A Mencken Chrestomathy

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A Mencken Chrestomathy
written by Henry Louis Mencken

To here


In my title I revive the word chrestomathy in its true sense
of a collection of choice passages from an author or authors/'
and ignore the late addition of '‘especially one compiled to as-
sist in the acquirement of a language." In the latter significance
the term is often used by linguists, and some of the chrestoma-
thies issued by them in recent years — for example, Dr. Edgar H.
Sturtevanfs "Hittite Chrestomathy" of 1935 — are works of
capital importance. But I see no reason why they should have
a monopoly on what is not, after all, their invention. Nor do I
see why I should be deterred by the fact that, when this book
was announced, a few newspaper smarties protested that the
word would be unfamiliar to many readers, as it was to them.
Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs and adjectives that have
stood in every decent dictionary for years are still unfamiliar to
such ignoramuses, and I do not solicit their patronage. Let them
continue to recreate themselves with whodunits, and leave my
vocabulary and me to my own customers, who have all been to
school. Chrestomathy is actually more than a century old in
English, which makes it quite as ancient as scientist, which was
invented by William Whewell in 1840, or anesthetic, which
was proposed by Oliver Wendell Holmes I in 1846. In Greek,
where it was contrived by joining chrestos, meaning useful, and
mathein, meaning to learn, it goes back to Proclus Disdochos,
who used it in Athens in the year 450.

Whether anyone will find anything useful in what follows, or
learn from it otherwise, is not for me to guess, but at all events
I like the word better than the omnibus, reader, treasury, mis-
cellany, panorama and portable that have been so horribly over-
worked of late. The aim of the volume is simply to present a
selection from my out-of-print writings, many of them now al-

Vi Freface

most unobtainable. They come mostly from books, but others
are magazine or newspaper pieces that never got between covers,
and a few of them are notes never previously published at
all. I have an enormous collection of such notes, mainly accu-
mulated for books that, after long struggles, failed to get them-
selves written, and some day I may gather them into a couple
of volumes. The books levied on here are the six of the Preju-
dices” series, "A Book of Burlesques,” "Damn: a Book of Cal-
umny,” "In Defense of Women,” "Making a President,” "Notes
on Democracy” and "Treatise on Right and Wrong.” All save
two of these had fair successes in their day, and I still receive
frequent correspondence about them, but they are so full of the
discussion of matters now of only historical interest that I have
hesitated to let them be reprinted in toto. It seemed to be much
more rational to dig out of them the material that continues to
be of more or less current interest, and to print all of it in one
volume, at a price substantially less than the cost of a dozen.
I have done my own editing, and the judicious may observe
some evidence that I have occasionally allowed partiality to cor-
rupt judgment, but I assume that any other editor would have
been guilty of a similar softness. Some of the lesser pieces follow-
ing —for example, "The Sahara of the Bozart,” my bathtub
hoax and my translation of "The Declaration of Independence”
into the American vulgate — have carried on a vigorous life for
years, and I have therefore thought it worth while to give them
one more embalming before consigning them to statistics and
the devil.

In general, I have made few changes in the original texts, and
in consequence several thumpingly false prophecies and otha
howlers are preserved. But when it seemed to make for clarity I
have not hesitated to change the present tense into the past, and
to omit repetitive and otherwise unnecessary passages. In all
cases where I could determine it I have given the date and place
of original publication. My later books — for example, "The
American Language” and its Supplements and the diree "Days”
books — are not represented, for all of them are still in print.

Preface vii

For the same reason I have passed over The Artist/' "Christ-
mas Story" and "Treatise on the Gods/' the last of which came
out in a revised edition so recently as 1946. What the total of
my published writings comes to I don't know precisely, but cer-
tainly it must run well beyond 5,000,000 words. A good deal of
it, of course, was journalism pure and simple — dead almost be-
fore the ink which printed it was dry. But I certainly do not
regret that I gave so much of my time and energy, especially in
my earlier years, to this journalism, for I had a swell time con-
cocting it, and in its day it got some attention. Even in my
later years, with wisdom radiating from me like heat from a
stove, I have occasionally gone back to it, to my complete satis-
faction and the apparent approval (or horror) of the customers.
There is something delightful about getting an idea on paper
while it is still hot and charming, and seeing it in print before
it begins to pale and stale. My happiest days have been spent in
crowded press-stands, recording and belaboring events that were
portentous in their day, but are now forgotten. These recordings
usually died with the events, but I am well aware, as an old
book reviewer, that multitudes of books have died too, includ-
ing many once gloated over as masterpieces.

Those who explore the ensuing pages will find them marked
by a certain ribaldry, even when they discuss topics commonly
regarded as grave. I do not apologize for this, for life in the Re-
public has always seemed to me to be far more comic than
serious. We live in a land of abounding quackeries, and if we
do not learn how to laugh we succumb to the melancholy dis-
ease which afflicts the race of viewers-with-alarm. I have had too
good a time of it in this world to go down that chute. I have
witnessed, in my day, the discovery, enthronement and subse-
quent collapse of a vast army of uplifters and world-savers, and
am firmly convinced that all of them were mountebanks. We
produce such mountebanks in greater number tlian any other
country, and they climb to heights seldom equalled elsewhere.
Nevertheless, we survive, and not only survive but also flourish.
In no other country known to me is life as safe and agreeable.

viii Preface

taking one day with another^ as it is in These States. Even in a
great Depression few if any starve, and even in a great war the
number who suffer by it is vastly surpassed by the number who
fatten on it and enjoy it. Thus my view of my country is pre-
dominantly tolerant and amiable. I do not believe in democ-
racy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the
only really amusing form of government ever endured by man-

Baltimore H. L. Mencken


I. Homo Sapiens

The Life of Man page 3

Man's Place in Nature 4

Meditation on Meditation 6

Coda 9

II. Types of Men

The Romantic 10

The Skeptic 10

The Believer 11

The Toiler 11

The Physician 12

The Scientist 12

The Business Man 1 3

The King 1 3

The Metaphysician 1 3

The Average Man 14

The T ruth-Seeker 1 5

The Relative 1 5

The Relative-in-Law 1 5

The Friend 16

The Philosopher 16

The Altruist 17

The Iconoclast 17

The Family Man 18

The Bachelor 18

The Good Man 19

The Eternal Male 19

The Slave 20

III. Women

The Feminine Mind 21

Women as Outlaws 28

The Cold Woman 30

Intermezzo on Monogamy 32

The Libertine 34

The Lure of Beauty 36




The Incomparable Buzz-Saw page 40

The War Between Man and Woman 4^

The Nature of Love 44

The Eternal Farce 4^

The Helpmate 47

The Sex Uproar * 48

Women as Christians 50

The Lady of Joy 54

A Loss to Romance 57

The Balance Sheet 58

Compulsory Marriage 58

Cavia Cobaya 60

Art and Sex 61

Offspring 61

Sex Hygiene 62

Eugenics 62

The Double Standard 6 ^

The Supreme Comedy 63

Woman as Realpolitiker 64

After-Thoughts 64

Romantic Interlude 65

Apologia 66

IV. Religion

The Cosmic Secretariat 67

The Nature of Faith 69

The Restoration of Beauty yj

Holy Clerks

The Collapse of Protestantism 76

Immune 80

A New Use for Churches 81

Free Will 82

Sabbath Meditation 84

The Immortality of the Soul 86

Miracles 88

Quod est Veritas? 89

The Doubter's Reward 80

Holy Writ 90

The Powers of the Air ^2

Memorial Service


V. Morals


The Origin of Morality


The Good Citizen


Free Will Again


An Ethical Dilemma




VI. Crime and Punishment

The Criminal Law


The Penalty of Death


On Hanging a Man


Cops and Their Ways

VII. Death


On Suicide


Under the Elms


Exeunt Omnes


Clarion Call to Poets


VIII. Government

Its Inner Nature


More of the Same


The Politician


Governmental Theories


Note on a Cuff

IX. Democracy


Its Origins


A Glance Ahead


The Democratic Citizen


A Blind Spot


Rivals to Democracy


Last Words

X. Americans


The Anglo-Saxon


^ American Culture


xii Contents

XI. The South

The Sahara of the Bozart

PAGE 1 84

The Confederate Mind


The Calamity of Appomattox


A Class A Blunder


XII. History



Forgotten Men




New England


New Deal No. i


The Greeks




A Bad Guess


Undying Glories


XIII. Statesmen

Pater Patriae


Abraham Lincoln


Portrait of an Immortal

22 2

A Good Man in a Bad Trade


Roosevelt I


In Memoriam: W. J. B.


The Archangel Woodrow




Imperial Purple


XIV. American Immortals

Mr. Justice Holmes


Professor Veblen


John D.


XV. Odd Fish

A Good Man Gone Wrong




An American Bonaparte


Sister Aim^e




XVI. Economics

To Him That Hath

PAGE 293



On Getting a Living


Personal Note


XVII. Pedagogy

The Educational Process




Classical Learning


The Boon of Culture


Bearers of the Torch


XVIII. Psychology

Psychologists in a Fog


The Mind of the Slave


The Crowd


The Art Eternal


XIX. Science





Caveat Against Science


The Eternal Conundrum


The Universe


The Boons of Civilization


XX. Quackery

Christian Science




The Fruits of Comstockery


The Foundations of Quackery


Hooey from the Orient


The Executive Secretary


The Husbandman




XXL The Human Body

Pathological Note


The Striated Muscle Fetish


Moral Tale


xiv Contents

Comfort for the Ailing page 374

Eugenic Note 376

XXIL Utopian Flights

A Purge for Legislatures 378

A Chance for Millionaires 380

The Malevolent Jobholder 384

Portrait of an Ideal World 388

XXIII. Souvenirs of a fourndist

The Hills of Zion 392

Dempsey vs. Carpentier 399

How Legends are Made 403

Lodge 408

The Perihelion of Prohibition 41 1

The End of Prohibition 416

The New Deal 424

XXIV. Criticism

The Critical Process 429

Examination for Critics 440

XXV. Literature

The Divine Afflatus 442

The Poet and His Art 449

The New Poetry 459

On Style 460

Authorship as a Trade 463

The Author at Work 465

Foreign Poisons 467

The Blue-Nose 470

F olk-Literature 471

The Literary Amenities 475

The Author's League 47^

XXVI. LUerati

The Moonstruck Pastor

Aristotelian Obsequies .yg


..Whitman ^82



Memorial Service

PAGE 484





The Man Within


The Dean


Ambrose Bierce


Stephen Crane


Hamlin Garland


Henry James




Ring Lardner


Huneker: a Memory


Joseph Conrad


XXVII. Music







W agner


More of the Same


Johann Strauss


Tempo di Valse


Richard Strauss


Bach at Bethlehem




Music as a Trade


The Music-Lover


The Reward of the Artist


Masters of Tone


XXVIII. The Lesser Arts

Hand-Painted Oil Paintings 551

Art Critics 554

The New Architecture 55-7

Art Galleries

Art and Nature 562

The Artist 562

The Greenwich Village Complex 564

Reflection on the Drama 564

Actors 567

The Comedian c:6q




PAGE 570



The Libido for the Ugly


XXIX. Buffooneries

Death: a Philosophical Discussion


The Declaration of Independence in American


The Visionary


A Neglected Anniversary


Star-Spangled Men


The Incomparable Physician


A Smart Set Circular


Suite Americaine


People and Things


XXX. Sententice

Tlie Mind of Man


Masculum et Feminam Creavit Eos


The Citizen and the State


Arcana Coelestia


This and That


XXXI. Appendix








The Life of Man

From Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp. 120-32.

First printed in the Smart Set, Oct., 1918, pp. 80-81

The old anthropomorphic notion that the life of the whole
universe centers in the life of man — that human existence is
the supreme expression of the cosmic process — this notion
seems to be happily on its way toward the Sheol of exploded
delusions. The fact is that the life of man, as it is more and
more studied in the light of general biology, appears to be
more and more empty of significance. Once apparently the
chief concern and masterpiece of the gods, the human race
now begins to bear the aspect of an accidental by-product of
their vast, inscrutable and probably nonsensical operations. A
blacksmith making a horse-shoe produces something almost as
brilliant and mysterious — the shower of sparks. But his eye
and thought, as we know, are not on the sparks, but on the
horse-shoe. The sparks, indeed, constitute a sort of disease of
the horse-shoe; their existence depends upon a wasting of its
tissue. In the same way, perhaps, man is a local disease of the
cosmos — a kind of pestiferous eczema or urethritis. There are,
of course, different grades of eczema, and so are there different
grades of men. No doubt a cosmos afflicted with nothing worse
than an infection of Beethovens would not think it worth
while to send for the doctor. But a cosmos infested by Social-
ists, Scotsmen and stockbrokers must suffer damnably. No
wonder the sun is so hot and the moon is so diabetically green.



A Mencken Chrestomathy

Man's Place in Nature

From the same. First printed in the Smart Set, Aug., 1919, pp. 61-62

As I say, the anthropomorphic theory of the world is made
absurd by modern biology — but that is not saying, of course,
that it will ever be abandoned by the generality of men. To
the contrary, they will cherish it in proportion as it becomes
more and more dubious. Today, indeed, it is cherished as it
was never cherished in the Ages of Faith, when the doctrine
that man was god-like was at least ameliorated by the doc-
trine that woman was vile. What else is behind charity, phi-
lanthropy, pacifism, the uplift, all the rest of the current senti-
mentalities? One and all, these sentimentalities are based
upon the notion that man is a glorious and ineffable animal,
and that his continued existence in the world ought to be
facilitated and insured. But this notion is obviously full of
fatuity. As animals go, even in so limited a space as our world,
man is botched and ridiculous. Few other brutes are so stupid
or so cowardly. The commonest yellow dog has far sharper
senses and is infinitely more courageous, not to say more
honest and dependable. The ants and the bees are, in many
ways, far more intelligent and ingenious; they manage their
government with vastly less quarreling, wastefulness and im-
becility. The lion is more beautiful, more dignified, more ma-
jestic, The antelope is swifter and more graceful. Tlie ordi-
nary house-cat is cleaner. Tlie horse, foamed by labor, has a
better smell. Tlie gorilla is kinder to his children and more
faithful to his wife. The ox and the ass are more industrious
and serene. But most of all, man is deficient in courage, per-
haps the noblest quality of them all. He is not only mortally
afraid of all other animals of his own weight or half his
weight — save a few that he has debased by artificial inbreed-
ing — ; he is even mortally afraid of his own kind — and not
only of their fists and hooves, but even of their sniggers.

No other animal is so defectively adapted to its environ-
ment. The human infant, as it comes into the world, is $0 puny
that if it were neglected for two days running it would in-

L Homo Sapiens 5

fallibly perish, and this congenital infirmity, though more or
less concealed later on, persists until death. Man is ill far
more than any other animal, both in his savage state and
under civilization. He has more different diseases and he suf-
fers from them oftener. He is easier exhausted and injured.
He dies more horribly and usually sooner. Practically all the
other higher vertebrates, at least in their wild state, live
longer and retain their faculties to a greater age. Here even
the anthropoid apes are far beyond their human cousins. An
orang-outang marries at the age of seven or eight, raises a
family of seventy or eighty children, and is still as hale and
hearty at eighty as a European at forty-five.

All the errors and incompetencies of the Creator reach their
climax in man. As a piece of mechanism he is the worst of
them all; put beside him, even a salmon or a staphylococcus
is a sound and efficient machine. He has the worst kidneys
known to comparative zoology, and the worst lungs, and the
worst heart. His eye, considering the work it is called upon to
do, is less efficient than the eye of an earthworm; an optical
instrument maker who made an instrument so clumsy would
be mobbed by his customers. Alone of all animals, terrestrial,
celestial or marine, man is unfit by nature to go abroad in
the world he inhabits. He must clothe himself, protect him-
self, swathe himself, armor himself. He is eternally in the posi-
tion of a turtle born without a shell, a dog without hair, a fish
without fins. Lacking his heavy and cumbersome trappings,
he is defenseless even against flies. As God made him he
hasn't even a tail to switch them off.

I now come to man's one point of unquestionable natural
superiority: he has a soul. This is what sets him off from all
other animals, and makes him, in a way, their master. The
exact nature of that soul has been in dispute for thousands of
years, but regarding its function it is possible to speak with
some authority. That function is to bring man into direct con-
tact with God, to make him aware of God, above all, to make
him resemble God. Well, consider the colossal failure of the
device. If we assume that man actually does resemble God,
then we are forced into the impossible theory that God is a
coward, an idiot and a bounder. And if we assume that

6 A Mencken Chrestomathy

man, after all these years, does not resemble God, then it ap-
pears at once that the human soul is as inefficient a machine
as the human liver or tonsil, and that man would probably be
better off, as the chimpanzee undoubtedly is better off, witli-
out it.

Such, indeed, is die case. The only practical effort of having
a soul is that it fills man with anthropomorphic and anthro-
pocentric vanities — in brief, with cocky and preposterous su-
perstitions. He struts and plumes himself because he has this
soul — and overlooks the fact that it doesn't work. Thus he is
the supreme clown of creation, the reductio ad ahsurdum of
animated nature. He is like a cow who believed that she could
jump over the moon, and ordered her whole life upon that
theory. He is like a bullfrog boasting eternally of fighting lions,
of flying over the Matterhorn, of swimming the Hellespont.
And yet this is the poor brute we are asked to venerate as a
gem in the forehead of the cosmos. This is the worm we are
asked to defend as God's favorite on earth, with all its mil-
lions of braver, nobler, decenter quadrupeds — its superb lions,
its lithe and gallant leopards, its imperial elephants, its honest
dogs, its courageous rats. This is the insect we are besought,
at infinite trouble, labor and expense, to reproduce.

Meditation on Meditation

From the same. First printed in the Smart Set^ June, 1920, pp. 45-46

Man's capacity for abstract thought, which most other mam-
mals seem to lack, has undoubtedly given him his present
mastery of the land surface of the earth — a master}^ disputed
only by several hundred thousand species of insects and micro-
scopic organisms. It is responsible for his feeling of superiority,
and under that feeling there is undoubtedly a certain measure
of reality, at least witliin narrow limits. But what is too often
overlooked is that the capacity to perform an act is by no
means synonymous with its salubrious exercise. The simple
fact is that most of man's thinking is stupid, pointless and

1 . Homo Sapiens 7

injurious to him. Of all animals, indeed, he seems the least
capable of arriving at accurate judgments in the matters that
most desperately affect his welfare. Try to imagine a rat, in the
realm of rat ideas, arriving at a notion as violently in con-
tempt of plausibility as the notion, say, of Swedenborgianism,
or that of homeopathy, or that of infant damnation, or that
of mental telepathy. Man's natural instinct, in fact, is never
toward what is sound and true; it is toward what is specious
and false. Let any great nation of modern times be confronted
by two conflicting propositions, the one grounded upon the ut-
most probability and reasonableness and the other upon the
most glaring error, and it will almost invariably embrace the
latter. It is so in politics, which consists wholly of a succession
of unintelligent crazes, many of them so idiotic that they exist
only as battle-cries and shibboleths and are not reducible to
logical statement at all. It is so in religion, which, like poetry, is
simply a concerted effort to deny the most obvious realities. It
is so in nearly every field of thought. The ideas that conquer
the race most rapidly and arouse the wildest enthusiasm and
are held most tenaciously are precisely the ideas that are most
insane. This has been true since the first advanced gorilla put
on underwear, cultivated a frown and began his first lecture tour,
and it will be so until the high gods, tired of the farce at last,
obliterate the race with one great, final blast of fire, mustard gas
and streptococci.

No doubt the imagination of man is to blame for this singu-
lar weakness. That imagination, I daresay, is what gave him his
first lift above his fellow primates. It enabled him to visualize
a condition of existence better than that he was experiencing,
and bit by bit he was able to give the picture a certain crude
reality. Even today he keeps on going ahead in the same man-
ner. That is, he thinks of something that he would like to be or
to get, something appreciably better than what he is or has, and
then, by the laborious, costly method of trial and error, he
gradually moves toward it. In the process he is often severely
punished for his discontent with God's holy ordinances. He
mashes his thumb, he skins his shin; he stumbles and falls; the
prize he reaches out for blows up in his hands. But bit by bit
lie moves on, or, at all events, his heirs and assigns move on.

8 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Bit by bit he smooths the path beneath his remaining leg, and
achieves pretty toys for his remaining hand to play with, and
accumulates delights for his remaining ear and eye.

Alas, he is not content with his slow and sanguinary progress.
Always he looks further and further ahead. Always he imagines
things just over the sky-line. This body of imaginings constitutes
his stock of sweet beliefs, his corpus of high faiths and confi-
dences — in brief, his burden of errors. And that burden of
errors is what distinguishes man, even above his capacity for
tears, his talents as a liar, his excessive hypocrisy and poltroon-
€1}^, from all the other orders of mammalia. Man is the yokel
par excellence^ the booby unmatchable, the king dupe of the
cosmos. He is chronically and unescapably deceived, not only
bv the other animals and by the delusive face of nature her-
self, but also and more particularly by himself — by his incom-
parable talent for searching out and embracing what is false,
and for overlooking and denying what is true.

The capacity for discerning the essential truth, in fact, is as
rare among men as it is common among crows, bullfrogs and
mackerel. The man who shows it is a man of quite extraordinary
quality — perhaps even a man downright diseased. Exhibit a
new truth of any natural plausibility before the great masses of
men, and not one in ten thousand will suspect its existence,
and not one in a hundred thousand will embrace it without a
ferocious resistance. All the durable truths that have come into
the world within historic times have been opposed as bitterly as
if they were so many waves of smallpox, and every individual
who has welcomed and advocated them, absolutely without ex-
ception, has been denounced and punished as an enemy of the
race. Perhaps absolutely without exception goes too far. I
substitute "with five or six exceptions." But who were the five
or six exceptions? I leave you to think of them; myself, I can't.

But if truth thus has hard sledding, error is given a loving
welcome. The man who invents a new imbecility is hailed gladly,
and bidden to make himself at home; he is, to the great masses
of men, the beau ideal of mankind. Go back through the history
of the past thousand years and you will find that nine-tenths of
the popular idols of the world — not the heroes of small sects,
but the heroes of mankind in the mass — have been hawkers of

I. Homo Sapiens 9

palpable nonsense. It has been so in politics, it has been so in
religion, and it has been so in every other department of human
thought. Every such hawker has been opposed, in his time, by
critics who denounced and refuted him; his contention has been
disposed of immediately it was uttered. But on the side of every
one there has been the titanic force of human credulity, and it
has sufficed in every case to destroy his foes and establish his


First printed in the Smart Set, Dec., 1920, p. 45
To sum up:

1. The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolu-
tions a minute.

2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it.

3. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and
set spinning to give him the ride.


The Romantic

From Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, p. 266.

First printed in the New York Evening Mail, Marcli 25, 1918

There is a variety of man whose eye inevitably exaggerates,
whose ear inevitably hears more than the band plays, whose im-
agination inevitably doubles and triples the news brought in by
his five senses. He is the enthusiast, the believer, the romantic.
He is the sort of fellow who, if he were a bacteriologist, would
report the streptococcus pyogenes to be as large as a St. Bernard
dog, as intelligent as Socrates, as beautiful as Beauvais Cathe-
dral and as respectable as a Yale professor.

The Skeptic

From the same, pp. 266-67. First printed in the Smart Set,

May, 1919, pp. 49-50

No man ever quite believes in any other man. One may believe
in an idea absolutely, but not in a man. In the highest confi-
dence there is always a flavor of doubt — * a feeling, half instinc-
tive and half logical, that, after all, the scoundrel may have
something up his sleeve. This doubt, it must be obvious, is al-
ways more than justified, for no man is worthy of unlimited
reliance — his treason, at best, only waits for sufficient tempta-
tion, The trouble with the world is not that men are too suspi-
cious in this direction, but that they tend to be too confiding —
that they still trust themselves too far to other men, even after
bitter experience. Women, I believe, are measurably less senti-
mental, in this as in other things. No married woman ever



II. Types of Men

trusts her husband absolutely, nor does she ever act as if she did
trust him. Her utmost confidence is as wary as an American
pickpocket’s confidence that the policeman on the beat will
stay bought.

The Believer

From the same, pp. 267-68

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occur-
rence of the improbable. There is thus a flavor of the patho-
logical in it; it goes beyond the normal intellectual process and
passes into the murky domain of transcendental metaphysics.
A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had)
the capacity for clear and realistic thought. He is not a mere
ass: he is actually ill. Worse, he is incurable, for disappointment,
being essentially an objective phenomenon, cannot permanently
affect his subjective infirmity. His faith takes on the virulence
of a chronic infection. What he says, in substance, is this: 'Xet
us trust in God, Who has always fooled us in the past!'

The Toiler

From the same, pp. 268-69

All democratic theories, whether Socialistic or bourgeois, nec-
essarily take in some concept of the dignity of labor. If the have-
not were deprived of this delusion that his sufferings on the
assembly-line are somehow laudable and agreeable to God, there
would be little left in his ego save a belly-ache. Nevertheless, a
delusion is a delusion, and this is one of the worst. It arises out
of confusing the pride of workmanship of the artist with the
dogged, painful docility of the machine. The difference is im-
portant and enormous. If he got no reward whatever, the artist
would go on working just the same; his actual reward, in fact,
is often so little that he almost starves. But suppose a garment-

12 A Mencken Chrestomathy

worker got nothing for his labor: would he go on working just
the same? Can one imagine his submitting voluntarily to hard-
ship and sore want that he might express his soul in 200 more
pairs of ladies’ pants?

The Physician

From the same, p. 269

Hygiene is the corruption of medicine by morality. It is im-
possible to find a hygienist who does not debase his theor}^ of
the healthful with a theory of the virtuous. The whole hygienic
art, indeed, resolves itself into an ethical exhortation. This
brings it, at the end, into diametrical conflict with medicine
proper. The true aim of medicine is not to make men virtuous;
it is to safeguard and rescue them from the consequences of
their vices. The physician does not preach repentance; he offers

The Scientist

From the same, pp. 269-70. First printed in the Smart Set,
Aug., 1919, pp. 60-61

The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust
and inaccurate. Consider, for example, tw'O of them: mere in-
satiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put
high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves
one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced:
the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not
some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost
pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the
secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His
prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samari-
tan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an
infinite series of rat-holes.

II. Types of Men 13

The Business Man

From the same, pp. 270-71. First printed in the Smart Set,

Feb., 1921, p. 36

It is, after all, a sound instinct which puts business below the
professions, and burdens the business man with a social inferi-
ority that he can never quite shake off, even in America. The
business man, in fact, acquiesces in this assumption of his inferi-
ority, even when he protests against it. He is the only man above
the hangman and the scavenger who is forever apologizing for
his occupation. He is the only one who always seeks to make it
appear, when he attains the object of his labors, i.e., the making
of a great deal of money, that it was not the object of his labors.

The King

From the same, p. 271

Perhaps the most valuable asset that any man can have in this
world is a naturally superior air, a talent for sniffishness and
reserve. The generality of men are always greatly impressed by
it, and accept it freely as a proof of genuine merit. One need but
disdain them to gain their respect. Their congenital stupidity
and timorousness make them turn to any leader who offers, and
the sign of leadership that they recognize most readily is that
which shows itself in external manner. This is the true explana-
tion of the survival of monarchism, which always lives through
its perennial deaths.

The Metaphysician

A hitherto unpublished note

A iviETAPHYSiciAN is One who, when you remark that twice two
makes four, demands to know what you mean by twice, what

14 A Mencken Chrestomathy

by two, what by makes, and what by four. For asking such ques-
tions metaphysicians are supported in oriental luxury in the
universities, and respected as educated and intelligent men.

The Average Man

From Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp. 273-74

It is often urged against the Marxian brethren, with their
materialistic conception of history, that they overlook certain
spiritual qualities that are independent of wage scales and
metabolism. These qualities, it is argued, color the aspirations
and activities of civilized man quite as much as they are colored
by his material condition, and so make it impossible to consider
him simply as an economic machine. As examples, the anti-
Marxians cite patriotism, pity, the esthetic sense and the yearn-
ing to know God, Unluckily, the examples are ill-chosen. Mil-
lions of men are quite devoid of patriotism, pity and the
esthetic sense, and have no very active desire to know God.
Why don't the anti-Marxians cite a spiritual quality that is
genuinely universal? There is one readily at hand. I allude to
cowardice. It is, in one form or other, visible in every human
being; it almost serves to mark off the human race from all tlie
other higher animals. Cowardice, I believe, is at the bottom of
the whole caste system, the foundation of every organized so-
ciety, including the most democratic. In order to escape going
to war himself, the peasant was willing to give the warrior cer-
tain privileges ~ and out of those privileges has grown the whole
structure of civilization. Go back still further. Property arose
out of the fact that a few relatively courageous men were able
to accumulate more possessions than whole hordes of cowardly
men, and, what is more, to retain them after accumulating

11. Types of Men
The Truth-Seeker

From the same, p. 274


The man who boasts that he habitually tells the truth is simply
a man with no respect for it. It is not a thing to be thrown about
loosely, like small change; it is something to be cherished and
hoarded and disbursed only when absolutely necessary. The
smallest atom of truth represents some man's bitter toil and
agony; for every ponderable chunk of it there is a brave truth-
seeker’s grave upon some lonely ash-dump and a soul roasting
in Hell.

The Relative

From the same, pp. 275-76. First printed in the Smart Set,

Aug., 1919, p. 63

The normal man's antipathy to his relatives, particularly of the
second degree, is explained by psychologists in various tortured
and improbable ways. The true explanation, I venture, is a good
deal simpler. It lies in the plain fact that every man sees in his
relatives, and especially in his cousins, a series of grotesque cari-
catures of himself. They exhibit his qualities in disconcerting
augmentation or diminution; they fill him with a disquieting
feeling that this, perhaps, is the way he appears to the world,
and so they wound his amour propre and give him intense dis-

The Relative-in-Law

From the Smart Set, March, 1920, p. 50

A MAN dislikes his wife's relatives for the same reason that he
dislikes his own, to wit, because they appear to him as disgust-
ing caricatures of one he holds in respect and affection, to wit

i6 A Mencken Chrestomathy

his wife. Of them all, his mother-in-law is obviously the most
oSensive, for she not only burlesques his wife; she also fore-
shadows what his wife will probably become. The vision natu-
rally sickens him. Sometimes, perhaps, the thing is more subtle.
That is to say, his wife herself may be the caricature — say of a
younger and prettier sister. In this case, being tied to his wife,
he may come to detest the sister — as one always detests a per-
son who symbolizes one’s failure and one’s slavery.

The Friend

From Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp. 276-77.

First pnnted in the Smart Set, July, 19 19, p. 67

A MAN of active and resilient mind outwears his friendships just
as certainly as he outwears his love affairs, his politics and his
epistemology. They become threadbare, shabby, pumped-up,
irritating, depressing. They convert themselves from living reali-
ties into moribund artificialities, and stand in sinister opposition
to freedom, self-respect and truth. It is as corrupting to preserve
them after they have grown fly-blown and hollow as it is to
keep up the forms of passion after passion itself is a corpse. A
prudent man, remembering that life is short, gives an hour or
two, now and then, to a critical examination of his friendships*
He weighs them, edits them, tests the metal of them. A few he
retains, perhaps with radical changes in their terms. But the
majority he expunges from his minutes and tries to forget, as he
tries to forget the cold and clammy loves of year before last.

The Philosopher

From The Human Mind, Prejudices: Sixth Series, 1927, p. 85

There is no record in human history of a happy philosopher;
they exist only in romantic legend. Many of them have com-

II. Types of Men 17

mitted suicide; many others have turned their children out of
doors and beaten their ■wives. And no wonder. If you want to
find out how a philosopher feels when he is engaged in the
practise of his profession, go to the nearest zoo and watch a
chimpanzee at the wearying and hopeless job of chasing fleas.
Both suffer damnably, and neither can win.

The Altruist

From Prejudices: Fourth Series, 1924, pp. 205-06.

First printed in the Smart Set^ March, 1920, p. 51

A LARGE part of altruism, even when it is perfectly honest, is
grounded upon the fact that it is uncomfortable to have un-
happy people about one. This is especially true in family life.
A man makes sacrifices to his wife's desires, not because he
greatly enjoys giving up what he wants himself, but because he
would enjoy it even less to see her cutting a sour face across the
dinner table.

The Iconoclast

From the same, pp. 139-40. First printed in the American Mercury,
Jan., 1924, p. 75

The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blas-
phemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at
least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The libera-
tion of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows
who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering
down the highways of the world, pro'ving to all men that doubt,
after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud.
One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.

i8 A Mencken Chrestomathy

The Family Man

From the same, pp. 140-41

Again, there is the bad author who defends his manufacture of
magazine serials and movie scenarios on the ground that he has
a wife, and is in honor bound to support her. I have seen a few
such wives. I dispute the obligation. ... As for the biological
by-products of this fidelity, I rate them even lower. Show me lOO
head of ordinary ehildren who are worth one “Ileart of Dark-
ness,” and I’ll subside. As for “Lord Jim,” I would not swap it
for all the brats born in Trenton, N. J., since the Spanish War.

The Bachelor

From the same, pp. 118-19. First printed in the Smart Sety
Sept., 1922, p. 43

Around every bachelor of more than thirty-five legends tend to
congregate, chiefly about the causes of his celibacy. If it is not
whispered tliat he is damaged goods, and hence debarred from
marriage by a lofty concept of Service to the unborn, it is told
under the breath that he was insanely in love at the age of
twenty-six with a beautiful creature who jilted him for an in-
surance underwriter and so broke his heart beyond repair. Such
tales are nearly always moonshine. The reason why the average
bachelor of thirty-five remains a bachelor is really very simple.
It is, in brief, that no ordinarily attractive and intelligent woman
has ever made a serious and undivided effort to marry him.

II. Types of Men
The Good Man


From the same, pp. 199-200. First printed in the Smart Set,

July, 1923, p. 47

Man, at his best, remains a sort of one-lunged animal, never
completely rounded and perfect, as a cockroach, say, is perfect.
If he shows one valuable quality, it is almost unheard of for
him to show any other. Give him a head, and he lacks a heart.
Give him a heart of a gallon capacity, and his head holds
scarcely a pint. The artist, nine times out of ten, is a dead-beat
and given to the debauching of virgins, so-called. The patriot
is a bigot, and, more often than not, a bounder and a poltroon.
The man of physical bravery is often on a level, intellectually,
with a Baptist clergyman. The intellectual giant has bad kidneys
and cannot thread a needle. In all my years of search in this
world, from the Golden Gate in the West to the Vistula in the
East, and from the Orkney Islands in the North to the Spanish
Main in the South, I have never met a thoroughly moral man
who was honorable.

The Eternal Male

In part from In Defense of Women, 1918; revised, 1922, pp. 77-78,
and in part from the Smart Set, Nov., 1919, p. 71

Listen to two or three boys talking among themselves; their
gabble is almost wholly made up of boasting — about their
prowess at games, their successes in school, the wealth and ani-
mal vigor of their fathers, the elegance of their homes. And as
with males of tender years, so with males of greater growth. Man
is, of all quadrupeds, at once the most vain and the most idi-
otic. A genuine popinjay, whatever that may be, is as a shrink-
ing violet compared to him. He cannot imagine himself save
as at the center of situations. He never opens his mouth with-
out talking of himself. He never undertakes the most trivial act
without attitudinizing and hocus-pocusing it. However banal the

20 A Mencken Chrestomathy

position in which he finds himself, he tries to make something
singular and glorious of it. If, in one of his obscure and sordid
combats with another imbecile, he chances to get the better
of it, the fact fills him with such pride that he is like to bust.
And if, instead of getting the better of it, he is floored by an
adept blow with a length of gas-pipe, he takes almost the same
lofty joy in his defeat and ignominy. Thus we have, on the one
hand, the hero, and on the other hand, the martyr. Both are
puerile and preposterous fellows. Both are frauds.

The Slave

From Prejudices: Fourth Series, 1924, p. 200.

