencken was a hugely important figure in the death of the Victorian mainstream and the origins of the Modern mainstream. He popularized naturalism and aestheticism.
The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:
“Everybody knows that at some point in the twentieth century America went through a cultural revolution. One has only to glance at the family photograph album, or to pick up a book or magazine dated, say, 1907, to find oneself in a completely vanished world. On one side of some historical boundary lies the America of Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, of Chautauqua and Billy Sunday and municipal crusades, a world so foreign, so seemingly simple, that we sometimes tend, foolishly enough, to find it comical. On the other side of the barrier lies our own time, a time of fearful issues and drastic divisions, a time surely including the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the atom bomb. Clearly on one side of this line lie Booth Tarkington and O. Henry and the American Winston Churchill, and also, we should not forget, Henry James. Clearly on our side lie Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Stearns Eliot, and also the writers of television advertising. At some point, if not an instantaneous upheaval, there must have been a notable quickening of the pace of change, a period when things began to move so fast that the past, from then on, looked static. …
Some of these paradoxes are, of course, more apparent than real. We do not have to choose between the two pictures of prewar America: the end of Victorian calm and the beginning of cultural revolution. Both of these pictures are true. In the years we are going to examine, the few years just before the impact of war on America, we are uniquely able to look at both pictures at once. We can see the massive walls of nineteenth-century America still apparently intact, and then turn our spotlight on the many different kinds of people cheerfully laying dynamite in the hidden cracks. It is my hope that a concentrated but fairly wide-ranging study of this short period, of its thought and literature and politics, may tell us something about the old America and something about the beginnings of our own times. …
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 …”
H.L. Mencken, the Young Intellectuals and the other Modernists agreed that religion and morality were a farce and that Americans could along just fine without the Victorian cultural consensus on national identity, religion and morality. This is what makes them Moderns.
Moderns value self-expression, self-liberation and self-realization above collective ties. They value cultural liberation and cultural egalitarianism. They want to “liberate” people and “transform their consciousness” so that they can pursue and cultivate aesthetic lifestyles. In contrast, Victorians valued self-denial, religion and morality and racial and cultural hierarchies above aesthetic self-expression.
From the Compromise Generation (born 1767-1791) through the Missionary Generation (born 1860-1882), Americans were Victorians. From the Lost Generation (born 1882-1900) through the Millennials (born 1981-2001), Americans have been Moderns.