First printed in the Smart Set, Nov., 1922, p. 52

Don’t tell me what delusion he entertains regarding God, or
what mountebank he follows in politics, or what he springs
from, or what he submits to from his wife. Simply tell me how
he makes his living. It is the safest and surest of all known tests.
A man who gets his board and lodging on this ball in an igno-
minious way is inevitably an ignominious man.


The Feminine Mind

From In Defense of Women, 1918; revised, 1922, pp. 3-22

A man’s women folk, whatever their outward show of respect
for his merit and authority, always regard him secretly as an
ass, and with something akin to pity. His most gaudy sayings
and doings seldom deceive them; they see the actual man
within, and know him for a shallow and pathetic fellow. In this
fact, perhaps, lies one of the best proofs of feminine intelli-
gence, or, as the common phrase makes it, feminine intuition.
The marks of that so-called intuition are simply a sharp and
accurate perception of reality, a habitual immunity to emo-
tional enchantment, a relentless capacity for distinguishing
clearly between the appearance and the substance. The appear-
ance, in the normal family circle, is a hero, a magnifico, a demi-
god. The substance is*a poor mountebank.

A man’s wife, true enough, may envy her husband certain of
his more soothing prerogatives and sentimentalities. She may
envy him his masculine liberty of movement and occupation,
his impenetrable complacency, his peasant-like delight in petty
vices, his capacity for hiding the harsh face of reality behind the
cloak of romanticism, his general innocence and childishness.
But she never envies him his shoddy and preposterous soul.

This shrewd perception of masculine bombast and make-
believe, this acute understanding of man as the eternal tragic
comedian, is at the bottom of that compassionate irony which
passes under the name of the maternal instinct. A woman wishes
to mother a man simply because she sees into his helplessness,
his need of an amiable environment, his touching self-delusion.
That ironical note is not only daily apparent in real life; it sets
the whole tone of feminine fiction. The woman novelist, if she
be skillful enough to be taken seriously, never takes her heroes


22 A Mencken Chrestomathy

so. From the day of Jane Austen to the day of Selma Lagerlof
she has always got into her character study a touch of superior
aloofness, of ill-concealed derision. I can’t recall a single mascu-
line figure created by a woman who is not, at bottom, a booby.

That it should be necessary, at this late stage in the senility
of the human race, to argue that women have a fine and fluent
intelligence is surely an eloquent proof of the defective observa-
tion, incurable prejudice, and general imbecility of their lords
and masters. Women, in fact, are not only intelligent; tliey have
almost a monopoly of certain of the subtler and more utile
forms of intelligence. The thing itself, indeed, might be reason-
ably described as a special feminine character; there is in it, in
more than one of its manifestations, a femaleness as palpable as
the femaleness of cruelty, masochism or rouge. Men arc strong.
Men are brave in physical combat. Men are romantic, and love
what they conceive to be virtue and beauty. Men incline to
faith, hope and charity. Men know how to sweat and endure.
Men are amiable and fond. But in so far as they show the true
fundamentals of intelligence — in so far as they reveal a capac-
ity for discovering the kernel of eternal verity in the husk of
delusion and hallucination and a passion for bringing it forth —
to that extent, at least, they are feminine, and still nourished by
the milk of their motliers. The essential traits and qualities of
the male, the hall-marks of the unpolluted masculine, are at the
same time the hall-marks of the numskull. The caveman is all
muscles and mush. Without a woman to rule him and think
for him, he is a truly lamentable spectacle: a baby with whiskers,
a rabbit with tlie frame of an aurochs, a feeble and preposterous
caricature of God.

Here, of course, I do not mean to say that masculinity con-
tributes nothing whatsoever to the complex of chemico-physio-
logical reactions which produces what we call superior ability;
all I mean to say is that this complex is impossible without the
feminine contribution — that it is a product of the interplay of
the two elements. In women of talent we see the opposite pic-
ture. They are commonly somewhat mannish, and shave as well
as shine. Think of George Sand, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth
of England, Rosa Bonheur, Teresa Carreno or Cosima Wagner.
Neither sex, without some fertilization of the complementary

III. Women 23

characters of the other, is capable of the highest reaches of hu-
man endeavor. Man, without a saving touch of woman in him,
is too doltish, too naive and romantic, too easily deluded and
lulled to sleep by his imagination to be anything above a cavalry-
man, a theologian or a corporation director. And woman, with-
out some trace of that divine innocence which is masculine, is
too harshly the realist for those vast projections of the fancy
which lie at the heart of what we call genius. The wholly manly
man lacks the wit necessary to give objective form to his soaring
and secret dreams, and the wholly womanly woman is apt to be
too cynical a creature to dream at all.

What men, in their egoism, constantly mistake for a defi-
ciency of intelligence in woman is merely an incapacity for
mastering that mass of small intellectual tricks, that complex of
petty knowledges, that collection of cerebral rubber-stamps,
which constitute the chief mental equipment of the average
male. A man thinks that he is more intelligent than his wife
because he can add up a column of figures more accurately, or
because he is able to distinguish between the ideas of rival poli-
ticians, or because he is privy to the minutiae of some sordid
and degrading business or profession. But these empty talents,
of course, are not really signs of intelligence; they are, in fact,
merely a congeries of petty tricks and antics, and their acquire-
ment puts little more strain on the mental powers than a
chimpanzee suffers in learning how to catch a penny or scratch
a match.

The whole mental baggage of the average business man, or
even the average professional man, is inordinately childish. It
takes no more actual sagacity to carry on the everyday hawking
and haggling of tlie world, or to ladle out its normal doses of
bad medicine and worse law, than it takes to operate a taxicab
or fry a pan of fish. No observant person, indeed, can come into
close contact with the general run of business and professional
men ~ I confine myself to those who seem to get on in the
world, and exclude the admitted failures — without marveling
at their intellectual lethargy, their incurable ingenuousness,
their appalling lack of ordinary sense. The late Charles Francis
Adams, a grandson of one American President and a great-
grandson of anodier, after a long lifetime in intimate associa-

24 A Mencken Chrestomathy

tion with some of the chief business “geniuses” of the United
States, reported in his old age that he had never heard a single
one of them say anything worth hearing. These were vigorous
and masculine men, and in a man’s world they were successful
men, but intellectually they were all blank cartridges.

There is, indeed, fair ground for arguing that, if men of that
kidney were genuinely intelligent, they would never succeed at
their gross and driveling concerns — that their very capacity to
master and retain such balderdash as constitutes their stock in
trade is proof of their inferior mentality. The notion is certainly
supported by the familiar incompetency of admittedly first-rate
men for what are called practical concerns. One could not think
of Aristotle multiplying 3,472,701 by 99,999 without making a
mistake, nor could one think of him remembering the range of
this or that railway share for two years, or the number of ten-
penny nails in a hundredweight, or the freight on lard from Gal-
veston to Rotterdam. And by the same token one could not
imagine him expert at bridge, or at golf, or at any other of the
idiotic games at which what are called successful men com-
monly divert themselves. In his great study of British genius,
Havelock Ellis found that an incapacity for such shabby ex-
pertness is visible in almost all first-rate men. They are bad at
tying cravats. They are puzzled by bookkeeping. They know
nothing of party politics. In brief, they are inert and impotent
in the very fields of endeavor that see the average men’s high-
est performances, and are easily surpassed by men who, in actual
intelligence, are about as far below them as the Simidee.

This lack of skill at manual and mental tricks of a trivial char-
acter — which must inevitably appear to a barber as stupidity,
and to a successful haberdasher as downright imbecility — is a
character that men of the first class share with women of the
first, second and even third classes. One seldom hears of women
succeeding in the occupations which bring out such expertness
most lavishly — for example, tuning pianos, practising law, or
writing editorials for newspapers — despite the circumstance
that the great majority of such occupations are well within their
physical powers, and that few of them offer any very formidable
social barriers to female entrance. There is no external reason
why they should not prosper at the bar, or as editors of maga-

III. Women 25

zines, or as managers of factories, or in the wholesale trade, or
as hotel-keepers. The taboos that stand in the way are of very
small force; various adventurous women have defied them with
impunity, and once the door is entered there remains no special
handicap within. But, as everyone knows, the number of women
actually practising these trades and professions is very small,
and few of them have attained to any distinction in competition
with men.

The cause thereof, as I say, is not external, but internal. It
lies in the same disconcerting apprehension of the larger reali-
ties, the same impatience with the paltry and meretricious, the
same disqualification for mechanical routine and empty technic
which one finds in the higher varieties of men. Even in the pur-
suits which, by the custom of Christendom, are especially their
own, women seldom show any of that elaborately conventional-
ized and half automatic proficiency which is the pride and boast
of most men. It is a commonplace of observation that a house-
wife who actually knows how to cook, or who can make her own
clothes with enough skill to conceal the fact from the most
casual glance, or who is competent to instruct her children in
the elements of morals, learning and hygiene —* it is a platitude
that such a woman is very rare indeed, and that when she is
encountered she is not usually esteemed for her general intelli-

This is particularly true in the United States, where the posi-
tion of women is higher than in any other civilized or semi-
civilized country, and the old assumption of their intellectual
inferiority has been most successfully challenged. The American
bourgeois dinner-table becomes a monument to the defective
technic of the American housewife. The guest who respects his
esophagus, invited to feed upon its discordant and ill-prepared
victuals, evades the experience as long and as often as he can,
and resigns himself to it as he might resign himself to being
shaved by a paralytic. Nowhere else in the world have women
more leisure and freedom to improve their minds, and nowhere
else do they show a higher level of intelligence, but nowhere
else is there worse cooking in the home, or a more inept handling
of the whole domestic economy, or a larger dependence upon
the aid of external substitutes, by men provided, for the skill

26 A Mencken Chrestomathy

that is wanting where it theoretically exists. It is surely no mere
coincidence that the land of the emancipated and enthroned
woman is also the land of canned soup, of canned pork and
beans, of whole meals in cans, and of everything else ready-
made. And nowhere else is there a more striking tendency to
throw the whole business of training the minds of children upon
professional pedagogues, mostly idiots, and the whole business
of developing and caring for their bodies upon pediatricians,
playground “experts,” sex hygienists and other such profes-
sionals, mostly frauds.

In brief, women rebel — often unconsciously, sometimes even
submitting all the while — against tire dull, mechanical tricks
of the trade that the present organization of society compels so
man y of them to practise for a living, and that rebellion testifies
to their intelligence. If they enjoyed and took pride in those
tricks, and showed it by diligence and skill, they would be on
aU fours with such men as are head waiters, accountants, school-
masters or carpetbeaters, and proud of it. The inherent tend-
ency of any woman above the most stupid is to evade tire whole
obligation, and, if she cannot actually evade it, to reduce its
demands to the minimum. And when some accident purges her,
either temporarily or permanently, of the inclination to irrar-
riage, and she enters into competition with men in the general
business of the world, the sort of career that she commonly
carves out offers additional evidence of her mental superiority.
In whatever calls for no more than an invariable technic and a
feeble chicanery she usually fails; in whatever calls for independ-
ent thought and resourcefulness she usually succeeds. Thus she
is almost always a failure as a lawyer, for the law requires only
an armament of hollow phrases and stereotyped formula:, and
a mental habit which puts these phantasms above sense, truth
and justice; and she is almost always a failure in business, for
business, in the main, is so foul a compound of trivialities and
rogueries that her sense of intellectual integrity revolts against
it. But she is usually a success as a sick-nurse, for drat profes-
sion requires ingenuity, quick comprehension, courage in tire
face of novel and disconcerting situations, and above all, a ca-
pacity for penetrating and dominating character; and whenever
she comes into competition with men in the arts, particularly on

IIL 'Women 27

those secondary planes where simple nimbleness of mind is un-
aided by the master strokes of genius, she holds her own in-
variably. In the demi-monde one will find enough acumen and
daring, and enough resilience in the face of special difficulties,
to put the equipment of any exclusively male profession to
shame. If the work of the average man required half the mental
agility and readiness of resource of the work of the average
brothel-keeper, the average man would be constantly on the
verge of starvation.

Men, as everyone knows, are disposed to question this su-
perior intelligence of women; their egoism demands the denial,
and they are seldom reflective enough to dispose of it by logical
and evidential analysis. Moreover, there is a certain specious
appearance of soundness in their position; they have forced
upon women an artificial character which well conceals their
real character, and women have found it profitable to encourage
the deception. But though every normal man thus cherishes the
soothing unction that he is the intellectual superior of all
women, and particularly of his wife, he constantly gives the lie
to his pretension by consulting and deferring to what he calls
her intuition. That is to say, he knows by experience that her
judgment in many matters of capital concern is more subtle
and searching than his own, and, being disinclined to accredit
this greater sagacity to a more competent intelligence, he takes
refuge behind the doctrine that it is due to some impenetrable
and intangible talent for guessing correctly, some half mystical
supersense, some vague (and, in essence, infra-human) instinct.

The true nature of this alleged instinct, however, is revealed
by an examination of the situations which inspire a man to call
it to his aid. These situations do not arise out of the purely
technical problems that are his daily concern, but out of the
rarer and more fundamental, and hence enormously more diffi-
cult problems which beset him only at long and irregular inter-
vals, and so offer a test, not of his mere capacity for being
drilled, but of his capacity for genuine ratiocination. No man, I
take it, save one consciously inferior and hen-pecked, would con-
sult his wife about hiring a clerk, or about extending credit to
some paltry customer, or about some routine piece of tawdry
swindling; but not even the most egoistic man would fail to

zS A Mencken Chrestomathy

sound the sentiment of his wife about taking a partner into his
business, or about standing for public ofEce, or about marrying
off their daughter. Such things are of massive importance; they
lie at the foundation of well-being; they call for the best thought
that the man confronted by them can muster; the perils hidden
in a wrong decision overcome even the clamors of vanity. It is
in such situations that the superior mental grasp of women is of
obvious utility, and has to be admitted. It is here that they rise
above the insignificant sentimentalities, superstitions and for-
mulse of men, and apply to the business their singular talent for
separating the appearance from the substance, and so exercise
what is called their intuition.

Intuition? Bosh! Women, in fact, are the supreme realists of
the race. Apparently illogical, they are the possessors of a rare
and subtle super-logic. Apparently whimsical, they hang to the
truth with a tenacity which carries them through every phase of
its incessant, jelly-like shifting of form. Apparently unobservant
and easily deceived, they see with bright and horrible eyes. . . .
In men, too, the same merciless perspicacity sometimes shows it-
self— men recognized to be more aloof and uninflammable
than the general — men of special talent for the logical — sar-
donic men, cynics. Men, too, sometimes have brains. But that is
a rare, rare man, I venture, who is as steadily intelligent, as
constantly sound in judgment, as little put off by appearances,
as the average multipara of forty-eight.

Women as Outlaws

From the same, pp. 51-54. First printed, in part, in the Smart Set,
Dec., 1921, pp. 28-29

Perhaps one of the chief charms of women, as figures in human
society, lies in the fact that they are relatively uncivilized. In
the midst of all the puerile repressions and inhibitions that
hedge them round, they continue to show a gipsy and outlaw
spirit. No normal woman ever gives a hoot for law if law hap-
pens to stand in the way of her private interest. Tlie boons of

III. Women 29

civilization are so noisily cried np by sentimentalists that we are
all apt to overlook its disadvantages. Intrinsically, it is a mere
device for regimenting men. Its perfect symbol is the goose-step.
The most civilized man, in the conventional sense, is simply
that man who has been most successful in caging and harnessing
his honest and natural instincts — that is, the man who has
done most cruel violence to his own ego in the interest of the
commonweal. The value of this commonweal is always over-
estimated. What is its purpose at bottom? Simply the greatest
good to the greatest number — of petty rogues, ignoramuses and

The capacity for submitting to and prospering comfortably
under this cheese-monger s civilization is far more marked in
men than in women, and far more in inferior men than in men
of the higher categories. It must be obvious to even so pathetic
an ass as a college professor of history that very few of the
genuinely first-rate men of the race have been wholly civilized,
in the meaning given to the term in newspapers. Think of
Caesar, Bonaparte, Luther, Frederick the Great, Cromwell,
Barbarossa, Innocent III, Bolivar, Hannibal, Alexander, and to
come down to our own time. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Bis-
marck, Wagner and Cecil Rhodes.

The fact that women have a greater capacity than men for
controlling and concealing their emotions is not an indication
that they are more civilized, but a proof that they are less
civilized. This capacity is a characteristic of savages, not of civil-
ized men, and its loss is one of the penalties that the race has
paid for the tawdry boon of civilization. Your true savage, re-
served, dignified, and courteous, knows how to mask his feel-
ings, even in the face of the most desperate assault upon them;
your civilized man is forever yielding to them. Civilization, in
fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical, and espe-
cially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere com-
bat of crazes. The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the
populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by
menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them

Wars are no longer waged by the will of superior men, capable
of judging dispassionately and intelligently the causes behind

30 A Mencken Chrestomathy

them and the effects flowing out of them. They are now begun
by first throwing a mob into a panic; they are ended only when
it has spent its ferine fury. Here the effect of civilization has
been to reduce an art that was once the repository of an exalted
etiquette and the chosen avocation of some of the best men of
the race, to the level of a raid on a fancy-house or a fight in a
waterfront saloon. All the wars of Christendom are now dis-
gusting and degrading; the conduct of them has passed out of
the hands of nobles and knights and into the hands of dema-
gogues, money-lenders and atrocity-mongers. To recreate one's
self with war in the grand manner, as Prince Eugene, Marl-
borough and the Old Dessauer knew it, one must now go among
barbarian peoples.

The Cold Woman

From the same, pp. 55‘“58

The feminine talent for concealing emotion is probably mainly
responsible for the belief of so many American men that women
are devoid of passion, and contemplate its manifestations in the
male with something akin to horror. Here the talent itself is
helped out by the fact that very few masculine observers, on the
occasions when they give attention to the matter, are in a state
of mind conducive to scientific observation. The truth is, of
course, that there is absolutely no reason to believe that the
normal woman is frigid, or that the minority of women who un-
questionably are is of appreciable dimensions. To be sure, the
vanity of men makes them place a high value upon the virginal
type of woman, and so this type tends to grow more common by
sexual selection, but despite that fact, it has by no means super-
seded the normal type, so realistically described by the tlieolo-
gians and publicists of the Middle Ages. It would, however, be
rash to assert that this long-continued selection has not made it-
self felt, even in the normal type. Its chief effect, perhaps, is to
make it measurably easier for a woman to conquer and conceal
emotion than it is for a man. But this is a mere reinforcement of

III. Women 31

a native quality or, at all events, a quality long antedating the
rise of the curious preference just mentioned.

That preference obviously owes its origin to the concept of
private property and is most evident in those countries in
which the largest proportion of males are property owners, i.e.,
in which the propert}^-owning caste reaches down into the low-
est conceivable strata of bounders and ignoramuses. The low-
caste man is never quite sure of his wife unless he is convinced
that she is entirely devoid of amorous susceptibility. Thus he
grows uneasy whenever she shows any sign of responding in
kind to his own elephantine operations, and is apt to be susph
cious of even so trivial a thing as a hearty response to a connu*
bial kiss. If he could manage to rid himself of such suspicionSj
there would be less public gabble about anesthetic wives, and
fewer books written by quacks with sure cures for them, and a
good deal less cold mutton formalism and boredom at the da
mestic hearth.

I have a feeling that the husband of this sort does himself a
serious disservice, and that he is uneasily conscious of it. Having
got himself a wife to his austere taste, he finds that she is rather
depressing — that his vanity is almost as painfully damaged by
her emotional inertness as it would have been by a too provoca-
tive and hedonistic spirit. For the thing that chiefly delights a
man, when some woman has gone through the solemn buffoon-
ery of yielding to the aphrodisiac potency of his great love, is
the sharp and flattering contrast between her reserve in the pres-
ence of other men and her enchanting complaisance in the
presence of himself. Here his vanity is enormously tickled. To
the world in general she seems remote and unapproachable; to
him she is docile, fluttering, gurgling, even a bit abandoned.
The greater the contrast between the lady's two fronts, the
greater his satisfaction — up to the point where his oafish suspi-
cions are aroused. Let her diminish that contrast ever so little
on the public side — by smiling at a handsome actor, by say-
ing a word too many to an attentive head waiter, by hold-
ing the hand of the rector of the parish, by winking amiably
at his brother or at her sister's husband — and at once the
poor fellow begins to look for clandestine notes, to employ pri-
vate inquiry agents, and to scrutinize the eyes, ears, noses

32 A Mencken Chrestomathy

and hair of his children with shameful doubts. This explains

many domestic catastrophes.

Intermezzo on Monogamy

From the same, pp. 97-100

The prevalence of monogamous marriage in Cliristendom is
commonly ascribed to ethical considerations. This is quite as
absurd as ascribing wars to ethical consideration — which is, of
course, frequently done. The simple truth is that such consid-
erations are no more than deductions from experience, and
that they are quickly abandoned whenever experience turns
against them. In the present case experience is still overwhelm-
ingly on the side of monogamy; civilized men are in favor of it
because they find that it works. And w^hy does it work? Be-
cause it is the most effective of all available antidotes to the
alarms and terrors of passion. Monogamy, in brief, kills passion

— and passion is the most dangerous of all the surviving en-
emies to what we call civilization, which is based upon order,
decorum, restraint, formality, industry, regimentation.

The civilized man — the ideal civilized man — is simply one
who never sacrifices the common security to his private passions.
He reaches perfection when he even ceases to love passionately

— when he reduces the most profound of all his instinctive ex-
periences from the level of an ecstasy to the level of a mere de-
vice for replenishing the armies and workshops of the world,
keeping clothes in repair, reducing the infant death-rate, pro-
viding enough tenants for every landlord, and making it possible
for the police to know where every citizen is at any hour of the
day or night. Monogamy accomplishes this by destroying appe-
tite. It forces the high contracting parties into an intimacy that
is too persistent and unmitigated; they are in contact at too
many points, and too steadily. By and by all the mystery of the
relation is gone, and they stand in the unsexed position of
brother and sister. Thus that ^'maximum of temptation of
which George Bernard Shaw speaks has within itself the seeds

IIL Women 33

of its own decay. A husband begins by kissing a pretty girl, his
wife; it is pleasant to have her so handy and so willing. He ends
by making machiavellian efforts to avoid kissing the everyday
sharer of his meals, books, bath towels, pocketbook, relatives,
ambitions, secrets, malaises and business: a proceeding about as
romantic as having his shoes shined. Not all the native senti-
mentalism of man can overcome the distaste and boredom that
get into it. Not all the histrionic capacity of woman can attach
any appearance of gusto and spontaneity to it.

The advocates of monogamy, deceived by its moral overtones,
fail to get all the advantage out of it that is in it. Consider, for
example, the important moral business of safeguarding the
virtue of the unmarried — that is, of the still passionate. The
present plan in dealing, say, with a young man of twenty is to
surround him with scarecrows and prohibitions — to try to con-
vince him logically that passion is dangerous. This is both su-
pererogation and imbecility ~ supererogation because he already
knows that it is dangerous, and imbecility because it is quite
impossible to kill a passion by arguing against it. The way to
kill it is to give it rein under unfavorable and dispiriting condi-
tions — to bring it down, by slow stages, to the estate of an
absurdity and a horror. How much more, then, could be accom-
plished if the wild young men were forbidden polygamy, before
marriage, but permitted monogamy. The prohibition in this case
would be relatively easy to enforce, instead of impossible, as in
the other. Curiosity would be satisfied; nature would get out of
her cage; even romance would get an inning. Ninety-nine young
men out of a hundred would submit, if only because it would
be much easier to submit than to resist.

And the result? Obviously, it would be laudable — that is, ac-
cepting current definition of the laudable. The product, after
six months, would be a well-harnessed and disillusioned young
man, as devoid of disquieting and demoralizing passion as an
ancient of eighty — in brief, the ideal citizen of Christendom.


A Mencken Chrestomathy

The Libertine

From the same, pp. 144-51

The average man of our time and race is far more virtuous than
his wife's imaginings make him out — far less schooled in sin,
far less enterprising in amour. I do not say, of course, that he is
pure in heart, for the chances are that he isn't; what I do say is
that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, he is pure in act,
even in the face of temptation. And why? For several main rea-
sons, not to go into minor ones. One is that he lacks the cour-
age. Another is that he lacks the money. Another is that he is
fundamentally moral, and has a conscience. It takes more sin-
ful initiative than he has to plunge into any affair save the most
casual and sordid; it takes more ingenuity and intrepidity than
he has to carry it off; it takes more money than he can conceal
from his consort to finance it. A man may force his actual wife
to share the direst poverty, but even the least vampirish woman
of the third part demands to be courted in what, considering
his station in life, is the grand manner, and the expenses of that
grand manner scare off all save a small minority of specialists in
deception. So long, indeed, as a wife knows her husband's in-
come accurately, she has a sure means of holding him to his

Even more effective than the fiscal barrier is the barrier of
poltroonery. The one character that distinguishes man from the
other higher vertebrata is his excessive timorousness, his easy
yielding to alarms, his incapacity for adventure without a crowd
behind him. In his normal incarnation he is no more capable
of initiating an extra-legal affair — at all events, above the mawk-
ish harmlessness of a flirting match with a cigar girl in a caf6 —
than he is of scaling the battlements of Hell. He likes to think
of himself doing it, just as he likes to think of himself leading a
cavalry charge or climbing the Matterhorn. Often, indeed, his
vanity leads him to imagine the thing done, and he admits by
winks and blushes that he is a bad one. But at the bottom of all
that tawdry pretense there is usually nothing more material
than a scraping of shins under the table. Let any woman who is

III. Women 35

disquieted by reports of her husband's derelictions figure to her-
self how long it would have taken him to propose to her if left
to his own enterprise, and then let her ask herself if so pusil-
lanimous a creature could be imagined in the r61e of Don Gio-

Finally, there is his conscience — the accumulated sediment
of ancestral faint-heartedness in countless generations, with
vague religious fears and superstitions to leaven and mellow it.
What! a conscience? Yes, dear friends, a conscience. That con-
science may be imperfect, inept, unintelligent, brummagen. It
may be indistinguishable, at times, from the mere fear that some-
one may be looking. It may be shot through with hypocrisy,
stupidity, play-acting. But nevertheless, as consciences go in
Christendom, it is genuinely entitled to the name — and it is
always in action. A man, remember, is not a being in vacuo; he
is the fruit and slave of the environment that bathes him. One
cannot enter a State Legislature or a prison for felons without
becoming, in some measure, a dubious character. One cannot
fall overboard without shipping water. And by the same token
one cannot live and have one's being in a modern democratic
state, year in and year out, without falling, to some extent at
least, under that moral obsession which is the hallmark of the
mob-man set free.

The moment a concrete Temptress rises before him, her nose
talced, her lips scarlet, her eyelashes dropping provokingly —
the moment such an abandoned wench has at him, and his lack
of ready funds begins to conspire with his lack of courage to
assault and wobble him — at that precise moment his con-
science flares into function, and so finishes his business. First
he sees difficulty, then he sees danger, then he sees wrong. The
result? The result is that he slinks off in trepidation, and an-
other vampire is baffled of her prey. It is, indeed, the secret
scandal of Christendom, at least in the Protestant regions, that
most men are faithful to their wives. You will travel a long way
before you find a married man who will admit that he is, but
the facts are the facts. For one American husband who main-
tains a chorus girl in levantine luxury around the corner, there
are hundreds who are as true to their oaths, year in and year
out, as so many convicts in the death-house, and would be no

36 A Mencken Chrestomathy

more capable of any such loathsome malpractice, even in the
face of free opportunity, than they would be of cutting off the
ears of their young.^

The Lure of Beauty

From the same, pp. 34-40

Save on the stage, the handsome fellow has no appreciable ad-
vantage in amour over his more Gothic brother. In real life,
indeed, he is viewed with the utmost suspicion by all women
save the most stupid. A ten-cent store girl, perhaps, may plausi-
bly fall in love with a movie actor, and a half-idiotic old widow
may succumb to a gigolo with shoulders like the Parthenon, but
no woman of poise and self-respect, even supposing her to be
transiently flustered by a lovely buck, would yield to that mad-
ness for an instant, or confess it to her dearest friend.

This disdain of the pretty fellow is often accounted for by
amateur psychologists on the ground that women are anesthetic
to beauty — that they lack the quick and delicate responsiveness
of man. Nothing could be more absurd. Women, in point of
fact, commonly have a far keener esthetic sense than men.
Beauty is more important to them; they give more thought to
it; they crave more of it in their immediate surroundings. The
average man, at least in England and America, takes a bovine
pride in his indifference to the arts; he can think of them only
as sources of somewhat discreditable amusement; one seldom
hears of him showing half the enthusiasm for any beautiful
thing that his wife displays in the presence of a fine fabric, an
effective color, or a graceful form. Women are resistant to so-
called beauty in men for the simple and sufficient reason that
such beauty is chiefly imaginary. A truly beautiful man, indeed,
is as rare as a truly beautiful piece of jewelry.

1 I see nothing in the Kinsey Report to change my conclusions here. AH
that humorless document really proves is (a) that all men lie when they
are ashed about their adventures in amour, and (b) that pedagogues arc
singularly naive and credulous creatures.

IIL Women yj

What men mistake for beauty in themselves is usually noth-
ing save a certain hollow gaudiness, a revolting flashiness, the
superficial splendor of a prancing animal. The most lovely
movie actor, considered in the light of genuine esthetic values,
is no more than a study in vulgarity; his like is to be found, not
in the Uffizi gallery or among the harmonies of Brahms, but
among the plush sofas, rococo clocks and hand-painted oil-
paintings of a third-rate auction-room. All women, save the
least intelligent, penetrate this imposture with sharp eyes. They
know that the human body, except for a brief time in child-
hood, is not a beautiful thing, but a hideous thing. Their own
bodies give them no delight; it is their constant effort to dis-
guise and conceal them; they never expose them esthetically,
but only as an act of the grossest sexual provocation. If it were
advertised that a troupe of men of easy virtue were to do a
striptease act upon a public stage, the only women who would
go to the entertainment would be a few delayed adolescents, a
psychopathic old maid or two, and a guard of indignant mem-
bers of the parish Ladies Aid Society.

Men show no such sagacious apprehension of the relatively
feeble loveliness of the human frame. The most effective lure
that a woman can hold out to a man is the lure of what he
fatuously conceives to be her beauty. This so-called beauty, of
course, is almost always a pure illusion. The female body, even
at its best, is very defective in form; it has harsh curves and very
clumsily distributed masses; compared to it the average milk-
jug, or even cuspidor, is a thing of intelligent and gratifying
design — in brief, an objet dart. Below the neck by the bow and
below the waist astern there are two masses that simply refuse
to fit into a balanced composition. Viewed from the side, a
woman presents an exaggerated S bisected by an imperfect
straight line, and so she inevitably suggests a drunken dollar-

Moreover, it is extremely rare to find a woman who shows
even the modest sightliness that her sex is theoretically capable
of; it is only the rare beauty who is even tolerable. The average
woman, until art comes to her aid, is ungraceful, misshapen,
badly calved and crudely articulated, even for a woman. If she
has a good torso, she is almost sure to be bow-legged. If she has

38 A Mencken Chrestomathy

good legs, she is almost sure to have bad hair. If she has good
hair, she is almost sure to have scrawny hands, or muddy eyes,
or no chin. A woman who meets fair tests all round is so un-
common that she becomes a sort of marvel, and usually gains a
livelihood by exhibiting herself as such, either on the stage, in
the half-world, or as the private jewel of some wealthy con-

But this lack of genuine beauty in women lays on them no
practical disadvantage in the primary business of their sex, for
its effects are more than overborne by the emotional suggesti-
bility, the herculean capacity for illusion, the almost total ab-
sence of critical sense in men. Men do not demand genuine
beauty, even in the most modest doses; they are quite content
with the mere appearance of beauty. Tliat is to say, they show
no talent whatever for differentiating between the artificial and
the real. A film of face powder, skillfully applied, is as satisfying
to them as an epidermis of damask. The hair of a dead China-
man, artfully dressed and dyed, gives them as much delight as
the authentic tresses of Venus. False bosoms intrigue them as
effectively as the soundest of living fascia. A pretty frock fetches
them quite as surely and securely as lovely legs, shoulders, hands
or eyes.

In brief, they estimate women, and hence acquire their wives,
by reckoning up purely superficial aspects, which is just as in-
telligent as estimating an egg by purely superficial aspects. They
never go behind the returns; it never occurs to them to analyze
the impressions they receive. The result is that many a man, de-
ceived by such paltry sophistications, never really sees his wife
— that is, as our Heavenly Father is supposed to sec her, and as
the embalmer will see her — until they have been married for
years. All the tricks may be infantile and obvious, but in the
face of so naive a spectator the temptation to continue practis-
ing them is irresistible. A trained nurse tells me that even when
undergoing the extreme discomfort of parturition the great
majority of women continue to modify their complexions with
pulverized magnesium silicate, and to give thought to the ar-
rangement of their hair. Such transparent devices reduce the
psychologist to a sour sort of mirth, yet it must be plain that

III. Women 39

they sufEce to entrap and make fools of men, even the most

And what esthetic deafness, dumbness and blindness thus
open the way for, vanity instantly reinforces. That is to say,
once a normal man has succumbed to the meretricious charms
of a definite fair one (or, more accurately, once a definite fair
one has marked him out and grabbed him by the nose), he de-
fends his choice with all the heat and steadfastness appertaining
to the defense of a point of honor. To tell a man flatly that his
wife is not beautiful is so harsh and intolerable an insult that
even an enemy seldom ventures upon it. One would offend him
far less by arguing that his wife is an idiot. One would, rela-
tively speaking, almost caress him by spitting into his eye. The
ego of the male is simply unable to stomach such an affront. It
is a weapon as discreditable as the poison of the Borgias.

Thus, on humane grounds, a conspiracy of silence surrounds
the delusion of female beauty, and its victim is permitted to get
quite as much delight out of it as if it were sound. The baits
he swallows most are not edible and nourishing ones, but simply
bright and gaudy ones. He succumbs to a pair of well-managed
eyes, a graceful twist of the body, a synthetic complexion or a
skillful display of legs without giving the slightest thought to the
fact that a whole woman is there, and that within the cranial
cavity of the woman lies a brain, and that the idiosyncrasies of
that brain are of vastly more importance than all imaginable
physical stigmata combined. But not many men, lost in the
emotional maze preceding, are capable of any very clear exami-
nation of such facts. They dodge those facts, even when they
are favorable, and lay all stress upon the surrounding and con-
cealing superficialities. The average stupid and sentimental
man, if he has a noticeably sensible wife, is almost apologetic
about it. The ideal of his sex is always a pretty wife, and the
vanity and coquetry that so often go with prettiness are erected
into charms.


A Mencken Chrestomathy

The Incomparable Buzz-Saw

From Appendix on a Tender Theme, Prejudices: Second Series,
1920, pp. 236-37.

First printed in the Smart Set, May, 1919, p. 54

The allurement that women hold out to men is precisely the
allurement that Cape Hatteras holds out to sailors: they are
enormously dangerous and hence enormously fascinating. To
the average man, doomed to some banal drudgery all his life
long, they offer the only grand hazard that he ever encounters.
Take them away and his existence would be as flat and secure as
that of a moo-cow. Even to the unusual man, the adventurous
man, the imaginative and romantic man, they offer the adven-
ture of adventures. Civilization tends to dilute and cheapen all
other hazards. Even war has been largely reduced to caution and
calculation; already, indeed, it employs almost as many press-
agents, letter-openers and generals as soldiers. But tlic duel of
sex continues to be fought in the Berserker manner. Whoso
approaches women still faces the immemorial dangers. Civiliza-
tion has not made them a bit more safe than they were in Solo-
mon’s time; they are still inordinately menacing, and hence in-
ordinately provocative, and hence inordinately charming.

The most disgusting cad in the world is the man who, on
grounds of decorum and morality, avoids the game of love. He
is one who puts his own ease and security above the most laud-
able of philanthropies. Women have a hard time of it in this
world. They are oppressed by man-made laws, man-made social
customs, masculine egoism, the delusion of masculine superior-
ity. Their one comfort is the assurance that, even though it may
be impossible to prevail against man, it is always possible to
enslave and torture a man. This feeling is fostered when one
makes love to them. One need not be a great beau, a seductive
catch, to do it effectively. Any man is better than none. To
shrink from giving so much happiness at such small expense, to
evade the business on the ground that it has hazards — this is
the act of a puling and tacky fellow.

III. Women


The War between Man and Woman

From In Defense of Women, 1918; revised, 1922, pp. 26-33

Not many men, worthy of the name, gain anything of net value
by marriage, at least as the institution is now met with in Chris-
tendom. Even assessing its benefits at their most inflated worth,
they are plainly overborne by crushing disadvantages. When a
man marries it is no more than a sign that the feminine talent
for persuasion and intimidation — z.e., the feminine talent for
survival in a world of clashing concepts and desires, the femi-
nine competence and intelligence — has forced him into a more
or less abhorrent compromise with his own honest inclinations
and best interests. Whether that compromise be a sign of his
relative stupidity or of his relative cowardice it is all one: the
two things, in their symptoms and effects, are almost identical.
In the first case he marries because he has been clearly bowled
over in a combat of wits; in the second he resigns himself to
marriage as the safest form of liaison. In both cases his inherent
sentimentality is the chief weapon in the hand of his opponent.
It makes him cherish the fiction of his enterprise, and even of
his daring, in the midst of the most crude and obvious opera-
tions against him. It makes him accept as real the bold play-
acting that women always excel at, and at no time more than
when stalking a man. It makes him, above all, see a glamor of
romance in a transaction which, even at its best, contains almost
as much gross trafficking, at bottom, as the sale of a mule.

A man in full possession of the modest faculties that nature
commonly apportions to him is at least far enough above idiocy
to realize that marriage is a bargain in which he seldom wants
all that taking a wife offers and implies. He wants, at most, no
more than certain parts. He may desire, let us say, a house-
keeper to protect his goods and entertain his friends — but he
may shrink from the thought of sharing his bathtub with any-
one, and home cooking may be downright poisonous to him.
He may yearn for a son to pray at his tomb — and yet suffer
acutely at the mere approach of relatives-in-law. He may dream
of a beautiful and complaisant mistress, less exigent and mer-

42 A Mencken Chrestomathy

curial than any bachelor may hope to discover — and stand
aghast at admitting her to his bank-book, his family-tree and his
secret ambitions. He may want company and not intimacy, or
intimacy and not company. He may want a cook and not a
partner in his business, or a partner in his business and not a

But in order to get the precise thing or things that he wants,
he has to take a lot of other things that he doesn’t want — that
no sane man, in truth, could imaginably want — and it is to the
enterprise of forcing him into this almost Armenian bargain
that the woman of his “choice” addresses herself. Once the
game is fairly set, she searches out his weaknesses with the ut-
most delicacy and accuracy, and plays upon them with all her
superior resources. He carries a handicap from the start. His
sentimental and unintelligent belief in theories that she knows
quite well are not true — e.g., the theory that she shrinks from
him, and is modestly appalled by the banal carnalities of mar-
riage itself — gives her a weapon against him which she drives
home vsdth instinctive and eompelling art. The moment she dis-
cerns this sentimentality bubbling within him — that is, the
moment his oafish smirks and eye-rollings signify that he has
achieved the intellectual disaster that is called falling in love —
he is hers to do with as she listeth. Save for acts of God, he is
forthwith as good as married.

Men usually get their mates by this process of falling in love;
save among the aristocracies of the North and Latin men, the
marriage of convenience is relatively rare; a hundred men marry
“beneath” them to every woman who perpetrates tlie same folly.
And what is meant by falling in love? What is meant by it is a
procedure whereby a man accounts for the fact of his marriage,
after feminine initiative and generalship have made it inevitable,
by enshrouding it in a purple maze of romance — in brief, by
setting up the doctrine that an obviously self-possessed and
mammalian woman, engaged deliberately in the most important
adventure of her life, and witli die keenest understanding of its
utmost implications, is a naive, tender, moony and almost dis-
embodied creature, enchanted and made perfect by emotions
that have stolen upon her unawares, and which she could not
acknowledge, even to herself, without blushing to death. By this

III. 'Women 43

preposterous doctrine^ the defeat and enslavement of the man
is made glorious, and even gifted with a touch of flattering
naughtiness. The sheer horsepower of his wooing has assailed
and overcome her maiden modesty; she trembles in his arms;
he has been granted a free franchise to work his wicked will
upon her. Thus do the ambulant images of God cloak their
shackles proudly, and divert the judicious with their boastful

Women are much more cautious about embracing the con-
ventional hocus-pocus of the situation. They seldom acknowl-
edge that they have fallen in love, as the phrase is, until the
man has revealed his delusion, and so cut off his retreat; to do
otherwise would be to bring down upon their heads the mock-
ing and contumely of all their sisters. With them, falling in
love thus appears in the light of an afterthought, or, perhaps
more accurately, in the light of a contagion. The theory, it
would seem, is that the love of the man, laboriously avowed,
has inspired it instantly, and by some unintelligible magic; that
it was non-existent until the heat of his own flames set it off.
This theory, it must be acknowledged, has a certain element of
fact in it. A woman seldom allows herself to be swayed by
emotion while the principal business is yet afoot and its issue
still in doubt; to do so would be to expose a degree of imbecility
that is confined only to the half-wits of the sex. But once the
man is definitely committed, she frequently unbends a bit, if
only as a relief from the strain of a fixed purpose, and so,
throwing off her customary inhibitions, indulges in the luxury
of a more or less forced and mawkish sentiment. It is, however,
almost unheard of for her to permit herself this relaxation be-
fore the sentimental intoxication of the man is assured. To do
otherwise — that is, to confess, even post facto, to an anterior
descent — would expose her to the scorn of all other women.
Such a confession would be an admission that emotion had got
the better of her at a critical intellectual moment, and in the
eyes of women, as in the eyes of the small minority of genuinely
intelligent men, no treason to the higher cerebral centers could
be more disgraceful.


A Mencken Chrestomathy

The Nature of Love

From Appendix on a Tender Theme, Prejudices: Second Series,
1920, pp. 229-36.

First printed in the Smart Set, July, 1920, pp. 59-60

Whatever the origin (in the soul, the ductless glands or the
convolutions of the cerebrum) of the thing called romantic
love, its mere phenomenal nature may be very simply described.
It is, in brief, a wholesale diminishing of disgusts, primarily
based on observation, but often, in its later stages, taking on
a hallucinatory and pathological character. Friendship has pre-
cisely the same constitution, but the pathological factor is usu-
ally absent. When we are attracted to a person and find his or
her proximity agreeable, it means that he or she disgusts us
less than the average human being disgusts us — which, if we
have delicate sensibilities, is a good deal more than is comfort-

Because human contacts are chiefly superficial, most of the
disgusts that we are conscious of are physical. We are never
honestly friendly with a man who is appreciably dirtier than
we are ourselves, or who has table manners that are more
baroque than our own (or merely noticeably different), or who
laughs in a way that strikes us as hyenical. But there are also
psychical disgusts. Our friends, in the main, must be persons
who drink substantially as we do, at least about all things that
actively concern us, and who have the same general tastes. It is
impossible to imagine a Brahmsianer being honestly fond of a
man who enjoys jazz, and by the same token, it is impossible to
imagine a woman of genuine refinement falling for a Knight of
Pythias, a Methodist or even a chauffeur; when such a wonder
actually occurs either the chauffeur is a Harvard athlete in dis-
guise or the lady herself is a charwoman in disguise. Here,
however, the force of aversion may be greatly diminished by
contrary physical attractions; the body, as usual, is enormously
more potent than the so-called mind. In the midst of the bitter-
est wars, with every man of the enemy held to be a fiend in
human form, women constantly fall in love with enemy soldiers

III. Women 45

who are of pleasant person and wear showy uniforms. And many
a fair agnostic, as everyone knows, is on good terms with a
handsome priest.

Once the threshold is crossed emotion comes to the aid of
perception. That is to say, the blind, almost irresistible mating
impulse, now relieved from the contrary pressure of active dis-
gusts, fortifies itself by manufacturing illusions. The lover sees
with an eye tliat is both opaque and out of focus, and begins the
familiar process of editing and improving his girl. Features and
characteristics that, observed in cold blood, might have quickly
aroused his most active disgust are now seen through a rose-
tinted fog, like drabs in a musical comedy. The lover ends by
being almost anesthetic to disgust. While the spell lasts his lady
could shave her head, or take to rubbing snuff, or scratch her
leg in public, and yet not disgust him. Here the paralysis of the
faculties is again chiefly physical — a matter of obscure secre-
tions, of shifting pressures, of metabolism. Nature is at her
tricks. The fever of love is upon its victim. His guard down, he
is little more than an automaton. The shrewd observer of
gaucheries, the sensitive sniffer, the erstwhile cynic, has become
a mere potential papa.

Tliis spell, of course, doesnT last forever. Marriage cools the
fever and lowers the threshold of disgust. The husband begins
to observe what the lover was blind to, and often his discoveries
affect him most unpleasantly. And not only is the fever cooled;
the opportunities for exact observation are enormously in-
creased. It is a commonplace of juridical science that the great
majority of divorces have their origin in the connubial chamber.
Here intimacy is so extreme that it is highly dangerous to illu-
sion. Both parties, thrown into the closest human contact that
either has suffered since their unconscious days in utero, find
their old capacity for disgust reviving, and then suddenly flam-
ing. The girl who was perfect in her wedding gown becomes a
caricature in her robe de nuit; the man who was a Chevalier
Bayard as a wooer in his best suit becomes a snuffling, sham-
bling, driveling nuisance as a husband in ill-fitting pajamas — a
fellow offensive to eyes, ears, nose, touch and immortal soul.

The day is saved, as everyone knows, by the powerful effects
of habit. The acquisition of habit is the process whereby disgust

46 A Mencken Chrestomathy

is overcome in daily life — the process whereby one may cease to
be offended by a persistent noise or odor. One suffers horribly
at first, but after a bit one suffers less, and in the course of time
one scarcely suffers at all Thus a man, when his marriage enters
upon the stage of regularity and safety, gets used to his wife as
he might get used to a tannery down the street, and vice versa,
I think that women, in this direction, have the harder row to
hoe, for they are more observant than men, and vastly more sen*
sitive in small ways. But even women succumb to habit with
humane rapidity, else every marriage would end in divorce. Dis-
gusts pale into mere dislikes, disrelishes, distastes. They cease to
gag and torture. But though they thus shrink into the shadow,
they are by no means disposed of. Deep down in the subcon-
scious they continue to lurk, and some accident may cause them
to flare up at any time, and work havoc, lliis flaring up ac-
counts for a familiar and yet usually very mystifying phenom-
enon — the sudden collapse of a marriage or a friendship after
years of apparent prosperity.

The Eternal Farce

From Reflections on Human Monogamy, Prejudices:

Fourth Series, 1924, pp. 104-05

In Shakespeare love is always depicted as comedy — sometimes
light and charming, as in 'Twelfth Night,"' but usually rough
and buffoonish, as in 'The Taming of the Shrew." This attitude
is plainly visible even in such sombre plays as "Hamlet" and
"Romeo and Juliet." In its main outlines, I suppose, "Hamlet"
is reasonably to be taken for a tragedy, but if you believe that
the love passages are intended to be tragic then all I ask is that
you give a close reading to tire colloquies between Hamlet and
Ophelia. They are not only farcical; they are downright obscene;
Shakespeare, through the moutli of Hamlet, derides the whole
business with almost intolerable ribaldry. As for 'llomco and
Juliet," what is it but a penetrating burlesque upon the love
guff that was fashionable in the poet's time? True enough, his

III. Women 47

head buzzed with such loveliness that he could not write even
burlesque without making it beautiful — compare Much Ado
About Nothing’' and "Othello” — but nevertheless it is quite
absurd to say that he was serious v/hen he wrote this tale of calf-
love. Imagine such a man taking seriously the spasms and hallm
cinations of a Backfisch of fourteen, the tinpot heroics of a boy
of eighteen, Shakespeare remembered very well the nature of
his own amorous fancies at eighteen. It was the year of his se-
duction by Ann Hathaway, whose brother later made him marry
her, much to his damage and dismay. He wrote the play at
forty-five. Tell it to the Marines!

The Helpmate

From the same, pp. 1 14-1 5

Every intelligent woman knows instinctively that the highest
aspirations of her husband are fundamentally inimical to her,
and that their realization is apt to cost her her possession of
him. What she dreams of is not an infinitely brilliant husband,
but an infinitely "solid” one, which is to say, one bound to her
irretrievably by the chains of normalcy. It would delight her to
see him get to the White House, for a man in the White House
is policed as relentlessly as an archbishop. But it would give
her a great deal of disquiet to see him develop into a Goethe or
a Wagner.

I have known in my time a good many men of the first talent,
as talent is reckoned in America, and most of them have been
married. I can’t recall one whose wife appeared to view his
achievements with perfect ease of mind. In every case the lady
was full of palpable fear — the product of feminine intuition,
i.e., of hard realism and common sense — that his rise shook her
hold upo*n him, that he became a worse husband in proportion
as he became a better man. In the logic I can discern no flaw.
The ideal husband is surely not a man of active and daring
mind; he is the man of placid and conforming mind. Here the
good business man obviously beats the artist and adventurer.

48 A Mencken Chrestomathy

His rewards are all easily translated into domestic comfort and
happiness. He is not wobbled by the admiration of other
women, none of whom, however much they may esteem his vir-
tues as a husband, are under any illusion as to his virtues as a
lover. Above all, his mind is not analytical, and hence he is not
likely to attempt any anatomizing of his marriage — the starting
point for the worst sort of domestic infelicity. No man, examin-
ing his marriage intelligently, can fail to observe that it is com-
pounded, at least in part, of slavery, and that he is the slave.
Happy the woman whose husband is so stupid tlrat he never
launclxes into that coroner’s inquest.

The Sex Uproar

From Rondo on an Ancient Theme, Prejudices: Fifth Series,
1926, pp. 100-03

I DOUBT that the lives of normal men, taking one with another,
are much colored or conditioned, either directly or indirectly,
by purely sexual considerations. I believe tliat nine-tenths of
them would carry on all the activities which now engage them,
and with precisely the same humorless diligence, if there were
not a woman in the world. The notion that man would not
work if he lacked an audience, and that the audience must be a
woman, is a hollow sentimentality. Men work because they
want to eat, because they want to feel secure, because they long
to shine among their fellows, because they are urged by a blind
lust for function, and for no other reason. A man may crave
his wife's approbation, or some other woman's approbation, of
his social graces, of his taste, of his generosity and courage, of
his general dignity in the world, but long before he ever gives
thought to such things and long after he has forgotten them he
craves the approbation of his fellow men. Above all, he craves
the approbation of his fellow craftsmen — the men who under-
stand exactly what he is trying to do in his narrow world, and
are expertly competent to judge his doing of it. Can you im-
agine a surgeon putting the good opinion of his wife above that

III. Women 49

of other surgeons? If you can, then you can do something that
I cannot.

Here, of course, I do not argue absurdly that the good opinion
of his wife is nothing to him. Obviously, it is a lot, for if it does
not constitute the principal reward of his work, then it at least
constitutes the principal joy of his hours of ease, when his work
is done. He wants his wife to respect and admire him; to be able
to make her do it in the face of her sharper perception is also a
talent. But if he is intelligent himself he must discover very
early that her respect and admiration do not necessarily run in
ratio to his intrinsic worth, that the qualities and acts that
please her are not always the qualities and acts that are most
satisfactory to the censor within him — in brief, that the rela-
tion between man and woman, however intimate they may
seem, must always remain a bit casual and superficial — that sex,
at bottom, belongs to comedy and the cool of the evening and
not to the sober business that goes on in the heat of the day.
That sober business, as I have said, would still go on if woman
were abolished and heirs and assigns were manufactured in
rolling-mills. Men would not only work as hard as they do to-
day; they would also get almost as much satisfaction out of
their work. Of all the men that I know on this earth, ranging
from poets to ambassadors and from bishops to statisticians, I
know none who labors primarily because he wants to please a
woman. They are all hard at it because they want to impress
other men and so please themselves.

Women, plainly enough, are in a far different case. Their
emancipation has not yet gone to the length of making them
genuinely free. They have rid themselves, very largely, of the
absolute need to please men, but they have not yet rid them-
selves of the impulse to please men. Perhaps they never will:
one might easily devise a plausible argument to that effect on
biological grounds. But sufficient unto the day is the phenome-
non before us: they have got rid of the old taboo which forbade
them to think and talk about sex, but they still labor under the
old superstition that sex is a matter of paramount importance.
The result, in my judgment, is an absurd emission of piffle. In
every division there is vast and often ludicrous exaggeration. The
campaign for birth control, as it is carried on by female propa-

50 A Mencken Chrestomathy

gandists, takes on the proportions of a holy war. The venereal
diseases are represented to be widespread, at least in men, as
colds in the head, and as lethal as apoplexy or cancer. Hordes of
viragoes patrol the country, instructing school-girls in the me-
chanics of reproduction and their mothers in obstetrics. The
light-hearted monogamy which produced all of us is denounced
as an infamy comparable to cannibalism. Laws are passed regu-
lating the mating of human beings as if they were horned cattle
and converting marriage into a sort of coroner's inquest. Over
all sounds the battle-cry of quacks and zealots at all times and
everywhere: Veritas liber ahit vosJ
The trudi? How much of this new gospel is actually truth?
Perhaps two per cent. The rest is idle theorizing, doctrinaire
nonsense, mere scandalous rubbish. All tliat is worth knowing
about sex — all, that is, that is solidly established and of sound
utility — can be taught to any intelligent boy of sixteen in two
hours. Is it taught in the current books? Certainly not. Abso-
lutely witliout exception these books admonish the poor appren-
tice to renounce sex altogether — to sublimate it, as the favorite
phrase is, into a passion for free verse, Rotary or international
cooperation. This admonition is silly, and, I believe, dangerous.
It is as much a folly to lock up sex in the hold as it is to put it
in command on the bridge. Its proper place is in the social
hall. As a substitute for all such nonsense I drop a pearl of
wisdom, and pass on. To wit: the strict monogamist never gets
into trouble.

Women as Christians

From In Defense of Women, 1918; revised, 1922, pp. 162-65

The glad tidings preached by Christ were obviously highly
favorable to women. He lifted them to equality before the Lord
when their very possession of souls was still doubted by the
majority of rival dieologians. Moreover, He esteemed them so-
cially and set value upon their sagacity, and one of the most
disdained of their sex, a lady formerly in public life, was among

IIL Women 51

His regular advisers. Mariolatry is thus by no means the inven-
tion of the medieval popes, as Protestant theologians would
have us believe. On the contrary, it is plainly discernible in the
Four Gospels. What the medieval popes actually invented (or,
to be precise, reinvented, for they simply borrowed the elements
of it from St. Paul) was the doctrine of women's inferiority,
the precise opposite of the thing credited to them. Committed,
for sound reasons of discipline, to the celibacy of the clergy, they
had to support it by depicting all traffic with women in the
light of a hazardous and ignominious business.

The result was the deliberate organization and development
of the theory of female triviality, lack of responsibility and gen-
eral looseness of mind. Woman became a sort of devil, but
without the admired intelligence of the regular demons. The ap-
pearance of women saints, however, offered a constant and em-
barrassing criticism of this idiotic doctrine. If occasional women
were fit to sit upon the right hand of God — and they were often
proving it, and forcing the church to acknowledge it — then
surely all women could not be as bad as the theologians made
them out. There thus arose the concept of the angelic woman,
the natural vestal; we see her at full length in the romances of
medieval chivalry. What emerged in the end was a double doc-
trine, first that women were devils and secondly that they were
angels. This preposterous dualism has merged into a compro-
mise dogma in modern times. By that dogma it is held, on the
one hand, tliat women are unintelligent and immoral, and on
the other hand, that they are free from all those weaknesses of
the flesh which distinguish men. This, roughly speaking, is the
notion of the average male numskull today.

Christianity has thus both libelled women and flattered them,
but with the weight always on the side of the libel. It is there-
fore, at bottom, their enemy, as the religion of Christ, now
wholly extinct, was their friend. And as they gradually throw off
the shackles that have bound them for a thousand years they
show appreciation of the fact. Women, indeed, are not natu-
rally religious, and they are growing less and less religious as year
chases year. Their ordinary devotion has little if any pious
exaltation in it; it is a routine practise, forced on them by the
masculine notion that an appearance of holiness is proper to

52 A Mencken Chrestomathy

their lowly station, and a masculine feeling that church-going
somehow keeps them in order, and out of doings that would be
less reassuring. When they exhibit any genuine religious fervor,
its sexual character is usually so obvious that even the majority
of men are cognizant of it. Women never go flocking ecstati-
cally to a church in which the agent of God in the pulpit is an
elderly asthmatic with a watchful wife. When one finds them
driven to frenzies by the merits of the saints, and weeping over
the sorrows of the heathen, and rushing out to haul the whole
vicinage up to grace, and spending hours on their knees in hys-
terical abasement before the heavenly throne, it is quite safe to
assume, even without an actual visit, that the ecclesiastic who
has worked the miracle is a fair and toothsome fellow, and a
good deal more aphrodisiacal than learned.

Women, in fact, are indifferent Christians in the primitive
sense, just as they are in the antagonistic modern sense, and par-
ticularly on the side of ethics. If they actually accept the re-
nunciations commanded by the Sermon on the Mount, it is
only in an effort to flout their substance under cover of their
appearance. No woman is really humble; she is merely politic.
No woman, with a free choice before her, chooses self-immola-
tion; the most she genuinely desires in that direction is a spectac-
ular and preferably bogus martyrdom. No woman delights in
poverty. No woman yields when she can prevail. No woman is
honestly meek.

The moment she finds herself confronted by an antagonist
genuinely dangerous, either to her own security or to the well-
being of the helpless creatures under her protection — say a
child or a husband — she displays a bellicosity which stops at
nothing, however outrageous. In the courts of law one occa-
sionally encounters a male extremist who tells the truth, the
whole truth and nothing but the truth, even when it is against
his cause, but no such woman has been on view since the days of
Justinian. It is, indeed, an axiom of the bar that women invari-
ably lie upon the stand, and the whole effort of a barrister who
has one for a client is devoted to keeping her within bounds,
that the obtuse suspicions of the jury may not be unduly
aroused. Women litigants almost always win their cases, not,
as is commonly assumed, because the male jurymen fall in love

IIL Women 53

with them, but simply and solely because they are clear-headed,
resourceful, implacable and without qualms.

What is here visible in the halls of justice, in the face of a
vast technical equipment for combating mendacity, is ten times
more obvious in freer fields. Any man who is so unfortunate as
to have a serious controversy with a woman, say in the depart-
ment of finance, theology or amour, must inevitably carry away
from it a sense of having passed through a dangerous and hair-
raising experience. Women not only bite in the clinches; they
bite even in open fighting; they have a dental reach, so to speak,
of amazing length. No attack is so desperate that they will not
undertake it, once they are aroused; no device is so unfair and
horrifying that it stays them. In my early days, desiring to im-
prove my prose, I served for a year or so as reporter for a news-
paper in a police court, and during that time I heard perhaps
four hundred cases of so-called wife-beating. The husbands, in
their defense, almost invariably pleaded justification, and some
of them told such tales of studied atrocity at the domestic
hearth, both psychic and physical, that the learned magistrate
discharged them with tears in his eyes and the very catchpolls
in the courtroom had to blow their noses.

Many more men than women go insane, and many more mar-
ried men than single men. The fact puzzles no one who has had
the same opportunity that I had to find out what goes on, year
in and year out, behind the doors of apparently happy homes.
A woman, if she hates her husband (and many of them do),
can make life so sour and obnoxious to him that even death
upon the gallows seems sweet by comparison. This hatred, of
course, is often, and perhaps almost invariably, quite justified.
To be the wife of an ordinary man, indeed, is an experience that
must be very hard to bear. The hollowness and vanity of the
fellow, his petty meanness and stupidity, his puling sentimen-
tality and credulity, his bombastic air of a cock on a dunghill,
his anesthesia to all whispers and summonings of the spirit,
above all, his loathsome clumsiness in amour — all these things
must revolt any woman above the lowest. To be the object of
the oafish affections of such a creature, even when they are
honest and profound, cannot be expected to give any genuine
joy to a woman of sense and refinement. His performance as a

54 A Mencken Chrestomathy

gallant, as Honore de Bakac long ago observed, unescapably

suggests a gorilla's efforts to play the violin.

Women survive the tragi-comedy only by dint of their great
capacity for play-acting. They are able to act so realistically that
often they deceive even themselves; the average woman's con-
tentment, indeed, is no more than a tribute to her histrionism.
But there must be innumerable revolts in secret, even so, and
one sometimes wonders that so few women, with the thing so
facile and so safe, poison their husbands. Perhaps it is not quite
as rare as vital statistics make it out; the death-rate among hus-
bands is very much higher than among wives. More than once,
indeed, I have gone to the funeral of an acquaintance who died
suddenly, and observed a curious glitter in the eyes of the in-
consolable widow.

The Lady of Joy

From the same, pp. 186-92

The prostitute is disesteemed today, not because her trade in-
volves anything intrinsically degrading or even disagreeable to
the kind of woman who engages in it, but because she is cur-
rently assumed to have been driven into it by dire necessity,
against her dignity and inclination. That this assumption is
usually unsound is no objection to it; nearly all the thinking of
the world, particularly in the field of morals, is based upon un-
sound assumption, e.g., that God observes the fall of a sparrow
and is shocked by the fall of a Sunday-school superintendent.
The truth is tliat prostitution is one of the most attractive of the
occupations practically open to the women who practise it, and
that the prostitute commonly likes her work, and would not
exchange places with a shop-girl or a waitress for anything in
the world.

The notion to the contrary is propagated by unsuccessful
prostitutes who fall into the hands of professional reformers,
and who assent to the imbecile theories of the latter in order to
cultivate their good will, just as convicts in prison, questioned

III. Women 55

by teetotalers, always ascribe their rascality to alcohol. Mo pros-
titute of anything resembling normal female intelligence is un-
der the slightest duress; she is perfectly free to abandon her
trade and go into a shop or factory or into domestic service
whenever the impulse strikes her; all the recurrent gabble about
white slaves comes from pious rogues who make a living by feed-
ing such nonsense to the credulous. So long as the average
prostitute is able to make a good living, she is quite content with
her lot, and disposed to contrast it egotistically with the slavery
of her virtuous sisters. If she complains of it, then you may be
sure that her success is below her expectations. A starving lawyer
always sees injustice in the courts. A physician without patients
is a bitter critic of the American Medical Association. And when
a clergyman is forced out of his cure by a vestry-room revolution
he almost invariably concludes that the sinfulness of man is in-
curable, and sometimes he even begins to doubt some of the
typographical errors in Holy Writ.

Even the most lowly prostitute is better off, in all worldly
ways, than the virtuous woman of her own station in life. She
has less work to do, it is less monotonous and dispiriting, she
meets a far greater variety of men, and they are of classes dis-
tinctly beyond her own. Nor is her occupation hazardous and
her ultimate fate tragic. Some years ago I observed a somewhat
amusing proof of this last At that time certain sentimental
busybodies of the American city in which I live undertook an
elaborate inquiry into prostitution therein, and some of them
came to me in advance, as a practical journalist, for advice as to
how to proceed. I found that all of them shared the common
superstition that the professional life of the average prostitute
is only five years long, and that she invariably ends in the gutter.
They were enormously amazed when they unearthed the truth.
This truth was to the effect that tire average prostitute of that
town ended her career, not in the morgue but at the altar of
God, and that those who remained unmarried often continued
in practise for ten, fifteen and even twenty years, and then re-
tired on competences. It was established, indeed, that fully
eighty per cent, married, and that they almost always got hus-
bands who would have been far beyond their reach had they
remained virtuous. For one who married a cabman or petty

56 A Mencken Chrestomathy

pugilist there were a dozen who married respectable mechanics,
policemen, small shopkeepers and minor ofBcials, and at least
two or three who married well-to-do tradesmen and professional
men. Among the thousands whose careers were studied there
was actually one who ended as the wife of the town's richest
banker — that is, one who bagged the best catch in the whole
community. This woman had begun as a domestic servant, and
abandoned that harsh and dreary life to enter a high-toned
brothel. Her experiences there polished and civilized her, and in
her old age she was a grande dame of great dignity.

Much of the sympathy wasted upon women of the ancient
profession is grounded upon an error as to their own attitude
toward it. An educated woman, hearing that a frail sister in a
public stew is expected to be amiable to all sorts of bounders,
thinks of how she would shrink from such contacts, and so con-
cludes that the actual prostitute suffers acutely. What she over-
looks is that these men, however gross and repulsive they may
appear to her, are measurably superior to men of the prostitute's
own class — say her father and brothers — and that communion
with them, far from being disgusting, is often rather romantic,
I well remember observing, during my collaboration with the
vice-crusaders aforesaid, the delight of a lady of joy who had
attracted the notice of a police lieutenant; she was intensely
pleased by the idea of having a client of such haughty manners,
such brilliant dress, and what seemed to her to be so dignified a

This weakness is not confined to the abandoned, but runs
through the whole female sex. The woman who could not im-
agine an illicit affair with a wealthy soap manufacturer or even
with a lawyer finds it quite easy to imagine herself succumbing
to an ambassador or a duke. There are very few exceptions to
this rule. In the most reserved of modern societies the women
who represent their highest flower are notoriously complaisant
to royalty. And royal women, to complete the circuit, not in-
frequently yield to actors and musicians, z.e., to men radiating a
glamor not encountered even in princes.

III. Women


A Loss to Romance

From The Blushful Mystery, Prejudices: First Series,

1919, pp. 199-200.

First printed in the Smart Set, Feb., 1916, p. 155

The American puella is no longer na’n^e and charming; she goes
to the altar of God with a learned and even cynical glitter in
her eye. The veriest school-girl of today knows as much as the
midwife of 1885, and spends a good deal more time discharging
and disseminating her information. All this, of course, is highly
embarrassing to the more romantic and ingenuous sort of men,
of whom I have the honor to be one. We are constantly in the
position of General Mitchener in Shaw's one-acter, "Tress Cut-
tings," when he begs Mrs. Farrell, the talkative charwoman, to
reserve her confidences for her medical adviser. One often won-
ders, indeed, what women now talk of to doctors.

I do not object to this New Freedom on moral grounds, but
on purely esthetic grounds. In the relations between the sexes
all beauty is founded upon romance, all romance is founded
upon mystery, and all mystery is founded upon ignorance, or,
failing that, upon the deliberate denial of the known truth. To
be in love is merely to be in a state of perceptual anesthesia —
to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek discus-thrower
or an ordinary young woman for a goddess. But how can this
condition of mind survive the deadly matter-of-factness which
sex hygiene and the new science of eugenics impose? How can
a woman continue to believe in the honor, courage and loving
tenderness of a man after she has learned, perhaps by affidavit,
that his hemoglobin count is 117%, that he is free from sugar
and albumen, that his blood pressure is 112/79
Wassermann reaction is negative? Moreover, all this new-fan-
gled frankness tends to dam up, at least for civilized adults, one
of the principal well-springs of art, to wit, impropriety. If
women, continuing their present tendency to its logical goal,
end by going stark naked, there will be no more poets and
painters, but only dermatologists.

A Mencken Chrestomathy

The Balance Sheet

From Rejections on Human Monogamy, Prejudices:
Fourth Series, 1924, p. 123

Marriage, as eveiyone knows, is chiefly an economic matter.
But too often it is assumed that its economy concerns only the
wife’s hats; it also concerns, and perhaps more importantly, the
husband’s cigars. No man is genuinely happy, married, who has
to drink worse whiskey than he used to drink when he was

Compulsory Marriage

From In Defense of Women, 1918; revised, 1922, pp, 90-94.

First printed in the New York Evening Mail, Feb. 6, 1918

In the days when I was a great deal more the revolutionary than
I am now, I proposed the abolition of sentimental marriage by
law and the substitution of pairing by the common hangman.
This plan, if adopted, would have several plain advantages. For
one thing, it would purge the serious business of marriage of
the romantic fol-de-rol tliat now corrupts it, and so make for
the peace and happiness of what is, technically speaking, the
human race. For another thing, it would work against the proc-
ess which now selects out those men who arc most fit, and so
throws the chief burden of paternity upon the inferior, to the
damage of posterity.

The hangman, if he made his selections arbitrarily, would try^
to give his office permanence and dignity by choosing men
whose marriage would meet with public approbation, i.o., men
obviously of the soundest stock and talents, i.o., the sort of men
who now habitually escape. And if he made his selection by
the hazard of the die, or by drawing numbers out of a hat, or
by any other such method of pure chance, that pure chance
would fall indiscriminately upon all orders of men, and the
upper orders would thus lose their present comparative immu-

III. Women 59

nity. True enough, a good many men would endeavor to influ-
ence him privately to their own advantage, and it is probable
that, like any other public ofScial, he would occasionally suc-
cumb, but it must be plain that the men most likely to prevail
in that enterprise would not be philosophers, but politicians,
and so there would be some benefit to the race even here. Pos-
terity surely suffers no very heavy loss when a Congressman, a
member of the House of Lords or even an ambassador or Prime
Minister dies childless, but when a Kant goes to the grave with-
out leaving sons behind him there is a detriment to all the gen-
erations of the future.

Many other theoretical advantages might be mentioned, but
the execution of the scheme is made impossible, not only by in-
herent defects, but also by a general disinclination to abandon
the present system, which at least offers certain attractions to
concrete men and women, despite its unfavorable effects upon
the unborn. Women would oppose the substitution of chance
or arbitrary fiat for the existing struggle for husbands for the
plain reason that every woman is convinced, and sometimes
rightly, that her own judgment is superior to that of either the
common hangman or the gods, and that her own enterprise is
more favorable to her opportunities. And men would oppose it
because it would restrict their liberty. This liberty, of course, is
largely imaginary. In its common manifestation, it is no more,
at bottom, than the privilege of being bamboozled and made a
mock of by the first woman who stoops to essay the business.
But none the less it is quite as precious to men as any other of
the ghosts that their vanity conjures up for their enchantment.
They cherish the notion that unconditioned volition enters into
the matter, and that under volition there is not only a high de-
gree of sagacity but also a touch of the daring and the devilish.
A man is often almost as much pleased and flattered by his own
marriage as he would be by seducing a duchess. In the one case,
as in the other, his emotion is one of triumph. The substitution
of pure chance would take away that soothing unction.

The present system, to be sure, also involves chance. Every
man realizes it, and even the most bombastic bachelor has mo-
ments in which he humbly whispers: “There, but for the grace
of God, go L But that chance has a sugar-coating; it is swathed

6o A Mencken Chrestomathy

in egoistic illusion; it shows less stark and intolerable chanci-
ness, so to speak, than the bald hazard of the die. Thus men
prefer it, and shrink from the other. In the same way, I have
no doubt, the majority of foxes would object to choosing lots
to determine the victim of a projected fox-hunt. They prefer
to take their chances with the dogs.

Cavia Cobaya

From Reflections on Human Monogamy, Prejudices:

Fourth Series, 1924, pp. 117-18.

First printed in the Smart Set, Aug., 1920, p. 59

I Fi3Nx> the following in Theodore Dreiser's 'l-Iey-Riib-a-Dub-

Does the average strong, successful man confine himself
to one woman? Has he ever?

The first question sets an insoluble problem. How are we, in
such intimate matters, to say what is the average and what is
not the average? But the second question is easily answered, and
the answer is, He has. Here Dreiser's curious sexual obsession
simply led him into absurdity. His view of the traffic of the sexes
remained the naive one of an ex-Baptist nymph in Greenwich
Village. Did he argue that Otto von Bismarck was not a strong,
successful man"? If not, then he should have known that Bis-
marck was a strict monogamist — a man full of sin, but always
faithful to his Johanna. Again, there was Thomas Henry Hux-
ley. Again, there was William Ewart Gladstone. Yet again,
there were Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Johann Se-
bastian Bach, Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Jackson, Louis Pasteur,
Martin Luther, Helmuth von Moltke, Stonewall Jackson, Rob-
ert Browning, William T. Sherman, Sam Adams, ... I could
extend the list to pages. . . . Perhaps I am unfair to Dreiser.
His notion of a "strong, successful man" may have been, not
such a genuinely superior fellow as Bismarck or Bach, but such
a mere brigand as Yerkes or Jim Fisk. If so, he was still wrong.
If so, he ran aground on John D. Rockefeller.

III. Women


Art and Sex

From The Blushful Mystery, Prejudices: First Series,

1919, pp. 197-98.

First printed in tlie Smart Set, May, 1919, p. 54

One of the favorite notions of the Puritan mullahs who special-
ize in pornography is that the sex instinct, if suitably repressed,
may be "'sublimated,’' as they say, into idealism, and especially
into esthetic idealism. That notion is to be found in all their
books; upon it they ground the theory that the enforcement of
chastity by a huge force of spies, stool pigeons and police would
convert the Republic into a nation of moral esthetes. All this,
of course, is simply pious fudge. If the notion were actually
sound, then all the great artists of the world would come from
the ranks of the hermetically repressed, f.^., from the ranks of
old maids, male and female. But the truth is, as everyone
knows, that tlie great artists of the world are never Puritans,
and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No moral man — that
is, moral in the Y.M.C.A. sense — has ever painted a picture
worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a
book worth reading, and it is highly improbable that the thing
has ever been done by a virtuous woman.


From In Defense of Women, 1918; revised, 1922, pp. 67-68

The woman who has not had a child remains incomplete, ill at
ease, and more than a little ridiculous. She is in the position of
a man who has never stood in battle; she has missed the most
colossal experience of her sex. Moreover, a social odium goes
with her loss. Other women regard her as a sort of permanent
tyro, and treat her with ill-concealed disdain, and deride the
very virtue which lies at the bottom of her experiential penury.
There would seem to be, indeed, but small respect among
women for virginity per se. They are against the woman who

62 A Mencken Chrestomathy

has got rid of hers outside marriage, not because they think
she has lost anything intrinsically valuable, but because she has
made a bad bargain, and one that materially diminishes the
sentimental respect for virtue held by men, and hence one
against the general advantage and well-being of the sex. In
other words, it is a guild resentment that they feel, not a moral
resentment. Women, in general, are not actively moral, nor,
for that matter, noticeably modest. Every man, indeed, who is
in wide practise among them is occasionally astounded and hor-
rified to discover, on some rainy afternoon, an almost complete
absence of modesty in some women of the highest respect-

Sex Hygiene

From The Blushful Mystery, Prejudices: First Series,

1919, p. 197.

First printed in the Smart Set, April, 1919, p. 52

Even the most serious and honest of the sex hygiene tomes are
probably futile, for they are all founded upon a pedagogical
error. That is to say, they are all founded upon an attempt to
explain a romantic mystery in terms of an exact science. Noth-
ing could be more absurd: as well attempt to interpret Bee-
thoven in terms of mathematical physics — as many a fatuous
contrapuntist, indeed, has tried to do. The mystery of sex
presents itself to the young, not as a scientific problem to be
solved, but as a romantic itch to be accounted for. I’he only
result of the current endeavor to explain its phenomena by
seeking parallels in botany is to make botany obscene.


From Education, Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, p. 259

FmsT-RATE men are never begotten by Knights of Pythias; the
notion that they sometimes are is due to an optical delusion.

III. 'Women 63

WTien they appear in obscure and ignoble circles it is no more
than a proof that only an extremely wise sire knows his son.
Adultery, in brief, is one of nature’s devices for keeping the low-
est orders of men from sinking to the level of downright simians:
sometimes for a few brief years in youth, their wives and daugh-
ters are comely — and now and then the baron drinks more than
he ought.

The Double Standard

From the same, p. 114. First printed in the Smart Set, Jan., 1923, p. 55

The double standard of morality will survive in this world so
long as a woman whose husband has been lured away is favored
with the sympathetic tears of other women, and a man whose
wife has made off is laughed at by other men.

The Supreme Comedy

From Appendix on a Tender Theme, Prejudices:

Second Series, 1920, pp. 244-45

Marriage, at best, is full of a sour and inescapable comedy, but
it never reaches the highest peaks of the ludicrous save when
efforts arc made to escape its terms — that is, when efforts are
made to loosen its bounds, and so ameliorate and denaturize it.
All projects to reform it by converting it into a free union of
free individuals are inherently absurd. The thing is, at bottom,
the most rigid of existing conventionalities, and the only way
to conceal the fact and so make it bearable is to submit to it
philosophically. The effect of every revolt is merely to make
the bonds galling, and, what is worse, obvious. Who are happy
in marriage? Those with so little imagination that they cannot
picture a better state, and those so shrewd that they prefer quiet
slavery to hopeless rebellion*

64 A Mencken Chrestomathy
Woman as Realpolitiker

From Reflections on Human Monogamy, Prejudices:

Fourth Series, 1924, P- 113

Women in general are far too realistic to have any respect for
so-called ideas. One seldom hears of them suffering and dying
from any of the bogus Great Truths that men believe in. When
a woman is on good terms with her husband she is quite willing
to accept his idiotic theorizings on any subject that happens to
engage him, whether theological, economic, epistemological or
political. When one hears of a Republican man who has a
Democratic wife, or vice versa, it is always safe to assume that
she has her eye on a handsomer, richer or more docile fellow,
and is thinking of calling up a lawyer.


Mainly from notes hitherto unpublished

In every theologian there is a larval Torquemada, in every poli-
tician there are hopes of a Hitler, and in every wife there are
vague glints and rumblings of Ruth Snyder. . . .

Every man, at some time or other in his life, plays the scoun-
drel to some woman. The decentest man imaginable has done
it only once. . . ,

Women’s dislike of men, like the dislike of Englishmen for
Americans, is sharpened by a mingling of envy and contempt.
Men’s dislike of women, like the dislike of Americans for Eng-
lishmen, is diluted by a sneaking suspicion that they are actu-
ally superior. . . .

'The natural emotion of a normal young man after a con-
quest is not remorse, but elation. He is delighted by the trium-
phant demonstration of his manhood, and takes a natural mam-
malian joy in the fact that he has been accepted as a sexual
object. In all probability, the normal girl feels much the same.

III. 'Women 65

Remorse requires a period of incubation, precisely like that of
the possible bacteriological effects of looseness. . . .

The other day, having my shoes shined, I was forced to listen
to the old song, “Love Me, and the World is Mine!” on the
professor’s radio. Some day I should like to hear from a man
who, having been loved in 1905 or thereabout, is still full of
confidence tliat the world is his. . . .

One of the incentives to marriage is the desire for property,
which is a subdivision of the craving for power. A husband, to
the average woman, is very valuable property. So, to the average
man, is a wife. No other domestic animal is so useful, or so
greatly gratifies the vanity of die owner.

Romantic Interlude

From In Defense of Women, 1918; revised, 1922, pp. 207-09

It is the close of a busy and vexatious day — say half past five
or six o’clock of a Winter afternoon. I have had a cocktail or
two, and am stretched out on a divan in front of a fire, smoking.
At the edge of the divan, close enough for me to reach her with
my hands, sits a woman not too young, but still good-looking
and well-dressed — above all, a woman ivith a soft, low-pitched,
agreeable voice. As I snooze she talks — of anything, everything,
all the things that women talk of; books, music, dress, men,
other women. No politics. No business. No theology. No meta-
physics. Nothing challenging and vexatious — but remember,
she is intelligent; what she says is clearly expressed, and often
picturesquely. I observe the fine sheen of her hair, the pretty cut
of her frock, the glint of her white teeth, the arch of her eye-
brow, the graceful curve of her arm. I listen to the exquisite
murmur of her voice. Gradually I fall asleep — but only for an
instant. At once, observing it, she raises her voice ever so little,
and I am awake. Tlien to sleep again — slowly and charmingly
down that slippery hill of dreams. And then awake again, and
then asleep again, and so on.

I ask you seriously: could anything be more unutterably beau-

66 A Mencken Chrestomathy

tiful? The sensation of falling asleep is to me the most delight-
ful in the world. I relish it so much that I even look forward
to death itself with a sneaking wonder and desire. Well, here is
sleep poetized and made doubly sweet. Here is sleep set to the
finest music in the world. I match this situation against any that
you can think of. It is not only enchanting; it is also, in a very
true sense, ennobling. In the end, when the lady grows prettily
miffed and throws me out, I return to my sorrows somehow
purged and glorified. I am a better man in my own sight. I have
grazed upon the fields of asphodel. I have been genuinely, com-
pletely and unregrettably happy.


From the same, pp. 209-10

A MAN is inseparable from his congenital vanities and stupidi-
ties, as a dog is inseparable from its fleas. They reveal themselves
in everything he says and does, but they reveal themselves most
of all when he discusses the majestic mystery of woman. Just as
he smirks and rolls his eyes in her actual presence, so he puts on
a pathetic and unescapable clownishness when he essays to dis-
sect her in the privacy of the laboratory. There is no treatise on
woman by a man that is not a stupendous compendium of pos-
turings and imbecilities. There are but two that show even
a superficial desire to be honest— "The Unexpurgated Case
Against Woman Suffrage/' by Sir Almroth Wright, and this
one. Wright made a gallant attempt to tell the truth, but before
he got half way through his task his ineradicable donkeyishness
as a male overcame his scientific frenzy as a pathologist, and so
he hastily washed his hands of the business, and affronted the
judicious with a half-baked and preposterous work. Perhaps I
have failed too, and even more ingloriously. If so, I am full of
sincere and indescribable regret-


The Cosmic Secretariat

From High and Ghostly Matters, Prejudices: Fourth Series,
1924, pp. 61-65.

First printed in the American Mercury, Jan., 1924, pp. 75-76

The argument from design, once the bulwark of Christian
apologetics, has been shot so full of holes that it is no wonder it
has had to be abandoned. The more, indeed, tlie theologian
seeks to prove the wisdom and omnipotence of God by His
works, the more he is dashed by the evidences of divine incom-
petence and stupidity that the advance of science is constantly
turning up. Tlie world is not actually well run; it is very badly
run, and no Huxley was needed to labor the obvious fact. The
human body, very cunningly designed in some details, is cru-
elly and senselessly bungled in other details, and every reflective
first-year medical student must notice a hundred ways to im-
prove it. How are we to reconcile this mixture of finesse and
blundering with the concept of a single omnipotent Designer,
to whom all problems are equally easy? If He could contrive so
efficient and durable a machine as the human hand, then how
did He come to make such botches as the tonsils, the gall-
bladder, the o^aries and the prostate gland? If He could perfect
the elbow and the ear, then why did He boggle the teeth?

Having never encountered a satisfactory — or even a remotely
plausible — answer to such questions, I have had to go to the
trouble of devising one myself. It is, at all events, quite simple,
and in strict accord with all the known facts. In brief, it is this:
that the theory that the universe is run by a single God must be
abandoned, and that in place of it we must set up the theory
that it is actually run by a board of gods, all of equal puissance
and authority. Once this concept is grasped the difficulties that
have vexed theologians vanish, and human experience instantly


68 A Mencken Chrestomathy

lights up the whole dark scene. We observe in everyday life
what happens when authority is divided, and great decisions are
reached by consultation and compromise. We know that the ef-
fects at times, particularly when one of the consultants runs
away with the others, are very good, but we also know tlrat they
are usually extremely bad. Such a mixture, precisely, is on dis-
play in the cosmos. It presents a series of brilliant successes in
the midst of an infinity of failures.

I contend that my theory is the only one ever put forward
that completely accounts for the clinical picture. Every other
theory, facing such facts as sin, disease and disaster, is forced
to admit the supposition that Omnipotence, after all, may not
be omnipotent — a plain absurdity. I need toy with no such
blasphemous nonsense. I may assume tliat every god belonging
to the council which rules the universe is infinitely wise and in-
finitely powerful, and yet not evade the plain fact that most of
the acts of that council are ignorant and foolish. In truth, my
assumption that a council exists is tantamount to an a priori
assumption that its acts are ignorant and foolish, for no act of
any conceivable council can be otherwise. Is the human hand
perfect, or, at all events, practical and praiseworthy? Tlren I ac-
count for it on the ground that it was designed by some single
member of the council — that the business was turned over to
him by inadvertence or as a result of an irreconcilable difference
of opinion among the others. Had more than one member par-
ticipated actively in its design it would have been measurably
less meritorious than it is, for the sketch offered by the original
designer would have been forced to run the gauntlet of criti-
cisms and suggestions from all the other councillors, and human
experience teaches us that most of these criticisms and sugges-
tions would have been inferior to the original idea — that many
of them, in fact, would have had nothing in them save a petty
desire to maul and spoil the original idea.

But do I here accuse the high gods of harboring discreditable
human weaknesses? If I do, then my excuse is that it is impos-
sible to imagine them doing the work universally ascribed to
them without admitting their possession of such weaknesses.
One cannot imagine a god spending weeks and months, and
maybe whole geological epochs, laboring over the design of the

IV, Religion 69

human kidney without assuming him to have been moved by a
powerful impulse to express himself vividly, to marshal and
publish his ideas, to win public credit among his fellows — in
brief, without assuming him to be egoistic. And one cannot
assume him to be egoistic without assuming him to prefer the
adoption of his own ideas to the adoption of any other god's.
I defy anyone to make the contrary assumption without plung-
ing instantly into clouds of mysticism. Ruling it out, one comes
inevitably to the conclusion that the inept management of the
universe must be ascribed to clashes of egos, i.e., to spites and
revenges, among the gods, for any one of them alone, since we
must assume him to be infinitely wise and powerful, could run
it perfectly. We suffer from bad stomachs simply because the
god who first proposed making a stomach aroused thereby the
ill-nature of those who had not thought of it, and because they
proceeded instantly to wreak that ill-nature upon him by im-
proving, i,e., botching, his work. We must reproduce our species
in the familiar arduous, uneconomic, indecent and almost path-
ological manner because the god who devised the excellent
process prevailing among the protozoa had to be put in his place
when he proposed to extend it to the Primates.

The Nature of Faith

From the same, pp. 65-76

Many years ago, when I was more reckless intellectually than I
am today, I proposed the application of Haeckel’s biogenetic
law — to wit, that the history of the individual rehearses the
history of the species — to the domain of ideas. So applied, it
leads to some superficially startling but probably quite sound
conclusions, for example, that an adult poet is simply an in-
dividual in a state of anested development — in brief, a sort of
moron. Just as all of us, in utero, pass through a stage in which
we are tadpoles, and almost indistinguishable from the tad-
poles which afterward become frogs, so all of us pass through a
stage, in our nonage, when we are poets. A youth of seventeen

•JO A Mencken Chrestomathy

who is not a poet is simply a donkey: his development has been
arrested even anterior to that of the tadpole. But a man of fifty
who still writes poetry is either an unfortunate who has never
developed, intellectually, beyond his teens, or a conscious buf-
foon who pretends to be something that he isn't — something
far younger and juicier than he actually is.

At adolescence large numbers of individuals, and maybe even
most, have similar attacks of piety, but that is only saying that
their powers of perception, at that age, outrun their knowledge.
They observe the tangled and terrifying phenomena of life, but
cannot account for them. Later on, unless their development is
arrested, they gradually emerge from that romantic and spookish
fog, just as they emerge from the hallucinations of poctr}^ I
speak here, of course, of individuals genuinely capable of edu-
cation — always a small minority. If, as the Army tests of con-
scripts showed, nearly 50 per cent, of American adult males
never get beyond the mental development of a twelve-year-old
child, then it must be obvious that a much smaller number get
beyond the mental development of a youth at the end of his
teens. I put that number, at a venture, at 10 per cent. The re-
maining 90 per cent, never quite free themselves from religious
superstitions. They may no longer believe it is an act of God
every time an individual catches a cold, or sprains his ankle, 01
cuts himself shaving, but they are pretty sure to see some trace
of divine intervention in it if he is struck by lightning, or hanged,
or affiicted with leprosy or syphilis.

All modern religions are based, at least on tlieir logical side,
on this notion that there are higher powers which observe the
doings of man and constantly take a hand in them, and in the
fold of Christianity, which is a good deal more sentimental than
any other major religion, the concept of interest and interven-
tion is associated with a concept of benevolence. In other words,
it is believed that God is predominantly good. No true Christian
can tolerate the idea that God ever deliberately and wantonly
injures him, or could conceivably wish him ill. The slings and
arrows that he suffers, he believes, are brought down upon him
by his own ignorance and contumacy. Unhappily, this doctrine
of the goodness of God does not fit into what we know of the
nature and operations of the cosmos today; it is a survival from

IV. Religion yi

a day of universal ignorance. All science is simply a great mass-
ing of proofs that God, if He exists, is really neither good nor
bad, but simply indifferent — an infinite Force carrying on the
operation of unintelligible processes rvithout the slightest re-
gard, either one way or the other, for the comfort, safety and
happiness of man.

Why, then, does this belief survive? Largely, I am convinced,
because it is supported by that other hoary relic from the adoles-
cence of the race, to wit, the weakness for poetry. The Jews
fastened their religion upon the Western world, not because it
was more reasonable than the religions of their contemporaries

— as a matter of fact, it was vastly less reasonable than many of
them — but because it was far more poetical. The poetry in it
was what fetched the decaying Romans, and after them the
barbarians of the North; not the so-called Christian evidences.
No better has ever been written. It is so powerful in its effects
that even men who reject its content in toto are more or less
susceptible. One hesitates to flout it on purely esthetic grounds;
however dubious it may be in doctrine, it is nevertheless almost
perfect in form, and so even the most violent atheist tends to
respect it, just as he respects a beautiful but deadly toadstool.
For no man, of course, ever quite gets over poetry. He may seem
to have recovered from it, just as he may seem to have recovered
from the measles of his school-days, but exact observation
teaches us that no such recovery is ever quite perfect; there al-
ways remains a scar, a weakness and a memory.

Now, there is reason for maintaining that the taste for poetry,
in the process of human development, marks a stage measurably
later than the stage of religion. Savages so little cultured that
they know no more of poetry than a cow have elaborate and
often very ingenious theologies. If this be true, then it follows
that the individual, as he rehearses the life of the species, is
apt to carry his taste for poetry further along than he carries his
religion — tliat if his development is arrested at any stage be-
fore complete intellectual maturity that arrest is far more likely
to leave hallucinations. Thus, taHng men in the mass, there
are many more natural victims of the former than of the latter

— and here is where the artfulness of the ancient Jews does its
execution. It holds countless thousands to the faith who are

y2 A Mencken Chrestomathy

actually against the faith, and the weakness with which it holds
tliem is their weakness for poetry, Le., for the beautiful but un-
true. Put into plain, harsh words most of the articles they are
asked to believe would revolt them, but put into sonorous dith-
yrambs the same articles fascinate and overwhelm them.

This persistence of the weakness for poetry explains the curi-
ous growth of ritualism in an age of skepticism. Almost every
day theology gets another blow from science. So badly has it
been battered during the past century, indeed, that educated
men now give it little more credence than they give to sorcery,
its ancient ally. But squeezing out the logical nonsense does no
damage to the poetry; on the contrary, it frees, and, in a sense,
dignifies the poetry. Thus there is a constant movement of
Christians, and particularly of newly-intellectual Christians,
from the more literal varieties of Christian faith to the more
poetical varieties. The normal idiot, in the United States, is
born a Methodist or a Baptist, but when he begins to lay by
money he and his wife tend to go over to the American out-
house of the Church of England, which is not only more fash-
ionable but also less revolting to the higher cerebral centers. His
daughter, when she emerges from the finishing-school, is very
High Church; his grand-daughter, if the family keeps its securi-
ties, may go the whole hog by embracing Rome.

In view of all this, I am convinced that the Christian church,
as a going concern, is quite safe from danger in the United
States, despite the rapid growth of agnosticism. The theology it
merchants is full of childish and disgusting absurdities; practi-
cally all the other religions of civilized and semi-civilized man
are more plausible. But all of these religions, including Moslem-
ism, contain the fatal defect tlrat they appeal primarily to the
reason. Christianity will survive not only Modernism but also
Fundamentalism, a much more difficult business. It will survive
because it makes its first and foremost appeal to that moony
sense of the poetic which lingers in all men — to that elemental
sentimentality which, in men of arrested mental development,
which is to say, in the average men of Christendom, passes for
the passion to seek and know beauty.^

^ The reader fetched by this argument will find more to his taste in my
Treatise on the Gods, second edition, 1946, pp. 286-89.


IV. Religion

The Restoration of Beauty

From the same, pp. 77-78. First printed in the Smart Set,

March, 1920, p. 51

The Christians of the Apostolic Age were almost exactly like
the modern Holy Rollers — men quite without taste or imagi-
natioHj, whoopers and shouters, low vulgarians, cads. So far as
is known, their public worship was wholly devoid of the sense of
beauty; their sole concern was with the salvation of their so-
called souls. Thus they left us nothing worth preserving — ■ not
a single church, or liturgy, or even hymn. The objects of art
exhumed from the Catacombs are inferior to the drawings and
statuettes of Cro-Magnon man. All the moving beauty that
adorns the corpse of Christianity today came into being long
after the Fathers had perished. The faith was many centuries
old before Christians began to build cathedrals. We think of
Christmas as the typical Christian festival, and no doubt it is;
none other is so generally kept by Christian sects, or so rich in
charm and beauty. Well, Christmas, as we now have it, was
almost unknown in Christendom until the Eleventh Century,
when the relics of St. Nicholas of Myra, originally the patron
of pawnbrokers, were brought from the East to Italy. All this
time the Universal Church was already torn by controversies
and menaced by schisms, and the shadow of the Reformation
was plainly discernible in the West. Religions, in fact, like
castles, sunsets and women, never reach their maximum of
beauty until they are touched by decay.

Holy Clerks

From the same, pp. 79—84. First printed in the American Mercury^
June, 1924, p. 183

Around no class of men do more false assumptions cluster than
around the rev. clergy, our lawful commissioners at the Throne

74 A Mencken Chrestomathy

of Grace. I proceed at once to a crass example: the assumption
that clergymen are necessarily religious. Obviously, it is widely
cherished, even by clergjmen themselves. The most ribald of
us, in the presence of a holy clerk, is a bit self-conscious. I am
myself given to criticizing Divine Providence somewhat freely,
but in the company of the rector of my parish, even at the
Biertisch, I tone down my animadversions to a level of feeble
and polite remonstrance. I know the fellow too well, of course,
to have any actual belief in his piety. He is, in fact, rather less
pious than the average right-thinking Americano, and I doubt
gravely that the sorceries he engages in professionally every day
awaken in him any emotion more lofty than boredom. I have
heard him pray for the President and Congress, the heathen and
for rain, but I have never heard him pray for himself. Never-
theless, the public assumption that he is highly devout, though
I dispute it, colors all my intercourse with him, and deprives
him of hearing some of my most searching and intelligent ob-

All that is needed to expose the hollowness of this ancient de-
lusion is to consider the chain of causes which brings a young
man to taking holy orders. Is it, in point of fact, an irresistible
religious impulse that sets him to studying exegetics, homiletics
and the dog-Greek of the New Testament, and an irresistible
religious impulse only, or is it something quite different? I be-
lieve that it is something quite different, and that that some-
thing may be described briefly as a desire to shine in the world
without too much effort. The young theologue, in brief, is com-
monly an ambitious but somewhat lazy fellow, and he studies
theology instead of osteopathy, salesmanship or the law because
it offers a quicker and easier route to an assured job and public
respect. The sacred sciences may be nonsensical, but they at
least have the vast virtue of short-circuiting, so to speak, the
climb up the ladder of security. The young medical man, for a
number of years after he is graduated, either has to work for
nothing or to content himself with the dregs of practise, and
the young lawyer, unless he has unusual influence or complete
atrophy of the conscience, often teeters on the edge of actual
starvation. But the young divine is a safe and distinguished man
the moment he is ordained; indeed, his popularity, especially

IV. Religion 75

among the faithful who are fair, is often greater at that moment
than it ever is afterward. His livelihood is assured instantly.
At one stroke, he becomes a person of dignity and importance,
eminent in his community, deferred to even by those who ques-
tion his magic, and vaguely and pleasantly feared by those who
credit it.

These facts, you may be sure, are not concealed from aspiring
young men of the sort I have mentioned. Such young men have
eyes, and even a certain capacity for ratiocination. They observe
the nine sons of the police sergeant: one a priest at tw^enty-five,
with a fine house to live in, invitations to all the birthday parties
for miles around, and plenty of time to go to the ball-game on
Summer afternoons; the others struggling desperately to make
their livings as furniture-movers, tin-roofers and bus-drivers.
They observe the young Protestant dominie in his Ford sedan,
flitting about among the women while their husbands labor
down in the yards district, a clean collar around his neck, a solid
meal of fried chicken in his gizzard, and his name in the local
paper every day. Only crazy women ever fall in love with young
insurance solicitors, l3ut every young clergyman, if he is so in-
clined, may have a whole seraglio. Even if he is celibate, the
gals bathe him in their smiles; in truth, the more celibate he is,
the more attention he gets from them. No wonder his high
privileges and immunities propagate the sin of envy. No wonder
there are still candidates for the holy shroud, despite the vast
growth of atheism among us.

The daily duties of a professional man of God have nothing
to do with religion, but are basically social or commercial. In
so far as he works at all, he works as the general manager of a
corporation, and only too often it is in financial difficulties and
rent by factions among the stockholders. His specifically the-
ological hocus-pocus is of a routine and monotonous nature,
and must needs depress him mightily, as a surgeon is depressed
by the endless opening of boils. He gets rid of spiritual exalta-
tion by reducing it to a hollow formality, as a politician gets
rid of patriotism and a lady of joy of love. He becomes, in the
end, quite anesthetic to religion, and even hostile to it. The
fact is made distressingly visible by the right rev. the bench of
bishops. For a bishop to fall on his knees spontaneously and

y6 A Mencken Chrestomathy

begin to pray to God would make almost as great a scandal as
if he mounted his throne in a bathing-suit. The piety of the
ecclesiastic, on such high levels, becomes wholly theoretical.
The servant of God has been lifted so near to the saints and
become so familiar with the inner workings of the divine ma-
chinery that all awe and wonder have oozed out of him. He can
no more undergo a genuine religious experience than a veteran
scene-shifter can laugh at the wheezes of the First Gravedigger.
It is, perhaps, well that this is so. If the higher clergy were
actually religious some of their own sermons and pastoral
epistles would scare them to death.

The Collapse of Protestantism

From Protestantism in the Republic, Prejudices; Fifth Series,
1926, pp. 104-19.

First printed in the American Mercury, March, 1925, pp. 286-88

That Protestantism in this great Christian realm is down with
a wasting disease must be obvious to every amateur of ghostly
pathology. One half of it is moving, with slowly accelerating
speed, in the direction of the Harlot of the Seven Hills: the
other is sliding down into voodooism. The former carries the
greater part of Protestant money with it; the latter carries
the greater part of Protestant libido. What remains in the mid-
dle may be likened to a torso without either brains to think with
or legs to dance — in other words, something that begins to be
professionally attractive to the mortician, though it still makes
shift to breathe. Tliere is no lack of life on the higher levels,
where the more solvent Methodists and the like are gradually
transmogrified into Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians shin
up the ancient bastions of Holy Church, and there is no lack of
life on the lower levels, where the rural Baptists, by the route
of Fundamentalism, rapidly descend to the dogmas and prac-
tises of the Congo jungle. But in the middle there is desiccation
and decay. Here is where Protestantism was once strongest.
Here is the region of the plain and godly Americano, fond of

IV. Religion jj

devotion but distrustful of every hint of orgy — the honest fel-
low who suiSers dutifully on Sunday, pays his tithes, and hopes
for a few kind words from the pastor when his time comes to
die. Today, alas, he tends to absent himself from pious exer-
cises, and the news goes about that there is something the mat-
ter with the churches, and the denominational papers bristle
with schemes to set it right, and many up-and-coming pastors,
tiring of preaching and parish work, get jobs as the executive
secretaries of these schemes, and go about the country expound-
ing them to the faithful.

The extent to which Protestantism, in its upper reaches, has
succumbed to the lascivious advances of Rome seems to be but
little apprehended by the majority of connoisseurs, I was my-
self unaware of the whole truth until a recent Christmas, when,
in the pursuit of a quite unrelated inquiry, I employed agents
to attend all the services held in the principal Protestant basil-
icas of an eminent American city, and to bring in the best re-
ports they could formulate upon what went on in the lesser
churches. The substance of these reports, in so far as they
related to churches patronized by the well-to-do, was simple:
they revealed a head-long movement to the right, an almost
precipitate flight over the mountain. Six so-called Episcopal
churches held midnight services on Christmas Eve in obvious
imitation of Catholic midnight masses, and one of them actu-
ally called its service a solemn high mass. Two invited the
nobility and gentry to processions, and a third concealed a pro-
cession under the name of a pageant. One offered Gounod's St.
Cecilia mass on Christmas morning, and another the Messe
Solennelle by the same composer; three otlrers, somewhat more
timorous, contented themselves with parts of masses. One,
throwing off all pretense and euphemism, summoned the faith-
ful to no less than three Christmas masses, naming them by
name — two low and one high. All six churches were aglow
with candles, and two employed incense.

But that was not the worst. Two Presbyterian churches and
one Baptist church, not to mention five Lutheran churches of
different synods, had carol services in the dawn of Christmas
morning, and the one attended by the only one of my agents
who got up early enough it was in a Presbyterian church —

■78 A Mencken Chrestomathy

was made gay with candles, and had a palpably Roman smack.
Yet worse: a rich and conspicuous Methodist church, patron-
ized by the leading Wesleyan wholesalers and money-lenders of
the town, boldly offered a “medieval” carol service. Medieval?
What did that mean? Tlie Middle Ages ended on July 16, 1453,
at 12 o’clock meridian, and the Reformation was not launched
by Martin Luther until October 31, 1517, at 10.15
dieval, in the sense in which it was here used, did not mean
Roman Catholic, then I surely went to school in vain. My agent,
born a Methodist, reported that the whole ceremony shocked
him excessively. It began witli trumpet blasts from the church
spire and it concluded with an Ave Maria by a vested choir.
Candles rose up in glittering ranks behind tlie chancel rail, and
above them glowed a shining electric star. God help us all, in-
deed! What next? Will the rev. pastor, on some near tomorrow,
defy the lightnings of Yahweh by appearing in alb and dal-
matic? Will he turn his back upon the faithful? Will he put
in a telephone-booth for auricular confession?

Certainly no one argues that the use of candles in public wor-
ship would have had the sanction of the Ur-Wesleyans, or that
they would have consented to Blasmusik and a vested choir.
Down to sixty or seventy years ago, in fact, the Methodists pro-
hibited Christmas services altogether, as Romish and heathen.
But now we have ceremonies almost operatic. As I have said,
the Episcopalians — who, in most American cities, are largely
ex-Methodists or ex-Presbyterians, or, in New York, ex-Jews —
go still further. In three of the churches attended by my agents
Holy Communion was almost indistinguishable from a mass —
and in every one there was a good house and what the colored
pastors call a good plate. Even the Methodists who remain
Methodists begin to wobble. Tiring of the dreadful din that
goes with the orthodox Wesleyan demonology, they take to
goings-on that grow more and more stately and voluptuous. The
sermon ceases to be a cavalry charge, and becomes soft and
pizzicato. The choir abandons “Throw Out the Life-Line” and
“Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?” and toys with Handel.
It is an evolution that has, viewed from a tree, a certain merit.
The stock of nonsense in the world is sensibly diminished and
the stock of beauty augmented. But what would the old-time

IV. Religion 79

circuit-riders say of it, imagining them miraculously brought
back from Hell?

So much for the volatilization that is going on above the
diaphragm. What is in progress below? All I can detect is a
rapid descent to mere barbaric devil-chasing. In all those parts
of the Republic where Beelzebub is still real — for example, in
the rural sections of the Middle West and everywhere in the
South save a few walled towns — the evangelical sects plunge
into an abyss of malignant imbecility, and declare a holy war
upon every decency that civilized men cherish. They have
thrown the New Testament overboard, and gone back to the
Old, and particularly to the bloodiest parts of it. What one
mainly notices about the clerics who lead them is their vast lack
of sound information and sound sense. They constitute, per-
haps, the most ignorant class of teachers ever set up to guide a
presumably civilized people; they are even more ignorant than
the county superintendents of schools. Learning, indeed, is not
esteemed in the evangelical denominations, and any literate
plow-hand, if the Holy Spirit inflames him, is thought to be fit
to preach. Is he commonly sent, as a preliminary,, to a training
camp, to college? But what a college! You will find one in every
mountain valley of the land, with its single building in its bare
pasture lot, and its faculty of half-idiot pedagogues and broken-
down preachers. One man, in such a college, teaches oratory,
ancient history, arithmetic and Old Testament exegesis. The
aspirant comes in from the barnyard, and goes back in a year
or two to the village. His body of knowledge is that of a bus-
driver or a vaudeville actor. But he has learned the cliches of
his craft, and he has got him a black Sunday coat, and so he
has made his escape from the harsh labors of his ancestors, and
is set up as a fountain of light and learning.


A Mencken Chrestomathy


From the American Mercury, March, 1930, p. 289.

First printed, in part, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, Dec. g, 1929

The most curious social convention of the great age in which
we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should
be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone.
All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas
that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every
theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly
to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound
notions make tlreir way in the world. The minute a new one is
launched, in whatever fields, some imbecile of a theologian is
certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective
way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian,
for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a
vigorous offensive. But convention frowns upon that device as
indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense
without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly

There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that en-
titles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the
contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly. If you doubt it, then
ask any pious fellow of your acquaintance to put what he be-
lieves into the form of an affidavit, and see how it reads. . . .
“I, John Doe, being duly sworn, do say that I believe that, at
death, I shall turn into a vertebrate without substance, having
neither weight, extent nor mass, but with all the intellectual
powers and bodily sensations of an ordinary mammal; . . , and
that, for the high crime and misdemeanor of having kissed mv
sister-in-law behind tire door, with evil intent, I shall be boiled
in molten sulphur for one billion calendar years.” Or, “I, Mary
Roe, having the fear of Hell before me, do solemnly affirm and
declare that I believe it was right, just, lawful and decent for
the Lord God Jehovah, seeing certain little children of Beth-el
laugh at Elisha’s bald head, to send a she-bear from the wood,
and to instruct, incite, induce and command it to tear forty-two

IV. Religion 8i

of them to pieces.'’ Or, '1, the Right Rev.

Bishop of , D,D., LL.D., do honestly, faithfully and on

my honor as a man and a priest, declare that I believe that
Jonah swallowed the whale," or vice versa, as the case may be.

No, there is nothing notably dignified about religious ideas.
They run, rather, to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of
nonsense. At their best, they are borrowed from metaphysi-
cians, which is to say, from men who devote their lives to
proving that twice two is not always or necessarily four. At their
worst, they smell of spiritualism and fortune-telling. Nor is there
any visible virtue in the men who merchant them professionally.
Few theologians know anything that is worth knowing, even
about theology, and not many of them are honest. One may
forgive a Communist or a Single Taxer on the ground that there
is something the matter with his duetless glands, and that a
Winter in the south of France would relieve him. But the
average theologian is a hearty, red-faced, well-fed fellow with
no discernible excuse in pathology. He disseminates his blather,
not innocently, like a philosopher, but maliciously, like a poli-
tician. In a well-organized world he would be on the stone-pile.
But in the world as it exists we are asked to listen to him, not
only politely, but even reverently, and with our mouths open.

A New Use for Churches

From Damn! A Book of Calxtmny, 1918, pp. 88-89

Granting the existence of God, a house dedicated to Him natu-
rally follows. He is all-important; it is fit that man should take
some notice of Him. But why praise and flatter Him for
His unspeakable cruelties? Why forget so supinely His failures
to remedy the easily remediable? Why, indeed, devote the
churches exclusively to worship? Why not give them over, now
and then, to justifiable indignation meetings?

If God can hear a petition, there is no ground for holding
that He would not hear a complaint. It might, indeed, please
Him to find His creatures grown so self-reliant and reflective.

82 A Mencken Chrestomathy

More, it might even help Him to get through His infinitely
complex and difficult work. Theology, in fact, has already
moved toward such notions. It has abandoned the primitive
doctrine of God’s arbitrariness and indifference, and substituted
the doctrine that He is willing, and even eager, to hear the
desires of His creatures — i.e., their private notions, born of ex-
perience, as to what would be best for them. Why assume that
those notions would be any the less worth hearing and heeding
if they were cast in the form of criticism, and even of denuncia-
tion? Why hold that the God who can understand and forgive
even treason could not understand and forgive remonstrance?

Free Will

From the same, pp. 91-94

Free will, it appears, is still an essential dogma to most Chris-
tians. Without it the cruelties of God would strain faith to the
breaking-point. But outside the fold it is gradually falling into
decay. Men of science have dealt it staggering blows, and among
laymen of inquiring mind it seems to be giving way to an apolo-
getic sort of determinism — a determinism, one may say, tem-
pered by defective observation. Mark Twain, in his secret heart,
was such a determinist. In his What Is Man? you will find
him at his farewells to libertarianism. The vast majority of our
acts, he argues, are determined, but there remains a residuum
of free choices. Here we stand free of compulsion and face a
pair or more of alternatives, and are free to go this way or that.

A pillow for free will to fall upon — but one loaded with dis-
concerting brickbats. Where the occupants of this last trench
of libertarianism err is in their assumption that the pulls of
their antagonistic impulses are exactly equal — that the indi-
vidual is absolutely free to choose which one he will yield to.
Such freedom, in practise, is never encountered. Wlien an indi-
vidual confronts alternatives, it is not alone his volition that
chooses between them, but also his environment, his inherited
prejudices, his race, his color, his condition of servitude. I may

IV, Religion 83

kiss a girl or I may not kiss her, but surely it would be absurd to
say that I am, in any true sense, a free agent in the matter. The
world has even put my helplessness into a proverb. It says that
my decision and act depend upon the time, the place — and
even to some extent, upon the girl.

Examples might be multiplied ad infinitum. 1 can scarcely
remember performing a wholly voluntary act. My whole life, as
I look back upon it, seems to be a long series of inexplicable
accidents, not only quite unavoidable, but even quite unintelli-
gible. Its history is the history of the reactions of my personality
to my environment, of my behavior before external stimuli. I
have been no more responsible for that personality than I have
been for that environment. To say that I can change the former
by a voluntary effort is as ridiculous as to say that I can modify
the curvature of the lenses of my eyes. I know, because I have
often tried to change it, and always failed. Nevertheless, it has
changed. I am not the same man I was in the last century. But
the gratifying improvements so plainly visible are surely not to
be credited to me. All of them came from without — or from
unplumbable and uncontrollable depths within.

The more the matter is examined the more the residuum of
free will shrinks and shrinks, until in the end it is almost im-
possible to find it. A great many men, of course, looking at
themselves, see it as something very large; they slap their chests
and call themselves free agents, and demand that God reward
them for tlieir virtue. But these fellows are simply egoists devoid
of a critical sense. They mistake the acts of God for their own
acts. They are brothers to the fox who boasted that he had
made the hounds run.

The throwing overboard of free will is commonly denounced
on the ground that it subverts morality, and makes of religion
a mocking. Such pious objections, of course, are foreign to
logic, but nevertheless it may be well to give a glance to this
one. It is based upon the fallacious hypothesis that the deter-
minist escapes, or hopes to escape, the consequences of his
acts. Nothing could be more untrue. Consequences follow acts
just as relentlessly if the latter be involuntary as if they be
voluntary. If I rob a bank of my free choice or in response to
some unfathomable inner necessity, it is all one; I go to the

84 A Mencken Chrestomathy

same jail. Conscripts in war are killed just as often as volun-


Even on the ghostly side, determinism does not do much
damage to theology. It is no harder to believe that a man v^ill
be damned for his involuntary acts than it is to believe that he
will be damned for his voluntary acts, for even the supposition
that he is wholly free does not dispose of the massive fact that
God made him as he is, and that God could have made him a
saint if He had so desired. To deny this is to flout omnipotence
— a crime at which I balk. But here I begin to fear that I wade
too far into the hot waters of the sacred sciences, and that I
had better retire before I lose my hide. This prudent retirement
is purely deterministic. I do not ascribe it to my own sagacity;
I ascribe it wholly to that singular kindness which fate always
shows me. If I were free Fd probably keep on, and then regret
it afterward.

Sabbath Meditation

In part from the American Mercury, May, 1924, pp. 60-61, and in part
from the Smart Set, Oct., 1923, pp. 138-42

My essential trouble, I sometimes suspect, is that I am quite
devoid of what are called spiritual gifts. That is to say, I am
incapable of religious experience, in any true sense. Religious
ceremonials often interest me esthetically, and not infre-
quently they amuse me otherwise, but I get absolutely no stim-
ulation out of them, no sense of exaltation, no mystical kathar-
sis. In that department I am as anesthetic as a church organist,
an archbishop or an altar boy. When I am low in spirits and
full of misery, I never feel any impulse to seek help, or even
mere consolation, from supernatural powers. Thus the general-
ity of religious persons remain mysterious to me, and vaguely
offensive, as I am unquestionably oflFensive to them. I can no
more understand a man praying than I can understand him
carrying a rabbit's foot to bring him luck. This lack of under-
standing is a cause of enmities, and I believe tliat they are

IV. Religion 85

sound ones. I dislike any man who is pious, and all such men
that I know dislike me.

I am anything but a militant atheist and haven't the slightest
objection to church-going, so long as it is honest I have gone
to church myself more than once, honestly seeking to experi-
ence the great inward kick that religious persons speak of. But
not even at St. Peter's in Rome have I sensed the least trace of
it. The most I ever feel at the most solemn moment of the
most pretentious religious ceremonial is a sensuous delight in
the beauty of it — a delight exactly like that which comes over
me when I hear, say, 'Tristan and Isolde" or Brahms' fourth
symphony. The effect of such music, in fact, is much keener
than the effect of the liturgy. Brahms moves me far more
powerfully than the holy saints.

As I say, this deficiency is a handicap in a world peopled, in
the overwhelming main, by men who are inherently religious.
It sets me apart from my fellows and makes it diiEcult for me
to understand many of their ideas and not a few of their acts.
I see them responding constantly and robustly to impulses that
to me are quite inexplicable. Worse, it causes these folks to
misunderstand me, and often to do me serious injustice. They
cannot rid themselves of the notion that, because I am anes-
thetic to the ideas which move them most profoundly, I am,
in some vague but nevertheless certain way, a man of aberrant
morals, and hence one to be kept at a distance. I have never
met a religious man who did not reveal this suspicion. No
matter how earnestly he tried to grasp my point of view, he
always ended by making an alarmed sort of retreat. All religions,
in fact, teach that dissent is a sin; most of them make it the
blackest of all sins, and all of them punish it severely when-
ever they have the power. It is impossible for a religious man to
rid himself of the notion that such punishments are just. He
simply cannot imagine a civilized rule of conduct that is not
based upon the fear of God.

Let me add that my failing is in the fundamental religious
impulse, not in mere theological creduhty. I am not kept out
of the church by an inability to believe the current dogmas. In
point of fact, a good many of them seem to me to be reason-
able enough, and I probably dissent from most of them a good

86 A Mencken Chrestomathy

deal less violently than many men who are assiduous devotees.
Among my curious experiences, years ago, was that of convincing
an ardent Catholic who balked at the dogma of papal infalli-
bility. He was a very faithful son of the church and his in-
ability to accept it greatly distressed him. I proved to him, at
least to his satisfaction, that there was nothing intrinsically
absurd in it — that if the dogmas that he already accepted were
true then this one was probably true also. Some time later,
when this man was on his death-bed, I visited him and he
thanked me simply and with apparent sincerity for resolving his
old doubt. But even he was unable to comprehend my own
lack of religion. His last words to me were a pious hope that I
would give over my lamentable contumacy to God and lead a
better life. He died firmly convinced that I was headed for
Hell, and, what is more, that I deserved it.

The Immortality of the Soul

From the American Mercury ^ Sept, 1932, pp. 125-26

When it comes to the immortality of the soul, whatever that
may be precisely, I can only say that it seems to me to be wholly
incredible and preposterous. There is not only no plausible evi-
dence for it: there is a huge mass of irrefutable evidence against
it, and that evidence increases in weight and cogency every
time a theologian opens his mouth. All the common arguments
for it may be reduced to four. The first is logical and is to the
effect that it would be impossible to imagine God creating so
noble a beast as man, and then letting him die after a few
unpleasant years on earth. The answer is simple: I can imagine
it, and so can many other men. Moreover, there is no reason to
believe that God regards man as noble: on the contrary, all the
available theological testimony runs the other way. The second
argument is that a belief in immortality is universal in man-
kind, and that its very universality is ample proof of its truth.
The answer is {a) that many men actually dissent, some of
them in a very violent and ribald manner, and (b) that even if

IV. Religion 87

all men said aye it would prove nothing, for all men once said
aye to the existence of witches. The third argument is that the
dead, speaking through the mouths of gifted mediums, fre-
quently communicate with the living, and must thus be alive
themselves. Unfortunately, the evidence for this is so dubious
that it takes a special kind of mind to credit it, and that kind
of mind is far from persuasive. The fourth and final argument
is based frankly on revelation: the soul is immortal because
God hath said it is.

I confess that this last argument seems to me to be rather
more respectable than any of the others: it at least makes no silly
attempt to lug in the methods of science to prove a proposition
in theology. But all the same there are plenty of obvious holes in
it. Its proponents get into serious difficulties when they under-
take to say when and how the soul gets into the body, and
where it comes from. Must it be specially created in each in-
stance, or is it the offspring of the two parent souls? In either
case, when does it appear, at the moment of conception or
somewhat later? If the former, then what happens to the soul
of a z3^gote cast out, say, an hour after fertilization? If the
death of that soul ensues, then the soul is not immortal in all
cases, which means that its immortality can be certain in none:
and if, on the contrary, it goes to Heaven or Hell or some vague
realm between, then we are asked to believe that the bishops
and archbishops who swarm beyond the grave are forced to
associate, and on terms of equality, with shapes that can neither
think nor speak, and resemble tadpoles far more than they re-
semble Christians. And if it be answered that all souls, after
death, develop to the same point and shed all the characters
of the flesh, then every imaginable scheme of post-mortem
jurisprudence becomes ridiculous.

The assumption that the soul enters the body at some time
after conception opens difficulties quite as serious, but I shall
not annoy you with them in this hot weather. Suffice it to say
that it forces one to believe either that there is a time when a
human embryo, though it is alive, is not really a human being,
or that a human being can exist without a soul. Both notions
revolt me — the first as a student of biology, and the second as
a dutiful subject of a great Christian state. The answers of the

88 A Mencken Chrestomathy

professional theologians are all inadequate. The Catholics try
to get rid of the problem by consigning the souls of the un-
baptized to a Limbus Infantum which is neither Heaven nor
Hell, but that is only a begging of the question. As for the
Protestants, they commonly refuse to discuss it at all. Their
position seems to be tliat everyone ought to believe in the im-
mortality of the soul as a matter of common decency, and that,
when one has got that far, the details are irrelevant. But my
appetite for details continues to plague me. I am naturally full
of curiosity about a doctrine which, if it can be shown to be
true, is of the utmost personal importance to me. Failing light,
I go on believing dismally tliat when the bells ring and the
cannon are fired, and people go rushing about frantic with
grief, and my mortal clay is stuffed for the National Museum at
Washington, it will be the veritable end of the noble and lovely
creature once answering to the name of Henry.


From the American Mercury, May, 1924, p. 61

Has it ever occurred to anyone that miracles may be explained,
not on the ground that the gods have transiently changed their
rules, but on the ground that they have gone dozing and for-
gotten to enforce them? If they slept for two days running the
moon might shock and singe us all by taking a header into the
sun. For all we know, the moon may be quite as conscious as a
poet or a realtor, and extremely weary of its monotonous round.
It may long, above all things, for a chance to plunge into the
sun and end the farce. What keeps it on its track is simply
some external will maybe not will embodied in any imagin-
able being, but nevertheless will. Law without will is quite as
unthinkable as steam without heat

IV. Religion
Quod est Veritas?

From Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918, p. 95


All great religions, in order to escape absurdity, have to admit
a dilution of agnosticism. It is only the savage, whether of the
African bush or the American gospel tent, who pretends to
know the will and intent of God exactly and completely. ^Tor
who hath known the mind of the Lord? asked Paul of the Ro-
mans. How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past
finding out!" "It is the glory of God," said Solomon, "to conceal
a thing." "Clouds and darkness," said David, "are around Him."
"No man," said the Preacher, "can find out the work of God."
. . . The difference between religions is a difference in their
relative content of agnosticism. The most satisfying and ecstatic
faith is almost purely agnostic. It trusts absolutely without pro-
fessing to know at all.

The Doubter's Reward

From Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918, p. 96

Despite the common delusion to the contrary the philosophy
of doubt is far more comforting than that of hope. The doubter
escapes the worst penalty of the man of faith and hope; he is
never disappointed, and hence never indignant. The inexplicable
and irremediable may interest him, but they do not enrage him,
or, I may add, fool him. This immunity is worth all the dubious
assurances ever foisted upon man. It is pragmatically impreg-
nable. Moreover, it makes for tolerance and sympathy. The
doubter does not hate his opponents; he sympathizes with
them. In the end he may even come to sympathize with God.
The old idea of fatherhood here submerges in a new idea
of brotherhood. God, too, is beset by limitations, difficulties,
broken hopes. Is it disconcerting to think of Him thus? Well,
is it any the less disconcerting to think of Him as able to ease
and answer, and yet failing?


A Mencken Chrestomathy

Holy Writ

From the Smart Set, Oct., 1923, pp. 141-42

Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French
prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in
France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic,
sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a
new lease of life wherever English is spoken. They did their
work at a time of great theological blather and turmoil, when
men of all sorts, even the least intelligent, were beginning to
take a vast and unhealthy interest in exegetics and apologetics.
They were far too shrewd to feed this disconcerting thirst for
ideas with a Bible in plain English; the language they used was
deliberately artificial even when it was new. They thus dis-
persed the mob by appealing to its emotions, as a mother quiets
a baby by crooning to it. The Bible that they produced was so
beautiful that the great majority of men, in the face of it, could
not fix their minds upon the ideas in it. To this day it has en-
chanted the English-speaking peoples so effectively that, in the
main, they remain Christians, at least sentimentally. Paine has
assaulted them, Darwin and Huxley have assaulted them and a
multitude of other merchants of facts have assaulted them, but
they still remember the twenty-third Psalm when the doctor be-
gins to shake his head, they are still moved beyond compare
(though not, alas, to acts!) by the Sermon on the Mount, and
they still turn once a year from their sordid and degrading labors
to immerse themselves unashamed in the story of the manger.
It is not much, but it is something. I do not admire the general
ran of American Bible-searchers — Methodists, United Breth-
ren, Baptists, and such vermin. But try to imagine what the
average low-browed Methodist would be if he were not a Metho-
dist but an atheist!

The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring,
despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept
clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a
poem. It is accused by Protestant dervishes of withholding the
Bible from the people. To some extent this is true; to tlie same

IV. Religion 91

extent the church is wise; again to the same extent it is pros-
perous. Its toying with ideas, in the main, have been confined
to its clergy, and they have commonly reduced the business
to a harmless play of technicalities the awful concepts of
Heaven and Hell brought down to the level of a dispute of
doctors in long gowns, eager only to dazzle other doctors. Its
greatest theologians remain unknown to 99% of its adherents.
Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry in
Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry
— for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, and of the
liturgy itself. A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as
impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him,
as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top by
a Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelm-
ing beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic;
they are better convinced by letting them alone.

Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. It
was very little employed in the early church, and I am convinced
that good effects would flow from abandoning it today, or, at
all events, reducing it to a few sentences, more or less formal.
In the United States the Latin brethren have been seduced by
the example of the Protestants, who commonly transform an act
of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise; instead of ap-
proaching God in fear and wonder these Protestants settle back
in their pews, cross their legs, and listen to an ignoramus try
to prove that he is a better theologian than the Pope. This folly
the Romans now slide into. Their clergy begin to grow argu-
mentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. A bishop in his
robes, playing his part in the solemn ceremonial of the mass, is
a dignified spectacle, even though he may sweat freely; the same
bishop, bawling against Darwin half an hour later, is seen to be
simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a re-
spectable saloon-keeper in South Bend, Ind. Let the reverend
fathers go back to Bach. If they keep on spoiling poetry and
spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic
deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to
translate the liturgy into American, that all the faidiful may be
convinced by it.


A Mencken Chrestomathy

The Powers of the Air

From Souvenirs of a Book Reviewer, Prejudices: Sixth Series,
1927, pp. 125-31.

First printed in tbe American Mercury, May, 1927, pp. 123-25. A review
of The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, by Montague Summers;
New York, 1927. Summers died in 1948

The author of this tome, an English clergyman — his full name
is the Rev. Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Sum-
mers, M.A. — wastes no time trying to reconcile Christianity
and science, a folly that has brought so many American scien-
tists, including the eminent but mushy Dr. Robert Andrews
Millikan, to grief. He is in favor of Christianity, not of science,
and with it, in the manner of a true believer, he goes the whole
hog. Does Exodus xxn, 18, say flatly that witches exist, and that
it is the duty of every righteous man to butcher them when
found? Then Summers accepts the fact and the duty without
evasion, and proceeds to elaborate on both. He can't imagine a
Christian who refuses to believe in demoniacal possession, and
no more can 1 . Marshaling an array of proofs that must shake
even an atheistic archbishop, he demonstrates with fine elo-
quence and impeccable logic that the air is full of sinister spirits,
and that it is their constant effort to enter into the bodies of
men and women, and so convert good Christians, made in God's
image, into witches, sorcerers, spiritualists, biologists, and other
such revolting shapes. The Bible is the rock of his argument,
but he also makes frequent and very effective use of the revela-
tions vouchsafed to Holy Church,

There has never been a time in Christian history, he shows,
when its chief experts and wiseacres did not believe in demons.
The Roman rite, accepting their existence as indubitable, pro-
vides elaborate machinery for their scotching to this day. That
machinery, to be sure, is not put into effect lightly. So long as
the medical faculty is convinced that the patient is suffering
from nothing worse than a leaping tapeworm or delirium tre-
mens, and hope of his cure by chemical and mechanical means
is thus held out, he is resigned to the secular arm. But once it
becomes manifest that a fiend or goblin has got into him, the

IV. Religion 93

business becomes a matter for supernatural intervention, and
the subsequent proceedings must be carried on by an ordained
pastor, and according to a formula set forth in the Rituaie
Romanum, and in use since the pontificate of Peter I.

This formula is extremely complicated, and I suspect that
using it must be somewhat fatiguing to the officiating clergy-
man. He must be himself a man of mature years, guiltless of
anything even approaching loose living, and, according to Sum-
mers, a systematic student, and well versed in the latest trends
and development of psychological science/' He is required to
make himself quite sure, before he begins his exorcism, that the
patient before him is actually possessed by a demon — that he is
not confronting a mere case of insanity, or, worse still, impos-
ture. Once convinced, he proceeds with the utmost heat and
diligence, never relenting until the unclean spirit takes wing,
and so returns to Hell. Summers gives the words of the exor-
cism, translated into English; they are so terrifying that I hesi-
tate to reprint them in a volume designed for reading aloud at
the domestic hearth. The demon is denounced in words that
sting like scorpions: no Baptist pastor, damning Darwin, ever
scorched the air with worse. And if, at tlie first attack, they fail
to dislodge him, they are to be used again, and then again, and
so on until the exorcism is completed. The patient, it appears,
is apt to fall asleep while they are being intoned: making him
to do so is one of the Devil's favorite tricks. If it happens, then
the exorcist must awaken him, and by any device that seems
workable, including smart blows a posteriori. Ordinarily, all tliis
must be done in a church, but if the patient is too ill to leave
his bed the exorcist may visit him in his boarding-house. Idle
spectators are forbidden, but the canon requires that, as at a
baptism or electrocution, a number of official witnesses, of
known piety and sober mien, shall be present. No unnecessary
conversation with the demon is permitted. If he speaks through
the mouth of the patient, he is to be heard politely, but when
he has had a sufficient say he is to be shut off. In particular, he
is not to be permitted to indulge in ribaldries.

It is commonly believed that Protestantism questions the
actuality of demoniacal possession, but this is not so. True
enough, the Unitarians and Universalists have doubts about it.

94 A Mencken Chrestomathy

but so far as I am aware no other Protestant sect has ever for-
mally repudiated it. There is a canon of the Church of England
which forbids a priest to exorcise demons without the 'license
or direction (mandatum) of his bishop, but there is nothing
to prevent a bishop issuing such a mandatum. Tire Lutherans,
who are very orthodox, all believe in demons, and hence, by a
necessary inference, in witches; if they did not they would have
to put Martin Luther down as a liar. As for the Methodists, the
Baptists and other such mudsills of the Lord, it must be obvious
that doubts among them are confined to a few advanced intel-
lectuals, debauched by reading the epicurean poetry of Edgar A.
Guest. The Baptists, at least in the South, even believe in ghosts,
especially the colored brethren. The colored pastors have an
elaborate ceremonial for exorcising all varieties of spirits, good
or evil; an important part of it is the free-will offering just be-
fore the curative anathema is launched. In my own native re-
public, the Saorstat Maryland, I once made an attempt to ascer-
tain the number of people, regardless of creed, who believed in
ghosts and witches. After elaborate inquiries through prudent
agents, I came to the conclusion that 92% of the population
believed in ghosts, and that 74% also believed in witches. In the
latter group was the then Governor of the State. He believed
that rheumatism was caused by witchcraft, and wore a string
around his middle to ward it off. The Mar}landers are a gay and
liberty-loving people, and drink and drab, perhaps, somewhat
more than is good for them, but atheism has never made much
progress among them. At least one of the eminent professors
in the Johns Hopkins Medical School, at Baltimore, was once
publicly accused of believing in witches, and never, so far as I
know, denied it.

Summers is equally honest, and I think he deserves all praise
for being so. Most ecclesiastics, when they write upon such sub-
jects, try to evade the clear issue. They seem to be convinced •—
on what ground I don't know — that the old belief in demons
is now dying out in the world, and to be afraid tliat they will
be laughed at if they confess to it. All I can say is that that is a
poor way to get into Heaven post mortem. Such duckers and
skulkers, you may be sure, will have extremely unpleasant ses-

IV. Religion 95

sions with St. Peter when they reach the Gates, and Peter will
be well justified in razzing them. Either the Christian religion
involves a belief in disembodied powers, good and evil, or it
doesn't. If it doesn't, then its Sacred Scriptures are a mass of
nonsense, and even its Founder was grossly misinformed. If it
does, then everyone adhering to it ought to confess the fact
frankly, and without ignominious equivocation. This is what
Summers does. In detail, his colleagues in theology may some-
times reasonably challenge him, as when, for example, he lays
down the doctrine that the heaving of tables at spiritualist
seances is performed by demons from Hell. But his fundamen-
tal postulates stand beyond refutation. If he is wrong, then the
whole science of Christian theology is a degraded imposture —
something which no right-thinking, law-abiding, home-loving
American, I am sure, will want to allege. I rejoice to find a
holy man so forthright and courageous, and so irresistibly con-
vincing. He has rescued demonology from its long neglect, and
restored it to its old high place among the sacred sciences.

Memorial Service

From Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp. 232-37.
First printed in tlie Smart Set, March, 1922, pp. 41-42

Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner
waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the
king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was
ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the
world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And what of
Huitzilopochtli? In one year — and it is no more than five hun-
dred years ago — 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacri-
fice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some
vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilo-
pochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother
was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent
flirtation that she carried on with the sun. Wien he frowned,

96 A Mencken Chrestomathy

his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage,
earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was
watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today Huitzi-
lopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman.
Once the peer of Allah, Buddha and Wotan, he is now the peer
of Richmond P. Hobson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, Gen-
eral Weyler and Tom Sharkey.

Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother Tezcatilpoca.
Tezcatilpoca was almost as powerful: he consumed 25,000 vir-
gins a year. Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a
eouronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the
grave of Quitzalcoatl is? Or Xiehtecutli? Or Centeotl, that
sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Or Mictlan? Or
Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Wliere are their bones?
Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what
forlorn and unheard-of Hell do they await the resurrection
morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom
Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Or that of Tarves,
the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the
mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jackass? There was a time
when the Irish revered all these gods, but today even the drunk-
est Irishman laughs at them.

But they have company in oblivion: the Hell of dead gods is
as crowded as the Presbyterian Hell for babies. Damona is
there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones,
and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisama, and Uxellimus, and
Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day,
worshipped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able
to bind and loose — all gods of the first class. Men labored for
generations to build vast temples to them — temples with stones
as large as hay-wagons. The business of interpreting their whims
occupied thousands of priests, bishops, archbishops. To doubt
them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to
defend them against infidels: villages were burned, women and
children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end
they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to
do them reverence.

What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole
Nile Valley? What has become of:


IV. Religion cfj

















All these were once gods of the highest eminence. Many of
them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testa-

ment. They ranked, five or six

thousand years ago, with Yahweh

Himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they
have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:


Nuada Argetlam











Dea Dia


luno Lucina

Diana of Ephesus




































A Mencken Chrestomathy

Mami Nin-azu

Zaraqu Qarradu

Zagaga Ueras

Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative re-
ligion: you will find them all listed. They were gods of the
highest dignity — gods of civilized peoples — worshipped and
believed in by millions. All were omnipotent^ omniscient and
immortal. And all are dead.


The Origin of Morality

From Treatise on Right and Wrong, New York, 1934, pp. i“8

Children come into the world without any visible understand-
ing of the difference between good and bad, right and wrong,
but some sense of it is forced upon them almost as soon as they
learn the difference between light and dark, hot and cold, sweet
and sour. It is a kind of knowledge that seems to be natural and
essential to all creatures living in societies, and it shows itself in
many of the lower animals quite as well as in human beings.
To be sure, they do not appear to formulate a concept of evil
per se, and certainly they know nothing about the highly meta-
physical abstraction that mankind calls sin, but many species
are well acquainted with concrete acts of wickedness, and pun-
ish them severely. Theft and adultery are familiar examples. A
dog will pursue and, if it can, castigate another dog which steals
its bone, and an ape will try to kill any bachelor intruder which
makes too free with its wives. This sharp and often bloody dis-
crimination between meum and tuum is to be observed not only
in mammals, but also in animals of lower orders, including
birds, insects and even fishes. Much of the uproar that goes on
among sparrows and starlings is caused by conflicts over prop-
erty rights, and everyone has seen two goldfishes in a globe fight-
ing over a speck of food, with one claiming it and trying to
gobble it and the other seeking to make off with it.

A German popular naturalist, Dr. Theodor Zell, has gone to
the length of writing a treatise called Moral in der Tierwelf'
(Morality in the Animal World), in which he argues that many
species, especially among the social insects, entertain not only
the somewhat negative idea of vice but also the positive idea
of virtue. The ants, he says, are better citizens than die mem-
bers of any known human society, for they never go on strike.


100 A Mencken Chrestomathy

If the workers of a given colony should quit work their queen
would starve, and each of them would enjoy thereby the demo-
cratic privilege of aspiring to her power and circumstance, but
they never cease to feed her so long as any food is obtainable.
Thus they are true patriots, and show a luxuriant development
of that loyalty to the established order which is put so high
among the virtues of human beings.

Here it may be argued that such acts and attitudes in the
lower animals are purely instinctive, and that it would be irra-
tional to dignify them by calling them moral. But to that it may
be answered that the motives and impulses lying behind many
of the moral concepts of human beings seem to be instinctive
in exactly the same sense, and almost to the same extent. No
teaching is required to induce a baby to recognize a given rattle
as its own; all the power of pedagogy must be devoted to in-
ducing it to surrender its property on demand. Nor is there any
reason to believe that the various manifestations of sexual ri-
valry among men are any nobler in origin than those observed
among apes or dogs; the whole tendency of an advancing cul-
ture is to obliterate them, not to nourish them. In the days
when anthropology was a pseudo-science chiefly cultivated by
missionaries there was a belief that the lower races of men had
no morals at all — that they yielded to their impulses in a naive
and irrational manner, and had no conception whatever of
property rights, whether in goods or in women, or of duties,
whether to their gods or to their fellow men. But it is now
known that savages are really rather more moral, if anything,
than civilized men. Their ethical systems, in some ways, differ
from ours, just as their grammatical systems differ, and their
theological and governmental systems, but even the most primi-
tive of them submit unquestioningly to complicated and oner-
ous duties and taboos, and not only suffer punishment will-
ingly when the Old Adam lures them into false steps, but also
appear to be tortured by what, on higher levels, is called con-
science — to the extent, at times, of falling into such vapors of
remorse that they languish and die.

Primitive man, in this respect as in others, seems to have been
much like the savages of today. At the time when we get our
first vague glimpse of him, lurking in the dark of his spooky

V. Morals 101

caves, he was already a family man, and hence had certain duties,
rights and responsibilities. We know, of course, very little about
him, but we are at least reasonably sure that he did not habit-
ually share his wife with all comers, or kill and eat his children,
or fail in what he conceived to be his duty to the gods. To that
extent, at least, he was a moral agent, and as completely so as
any Christian. Later on in human history, when men discovered
the art of writing and began to record their thoughts and doings
for posterity, they devoted almost as much time and energy to
setting down their notions of right and wrong as they gave to
recording their prodigies and glories. In the very first chapter of
the collection of hoary documents which we call the Bible there
are confident moral mandates, and similar ones are to be found
in the ancient books of every other people. The earliest con-
querors and despots of whom we have any news seem to have
regarded themselves, precisely like tlieir colleagues of today, as
the heralds of an ethical enlightenment, and every one of them
was apparently just as eager as the celebrated Hammurabi to
be known as “tire king of righteousness.”

In the world that we now live in the moral sense seems to be
universally dispersed, at all events among normal persons be-
yond infancy. No traveler has ever discovered a tribe which
failed to show it. There are peoples so primitive that their re-
ligion is hard to distinguish from a mere fear of the dark, but
there is none so low that it lacks a moral system, elaborate and
unyielding. Nor is tliat system often challenged, at least on the
lower cultural levels, by those who lie under it. The rebellious
individual may evade it on occasion, but he seldom denies its
general validity. To find any such denial on a serious scale one
must return to Christendom, where a bold and impatient re-
examination of the traditional ethical dogma has followed the
collapse of the old belief in revelation. But even in Christen-
dom the most formidable critics of the orthodox system are
still, as a rule, profoundly moral men, and the reform they pro-
pose is not at all an abandonment of moral imperatives, but
simply a substitution of what they believe to be good ones for
what they believe to be bad ones. This has been true of every
important iconoclast from Hobbes to Lenin, and it was pre-
eminently true of tiiie arch-iconoclast Nietzsche. His furious

102 A Mencken Chrestomathy

attack upon the Christian ideal of humility and abnegation has
caused Christian critics to denounce him as an advocate of the
most brutal egoism, but in point of fact he proposed only the
introduction of a new and more heroic form of renunciation,
based upon abounding strength rather than upon hopeless weak-
ness; and in his maxim Be hard! there was just as much sacri-
fice of immediate gratification to ultimate good as you will find
in any of the principia of Jesus.

The difference between moral systems is thus very slight, and
if it were not for the constant pressure from proponents of
virtues that have no roots in ordinary human needs, and hence
appeal only to narrow and abnormal classes of men, it would be
slighter still. All of the really basic varieties of moral good have
been esteemed as such since the memory of mankind runneth
not to the contrary, and all of the basic wickednesses have been
reprehended. The Second Commandment preached by Jesus
(Mark xii, 31) was preached by the Gautama Buddha six cen-
turies before Him, and it must have been hoary with age when
the Gautama Buddha made it the center of his system. Simi-
larly, the Ten Commandments of Exodus and Deuteronomy
were probably thousands of years old when the Jewish scribes
first reduced them to writing. Finally, and in the same way, the
Greeks lifted their concept of wisdom as the supreme good out
of the stream of time, and if we think of them today as its in-
ventors, it is only because we are more familiar with their ethi-
cal speculations than we are with those of more ancient peoples.

The five fundamental prohibitions of the Decalogue — those
leveled at murder, theft, trespass, adultery and false witness ■—
are to be found in every moral system ever heard of, and seem
to be almost universally supported by human opinion. This sup-
port, of course, does not mean that they are observed with any-
thing properly describable as pedantic strictness; on the contrary,
they are evaded on occasion, both by savages and by civilized
men, and some of them are evaded very often. In the United
States, for example, the situations in which killing a fellow hu-
man being is held to be innocent are considerably more numer-
ous than those in which it is held to be criminal, and even in
England, the most moral of great nations, there are probably
almost as many. So with adultery. So, again, with theft, trespass

V. Morals 103

and false witness. Theft and trespass shade by imperceptible
gradations into transactions that could not be incommoded
without imperiling the whole fabric of society, and bearing false
witness is so easy to condone that bishops are sometimes among
its most zealous practitioners. But despite this vagueness of
moral outline and this tolerance of the erring the fact remains
that all normal and well-disposed men, whether civilized or un-
civilized, hold it to be axiomatic that murder, theft, trespass,
adultery and false witness, in their cruder and plainer forms, are
anti-social and immoral enterprises, and no one argues seriously,
save maybe in time of war, when all the customary moral sanc-
tions are abandoned, that they should be countenanced. When
they are perpetrated in a naked manner, without any concession
of the ancient and ineradicable feeling against them, they are
viewed with abhorrence, and the guilty are severely punished.

The Good Citizen

From the same, pp. 19-27, with additions

So far, the fundamentals: they are the same everywhere. But
morality, like theology, is capable of accretion and growth, and
new moral ideas are coming in all the time. In our time we have
seen desperate efforts to give moral sanction to notions that
were unheard of even a few hundred years ago ~ for example,
the notion that it is sinful to use alcohol. And simultane-
ously, we have seen the rise of virtues that were rejected by the
founders of the current Christian morality — for example, those
which enter principally into the character of what we now call
a good citizen. These virtues certainly do not come out of the
Bible, for the Jews of the great days, despite what is observed in
their descendants today, had a low view of industry and an even
lower view of thrift, and were almost devoid of the banal senti-
mentalities which now pass under the name of patriotism. Their
loyalty was to Yahweh rather than to the state or the commu-
nity, and they were ever ready to defy and overthrow their
rulers, and to make war upon their brethren. In brief, their

104 ^ Mencken Chrestomathy

moral system was that of separatists and individualists, impa-
tient of every secular restraint and disdainful of all hard and
continued social effort. They originated as a tribe of desert
nomads, and their point of view remained that of nomads to
the end of their bloody chapter.

Work, in their eyes, was not the glorious privilege it has
come to be in our highly socialized society, but an unmitigated
curse, laid upon Adam for his sins, as the pains of parturition
were laid upon Eve for hers. “'Because thou hast . . . eaten of
the tree, ... in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread."'
This concept of work as expiation eventually made it more or
less tolerable, but it never became anything properly describa-
ble as pleasant. The Jews always laid great stress ~ rare in their
time and place — upon the Sabbath's function as a day of rest:
““in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy
daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle,
nor thy stranger that is within thy gates." This rest was the
righteous and highly appreciated reward of piety: by serving
God assiduously they escaped at least a seventh part of the
burden of work. Almost always, in the Old Testament, that bur-
den is bracketed with sorrow, as in Psalms xc, lo. If ““the sleep
of a laboring man is sweet," then it is only because his work is
done. There is no subjeetive stimulation in it, and no durable
good. ““As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he
return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labor."

The idea that wealth can be a good in itself, that there is a
mystic virtue in accumulating it by hard work and self-denial —
this was as foreign to the thinking of the Jews as it was to that
of the Greeks. A rich man, to them, was almost always a villain;
in fact, he was the favorite villain, next to the idolater, of their
moral homilies. Are there occasional friendly words, in Proverbs,
for the ““man diligent in his business"? Then Dr. James Henry
Breasted tells us that they are only borrowings from an ancient
Egyptian book, the Wisdom of Amenemope (c, loo b.c.) —
and that with them, and from the same source, came dire warn-
ings that diligence might be easily carried too far. Did Solomon,
to whom Proverbs is traditionally (but falsely) ascribed, counsel
his son to emulate the laborious ant? Then Solomon himself
was a money-grubber, and hence, by Jewish theory, a suspicious

V. Morals 105

character. When we get into the New Testament we find him
held up in contemptuous contrast to the lilies of the field, which
toil not, neither do they spin. Jesus had two rich followers,
Zaccheus of Jericho and Joseph of Arimathea, but the former
was induced to give half of his goods to the poor and the latter
did not appear until after the Crucifixion.

The general view of wealth that He entertained is too well
known to need recalling. Preaching, as He did, the imminent
end of the world. He could imagine no valid reason for piling
up property, and in His system of ethics there was thus no room
for the virtues of Babbitt. "Verily, I say unto you that a rich
man shall hardly enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. And again
I say unto you. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of
a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."
Many other familiar echoes of the Tenth Commandment will
come to mind: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.
. . . The deceitfulness of riches . . . choke[s] the Word, and
it becometh unfruitful. ... Ye cannot serve God and Mam-
mon." And even more plainly and uncompromisingly there is

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what
ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.

. . . Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither
do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Fa-
ther feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

As for Paul, he saw in opulence only a ticket to Hell. "They
that will be rich," he wrote to Timothy, "fall into temptation
and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which
drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money
is the root of all evil." Here the counsel of Jesus is supported,
as is so often the case with Paul, by the dicta of the Greek phi-
losophers and their Roman followers. Both Greeks and Romans
— with the exception, perhaps, of a few Stoics — viewed work
much as the Jews did: as no more, at its best, than an unpleasant
sacrifice to the gods for their somewhat grudging mercies. In
the Golden Age men knew nothing of it, as Hesiod tells us. The
Italian Kulturkritiker^ Adriano Tilgher, in his "Homo Faber,"
recalls the fact that the Greek word for work, ponos, came from

io6 A Mencken Chrestomathy

the same root as the Latin word for sorrow, poena. He says that
the failure of the Greeks to apply some of their scientific dis-
coveries was largely due to their disdain of labor, worldly enter-
prise, and the accumulation of property. They even had a cer-
tain contempt for artists; cutting statues and raising buildings,
they thought, were not vocations for free men, but for slaves.
Aristotle, always seeking a golden mean, allowed that riches
might be useful on occasion, if only as a stimulus to liberality
and justice, but he saw no virtue in the bare act of accumulating
them, and he thought that they were unnecessary to most of
the higher enterprises of man. The seeker after wisdom (which
to him, as to Confucius, was the highest good that could
be imagined) needs no external apparatus; on the contrary,
worldly goods may almost be said to be a hindrance to contem-

The Romans, being a far less idealistic people than the
Greeks, with no great love of wisdom, took a rather more
friendly view of wealth, but they had rigid views about the
means of getting it. Work, in itself, was disgusting to them, and
they resigned it to slaves whenever possible. The two really re-
spectable ways of accumulating money among them were by
cultivating the land and by engaging in what we now call Big
Business, but the latter was esteemed only because, in Tilgher's
phrase, it led to "honorable retirement into rural peace as a
country gentleman." For ordinary thrift and diligence the Ro-
mans had only contempt. Shopkeepers and common traders
were clowns to them, and workingmen were scarcely human.

The early Christian Fathers, when the hope of the Second
Coming faded at last, had to fit their moral system to the reali-
ties of a disturbed and exigent world, and so the counsels of
Jesus were delicately revised. In particular, some thought had
to be given to the ever-approaching and always menacing mor-
row, and in consequence the accumulation of goods began to
take on a certain respectability. But the notion that work could
be a good in itself was still far off. To Augustine (354-430), as
to the Jews, it remained a kind of sacrifice — if not an actual
expiation for sin, then at least a device for reducing temptation.
He believed that all monks should be compelled to work, for it
wore them out and took their minds off lubricity and other

V. Morals 107

evil concerns. But when it came to laymen he was somewhat
vague: they were in duty bound to share their gains with the
poor, but they were apparently not in duty bound to labor and

It was not until the Middle Ages, when society in Europe be-
gan to reorganize itself very painfully on a commercial basis,
that a general obligation to work began to be heard of. St.
Thomas Aquinas (c. 1226-74) preached it as a corollary to his
doctrine of fixed and immovable social classes. It was the duty
of certain lowly orders of men to labor diligently, as it was the
duty of the noble and learned to cultivate the humanities, spread
the True Faith, and smite the infidel. But there was no revela-
tion in this, and not much theology. Thomas, as always, spoke
thunderously ex cathedra, but he spoke as a sociologist rather
than a theologian. In other words, his theory was simply a logi-
cal deduction from the social necessities of his time. Work was
inescapably needful in a world in which money was becoming
more and more important, and it thus had to be endured. But
thrift was yet somewhat dubious. The first duty of a man who
happened to accumulate a great deal of wealth was to spend it
— a large part of it on the poor, but a part of it also on that con-
spicuous waste which was one of the major social phenomena
of the age. A prince who showed caution in this department was
held in low esteem, and likewise a prelate. Most of the great
cathedrals were built, not primarily to the glory of God, but in
gorgeous proof of the liberality of archbishops.

As the Middle Ages flowed into the Renaissance and sus-
tained work became ever more necessary to the well-being of a
rapidly changing society, it naturally became more and more
virtuous. But the Catholic theologians granted it their approval,
one suspects, only under harsh economic compulsion: in their
hearts they apparently still cherished the old Christian view of
it as burdensome and painful, and when they praised it roundly
it was chiefly as penance. It remained for the heretic, Martin
Luther, to discover that the thing was laudable in itself. He was
the true inventor of the modern doctrine that there is something
inherently dignified and praiseworthy about labor — that the
man who bears a burden in the heat of the day is somehow
more pleasing to God than the man who takes his ease in the

io8 A Mencken Chrestomathy

shade. Here^ as in other directions, he gave an eager theological
ratification to the economic revolution that was going on around
him, and could not be stayed. He was the champion of the new
masters of Europe, the bourgeois men of business, against its old
masters, the soldiers and priests. These men of business needed
willing laborers, and the easiest way to make them willing was
to convince them that by working hard they were serving and
gratifying God.

But even Luther was suspicious of the mere capitalist, as op-
posed to the entrepreneur, and in his early sermons he de-
nounced the taking of interest in terms recalling the philippics
of the early Christian Fathers. Later on, facing an ever-mounting
tide that he could not stem, he prudently modified his position,
and his final doctrine granted that taking rent for the use of land
was pleasing to God, provided the charge did not run beyond 5%
of the value. He held also that it was moral to recover from a bor-
rower if the lender lost a chance of profit by making the loan, or
if he had to borrow himself to replace what he had lent. But he
never went the whole way: to the end he had grave doubts about
certain kinds of investments. His great contribution to latter-day
Christian ethics did not lie in this hazardous and dubious direc-
tion: it was his invention of the dignity of work. With him,’'
says Tilgher, "the German word Beruf, meaning profession, took
on a religious color which it was never to lose, and which from
German passed into all the analogous words of Protestant coun-
tries. Profession and vocation or calling became synonymous.
Luther placed a crown on the sweaty forehead of labor.

Free Will Again

From the same, pp. 64-66

The study of the massive and instructive phenomenon of sin
always causes moral theologians to harbor larger and larger
doubts of the freedom of the will, and some of the most talented
of them, notably Augustine, Luther and Calvin, have been close
to throwing it overboard altogether. How, indeed, is it to be rcc-

V. Morals log

onciled with the omniscience and omnipotence of God, that
first postulate of all revealed religion? If He knew that I was
going to put in this evening at work upon the present ribald
book, to the scandal of the True Faith and the menace of souls,
then why didn't He divert me to some more seemly labor? It is
impossible to imagine, at least in the light of that True Faith,
that He didn't know what I was up to, and equally impossible
to imagine that He couldn't stop me. Ergo, He must shoulder
at least a part of the blame for my sin, and will cut a sorry figure
if He undertakes to punish me for it in Hell.

But this, of course, is going a great deal further than any really
discreet moral theologian ever lets himself go. Before he comes
to the point of putting the whole blame upon God he always
transforms the divine omniprescience into something consider-
ably less sweeping, usually with a disarming metaphysical name,
and thereby makes room for free will. The Catholic Molinists,
for example, split it neatly into three parts, simplex intelligent
tidy scientid visionis and scientia medidy none of them capable
of precise definition: thus the question is disposed of by making
it unintelligible to the vulgar. And thus, despite His infinite
wisdom and awful powers, God is left free to be surprised, dis-
appointed, grieved or indignant, and man is left free to sin, and
to be roasted for it throughout eternity. This concession, I
fancy, gives some pain to the theologians in their role of logi-
cians, but as practical pastors they make it with good grace, for
making it is absolutely essential to their business. Take away
the idea of free sinning, freely arrived at, and revealed religion
ceases to be a going concern.

The secular philosophers proceed in the other direction, but
they arrive at substantially the same position. Their problem is
not to find a precarious foothold for free will under the universal
shadow of God, but to keep it within plausible evidential
bounds. The ideal savage, immersed as he is in his animistic
naivete, sees will in everything that moves and in many objects
that do not, and can scarcely imagine it curbed and circum-
scribed in man, the lord of creation. If A kills B, even though it
be by plain inadvertence, A must pay the ordained penalty:
either his own hfe or a heavy indemnity. The will, in other
words, is assumed from the act; there is no legal difference be-

110 A Mencken Chrestomathy

tween the most deliberate premeditation and what we would
call mere chance. But this ideal savage and his jurisprudence
exist only as abstractions in the more romantic sort of anthro-
pology books. In the real world even the most primitive tribes
think of free will with certain reasonable reservations. Homicide
under one set of circumstances is felt to differ materially from
homicide under another, and the concepts of the unintentional,
the excusable and the compulsory creep in.

An Ethical Dilemma

From the Smart Set, April, 1920, p. 42

It is still socially dangerous for an American man to have the
reputation of being virtuous. Theoretically, he who preserves
his chemical purity in the face of all temptations is a noble and
upright fellow and the delight of the heavenly hierarchy; actu-
ally he is laughed at by women and viewed with contempt by
men. Such are the disparities that engage and torture the stu-
dent of practical etliics in this great moral republic. It is the
only country in the civilized world, so far as I know, in which
male virtue is inculcated officially. And yet of all countries this
is precisely the one in which private conversation among men
is most largely made up of boudoir braggadocio and eloquent

Most such bragging, I am convinced, is mendacious. The ratio
of conquests hinted at to conquests actually achieved is proba-
bly not far from ten thousand to one. The American man, in
point of fact, is anything but a Don Juan. He is far too senti-
mental for the r61e. Moreover, he lacks the sort of courage that
it demands; he is brave enough in a combat with clubs, injunc-
tions or fists, but he is a very timid performer in a combat of
wits. When there is a conquest in amour, he is not the con-
queror but the victim. But whether conqueror or victim, he goes
on boasting just the same — and his boasts are even gaudier
when there has been no conquest at all. In brief, the vast major-
ity of his deviltries are purely theoretical. He pretends to gal-


V. Morals

lantry in order to hush the sneers of men who pretend to
gallantry in order to hush his sneers. He is ashamed to admit
that, by the moral code of the land, he has no reason to be


Erom the Smart Set, Oct., 1919, p. 84

It is a commonplace of moral science that absolute morality is
impossible — in other words, that all men sin. What is often
overlooked is that the same fallibility shows itself upon the
higher level of what is called honor, which is simply the morality
of superior men. A man who views himself as honorable usually
labors under the delusion that his honor is unsullied, but this is
never literally true. Every man, however honorable, occasionally
sacrifices honor to mere morality behind the door, just as every
man of morals occasionally sacrifices morality to self-interest.


The Criminal Law

From the SmaH Set, May, 1922, pp. 30--34

The science of penology, in these days, is chiefly in the hands
of sentimentalists, and in consequence it shows all the signs of
glycosuria. The idea seems to be to turn the dungeons and bull-
pens of the law into laboratories of the uplift, so that tlie man
who goes in a burglar will come out a Y.M.C.A. secretary. To
this end all harsh handling of the felon is frowned upon, and
on the slightest showing of renascent piety in him he is deliv-
ered from his cage, almost with apologies.

At the bottom of this softness, of course, there is a sound in-
stinct, and that is the instinct of revolt against cruel and exces-
sive punishments. We inherited such a system of punishments
from the English Common Law; in the Bill of Rights there is
the first evidence of a rebellion against them. But our current
error lies in the fact that softness has not stopped with disposing
of the punishments that were barbarous and excessive; it has
also sorely limited and conditioned the punishments that were
reasonable and fitting; and so the problem of dealing effectively
with crime remains a puzzle, and crime itself continues to

When I say crime, of course, I mean the thing in its conven-
tional sense. In the abstract it scarcely has any existence. Practi-
cally all so-called crimes are justifiable on occasion, and nine-
tenths of them, to certain kinds of men, are unavoidable on
occasion. It is a platitude that you will find quite as many intelli-
gent and honest men in the average prison as you will find in
the average club, and when it comes to courage, enterprise and
determination — in brief, to the special virtues which mark the
superior man you will probably find a great many more. But
society, in order to protect the weak and botched against the


VI. Crime and Punishment 113

bold and original, has had to proclaim certain human acts,
under certain circumstances, as too dangerous to be permitted,
and hence as what we call criminal. Most of us aspire to the
majority of those acts in secret, and some of us commit them
surreptitiously, but the man who performs them in such a man-
ner that the fact becomes notorious is a menace to the security
of the rest of us, and we go through the solemn hocus-pocus of
seizing him and trying him, and pump up indignation over his
rascality, and finally visit upon him the thing called punishment.

The trouble with this so-called punishment, in a great many
cases, is that it is hypocritical and dishonest at bottom, and tlius
at constant war with abstract justice and common sense. What
we find practically is a crowd of poltroons in the jury box vent-
ing their envious hatred of enterprise and daring upon a man
who, at worst, is at least as decent as they are; and a scoundrel
on the bench lording it over a scoundrel in the dock because the
latter is less clever than he is. In the old days this ill nature took
the form of floggings, mutilations and damnations. In our own
days, with an evil conscience gnawing the gizzard of the world,
it takes the shape of formalities which tend to grow more and
more ineffective, sentimental and meaningless. In particular, it
takes the shape of a grotesquely circumscribed repertoire of
penalties, so that the business of fitting the punishment to the
crime becomes more and more diflicult, even to the stray judge
with intelligence. In a few rare cases he may condemn a prisoner
to death; in all other cases he has a Hobson's choice between
a mulcting in damages which seldom punishes at all, and a dep-
rivation of liberty which usually punishes inappropriately, and
often too much. The medieval judge had an almost unlimited
series of choices; if no habitual punishment suited his purposes,
he could devise a new one to fit the case. But the modern judge
must forever oscillate absurdly between fine and imprisonment
— in other words, between allowing one prisoner to pay a bribe
for his liberty, and taking away the liberty of another prisoner
because he hasn't got the bribe.

It is a deep consciousness of this absurdity which lies at the
bottom of all the fantastic experiments of modern penology, and
of many of the extravagances which we witness on the bench.
It seemed ridiculous, perhaps, for Judge Kenesaw Mountain

114 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Landis, LL.B., to fine the Standard Oil Company $29,240,000,
but in its essence it was an honest effort to bring an offender to
something approaching scientifically exact justice. It seems (and
may be) sugarishly sentimental for uplifters to transform prisons
into moving-picture parlors, but underneath it there is the sound
doctrine that locking up a man in a cell is, for most crimes, too
harsh, and that its effect on the man is precisely the opposite
of the one intended, for it makes him a more determined an-
tagonist of so stupid and cruel a society than ever he was before.
What we need is a thorough overhauling of our punishments —
an overhauling looking to their rescue from formalism and im-
becility. They must be made more fluent, more intelligible,
more various. We must get rid of the mawkish and false human-
ity which shrinks from simple and forthright penalties, and re-
store the true humanity which makes the criminal stop doing
what he is doing, and yet halts before it has made a hopeless
wreck of him. If revenge is admitted (and I suppose it always
will be), it must be admitted openly and unblushingly, and not
swathed in that dishonest concealment which now seeks to
make it appear as something else.

In medieval law, as I have hinted, there are suggestions that
should engage the penological reformer of tomorrow. The me-
dieval mind was unburdened by transcendental theories as to
the nature and causes of crime. It was realistic in habit, and
disdained to seek behind the palpable fact for hidden portents
and significances. In particular, it disdained to conceal its work-
ings beneath gossamers of fabulous purpose. It thus defined its
crimes simply and clearly, and punished them frankly. For the
runaway cloihopper the obvious punishment was hamstring-
ing, and, being obvious, it was executed without further ado. For
the perjurer, the removal of his offending tongue. For the
scoundrel who bit in clinches, extraction of the incisors. For the
rowdy housewife and husband-baiter, prolonged immersion in
a horse-pond — that is, enforced and painful silence. For the
habitual thief, branding of the forehead with a large and warn-
ing T. For the short-weight grocer, three hours in the pillory,
that his victims might pay him up with his own eggs and mark
him well for future avoidance.

A judge, in those naive and far-off days, had to be a fellow of

VI. Crime and Punishment 115

resource and ingenuity, a man capable of quick and accurate
reasoning. His public expected him, not merely to punish crime,
but to punish it in some germane and felicitous fashion. If he
could get a touch of humor into his sentence, so much the bet-
ter, for the common people, then as now, remembered a jocos-
ity much longer than they remembered a syllogism. In any
event he had to maintain some intelligible connection between
the offense and the penalty, that its lesson might be plain. If,
finding the application of capsicum plasters to the pantaloons
an efficient punishment for napping catchpolls, he next day pre-
scribed it for a pirate, a witch, or a well-poisoner, then he was
himself laughed at as a jackass, and perhaps even cashiered. In
brief, he had to keep his wits about him if he would go on wal-
lowing in the ermine. The law presumed him to be a man of
sagacity, of ingenuity, of resource; and if, by any stupidity, he
showed that he wasn't, its wrath consumed him.

The judge of today needs no such virtues. He is not the agent
and exponent of justice, but its mere lackey. A great body of
intricate law and precedent protects the felon against his effort
to ferret out and determine the crime, and another great body
of law protects the felon against his effort to fit the punishment
to it. Consider, for example, the difficulties confronting him
when he faces a very familiar task: the sentencing of a convicted
pickpocket. Two or three considerations must inevitably flit
through his darkened mind in this situation. One is that pick-
ing pockets requires a very high degree of manual skill — that it
is an avocation as difiicult technically as dentistry or playing the
piano. Another, following upon the first, is that it is almost al-
ways pursued professionally — that, generally speaking, the pick-
pocket always devotes his whole time to it. A third is that, hav-
ing thus entered the profession deliberately, and mastered its
excessive difliculties, and taken over its known risks, he is firmly
set in it, and cannot be shaken out by any process which leaves
his actual expertness undamaged.

In other words, the pickpocket is a deliberate, habitual and
incurable criminal, and neither chaining him by the leg nor
forcing him to view moral moving-picture shows will ever cure
him. To be bagged now and then, to make occasional sojourns
in prison — all that, to him, is mere professional risk. When, by

ii6 A Mencken Chrestomathy

some mischance, he is taken and jailed, he lays the business to
the fortunes of war, as a surgeon does when a patient dies on the
table or a lawyer when a client is caught. As soon as he has paid
his debt to the law he resumes the practise of his profession. If
anything, a term in prison heartens and emboldens him, for he
commonly debits it, not to the acts preceding it, but to the acts
to follow it. In brief, he regards it as a sort of fee or license, paid
to the community for the privilege of extracting wallets. No one
ever heard of a reformed pickpocket; he exists only in the dreams
of sentimental penologists. He may give up the business when
his eyes give out, or his fingers get too stiff, but so long as he
can snatch a pocketbook and get away he will keep on at it.
And yet, so absurd is our law that we try to cure him by making
him stop temporarily — by locking him up for two or three years,
or maybe for only six months. As well try to cure a poet by for-
bidding him, for six months, to get drunk.

But what better offers? Something enormously better. The
simple device, in brief, of condemning the detected pickpocket
to lose the third phalange of the index finger of his right hand —
a quick, safe, wholly painless operation, almost as easy as hav-
ing a boil lanced. And yet quite as certain in its effects as life
imprisonment. The pickpocket is not appreciably mutilated.
The loss of tliat one phalange does not show itself. He is fit for
almost any honest work that can be imagined. But he can no
more pick a pocket, with the chief of his highly trained tools
gone, than a fiddler, in like case, could play a cadenza. All of his
special capacity for crime is gone, and with it his special tempta-
tion is gone, too. At every other variety of felony he is as much
an amateur and blunderer as the judge on the bench.

I present only this one concrete example of what might be
accomplished if we could rid our criminal laws of falsehood and
sentimentality, and restore them to sense. The mind of every
reflective judge must be full of simple, just and effective punish-
ments that he would inflict if he could — punishments enor-
mously more apt and efficient than the fine which penalizes too
little and the imprisonment which penalizes arbitrarily, unin-
telligibly and usually too much. Why jail embezzlers? not
put them to work as slaves of their victims, and make them work
out what they have stolen? Why jail wife-beaters? Why not try

VI. Crime and Punishment 117

to discourage them with a few strokes of the bastinado? Why
jail grafters in office? Why not simply seize their stealings, strip
them bare, and then forbid them the city, state and country?

Many old punishments deserve revival: ducking, whipping,
transportation, branding, forfeiture of goods. They are simpler
and cheaper than those we have; it is obvious that they would
work better. In the South Seas we have scores of almost un-
inhabited islands. Why not ship our felons out there and let
them learn discipline by preying on one another? Or send them
to Arkansas to butcher the politicians and clergy? It is not only
a way to get rid of them, and of the heavy expense of keeping
them; it is a way to civilize Arkansas and the South Seas. Crimi-
nals are like the rest of us. Given the right kind of chance, they
show their sound metal. Australia was settled by them, so were
Maryland, and part of Virginia. Who notices it, or even re-
members it, today?

In the forfeiture of goods there are the same great possibili-
ties. This punishment would be the best of all weapons against
stock-waterers, trade-restrainers, war-profiteers and other such
powerful recalcitrants. Personally, I am in favor of these scoun-
drels, but if they are criminals by law, then let us deal with them
in a way that will dispose of them. The fine of $29,240,000, even
if collected, would not have hurt John D. Rockefeller, But a
decree of forfeiture, taking over all his goods and making in-
valid any contract made with him or any security owned by him,
would have converted him into a penniless Baptist colporteur
overnight, and so brought down the price of gasoline.

Every day, by extra-legal means, our judges try to reach out
for these new and more effective penalties. The punishment pro-
vided by law for one of the commonest of police court offenses
~ the stupid yielding to amorous suggestion called seduction ~
is a complex and unworkable combination of fine by instalments
and threat of imprisonment. No sane judge ever inflicts it.
What he does is to make the victim marry the party of the first
part. Tlie device is just and sensible, and it works. The victim is
appropriately penalized for his numskullery, and the damage
that society nKight have suffered from it is obliterated.

This is what we need in punishments — first, a reasonable fit-
ness and justice, and secondly, a removal of the damage or men-

ii8 A Mencken Chrestomathy

ace to social order and security. Our present system fails in both
departments. It is arbitrary, unintelligent and alternately too
cruel and too soft; and it wholly fails to make crime difficult
and unattractive.

The Penalty of Death

From Four Moral Causes, Prejudices; Fifth Series, 1926, pp. 21-27.
With additions from the Baltimore Evening Sun, Feb. 23, 1925, and
April 5, 1926

Of the arguments against capital punishment that issue from
uplift ers, two are commonly heard most often, to wit:

1. That hanging a man (or frying him or gassing him) is
a dreadful business, degrading to those who have to do it
and revolting to those who have to witness it.

2. That it is useless, for it does not deter others from the
same crime.

The first of these arguments, it seems to me, is plainly too
weak tomeed serious refutation. All it says, in brief, is that the
work of the hangman is unpleasant. Granted. But suppose it is?
It may be quite necessary to society for all that. There are, in-
deed, many other jobs that are unpleasant, and yet no one
thinks of abolishing them — that of the plumber, that of the
soldier, that of the garbage-man, that of the priest hearing con-
fessions, that of the sand-hog, and so on. Moreover, what evi-
dence is there that any actual hangman complains of his work?
I have heard none. On the contrary, I have known many who
delighted in their ancient art, and practised it proudly.

In the second argument of the abolitionists there is rather
more force, but even here, I believe, the ground under them is
shaky. Their fundamental error consists in assuming that the
whole aim of punishing criminals is to deter other (potential)
criminals — that we hang or electrocute A simply in order to so
alarm B that he will not kill C, This, I believe, is an assump-
tion which confuses a part with the whole. Deterrence, obvi-

VI. Crime and Punishment 119

ously, is one of the aims of punishment, but it is surely not the
only one. On the contrary, there are at least half a dozen, and
some are probably quite as important At least one of them,
practically considered, is more important. Commonly, it is de-
scribed as revenge, but revenge is really not the word for it. I
borrow a better term from the late Aristotle: katharsis. Kathar-
sis, so used, means a salubrious discharge of emotions, a healthy
letting off of steam. A school-boy, disliking his teacher, deposits
a tack upon the pedagogical chair; the teacher jumps and the
boy laughs. This is katharsis. What I contend is that one of the
prime objects of all judicial punishments is to afford the same
grateful relief (a) to the immediate victims of the criminal
punished, and (b) to the general body of moral and timorous

These persons, and particularly the first group, are concerned
only indirectly with deterring other criminals. The thing they
crave primarily is the satisfaction of seeing the criminal actually
before them suffer as he made them suffer. What they want is
the peace of mind that goes with the feeling that accounts are
squared. Until they get that satisfaction they are in a state of
emotional tension, and hence unhappy. The instant they get it
they are comfortable. I do not argue that this yearning is noble;
I simply argue that it is almost universal among human beings.
In the face of injuries that are unimportant and can be borne
without damage it may yield to higher impulses; that is to say,
it may yield to what is called Christian charity. But when the
injury is serious Christianity is adjourned, and even saints reach
for their sidearms. It is plainly asking too much of human nature
to expect it to conquer so natural an impulse. A keeps a store
and has a bookkeeper, B. B steals $700, employs it in playing
at dice or bingo, and is cleaned out. ^^at is A to do? Let B go?
If he does so he will be unable to sleep at night. The sense of
injury, of injustice, of frustration will haunt him like pruritus.
So he turns B over to the police, and they hustle B to prison.
Thereafter A can sleep. More, he has pleasant dreams. He pic-
tures B chained to the wall of a dungeon a hundred feet under-
ground, devoured by rats and scorpions. It is so agreeable that
it makes him forget his $700. He has got his katharsis.

The same thing precisely takes place on a larger scale when

120 A Mencken Chrestomathy

there is a crime which destroys a whole community's sense of
security. Every law-abiding citizen feels menaced and frustrated
until the criminals have been struck down — until the com-
munal capacity to get even Vvdth them, and more than even, has
been dramatically demonstrated. Here, manifestly, the business
of deterring others is no more than an afterthought. The main
thing is to destroy the concrete scoundrels whose act has
alarmed everyone, and thus made everyone unhappy. Until they
are brought to book that unhappiness continues; when the law
has been executed upon them there is a sigh of relief. In other
words, there is katharsis,

I know of no public demand for the death penalty for ordi-
nary crimes, even for ordinary homicides. Its infliction would
shock all men of normal decency of feeling. But for crimes in-
volving the deliberate and inexcusable taking of human life,
by men openly defiant of all civilized order — for such crimes it
seems, to nine men out of ten, a just and proper punishment
Any lesser penalty leaves them feeling tliat the criminal has
got the better of society — that he is free to add insult to in-
jury by laughing. That feeling can be dissipated only by a re-
course to katharsis^ the invention of the aforesaid Aristotle.
It is more effectively and economically achieved, as human na-
ture now is, by wafting the criminal to realms of bliss.

The real objection to capital punishment doesn't lie against
the actual extermination of the condemned, but against our
brutal American habit of putting it off so long. After all, every
one of us must die soon or late, and a murderer, it must be
assumed, is one who makes that sad fact the cornerstone of his
metaphysic. But it is one thing to die, and quite another thing
to lie for long months and even years under the shadow of
death. No sane man would choose such a finish. All of us, de-
spite the Prayer Book, long for a swift and unexpected end.
Unhappily, a murderer, under die irrational American system,
is tortured for what, to him, must seem a whole series of eterni-
ties. For months on end he sits in prison while his lawyers
carry on tlieir idiotic buffoonery with writs, injunctions, man-
damuses, and appeals. In order to get his money (or that of
his friends) they have to feed him with hope. Now and then,
by the imbecility of a judge or some trick of juridic science,


VI. Crime and Punishment

they actually justify it. But let us say that, his money all gone,
they finally throw up their hands. Their client is now ready for
the rope or the chair. But he must still wait for months before
it fetches him.

That wait, I believe, is horribly cruel. I have seen more than
one man sitting in the death-house, and I don’t want to see
any more. Worse, it is wholly useless. Why should he wait at
all? Why not hang him the day after the last court dissipates
his last hope? Wliy torture him as not even cannibals would
torture their victims? The common answer is that he must have
time to make his peace with God. But how long does that take?
It may be accomplished, I believe, in two hours quite as com-
fortably as in two years. There are, indeed, no temporal limita-
tions upon God. He could forgive a whole herd of murderers in
a millionth of a second. More, it has been done.

On Hanging a Man

From my Foreword to By the Neck, by my brother, August Mencken;
Hastings House, publishers. New York, 1940. With additions from the Bal-
timore Evening Sun, Aug. 16, 1926

In my capacity of newspaper reporter I have been a spectator at
nine hangings. It is my firm impression that this operation, if
competently carried out, is a humane method of putting crimi-
nals to death, though perhaps it is not quite as quick as electro-
cution. The drop now used in the United States could be im-
proved, as I shall indicate, but it is seldom that it causes any
unnecessary physical pain or mental anguish. The blow de-
livered to the criminal’s upper works when he reaches sud-
denly the end of the rope is at least as formidable as a crack on
the head with an ax, and I believe that in most cases it causes
immediate unconsciousness, or, at all events, such a scattering
of the faculties that the condemned is hardly able to suffer.
The rope, if properly knotted, thereupon presses heavily upon
the blood vessels supplying the brain, and if any trace of con-
sciousness survives it must be suspended by anoxemia in not

i2’2 A Mencken Chrestomathy

more than eight or ten seconds. It is highly probable that this
pressure, producing an irreversible cerebral anemia, is the actual
cause of death in most cases. Fracture or dislocation of the
cervical vertebrae is the exception rather than the rule, and
asphyxia is scarcely more than a by-product. A criminal executed
by a competent hangman shows no sign of suffering. He drops
straight through the trap, and when he comes to rest remains
hanging motionless. There is no struggle. After a little while the
legs draw up a bit, but not violently. The heart keeps up a grad-
ual diminishing beating for ten or twelve minutes, but all con-
sciousness has departed, and the criminal dies without apparent

In England a ring is inserted at the end of the rope, with
the other end passing through it, and as a result the pressure
that I have mentioned is more violent, and the criminal prob-
ably loses his senses almost instantly. The hangman's knot that
is generally favored in the United States is rather less efficient,
if only because rope slides across rope less facilely than across
metal. But when the knot is made by competent hands it works
very well, and is not cruel. An advantage of hanging is that it
does not mutilate the body of the victim. The rope naturally
leaves marks on the soft tissues of the neck, but it does not break
the skin, and the marks themselves have almost disappeared be-
fore the body leaves the place of execution. Electrocution, as
everyone knows, sometimes produces burns, and moreover, it
involves shaving at least a part of the head. Putting a man to
death with poisonous gases is even worse, for it causes a general
discoloration, and there is no reason to believe that it is either
quick or painless.

It is unpleasant, I grant you, to see a. man put to death, but
the brutality of it is immensely overestimated by those who
have never enjoyed that honor. They forget this technical skill
that can make even killing painless and humane. And they for-
get that the victim himself is almost always a brute with little
more sensitiveness than an ox. This was certainly true of the
late Whittemore, whose exitus I witnessed recently.^ He went

^ Russell Whittemore was hanged at the Maryland Penitentiary, Balti-
more, on Aug, 13, 1926. He was a Baltimorean, but practised mainly in
New York. The courts there failed to convict him, but when he tried his

VL Crime and Punishment 123

to his death with a swagger, and obviously full of an imbecile
delight in the attention he was attracting. His occupations in his
last days were those of a happy half-wit, and his final message,
delivered through the tabloid newspaper, the Baltimore Post,
was precisely the sort of defiant rubbish that such a moron
would be expected to formulate and delight in. The whole
thing, to him, was a gaudy show, and it was quite impossible
for any rational man, observing him at the end, to have any
very active sympathy for him.

A new State law has got rid of the obscene crowds that used
to flock to hangings, and of the bungling that once made them
revolting. The gallows at the Penitentiary is admirably de-
signed. Whittemore dropped at least ten feet, and he was un^
conscious instantly. Save for one brief drawing up of the legs,
as he died he didn't move an inch. The old-time jail yard gal-
lows was a wooden structure with a high step, and the con-
demned had to climb up that step. It was a dreadful ordeal. He
could see the noose a long way off. But Whittemore, stepping
out of a second-story door on to a high platform, was on the
trap before he saw the rope at all. If he had not delayed the pro-
ceedings to bawl a nonsensical farewell ^ he would have been
dead in less than a minute after he emerged. As it was, he
dropped in less than two minutes. Was the thing horrible as a
spectacle? No more than the most trivial surgery. One does not
see a man hanged. One sees a black bag.

1 have spoken of Whittemore as a moron. The term is proba-
bly flattering. His farewell message in the Post and his phi-
losophical autobiography in the same instructive paper, pub-
lished a few months ago, showed the mentality of a somewhat
backward boy of ten. Such professional killers, I believe, are

art in Maryland be was sent to the Penitentiary. While there he killed a
guard in an attempt to escape, and was promptly sentenced to death.

2 His last words, as I recall them, were “All Fve got to say is good-by.
That's the best I could say to anyone." Tlrercupon he was shoved on the
trap and dropped. On my way out of the Penitentiary I heard one spectator
say to another: “Did you hear what he said? It was 'Let's go.' " He said
nothing of the sort, but this tale spread in the Baltimore saloons next
day, and was widely believed. Most of the other spectators, indeed, were
ready to testify that they had heard “Let's go" themselves. The hatching
of such legends is a familiar phenomenon to every old newspaper reporter.

124 ^ Mencken Chrestomathy

nearly all on the same level: a Gerald Chapman is very rare
among them^ as a man of honor is rare in Congress. The senti-
mentalists, observing the fact, employ it as an argument against
capital punishment. It is immoral, they contend, for the State
to take the life of a creature so palpably stupid, and hence so
little capable of sound judgment and decent behavior. But all
this, it seems to me, is full of bad logic. The State of Maryland
did not kill Wliittemore because he was a moron: it killed him
because he had demonstrated conclusively that his continued
existence was incompatible with the reasonable safety of the
rest of us. What difference did it make whether his criminality
was due to lack of intelligence, or, as in the case of Chapman,
to intelligence gone rancid? The only important thing was that
he was engaged habitually, and apparently incorrigibly, in gross
and intolerable attacks upon the public security. What was to
be done about it? He had been sent to prison without effect. He
had actually committed a murder in prison. There remained
only the device of taking his life, and so getting rid of a danger-
ous and demoralizing nuisance.

To argue that society, confronted by such a rogue, has no
right to take his life is to argue that it has no rights at all — that
it cannot even levy a tax or command a service without com-
mitting a crime. There are, to be sure, men who so argue, and
some of their arguments are very ingenious. But they have not
converted any considerable body of reflective men and women.
The overwhelming majority of people believe that, when a man
adopts murder as his trade, society is justified in putting him to
death. They have believed it in all ages and under all forms of
government, and I am convinced that they still believe it today.
Tlie execution of Whittemore was almost unanimously ap-
proved in Maryland. If he had escaped the gallows there would
have been an uproar, and it would have been justified.

The opponents of capital punishment have firmer ground un-
der them when they object to the infliction of the death penalty
upon criminals other than professional murderers. The public
opinion of Christendom long ago revolted against its employ-
ment to put down minor crimes: for example, theft. There has
been, of late, a revolt against its use even in certain varieties of
murder, and that revolt, I believe, is largely responsible for the

VI. Crime and Punishment 125

increasing difficulty of getting convictions in capital cases, and
the increasing tendency of the courts to upset convictions by
legal quackery. The truth is that our criminal codes need a
thorough overhauling. The old categories of crime are only too
often archaic and irrational. It is absurd to hang an aggrieved
husband for killing his wife and her lover, and let a professional
murderer live because, in a given case, the State is unable to
prove premeditation. The test should be, not the instant inten-
tion, but the antecedent circumstances. Every one of us, under
easily imaginable conditions, may commit a premeditated mur-
der. But that possibility does not make us professional criminals,
and it does not necessarily justify the death penalty in case we
succumb. Juries obviously have felt that way, for many a mur-
derer has escaped under the so-called unwritten law.

Judge Frederick Bausman, of the State of Washington, a very
intelligent Jurist, once suggested a way out. All crimes, he said,
should be divided into two new categories; those which a rea-
sonable and otherwise reputable man, under the circumstances
confronting the accused, might be imagined as committing, and
those showing only deliberate and gratuitous criminality. Under
the first heading would fall many crimes of passion and many
ordinary thefts. Under the second would fall the doings of the
Chapmans and Whittemores. The man who commits the for-
mer is now often used too harshly; the man who commits the
latter is almost always used too softly. What sense is there in
the old rule of evidence that the record of an accused, save he
go on the stand himself, may not be brought against him on his
trial? It is hypocritical and vain, for juries consider it notwith-
standing. It is unjust, for the record often contributes to a sound
judgment, as it did in the Whittemore case. The important
thing is not to play a game according to a set of tight and stupid
rules but to punish and put down crime. The way to do that is
to proceed swiftly and harshly against professional criminals.
I believe that every gunman should be hanged after his first
shot, whether it kills or not. To stop short of that is to put the
rights that he has deliberately forfeited above the public secur-
ity. In other words, it is to convert the judicial process into a
scheme for protecting and fostering crime.


A Mencken Chrestomathy

Cops and Their Ways

From the American Mercury,. Jan., 1931, pp. 121-22.

A review of The Third Degree, by Emanuel Lavine; New York, 1930

Mr. Lavine is a police reporter of long practise in New York.
In a way his book proves it, for it is written in slipshod and
often irritating journalese, but in another way it conceals the
fact, for he deals with the police in a frank and objective man-
ner that is very rare among men of his craft. Most of them, after
a year or two at headquarters, become so coppish themselves
that they are quite unable to discuss the constabulary art and
mystery with any show of sense. They fade into what Mr,
Lavine himself calls police buffs; that is, police enthusiasts,
police fans. A headquarters detective, though he may present
to the judicious eye only the spectacle of an ill-natured and
somewhat thievish jackass, becomes a hero to them, and they
regard an inspector with his gold badge in the wistful, abject
fashion proper to the contemplation of the Holy Saints. Every
American newspaper of any size has such a police reporter on its
staff; there must be at least a thousand in the whole country.
But they never write anything about cops that is either true or
interesting, and so the literature of the subject is a blank.

Mr. Lavine's book is scarcely to be called literature; never-
theless, it makes a beginning. His discussion of the contents of
the average policeman's mind is searching, accurate, and withal
humane. He does not ask men of a useful but still humble pro-
fession to be philosophers, but on the other hand he does not
exaggerate such modest mental gifts as they really have. He sees
them as fellows who, in the main, are as honest as the next man,
but labor under a stupidity which makes them close to help-
less before rogues in general and wholly helpless before rogues
of their own corps. The tone of the craft, unfortunately, is set
by the last-named. They perform the outrages that have come,
in the United States, to be associated with the name of police-
man, and they are safe behind the fact that the average cop
would rather conceal and protect them than run any risk of
besmirching the force in general. Thus it is hard for reformers

VI. Crime and Punishment i2j

to get evidence against police grafters, and it is almost unheard
of for other cops to expose them.

As his title indicates, Mr. Lavine devotes a large part of his
book to describing the so-called third degree. His accounts of
it have the gaudy picturesqueness of good war correspondence.
Blood not only flows in streams; it spouts and gurgles. He tells
of criminals so badly beaten by police-station Torquemadas that
they went mashuggah, and Sing Sing had to yield them to Mat-
teawan. But he manages to get through his account without any
show of moral indignation. It is very uncommon, he says, for
an innocent man to be thus ill used. The cops seldom get out
their rubber-hose shillelahs and lengths of automobile tire save
when they have a clearly guilty man before them, and are trying
to force something out of him — say the names of his accom-
plices — that will aid them in their art. Few professional crimi-
nals are able to withstand a really brisk third degree. They may
hold out long enough to be somewhat severely mauled, but by
the time the ceiling begins to show bloodstains and their bones
begin to crack they are eager to betray their friends and get to
hospital. Many a time such a session in camera has yielded
enough evidence to fill the death-house. Thus, while the third
degree is clearly illegal, it is justified by the national pragmatism,
for it undoubtedly works.

The curse of the cops, speaking professionally, is the sensi-
tiveness of the district attorney's office to political and other
pressure. Every day they see perfectly good cases fall to pieces
in the courtroom. As a result their most arduous labors, some-
times at the risk of their lives, go for naught, and they are natu-
rally upset and full of woe. Not infrequently they beat up a
prisoner because they fear that he will be able to escape any
other punishment. They know that he is guilty, but they also
know that he has a sharp lawyer, so they fan him while they
have him. This fanning — or massaging, as they call' it — is
greatly dreaded by criminals. Says Mr. Lavine:

Strong-arm men, gorillas and tough gangsters who cheer-
fully commit dastardly and murderous assaults are usually
not afraid of a mere arrest. . . . But massaging by the po-
lice is a diflEerent affair. The same gangster who would kick

128 A Mencken Chrestomathy

a stranger in the abdomen or use a blackjack on a passing
citizen for refusing him the price of a drink will either
whimper or scream with fear when the workout begins.

There is here a hint for lawmakers. Let them restore the basti-
nado, as has been done in England, and they will not have to
resort to Baumes laws and other such extravagant and desperate
devices, most of which do not work. The English, when they
take a tough boy in an assault with firearms, give him what, in
America, would be regarded as a very short term of imprison-
ment, but they keep him jumping while he is behind the bars
by cowhiding him at regular intervals. In consequence there are
very few gunmen in England. In the United States any such
programme would bring loud protests from so-called humani-
tarians. But there is really no reason why whipping should be
inhumane. In England its aim is not to butcher the culprit but
simply to hurt him — above all, to invade and make a mock of
his professional dignity. It is hard for him, when he gets out,
to posture as a hero, for all of his associates know that he has
been flogged like a schoolboy, and they can imagine his piteous
and unmanly yells.


On Suicide

From The Human Mind, Prejudices: Sixth Series, 1927, pp. 85-91.

First printed in the Baltimore Evening Sun, Aug. 9, 1926

The suicide rate, so I am told by an intelligent mortician, i;
going up. It is good news to his profession, which has been
badly used of late by the progress of medical science, and
scarcely less so by the rise of cut-throat, go-getting competition
within its own ranks. It is also good news to those romantic
optimists who like to believe that the human race is capable of
rational acts. What could be more logical than suicide? Wliat
could be more preposterous than keeping alive? Yet nearly ali
of us cling to life with desperate devotion, even when the length
of it remaining is palpably slight, and filled with agony. Half
the time of all medical men is wasted keeping life in human
wrecks who have no more intelligible reason for hanging on
than a cow has for giving milk.

In part, no doubt, this absurd frenzy has its springs in the
human imagination, or, as it is more poetically called, the hu-
man reason. Man, having acquired the high faculty of visualiz-
ing death, visualizes it as something painful and dreadful. It is,
of course, seldom anything of the sort. The proceedings anterior
to it are sometimes (though surely not always) painful, but
death itself appears to be devoid of sensation, either psychic or
physical. The candidate, facing it at last, simply loses his facul-
ties. It is no more to him than it is to a coccus. The dreadful,
like the painful, is not in it. It is far more likely to show ele-
ments of the grotesque. I speak here, of course, of natural death.
Suicide is plainly more unpleasant, if only because there is some
uncertainly about it. The candidate hesitates to shoot himself
because he fears, with some show of reason, that he may fail to
kill himself, and only hurt himself. Moreover, this shooting,


130 A Mencken Chrestomathy

along with most of the other more common aids to an artificial
exitus, involves a kind of affront to his dignity: it is apt to make
a mess. But that objection, it seems to me, is one that is bound
to disappear with the progress of science. Safe, sure, easy and
sanitary methods of departing this life will be invented. Some,
in truth, are already known, and perhaps the fact explains the
increase in suicides, so satisfactory to my mortician friend.

I pass over the theological objections to self-destruction as too
sophistical to be worth a serious answer. From the earliest days
Christianity has depicted life on this earth as so sad and vain
that its value is indistinguishable from that of a damn. Then
why cling to it? Simply because its vanity and unpleasantness
are parts of the will of a Creator whose love for His creatures
takes the form of torturing them. If they revolt in this world
they will be tortured a million times worse in the next. I present
the argument as a typical specimen of theological reasoning, and
proceed to more engaging themes. Specifically, to my original
thesis: that it is difficult, if not impossible, to discover any evi-
dential or logical reason, not instantly observed to be full of
fallacy, for keeping alive. The universal wisdom of the world
long ago concluded that life is mainly a curse. Turn to the
proverbial philosophy of any race, and you will find it full of a
sense of the futility of the mundane struggle. Anticipation is
better than realization. Disappointment is the lot of man. We
are born in pain and die in sorrow. The lucky man died a"
Wednesday. He giveth His beloved sleep. I could run the list
to pages. If you disdain folk-wisdom, secular or sacred, then
turn to the works of William Shakespeare. They drip with such
pessimism from end to end. If there is any general idea in them,
it is the idea that human existence is a painful futility. Out, out,
brief candle!

Yet we cling to it in a muddled physiological sort of way —
or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way — and even
try to fill it with a gaudy hocus-pocus. All men who, in any true
sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e,,
for the respect and envy of their fellowmen, i.c., for the ill-
natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridicu-
lous bags of rapidly disintegrating amino acids. Why? If I
knew, Fd certainly not be writing books in this infernal Ameri-

VII. Death 151

can climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold,
and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through
peep-holes. But though the central mystery remains, it is pos-
sible, perhaps, to investigate the superficial symptoms to some
profit. I offer myself as a laboratory animal. Why have I worked
so hard for years and years, desperately striving to accomplish
something that remains impenetrable to me to this day? Is it
because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever desiring it for
an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I wanted. Is it,
then, notoriety that I am after? Again the answer must be no.
The attention of strangers is unpleasant to me, and I avoid it as
much as possible. Then is it a yearning to Do Good that moves
me? Bosh and blah! If I am convinced of anything, it is that Do-
ing Good is in bad taste.

Once I ventured the guess that men worked in response to
a vague inner urge for self-expression. But that was probably a
shaky theory, for some men who work the hardest have nothing
to express. A hypothesis with rather more plausibility in it now
suggests itself. It is that men work simply in order to escape the
depressing agony of contemplating life — that their work, like
their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting
them to escape from reality. Both work and play, ordinarily,
are illusions. Neither serves any solid and permanent purpose.
But life, stripped of such illusions, instantly becomes unbear-
able. Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this
world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his
mind off the horror. He works. He plays. He accumulates the
preposterous nothing called property. He strives for the coy eye-
wink called fame. He founds a family, and spreads his curse over
others. All the while the thing that moves him is simply the
yearning to lose himself, to forget himself, to escape the tragi-
comedy that is himself. Life, fundamentally, is not worth living.
So he confects artificialities to make it so. So he erects a gaudy
structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.

Perhaps my talk of agonies and tragi-comedies may be a bit
misleading. The basic fact about human existence is not that it
is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an
endless standing in line. The objection to it is not that it is pre-
dominantly painful, but that it is lacking in sense. What is

132 A Mencken Chrestomathy

ahead for the race? Even theologians can see nothing but a gray
emptiness, with a burst of irrational fireworks at the end. But
there is such a thing as human progress. True. It is the progress
that a felon makes from the watch-house to the jail, and from
the jail to the death-house. Every generation faces the same in-
tolerable boredom.

I speak as one who has had what must be regarded, speaking
statistically, as a happy life. I work a great deal, but working is
more agreeable to me tlian anything else I can imagine. I am
conscious of no vast, overwhelming and unattainable desires.
I want nothing that I can't get. But it remains my conclusion,
at the gate of senility, tliat the whole thing is a grandiose futil-
ity? and not even amusing. The end is always a vanity, and usu-
ally a sordid one, without any noble touch of the pathetic. The
means remain. In them lies the secret of what is called content-
ment, i.e., the capacity to postpone suicide for at least another
day. They are themselves without meaning, but at all events
they offer a way of escape from the paralyzing reality. The cen-
tral aim of life is to simulate extinction. We have been yelling
up the wrong rain-spout.

Under the Elms

From the Trenton, N, J., Sunday Times, April 3, 1927. Early in 1927
several suicides were reported from college campuses, and the newspapers
played them up in a melodramatic manner and tried to show that there
was an epidemic. In this they were supported by various alarmed peda-
gogues, one of whom. Dr. John Martin Thomas, president of Rutgers, told
the Times that the cause was “too much Mencken.” The Times asked me
to comment on this, and I sent in the following. Thomas, a Presbyterian
pastor turned pedagogue, was president of Rutgers from 1925 to 1930. He
resigned to enter the insurance business

I SEE nothing mysterious about these suicides. The impulse to
self-destruction is a natural accompaniment of the educational
process. Every intelligent student, at some time or other during
his college career, decides gloomily that it would be more sen-
sible to die than to go on living. I was myself spared the intel-

VII. Death

lechial humiliations of a college education, but during my late
teens, with the enlightening gradually dawning within me, 1
more than once concluded that death was preferable to life. At
that age the sense of humor is in a low state. Later on, by the
mysterious working of God’s providence, it usually recovers.

What keeps a reflective and skeptical man alive? In large part,
I suspect, it is this sense of humor. But in addition there is curi-
osity. Human existence is always irrational and often painful,
but in the last analysis it remains interesting. One wants to
know what is going to happen tomorrow. Will the lady in the
mauve frock be more amiable than she is today? Such questions
keep human beings alive. If the future were known, every in-
telligent man would kill himself at once, and the Republic
would be peopled wholly by morons. Perhaps we are really mov-
ing toward that consummation now.

I hope no one will be upset and alarmed by the fact that vari-
ous bishops, college presidents. Rotary lecturers and other such
professional damned fools are breaking into print with high-
falutin discussions of the alleged wave of student suicides. Such
men, it must be manifest, seldom deal with, realities. Their
whole lives are devoted to inventing bugaboos, and then laying
them. Like the news editors, they will tire of this bogus wave
after a while, and go yelling after some other phantasm. Mean-
while, the world will go staggering on. Their notions are never
to be taken seriously. Their one visible function on earth is to
stand as living proofs that education is by no means synony-
mous with intelligence.

What I’d like to see, if it could be arranged, would be a wave
of suicides among college presidents. I’d be delighted to supply
the pistols, knives, ropes, poisons and other necessary tools. Go-
ing further. I’d be delighted to load the pistols, hone the knives,
and tie the hangman’s knots. A college student, leaping un-
invited into the arms of God, pleases only himself. But a college
president, doing the same thing, would give keen and perma-
nent joy to great multitudes of persons. I drop the idea, and
pass on.


A Mencken Chrestomathy

Exeunt Omnes

From Prejudices: Second Series, 1920, pp. 180-91.

First published in the Smart Set, Dec., 1919, pp. 138-43

Go to any public library and look under '"Death: Human in
the card index, and you will be surprised to find how few books
there are on the subject. Worse, nearly all the few are by psychi-
cal researchers who regard death as a mere removal from one
world to another or by mystics who appear to believe that it is
little more than a sort of illusion. Once, seeking to find out
what death was physiologically — that is, to find out just what
happened when a man died — I put in a solid week without re-
sult. There seemed to be nothing whatever on the subject,
even in the medical libraries. Finally, after much weariness, I
found what I was looking for in Dr. George W. Crile's ""Man:
An Adaptive Mechanism." ^ Crile said that death was acidosis
— that it was caused by the failure of the organism to maintain
the alkalinity necessary to its normal functioning — and in the
absence of any proofs or even argument to the contrary I ac-
cepted his notion forthwith and have cherished it ever since. I
thus think of death as a sort of deleterious fermentation, like
that which goes on in a bottle of Chateau Margaux when it be-
comes corked. Life is a struggle, not against sin, not against the
Money Power, not against malicious animal magnetism, but
against hydrogen ions. The healthy man is one in whom those
ions, as they are dissociated by cellular activity, are immedi-
ately fixed by alkaline bases. The sick man is one in whom the
process has begun to lag, with the hydrogen ions getting ahead.
The dying man is one in whom it is all over save the charges of

But here I get into chemical physics, and not only run afoul
of revelation but also reveal, perhaps, a degree of ignorance
verging upon the indecent. The thing I started out to do was
simply to call attention to the only full-length and first-rate
treatise on death that I have ever encountered or heard of, to
wit, ""Aspects of Death and Correlated Aspects of Life," by
^ New York, 19x6. Dr. Crile died in 1943.

VII. Death 135

Dr. F. Parkes Weber, ^ a fat, hefty and extremely interesting
tome, the fruit of truly stupendous eradition. What Dr. Weber
has attempted is to bring together in one volume all that has
been said or thought about death since the time of the first
human records, not only by poets, priests and philosophers, but
also by painters, engravers, soldiers, monarchs and the populace
generally. One traces, in chapter after chapter, the ebb and flow
of human ideas upon the subject, of the human attitude to the
last and greatest mystery of them all — the notion of it as a
mere transition to a higher plane of life, the notion of it as a
benign panacea for all human suffering, the notion of it as an
incentive to this or that way of living, the notion of it as an
impenetrable enigma, inevitable and inexplicable. Few of us
quite realize how much the contemplation of death has colored
human thought throughout the ages, despite the paucity of for-
mal books on the subject. There have been times when it almost
shut out all other concerns; there has never been a time when it
has not bulked enormously in the racial consciousness. Well,
what Dr. Weber does is to detach and set forth the salient ideas
that have emerged from all that consideration and discussion —
to isolate the chief theories of death, ancient and modern, pagan
and Christian, scientific and mystical, sound and absurd.

The material thus accumulated and digested comes from
sources of great variety. The learned author, in addition to writ-
ten records, has canvassed prints, medals, paintings, engraved
gems and monumental inscriptions. His authorities range from
St. John on what is to happen at the Day of Judgment to Sir
William Osier on what happens upon the normal human death-
bed, and from Socrates on the relation of death to philosophy
to Havelock Ellis on the effects of Christian ideas of death upon
the medieval temperament. The one field that Dr. Weber over-
looked is that of music, a somewhat serious omission. It is hard
to think of a great composer who never wrote a funeral march,
or a requiem, or at least a sad song to some departed love. Even
old Papa Haydn had moments when he ceased to be merry, and
let his thought turn stealthily upon the doom ahead. To me, at
all events, tire slow movement of the Military Symphony is the
saddest of music — an elegy, I take it, on some young fellow

  • New York, 1919.

136 A Mencken Chrestomathy

who went out in the incomprehensible wars of those times and
got himself horribly killed in a far place. The trumpet blasts
toward the end fling themselves over his hasty grave in a remote
cabbage field; one hears, before and after them, the honest
weeping of his comrades into their wine-pots. Beethoven, a gen-
eration later, growled at death surlily, but Haydn faced it like
a gentleman. The romantic movement brought a sentimentali-
zation of the tragedy; it became a sort of orgy. Whenever Wag-
ner dealt with death he treated it as if it were some sort of gaudy
tournament or potlatch — a thing less dreadful than ecstatic.
Consider, for example, the Char-Freitag music in 'Tarsifak' —
death music for the most memorable death in the history of the
world. Surely no one hearing it for the first time, without previ-
ous warning, would guess that it had to do with anything so
gruesome as a crucifixion. On the contrary, I have a notion that
the average auditor would guess that it was a musical setting for
some lamentable fornication between a baritone seven feet in
height and a soprano weighing three hundred pounds.

But if Dr. Weber thus neglects music, he at least gives full
measure in all other departments. His book, in fact, is encyclo-
pedic; he almost exhausts the subject. One idea, however, I do
not find in it: the conception of death as the last and worst of
all the practical jokes played upon poor mortals by the gods.
That idea apparently never occurred to the Greeks, who thought
of almost everything else, but nevertheless it has an ingratiating
plausibility. The hardest thing about death is not that men die
tragically, but that most of them die ridiculously. If it were pos-
sible for all of us to make our exits at great moments, swiftly,
cleanly, decorously, and in fine attitudes, then the experience
would be something to face heroically and with high and beau-
tiful words. But we commonly go off in no such gorgeous, poet-
ical way. Instead, we died in raucous prose — of arteriosclerosis,
of diabetes, of toxemia, of a noisome perforation in the ileo-
caecal region, of carcinoma of the liver. The abominable acido-
sis of Dr. Crile sneaks upon us, gradually paralyzing the adrenals,
flabbergasting the thyroid, crippling the poor old liver, and
throwing its fog upon the brain. Thus the ontogenetic process
is recapitulated in reverse order, and we pass into the mental
obscurity of infancy, and then into the blank unconsciousness

VI I . Death tyj

of the prenatal state, and finally into the condition of undiffer-
entiated protoplasm. A man does not die quickly and brilliantly,
like a lightning stroke; he passes out by inches, hesitatingly and,
one may almost add, gingerly.

It is hard to say just when he is fully dead. Long after his
heart has ceased to beat and his lungs have ceased to swell him
up with the vanity of his species, there are remote and obscure
parts of him that still live on, quite unconcerned about the
central catastrophe. Dr. Alexis Carrel used to cut them out and
keep them alive for months. No doubt there are many parts of
the body, and perhaps even whole organs, which wonder what
it is all about when they find that they are on the way to the
crematory. Burn a man's mortal remains, and you inevitably
burn a good portion of him alive, and no doubt that portion
sends alarmed messages to the unconscious brain, like dissected
tissue under anesthesia, and the resultant shock brings the de-
ceased before the hierarchy of Heaven in a state of collapse,
with his face white, sweat bespangling his forehead and a great
thirst upon him. It would not be pulling the nose of reason to
argue that many a cremated pastor, thus confronting the ulti-
mate in the aspect of a man taken with the goods, has been put
down as suffering from an uneasy conscience when what actu-
ally ailed him was simply surgical shock. The cosmic process is
not only incurably idiotic; it is also indecently unjust.

Thus the human tendency to make death dramatic and heroic
has little excuse in the facts. No doubt you remember the scene
in the last act of Hedda Gabler," in which Dr. Brack comes in
with the news of Lovborg's suicide. Hedda immediately thinks
of him putting the pistol to his temple and dying instantly and
magnificently. The picture fills her with romantic delight. When
Brack tells her that the shot was actually through the breast she
is disappointed, but soon begins to romanticize even that 'The
breast," she says, "is also a good place. • . . There is something
beautiful in this!" A bit later she recurs to the charming theme,
"In the breast — ahl" Then Brack tells her the plain truth —
in the original, thus: "Ne/, — def traf ham i underlivetr . . .
Edmund Gosse, in his first English translation of the play,
made the sentence: "No — it struck him in the abdomen." In
the last edition William Archer makes it "No — in the bowels!"

138 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Abdomen is nearer to underlivet than bowels, but belly would
probably render the meaning better than either. What Brack
wants to convey to Hedda is the news that Lovborg's death was
not romantic in the least — that he went to a brothel, shot him-
self, not through the cerebrum or the heart, but the duodenum
or perhaps the jejunum, and is at the moment of report awaiting
autopsy at the Christiania Allgemeinekrankenhaus. The shock
floors her, but it is a shock that all of us must learn to bear. Men
upon whom we lavish our veneration reduce it to an absurdity
at the end by dying of cystitis, or by choking on marshmallows
or dill pickles. Women whom we place upon pedestals worthy
of the holy saints come down at last with mastoid abscesses or
die obscenely of female weakness. And we ourselves? Let us not
have too much hope. The chances are that, if we go to war,
eager to leap superbly at the cannon's mouth, we'll be finished
on the way by being run over by an army truck driven by a
former bus-boy and loaded with imitation Swiss cheeses made
in Oneida, N. Y. And that if we die in our beds, it will be of

The aforesaid Crile, in one of his other books, 'A Mechanistic
View of War and Peace," ^ has a good deal to say about death
in war, and in particular, about the disparity between the glori-
ous and inspiring passing imagined by the young soldier and
the messy finish that is normally in store for him. He shows two
pictures, the one ideal and the other real. The former is the
familiar print, "The Spirit of '76," with the three patriots
springing grandly to the attack, one of them with a neat and
romantic bandage around his head apparently, to judge by
his liveliness, to cover a wound no worse than a bee-sting. The
latter picture is a close-up of a French soldier who was struck
just below the mouth by a German one-pounder shell — a sol-
dier suddenly converted into the hideous simulacrum of a crul-
ler. What one notices especially is the curious expression upon
what remains of his face an expression of the utmost surprise
and indignation. No doubt he marched off to the front firmly
convinced that, if he died at all, it would be at the climax of
some heroic charge, up to his knees in blood and with his bayo-
net ran clear through a Bavarian at least four feet in diameter.

» New York, 1915.

VII. Death 139

He imagined the clean bullet through the heart, the stately last
gesture, the final words: “Th^r^se! Sophie! Olympe! Marie!
Suzette! Odette! D6nise! Julie! . . . France!” Go to the book
and see what he got.

Alas, the finish of a civilian in a luxurious hospital, with
trained nurses fluttering over him and his pastor whooping and
heaving for him at the foot of his bed, is often quite as un-
esthetic as any form of exitus witnessed in war. “No. 8,” says the
apprentice nurse in faded pink, tripping down the corridor with
a hooch of rye for the diabetic in No. 2 , “has just passed out.”
“Which is No. 8?” asks the new nurse. “The one whose wife
wore that awful hat this afternoon?” . . . But all the authori-
ties, it is pleasant to know, report that the final scene, though
it may be full of horror, is commonly devoid of terror. The dying
man doesn’t struggle much and he isn’t much afraid. As his
alkalies give out he succumbs to a blest stupidity. His mind fogs.
His will power vanishes. He submits decently. He scarcely gives
a damn.

Clarion Call to Poets

From Prejudices: Sixth Series, 1927, pp. 103-112

One of the crying needs of the time in this incomparable Re-
public is for a suitable Burial Service for the admittedly damned.
I speak as one who has of late attended the funeral orgies of
several such gentlemen, each time to my esthetic distress. The
first of them, having a great abhorrence of rhetoric in all its
branches, left strict orders that not a word was to be said at his
obsequies. The result was two extremely chilly and uncomfort-
able moments: when six of us walked into his house in utter
silence and carried out his clay, and when we stood by as it was
shoved, in the same crawling silence, into the fire-box of the
crematory. The whole business was somehow unnatural and
even a shade indecent: it violated one of the most ancient senti-
ments of Homo sapiens to dispatch so charming a fellow in so
cavalier a fashion. One felt almost irresistibly impelled to say

140 A Mencken Chrestomathy

good-by to him in some manner or other, if only, soldier fashion,
hy blowing a bugle and rolling a drum. Even the mortician, an
eminent star of one of the most self-possessed of professions,
looked a bit uneasy and ashamed.

The second funeral was even worse. The deceased had been a
Socialist of the militantly anti-clerical variety, and threatened,
on his death-bed, to leap from his cofhn with roars if a clergy-
man were hired to snuffle over him. His widow accordingly
asked two of his Socialist colleagues to address the mourners.
They prepared for the business by resorting to the jug, and in
consequence both of them were garrulous and injudicious. One
of them traced the career of Karl Marx in immense detail, and
deduced from it a long series of lessons for ambitious American
boys. The other, after first denouncing the New York Times,
read twenty or thirty cantos of execrable poetry from the Free-
thinker, If the widow had not performed a series of very re-
alistic sobs — leaning for support, I may add, upon a comrade
who soon afterward succeeded to the rights of the deceased
in her person and real estate — the ceremony would have
been indistinguishable from a session of the House of Repre-

The third funeral was conducted by Freemasons, who came
in plug hats and with white aprons over their cow-catchers. They
entered the house of mourning in a long file, with their hats
held over their left breasts in the manner of a President review-
ing an inaugural parade^ and filed past the open coffin at a brisk
parade march. As each passed he gave a swift, mechanical glance
at the fallen brother: there was in it the somewhat metallic effi-
ciency of an old hand. These Freemasons brought their own
limousines and took a place in the funeral procession ahead of
the hearse. At the cemetery they deployed around the grave,
and as soon as the clergyman hired by the pious widow had fin-
ished his mumbo-jumbo, began a ceremonial of their own. Their
leader, standing at tlie head of the grave with his plug hat on,
first read a long series of quasi-theological generalities — to the
general effect, so far as I could make out, tiiat Freemasons are
immune to Hell, as they are notoriously immune to hanging — ,
and then a brother at the foot of the grave replied. After that
there was a slight pause, and in rather ragged chorus the rest of

VIL Death 141

the brethren said "'So mote ^ it bel" This went on almost end-
lessly; I was heartily glad when it was over. The whole ceremony,
in fact, was tedious and trashy. As for me, Fd rather have been
planted by a Swedenborgian, whiskers and all. Or even by a
grand goblin of the Ethical Culture Society.

What is needed, and what I bawl for politely, is a service that
is free from the pious but unsupported asseverations that revolt
so many of our best minds, and yet remains happily graceful
and consoling. It will be very hard, I grant you, to concoct
anything as lasciviously beautiful as the dithyrambs in the Book
of Common Prayer. Who wrote them originally I don't know,
but whoever did it was a poet. They put the highly improbable
into amazingly luscious words, and the palpably not-true into
words even more caressing and disarming. It is impossible to
listen to them, when they are intoned by a High Church rector
of sepulchral gifts, without harboring a sneaking wish that, by
some transcendental magic, they could throw off their lowly
poetical character and take on the dignity and reliability of
prose — in other words, that the departed could be actually im-
agined as leaping out of the grave on the Last Morn, his split
colloids all restored to their pristine complexity, his clothes
neatly scoured and pressed, and every molecule of him thrilling
with a wild surmise. I have felt this wish at the funerals of many
virtuous and earnest brethren, whose sole sin was their refusal
to swallow such anecdotes as the one in 11 Kings n, 23-24. It
seems a pity that men of that sort should be doomed to Hell,
and it seems an even greater pity that they should be laid away
to the banal chin-music of humorless Freemasons and stewed

But, so far as I know, no suitable last rites for them have ever
been drawn up. Between the service in the Book of Common
Prayer (and its various analogues, nearly all of them greatly in-
ferior) and the maudlin mortuary dialogues of the Freemasons,
Knights of Pythias and other such assassins of beauty there is

1 This verb is ancient in English, but has been archaic for centuries. No
doubt the Freemasons retain it to support their claim to a venerable an-
tiquity. It occurs in Beowulf, Caedmon, Chaucer and Spenser, and was
used by Byron and Scott as a conscious archaism. In meaning it is roughly
equivalent to may.

142 A Mencken Chrestomathy
absolutely nothing. Even the professional agnostics, who are
violently literary, have never produced anything worthy to be
considered; their best is indistinguishable from the text of a flag-
drill or high-school pageant. Thus the average American skeptic,
when his time comes to return to earth, is commonly turned off
with what, considering his prejudices, may be best described as
a razzing. His widow, disinclined to risk scandal by burying him
without any ceremonies at all, calls in the nearest clergyman,
and the result is a lamentable comedy, creditable neither to
honest faith nor to honest doubt. More than once, in attend-
ance upon such an affair, I have observed a sardonic glitter in
the eye of the pastor, especially when he came to the unequivo-
cal statement that the deceased would infallibly rise again. Did
he secretly doubt it? Or was he poking fun at a dead opponent,
now persuaded of the truth of revelation at last? In either case
there was something unpleasant in the spectacle. A suitable
funeral for doubters, full of lovely poetry, but devoid of any
specific pronouncement on the subject of a future life, would
make such unpleasantness unnecessary.

We have the poets for the job, and I incline to suspect that
their private theological ideas fit them for it. Skepticism, in fact,
runs with their cynical trade. Most Americans, as everyone
knows, give their ecclesiastical affiliations in Who's Who in
America" — especially Congressmen, pedagogues, bank presi-
dents and uplifters. But not the poets. The sole exception in re-
cent years, so far as I can make out, has been Vachel Lindsay,
who reported that he was a member of the "Christian (Disci-
ples) Church," a powerful sect in the No-More-Scrub-Bulls
Belt, with a private Hell of its own, deep and hot. Even Edgar
Albert Guest is silent on the subject, though he mentions the
fact that he is a 33"^ Mason. Frost, Sandburg and the rest keep
suspiciously mum. I suggest that they meet in some quiet saloon
and draw up the ritual I advocate. Let Edna St. Vincent Millay
be added to give the thing a refined voluptuousness. Here Holy
Church shows the way. Its funeral service is a great deal less
forensic than operatic.

There is some need, too, for a Marriage Service for the
damned, and at different times attempts have been made to
supply it. But all such works seem to emanate from radicals

VII. Death 143

showing a characteristic lack of humor — and humor is as nec-
essary to a Marriage Service as poetry is to a Funeral Service:
a fact that the astute authors of the Book of Common Prayer
did not overlook. However, the need here is not pressing, for in
most American States civil marriage is suiEcient, and heretics
may be safely united without going before a sorcerer at all
Court clerks and police magistrates perform the job, mumbling
unintelligibly out of a mysterious book, perhaps only a stolen
Gideon Bible, excavated to hold cigarettes. The main thing is
to pay the fee. Marriages after midnight cost double, and if the
bridegroom has the fumes of wine in his head, he is apt to lose
his watch as well as his liberty.

As I say, the Marriage Services drawn up by antinomians for
the use of unbelievers lack humor. Worse, they are full of in-
dignation — - against the common theory that a wife is bound to
give some care to her husband's goods, against the convention
that she shall adopt his surname, and so on. It is hard to give
serious attention to such grim notions at a time immemorially
viewed as festive and jocose. One hears frequently of wedding
guests getting drunk and fighting, but when they are drawn into
sociological controversy it is too much. Such revolutionary Mar-
riage Services, in point of fact, have never gained much popu-
larity. Now and then a pair of Marxians resorts to one, but everi
Marxians appear to prefer the harsh, mechanical offices of a
court clerk.

But these are side issues. The main thing is that the poets^
though most of them seem to have departed from the precincts
and protection of Holy Church and her schismatic colonies —
^^since when has a first-rate American poet written a hymn? —
have failed, so far, to rise to the occasion when, even among
heretics, poets are most pressingly needed. I don't insist, of
course, that their service for the doubting dead be wholly origi-
nal. The authors of the Book of Common Prayer, though they
were poets of great talent, certainly did not trust only to their
private inspiration. They borrowed copiously from the old mis-
sals, and they borrowed, too, directly from Holy Writ. What
they concocted finally was a composite, but it was very dis-
creetly and delicately put together, and remains impregnable
to this day, despite many furious efforts to undo it.

144 Mencken Chrestomathy

All I propose is tliat the committee of poets imitate them, but
with an avoidance of strophes objectionable to heathen doc-
trine. Isn't there material enough in the books? There is enough,
and to spare. I point to the works of Walt Whitman — to those
parts, at least, of a non-erotic and non-political nature. I point
to certain memorable stanzas of William Cullen Bryant. I point
to Blake, Tennyson, Milton, Shelley, Keats, even Swinburne;
what gaudy stuff for the purpose is in Ave Atque Vale," 'Tris-
tram of Lyonesse" and Atalanta in Calydonl" There is here a
sweet soothing, a healing reassurance, a divine booziness — in
brief, all the stuff of A No. i poetry. It would bring comfort, I
believe, to many a poor widow who now groans as the Free-
masons intone their balderdash, or flounces her veil, fidgets and
blushes as a radical orator denounces Omnipotence for permit-
ting stock dividends it would bring her a great deal more
comfort, certainly, than the positive statement, made defiantly
by the unwilling rector of the parish, that her departed John,
having been earthy and as the beasts, has now become gaseous
and immortal. Such a libretto for the inescapable last act would
be humane and valuable. I renew my suggestion that the poets
spit upon their hands and confect it at once.


Its Inner Nature

From Matters of State, Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp, 289-92.

First printed in the Smart Set , Dec., 1919, pp. 71-72

Axx government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the su-
perior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and
cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to
protect the man who is superior only in law against the man
who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to
protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One
of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make
them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one an-
other as possible, to search out and combat originality among
them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and
hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man,
to any government, is the man who is able to think things out
for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and
taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the
government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable,
and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is
not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent
among those who are.

There is seldom, if ever, any evidence that the new govern-
ment proposed would be any better than the old one. On the
contrary, all the historical testimony runs the other way. Politi-
cal revolutions do not often accomplish anything of genuine
value; their one undoubted effect is simply to throw out one
gang of thieves and put in another. After a revolution, of course,
the successful revolutionists always try to convince doubters that
they have achieved great things, and usually they hang any man
who denies it. But that surely doesn^t prove their case. In Rus-
sia, for many years, the plain people were taught that getting


146 A Mencken Chrestomathy

rid of the Czar would make them all rich and happy, but now
tliat they have got rid of him they are poorer and unhappier
than ever before. Even the American colonies gained little by
their revolt in 1776. For twenty-five years after the Revolution
they were in far worse condition as free states than they would
have been as colonies. Their government was more expensive,
more inefficient, more dishonest, and more tyrannical. It was
only the gradual material progress of the country that saved
them from starvation and collapse, and that material progress
was due, not to the virtues of their new government, but to the
lavishness of nature. Under the British hoof they would have
got on just as well, and probably a great deal better.

The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle
onward, is one which lets the individual alone — one which
barely escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe,
will be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I
have passed from these scenes and taken up my public duties
in Hell

More of the Same

From Memoirs of a Subject of the United States, Prejudices:

Sixth Series, 1927, pp. 53-61.

First printed in the American Mercury, Feb., 1925, pp. 158-60

The average man, whatever his errors otherwise, at least sees
clearly that government is something lying outside him and out-
side the generality of his fellow men — that it is a separate, in-
dependent and often hostile power, only partly under his con-
trol, and capable of doing him great harm. In his romantic
moments, he may think of it as a benevolent father or even
as a sort of jinn or god, but he never thinks of it as part of him-
self. In time of trouble he looks to it to perform miracles for his
benefit; at other times he sees it as an enemy with which he
must do constant battle. Is it a fact of no significance that rob-
bing the government is everywhere regarded as a crime of less
magnitude than robbing an individual, or even a corporation?

VIIL Government 147

In the United States today it carries a smaller penalty and in-
finitely less odium than acts that are intrinsically trivial — for
example, marrjdng two wives, both willing.

What lies behind all this, I believe, is a deep sense of the fun-
damental antagonism betV'^een the government and the people
it governs. It is apprehended, not as a committee of citizens
chosen to carry on the communal business of the whole popula-
tion, but as a separate and autonomous corporation, mainly
devoted to exploiting the population for the benefit of its own
members. Robbing it is thus an act almost devoid of infamy
— an exploit rather resembling those of Robin Hood and the
eminent pirates of tradition. When a private citizen is robbed a
worthy man is deprived of the fruits of his industry and thrift;
when the government is robbed the worst that happens is that
certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than
they had before. The notion that they have earned that money
is never entertained; to most sensible men it would seem ludi-
crous. They are simply rascals who, by accidents of law, have a
somewhat dubious right to a share in the earnings of their
fellow men. When that share is diminished by private enterprise
the business is, on the whole, far more laudable than not.

The intelligent man, when he pays taxes, certainly does not
believe that he is making a prudent and productive investment
of his money; on the contrary, he feels that he is being mulcted
in an excessive amount for services that, in the main, are use-
less to him, and that, in substantial part, are downright inimical
to him. He may be convinced tliat a police force, say, is neces-
sary for the protection of his life and property, and that an army
and navy safeguard him from being reduced to slavery by some
vague foreign kaiser, but even so he views these things as ex-
travagantly expensive — he sees in even the most essential of
them an agency for making it easier for the exploiters consti-
tuting the government to rob him. In those exploiters them-
selves he has no confidence whatever. He sees them as purely
predatory and useless; he believes that he gets no more net bene-
fit from their vast and costly operations than he gets from the
money he lends to his wife's brother. They constitute a power
that stands over him constantly, ever alert for new chances to
squeeze him. If they could do so safely they would strip him to

1^8 A Mencken Chrestomathy

his hide. If they leave him anything at all, it is simply pruden-

tially, as a farmer leaves a hen some of her eggs.

This gang is well-nigh immune to punishment. Its worst ex-
tortions, even when they are baldly for private profit, carry no
certain penalties under our laws. Since the first days of the Re-
public less than a dozen of its members have been impeached,
and only a few obscure understrappers have ever been put into
prison. The number of men sitting at Atlanta and Leavenworth
for revolting against the extortions of the government is always
ten times as great as the number of government officials con-
demned for oppressing the taxpayers to their own gain. Govern-
ment, today, has grown too strong to be safe. There are no
longer any citizens in the world; there are only subjects. They
work day in and day out for their masters; they are bound to
die for their masters at call. Out of this working and dying they
tend to get less and less. On some bright tomorrow, a geological
epoch or two hence, they will come to the end of their endur-
ance, and tlien such newspapers as survive will have a first-page
story well worth its black headlines.

The Politician

From a lecture before tlie Institute of Arts and Sciences,

Columbia University, Jan. 4, 1940

After damning politicians up hill and down dale for many years,
as rogues and vagabonds, frauds and scoundrels, I sometimes
suspect that, like everyone else, I often expect too much of them.
Though faith and confidence are surely more or less foreign to
my nature, I not infrequently find myself looking to them to be
able, diligent, candid, and even honest Plainly enough, that is
too large an order, as anyone must realize who reflects upon
the manner in which they reach public office. They seldom if
ever get there by merit alone, at least in democratic states. Some-
times, to be sure, it happens, but only by a kind of miracle.
They are chosen normally for quite different reasons, the chief
of which is simply their power to impress and enchant the in-

VIIL Government 149

tellectually underprivileged. It is a talent like any other^ and
when it is exercised by a radio crooner, a movie actor or a
bishop, it even takes on a certain austere and sorry respectability.
But it is obviously not identical with a capacity for the intricate
problems of statecraft.

Those problems demand for their solution — when tliey are
soluble at all, which is not often — a high degree of technical
proficiency, and with it there should go an adamantine kind of
integrity, for the temptations of a public ofiicial are almost as
cruel as those of a glamor girl or a dipsomaniac. But we train
a man for facing them, not by locking him up in a monastery
and stuffing him with wisdom and virtue, but by turning him
loose on the stump. If he is a smart and enterprising fellow,
which he usually is, he quickly discovers there that hooey
pleases the boobs a great deal more than sense. Indeed, he finds
that sense really disquiets and alarms them — that it makes
them, at best, intolerably uncomfortable, just as a tight collar
makes them uncomfortable, or a speck of dust in the eye, or
the thought of Hell. The truth, to the overwhelming majority
of mankind, is indistinguishable from a headache. After tr}ing
a few shots of it on his customers, the larval statesman concludes
sadly that it must hurt them, and after that he taps a more
humane keg, and in a little while the whole audience is singing
Glor}^, glory, hallelujah,’' and when the returns come in the
candidate is on his way to the White House.

I hope no one will mistake this brief account of the political
process under democracy for exaggeration. It is almost literally
true. I do not mean to argue, remember, that all politicians are
villains in the sense that a burglar, a child-stealer, or a Darwinian
are villains. Far from it. Many of them, in their private charac-
ters, are very charming persons, and I have known plenty that
Fd trust with my diamonds, my daughter or my liberty, if I
had any such things. I happen to be acquainted to some extent
with nearly all the gentlemen, both Democrats and Republi-
cans, wdio are currently itching for the Presidency, including
the present incumbent, and I testify freely that they are all
pleasant fellows, with qualities above rather than below the
common. The worst of them is a great deal better company
than most generals in the army, or writers of murder mysteries,

150 A Mencken Chrestomathy

or astrophysicists, and the best is a really superior and wholly
delightful man — full of sound knowledge, competent and pru-
dent, frank and enterprising, and quite as honest as any Ameri-
can can be without being clapped into a madhouse. Don't ask
me what his name is, for I am not in politics. I can only tell
you that he has been in public life a long while, and has not
been caught yet.

But will this prodigy, or any of his rivals, ever unload any
appreciable amount of sagacity on the stump? Will any of
them venture to tell the plain truth, the whole truth and noth-
ing but the truth about the situation of the country, foreign
or domestic? Will any of them refrain from promises that he
knows he can t fulfill — that no human being could fulfill? Will
any of them utter a word, however obvious, that will alarm and
alienate any of the huge packs of morons who now cluster at
the public trough, wallowing in the pap that grows thinner
and thinner, hoping against hope? Answer: maybe for a few
weeks at the start. Maybe before the campaign really begins.
Maybe behind the door. But not after the issue is fairly joined,
and the struggle is on in earnest. From that moment they will
all resort to demagogy, and by the middle of June of election
year the only choice among them will be a choice between ama-
teurs of that science and professionals.

They will all promise every man, woman and child in the
country whatever he, she or it wants. They'll all be roving
the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy
the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the
unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable. They
will all be curing warts by saying words over them, and paying
off the national debt with money that no one will have to earn.
When one of them demonstrates that twice two is five, another
will prove that it is six, six and a half, ten, twenty, n. In brief,
they will divest themselves of their character as sensible, candid
and truthful men, and become simply candidates for office,
bent only on collaring votes. They will all know by then, even
supposing that some of them don't know it now, that votes
are collared under democracy, not by talking sense but by talk-
ing nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a
hearty yo-heave-ho. Most of them, before the uproar is over.

VI 1 1 . Government 151

will actually convince themselves. The winner will be whoever
promises the most with the least probability of delivering any-

Some years ago I accompanied a candidate for the Presidency
on his campaign-tour. He was^ like all such rascals, an amusing
fellow, and I came to like him very much. His speeches, at the
start, were full of fire. He was going to save the country from all
the stupendous frauds and false pretenses of his rival. Every
time that rival offered to rescue another million of poor fish
from the neglects and oversights of God he howled his derision
from the back platform of his train. I noticed at once that these
blasts of common sense got very little applause, and after a
while the candidate began to notice it too. Worse, he began
to get word from his spies on the train of his rival that the rival
was wowing them, panicking them, laying them in the aisles.
They threw flowers, hot dogs and five-cent cigars at him. In
places where the times were especially hard they tried to unhook
the locomotive from his train, so that he'd have to stay with
them awhile longer, and promise them some more. There were
no Gallup polls in those innocent days, but the local politicians
had ways of their own for finding out how the cat was jumping,
and they began to join my candidate's train in the middle of
the night, and wake him up to tell him that all was lost, in-
cluding honor. This had some effect upon him — in truth, an
effect almost as powerful as that of sitting in the electric chair.
He lost his intelligent manner, and became something you
could hardly distinguish from an idealist. Instead of mocking he
began to promise, and in a little while he was promising every-
thing that his rival was promising, and a good deal more.

One night out in the Bible country, after the hullabaloo of
the day was over, I went into his private car along with another
newspaper reporter, and we sat down to gabble with him. This
other reporter, a faithful member of the candidate's own party,
began to upbraid him, at first very gently, for letting off so much
hokum. What did he mean by making promises that no human
being on this earth, and not many of the angels in Heaven,
could ever hope to carry out? In particular, what was his idea in
trying to work off all those preposterous bile-beans and snake-
oils on the poor farmers, a class of men who had been fooled

152 A Mencken Chrestomathy

and rooked by every fresh wave of politicians since Apostolic
times? Did he really believe that the Utopia he had begun so
fervently to preach would ever come to pass? Did he honestly
think that farmers, as a body, would ever see all their rosy
dreams come true, or that the share-croppers in their lower ranks
would ever be more than a hop, skip and jump from starva-
tion? The candidate thought awhile, took a long swallow of
the coffin-varnish he carried with him, and then replied that
the answer in every case was no. He was well aware, he said,
that the plight of the farmers was intrinsically hopeless, and
would probably continue so, despite doles from the treasury,
for centuries to come. He had no notion that anything could
be done about it by merely human means, and certainly not by
political means: it would take a new Moses, and a whole series
of miracles. But you forget, Mr. Blank,"' he concluded sadly,
"that our agreement in the premisses must remain purely per-
sonal. You are not a candidate for President of the United
States. I am!' As we left him his interlocutor, a gentleman
grown gray in Washington and long ago lost to every decency,
pointed the moral of the episode. "In politics,"" he said, "man
must learn to rise above principle."" Then he drove it in with
another: "When the water reaches the upper deck,"" he said,
"follow the rats.""

Governmental Theories

From the Smart Set, Feb., 1922, p. 26

In every age the advocates of the dominant political theory seek
to give it dignity by identifying it with whatever contemporane-
ous desire of man happens to be most powerful. In the days of
monarchy, monarchy was depicted as the defender of the faith.
In our present era of democracy, democracy is depicted as the
only safe guardian of liberty. And the communism or super-
communism of tomorrow, I suppose, will be sold to the boob-
oisie as the only true palladium of peace, justice and plenty. All
of these attempts to hook up cause and effect are nonsensical.

VIII. Government 153

Monarchy was fundamentally not a defender of the faith at
all, but a rival and enemy to the faith. Democracy does not
promote liberty; it diminishes and destroys liberty. And commu-
nism, as the example of Russia already shows, is not a fountain
that gushes peace, justice and plenty, but a sewer in which they
are drowned.

Note on a Coff

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, Dec. 9, 1929

The saddest life is that of a political aspirant under democ-
racy. His failure is ignominious and his success is disgraceful.


Its Origins

From Notes on Democracy, 1926, pp. 3-9

What we now call democracy came into the Western World
to the tune o£ sweet, soft music. There was, at the start, no harsh
bawling from below; there was only a dulcet twittering from
above. Democratic man thus began as an ideal being, full of
ineffable virtues and romantic wrongs — in brief, as Rousseau's
noble savage in smock and jerkin, brought out of the tropical
wilds to shame the lords and masters of the civilized lands. The
fact continues to have important consequences to this day. It
remains impossible, as it was in the Eighteenth Century, to
separate the democratic idea from the theory that there is a
mystical merit, an esoteric and ineradicable rectitude, in the
man at the bottom of the scale — that inferiority, by some
strange magic, becomes a sort of superiority — nay, the superior-
ity of superiorities. Everywhere on earth, save where the en-
lightenment of the modern age is confessedly in transient
eclipse, the movement is toward the completer and more en-
amored enfranchisement of the lower orders. Down there, one
hears, lies a deep, illimitable reservoir of righteousness and wis-
dom, unpolluted by the corruption of privilege. What baffles
statesmen is to be solved by the people, instantly and by a sort
of seraphic intuition. Their yearnings are pure; they alone are
capable of a perfect patriotism; in them is the only hope of
peace and happiness on this lugubrious ball. The cure for the
evils of democracy is more democracy.

This notion, as I hint, originated in the poetic fancy of gentle-
men on the upper levels — sentimentalists who, observing to
their distress that the ass was overladen, proposed to reform
transport by putting him into the cart. A stale Christian bilge
ran through their veins. They were the direct ancestors of the


IX. Democracy 155

more saccharine Liberals of today, who yet mouth their tattered
phrases and dream their preposterous dreams. I can find no rec-
ord that these phrases, in the beginning, made much impression
upon the actual objects of their rhetoric. Early democratic man
seems to have given little thought to the democratic ideal, and
less veneration. What he wanted was something concrete and
highly materialistic — more to eat, less work, higher wages,
lower taxes. He had no apparent belief in the acroamatic virtue
of his own class, and certainly none in its capacity to rule. His
aim was not to exterminate the baron, but simply to bring the
baron back to a proper discharge of baronial business. When,
by the wild shooting that naturally accompanies all mob move-
ments, the former end was accidentally accomplished, as in
France, and men out of the mob began to take on baronial airs,
the mob itself quickly showed its opinion of them by butcher-
ing them deliberately and in earnest. Once the pikes were out,
indeed, it was a great deal more dangerous to be a tribune of the
people than to be an ornament of the old order. The more copi-
ously the blood gushed, the nearer that old order came to resur-
rection. The Paris proletariat, having been misled into killing
its King in 1793, devoted the next two years to killing those who
had misled it, and by the middle of 1796 it had another King
in fact, and in three years more he was King de jure, with an
attendant herd of barons, counts, marquises and dukes, some
of them new but most of them old, to guard, symbolize and
execute his sovereignty. And he and they were immensely popu-
lar — so popular that half France leaped to suicide that their
glory might blind the world.

Meanwhile, of course, there has been a certain seeping down
of democratic theory from the metaphysicians to the mob —
obscured by the uproar, but still going on. Rhetoric, like a
stealthy plague, was doing its immemorial work. Where men
were confronted by the harsh, exigent realities of battle and pil-
lage, as they were everywhere on the Continent, it got into their
veins only slowly, but where they had time to listen to oratory,
as in England and, above all, in America, it fetched them more
quickly. Eventually, as the world grew exhausted and the wars
passed, it began to make its effects felt everywhere. Democratic
man, contemplating himself, was suddenly warmed by the spec-

156 A Mencken Chrestomathy

tacle. His condition had plainly improved. Once a slave, he was
now only a serf. Once condemned to silence, he was now free
to criticize his masters, and even to flout them, and the ordi-
nances of God with them. As he gained skill and fluency at that
sombre and fascinating art, he began to heave in wonder at his
own merit. He was not only, it appeared, free to praise and
damn, challenge and remonstrate; he was also gifted with a pe-
culiar rectitude of thought and will, and a high talent for ideas,
particularly on the political plane. So his wishes, in his mind,
began to take on the dignity of legal rights, and by the same
token the wishes of his masters sank to the level of mere igno-
minious lusts. By 1828 in America and by 1848 in Europe the
doctrine had arisen that all moral excellence, and with it all
pure and unfettered sagacity, resided in the inferior four-fifths
of mankind. In 1867 a philosopher out of the ghetto pushed
that doctrine to its logical conclusion. He taught that the su-
perior minority had no virtues at all, and hence no rights at all —
that the world belonged exclusively and absolutely to those who
hewed its wood and drew its water. In half a century he had
more followers in the world, open and covert, than any other
sophist since Apostolic times.

Since then, to be sure, there has been a considerable reces-
sion from that extreme position. The dictatorship of the prole-
tariat, tried here and there, has turned out to be — if I may
venture a prejudiced judgment — somewhat impracticable. Even
the most advanced Liberals, observing the thing in being, have
been moved to cough sadly behind their hands. But it would
certainly be going beyond the facts to say tliat the underlying
democratic dogma has been abandoned, or even appreciably
overhauled. To the contrary, it is now more prosperous than
ever before. The war of 1914-18 was fought in its name, and it
was embraced with loud hosannas by all the defeated nations.
Everywhere in Christendom it is now official, save in a few be-
nighted lands where God is temporarily asleep. Everywhere its
fundamental axioms are accepted: (a) that the great masses of
men have an inalienable right, born of the very nature of things,
to govern themselves, and (b) that they are competent to do it.
Are they occasionally detected in gross and lamentable imbecili-
ties? Then it is only because they are misinformed by those who

IX. Democracy 1 57

would exploit them. The remedy is more education. Are they,
at times, seen to be a trifle naughty, even swinish? Then it is
only a natural reaction against the oppressions they suiBEer:
the remedy is to deliver them. The central aim of all the Chris-
tian governments of today, in theory if not in fact, is to further
their liberation, to augment their power, to drive ever larger
and larger pipes into the great reservoir of their natural wisdom.
That government is called good which responds most quickly
and accurately to their desire and ideas. That is called bad
which conditions their omnipotence and puts a question mark
after their omniscience.

A Glance Ahead

From the same, pp. 202-06

For all I know, democracy may be a self-limiting disease, as
civilization itself seems to be. There are thumping parodoxes
in its philosophy, and some of them have a suicidal smack. It
offers John Doe a means to rise above his place beside Richard
Roe, and then, by making Roe his equal, it takes away the
chief usufructs of the rising. I here attempt no pretty logical
gymnastics: the history of democratic states is a history of dis-
ingenuous efforts to get rid of the second half of that dilemma.
There is not only the natural yearning of Doe to use and enjoy
the superiority that he has won; there is also the natural tend-
ency of Roe, as an inferior man, to acknowledge it. Democracy,
in fact, is always inventing class distinctions, despite its the-
oretical abhorrence of them. The baron has departed, but in his
place stand the grand goblin, the supreme worthy archon, the
sovereign grand commander. Democratic man is quite unable
to think of himself as a free individual; he must belong to a
group, or shake with fear and loneliness — and the group, of
course, must have its leaders. It would be hard to find a country
in which such brummagem serene highnesses are revered with
more passionate devotion than they get in the United States.
The distinction that goes with mere office runs far ahead of the

158 A Mencken Chrestomathy

distinction that goes with actual achievement. A Harding is
regarded as superior to a Halsted, no doubt because his doings
are better understood.

But there is a form of human striving that is understood by
democratic man even better than Harding's, and that is the
striving for money. Thus the plutocracy, in a democratic state,
tends inevitably, despite its theoretical infamy, to take the place
of the missing aristocracy, and even to be mistaken for it. It is,
of course, something quite different. It lacks all the essential
characters of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public
spirit, honesty, honor, courage — above all, courage. It stands
under no bond of obligation to the state; it has no public duty;
it is transient and lacks a goal. Its most puissant dignitaries of
today came out of the mob only yesterday — and from the mob
they bring all its peculiar ignobilities. As practically encoun-
tered, the plutocracy stands quite as far from the honnete
homme as it stands from the holy saints. Its main character is
its incurable timorousness; it is for ever grasping at the straws
held out by demagogues. Half a dozen gabby Jewish youths,
meeting in a back room to plan a revolution — in other words,
half a dozen kittens preparing to upset the Matterhorn — are
enough to scare it half to death. Its dreams are of banshees,
hobgoblins, bugaboos. The honest, untroubled snores of a Percy
or a Hohenstaufen are quite beyond it.

The plutocracy is comprehensible to the mob because its as-
pirations are essentially those of inferior men: it is not by acci-
dent that Christianity, a mob religion, paves heaven with gold
and precious stones, z.c., with money. There are, of course, re-
actions against this ignoble ideal among men of more civilized
tastes, even in democratic states, and sometimes they arouse the
mob to a transient distrust of certain of the plutocratic preten-
sions- But that distrust seldom arises above mere envy, and
the polemic which engenders it is seldom sound in logic or im-
peccable in motive. What it lacks is aristocratic disinterested-
ness, born of aristocratic security. There is no body of opinion
behind it that is, in the strictest sense, a free opinion. Its chief
exponents, by some divine irony, are pedagogues of one sort or
another — which is to say, men chiefly marked by their haunting
fear of losing their jobs. Living under such terrors, with the

IX. Democracy 159

plutocracy policing them harshly on one side and the mob con-
genitally suspicious of them on the other, it is no wonder that
their revolt usually peters out in metaphysics, and that they
tend to abandon it as their families grow up, and the costs of
heresy become prohibitive. The pedagogue, in the long run,
shows the virtues of the Congressman, the newspaper editorial
writer or the butler, not those of the aristocrat. When, by any
chance, he persists in contumacy beyond thirty, it is only too
commonly a sign, not that he is heroic, but simply that he is
pathological. So with most of his brethren of the Utopian Fife
and Drum Corps, whether they issue out of his own seminary
or out of the wilderness. They are fanatics; not statesmen. Thus
politics, under democracy, resolves itself into impossible alter-
natives, Wliatever the label on the parties, or the war cries issu-
ing from the demagogues who lead them, the practical choice
is between the plutocracy on the one side and a rabble of pre-
posterous impossibilists on the other. It is a pity that this is so.
For what democracy needs most of all is a party that will sepa-
rate the good that is in it theoretically from the evils that beset
it practically, and then try to erect that good into a workable
system. What it needs beyond everything is a party of liberty.
It produces, true enough, occasional libertarians, just as despo-
tism produces occasional regicides, but it treats them in the
same drum-head way. It will never have a party of them until it
invents and installs a genuine aristocracy, to breed them and
secure them.

The Democratic Citizen

From Memoirs of a Subject of the United States, Prejudices:
Sixth Series, 1927, pp. 61-70

That the life of man is a struggle and an agony was remarked
by the sages of the remotest antiquity* The idea runs like a
Leitmotiv through the literature of the Greeks and the Jews
alike, Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, "vanity of vani-
ties; all is vanity!" "O ye deathward-going tribes of men," chants

i6o A Mencken Chrestomathy

Sophocles, 'Vhat do your lives mean except that they go to
nothingness?'’ But not placidly, not unresistingly, not without
horrible groans and gurgles. Man is never honestly the fatalist,
nor even the stoic. He fights his fate, often desperately. He is
forever entering bold exceptions to the rulings of the bench of
gods. This fighting, no doubt, makes for human progress, for it
favors the strong and the brave. It also makes for beauty, for
lesser men try to escape from a hopeless and intolerable world
by creating a more lovely one of their own. Poetry, as everyone
knows, is a means to that end — facile, and hence popular. The
aim of poetry is to give a high and voluptuous plausibility to
what is palpably not true. I offer the Twenty-third Psalm as an
example: 'The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want." It is
immensely esteemed by the inmates of almshouses, and by gen-
tlemen waiting to be hanged. I have to limit my own reading of
it, avoiding soft and yielding moods, for I too, in my way, am a
gentleman waiting to be hanged, as you are.

The struggle is always the same, but in its details it differs
in different ages. There was a time when it was mainly a combat
between the natural instincts of the individual and his yearning
to get into Heaven, That was an unhealthy time, for throttling
the instincts is almost as deleterious as breathing bad air: it
makes for an unpleasant clamminess. The Age of Faith, seen in
retrospect, looks somehow pale and puffy: one admires its saints
and anchorites without being conscious of any very active de-
sire to shake hands with them and smell them. Today the
yearning to get into Heaven is in abeyance, at least among the
vast majority of humankind, and so the ancient struggle takes
a new form. In the main, it is a struggle of man with society —
a conflict between his desire to be respected and his impulse to
follow his own bent. Society usually wins. There are, to be
sure, free spirits in the world, but their freedom, in the last
analysis, is not much greater than that of a canary in a cage.
They may leap from perch to perch; they may bathe and guzzle
at their will; they may flap their wings and sing. But they are
still in the cage, and soon or late it conquers them. What was
once a great itch for long flights and the open spaces is gradually
converted into a fading memory and nostalgia, sometimes stim-

IX. Democracy i6i

ulating but more often merely blushful. The free man, made in
God's image, is converted into a Freudian case.

Democracy produces swarms of such men, and their secret
shames and sorrows, I believe, are largely responsible for the
generally depressing tone of democratic society. Old Freud,
living in a more urbane and civilized world, paid too little heed
to that sort of repression. He assumed fatuously that what was
repressed was always, or nearly always, something intrinsically
wicked, or, at all events, anti-social — for example, the natural
impulse to drag a pretty woman behind the barn, regardless of
her husband's protests. But under democracy that is only half
the story. The democrat with a yearning to shine before his
fellows must not only repress all the common varieties of natu-
ral sin; he must also repress many of the varieties of natural
decency. His impulse to tell the truth as he sees it, to speak his
mind freely, to be his own man, comes into early and painful
collision with the democratic dogma that such things are not
nice — that the most worthy and laudable citizen is that one
who is most like all the rest. In youth, as every one knows, this
dogma is frequently challenged, and sometimes with great as-
perity, but the rebellion, taking one case with another, is not
of long duration. The campus Nietzsche, at thirty, begins to
feel the suction of Rotary.

But his early yearning for freedom and its natural concomi-
tants is still not dead; it is merely imprisoned, to adopt the
Freudian jargon, in the depths of his subconscious. Down there
it drags out its weary and intolerable years, protesting silently
but relentlessly against its durance. We know, by Freud's evi-
dence, what the suppression of concupiscence can do to the
individual ~ how it can shake his reason on its throne, and
even give him such things as gastritis, migraine and angina pec-
toris. Every Sunday-school in the land is full of such wrecks;
they recruit the endless brigades of wowsers. A vice-crusader is
simply an unfortunate who goes about with a brothel in his own
cellar; a teetotaler is one who has buried rum, but would have
been safer drinking it. All this is now a commonplace of knowl-
edge to every American school-girl. But so far no psychoanalyst
has done a tome on the complexes that issue out of the moral

162 A Mencken Chrestomathy

struggles against common decency, though, they are commoner
under democracy than the other kind, and infinitely more fero-
cious. A man who has throttled a bad impulse has at least some
consolation in his agonies, but a man who has throttled a good
one is in a bad way indeed. Yet this great Republic swarms
with such men, and their sufferings are under every eye. We
have more of them, perhaps, than all the rest of Christendom,
with heathendom thrown in to make it unanimous.

A Blind Spot

From the Smart Set, April, 1920, pp. 43-44

No doubt my distaste for democracy as a political theory is, like
every other human prejudice, due to an inner lack — to a defect
that is a good deal less in the theory than in myself. In this
case it is very probably my incapacity for envy. That emotion,
or weakness, or whatever you choose to call it, is quite absent
from my make-up; where it ought to be there is a vacuum. In
the face of another man's good fortune I am as inert as a curb
broker before Johann Sebastian Bach. It gives me neither pleas-
ure nor distress. The fact, for example, that John D. Rockefeller
had more money than I have is as uninteresting to me as the
fact that he believed in total immersion and wore detachable
cuffs. And the fact that some half-anonymous ass or other has
been elected President of the United States, or appointed a pro-
fessor at Harvard, or married to a rich wife, or even to a beauti-
ful and amiable one: this fact is as meaningless to me as the
latest piece of bogus news from eastern Europe.

The reason for all this does not lie in any native nobility or
acquired virtue. Far from it, indeed. It lies in the accidental cir-
cumstance that the business I pursue in the world seldom brings
me into very active competition with other men. I have, of
course, rivals, but they do not rival me directly and exactly, as
one delicatessen dealer or clergyman or lawyer or politician rivals
another. It is only rarely that their success costs me anything,
and even then the fact is usually concealed. I have always had

IX. Democracy 163

enough money to meet my modest needs, and have always found
it easy to get more than I actually want. A skeptic as to all
ideas, including especially my own, I have never suffered a
pang when the ideas of some other imbecile prevailed.

Thus I am never envious, and so it is impossible for me to
feel any sympathy for men who are. Per corollary, it is impossi-
ble for me to get any glow out of such hallucinations as democ-
racy and Puritanism, for if you pump envy out of them you
empty them of their very life blood: they are all immovably
grounded upon the inferior man's hatred of the man who is
having a better time. One often hears them accounted for, of
course, in other ways. Puritanism is represented as a lofty sort
of obedience to God's law. Democracy is depicted as brother-
hood, even as altruism. All such notions are in error. There is
only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritanism, and that
is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for
happiness — to bring him down to the miserable level of good"
men, i.c., of stupid, cowardly and chronically unhappy men.
And there is only one sound argument for democracy, and that
is the argument that it is a crime for any man to hold himself
out as better than other men, and, above all, a most heinous
offense for him to prove it.

What I admire most in any man is a serene spirit, a steady
freedom from moral indignation, an all-embracing tolerance —
in brief, what is commonly called good sportsmanship. Such a
man is not to be mistaken for one who shirks the hard knocks of
life. On the contrary, he is frequently an eager gladiator, vastly
enjoying opposition. But when he fights he fights in the manner
of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman
cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully
guards his amour propre by assuming that his opponent is as
decent a man as he is, and just as honest ■— and perhaps, after
all, right. Such an attitude is palpably impossible to a democrat.
His distinguishing mark is the fact that he always attacks his
opponents, not only with all arms, but also with snorts and ob-
jurgations — that he is always filled with moral indignation —
that he is incapable of imagining honor in an antagonist, and
hence incapable of honor himself. Such fellows I do not like.
I do not share their emotion. I can't understand their indigna-

164 A Mencken Chrestomathy

tion, their choler. In particular, I can’t fathom their envy. And

so I am against them.

Rivals to Democracy

From Notes on Democracy, 1926, pp. 118-21

The mob has its flatterers and bosh-mongers; the king has his
courtiers. But there is a difference, and I think it is important.
The courtier, at his worst, at least performs his genuflections be-
fore one who is theoretically his superior, and is surely not less
than his equal. He does not have to abase himself before swine
with whom, ordinarily, he would disdain to have any traffic.
He is not compelled to pretend that he is a worse man than he
really is. He needn't hold his nose in order to approach his
benefactor. Thus he may go into office without having dealt his
honor a fatal wound, and once he is in, he is under no pressure
to sacrifice it further, and may nurse it back to health and vigor.
His sovereign, at worst, has a certain respect for it, and hesi-
tates to strain it unduly; the mob has no sensitiveness on that
point, and, indeed, no knowledge that it exists. The courtier's
sovereign, in other words, is apt to be a man of honor himself.
When, in 1848 or thereabout, Wilhelm I of Prussia was offered
the imperial crown by a so-called parliament of his subjects, he
refused it on the ground that he could take it only from his
equals, i.a., from the sovereign princes of the Reich. To the dem-
ocrats of the world this attitude was puzzling, and on reflection
it began to seem contemptible and offensive. But that was not
to be marveled at. To a democrat any attitude based upon a
concept of honor, dignity and integrity seems contemptible and

The democratic politician, facing such plain facts, tries to
save his amour propre in a characteristically human way; that
is to say, he denies them. We all do that. We convert our degra-
dations into renunciations, our self-seeking into public spirit,
our swinishness into heroism. No man, I suppose, ever admits to
himself candidly that he gets his living in a dishonorable way.

IX. Democracy 165

not even a biter off of puppies' tails. The democratic politician^
confronted by the dishonesty and stupidity of his master, the
mob, tries to convince himself and all the rest of us that it is
really full of rectitude and wisdom. This is the origin of the
doctrine that, whatever its transient errors, democracy always
comes to right decisions in the long run. Perhaps — but on what
evidence, by what reasoning, and for what motives! Go examine
the long history of the anti-slavery agitation in America: it is a
truly magnificent record of buncombe, false pretenses, and im-
becility. This notion that the mob is wise, I fear, is not to be
taken seriously; it was invented by mob-masters to save their
faces. Whenever democracy, by an accident, produces a genu-
ine statesman, he is found to be proceeding on the assumption
that it is not true. And on the assumption that it is difficult, if
not impossible to go to the mob for support, and still retain
the ordinary decencies.

The best democratic statesmanship, like the best non-demo-
cratic statesmanship, tends to safeguard the honor of the higher
officers of state by relieving them of that degrading necessity. As
every schoolboy knows, such was the intent of the Fathers, as
expressed in Article II, Sections 1 and 2, of the Constitution.
To this day it is a common device, when this or that office be-
comes steeped in intolerable corruption, to take it out of the
gift of the mob, and make it appointive. The aspirant, of course,
still has to seek it, for under democracy it is very rare that office
seeks the man, but seeking it of the President, or even of the
Governor of a State, is felt to be appreciably less humiliating
and debasing than seeking it of the mob. The President may be
a Coolidge, and the Governor may be a Blease or a Ma Fergu-
son, but he (or she) is at least able to understand plain English,
and need not be put into good humor by the arts of the circus
clown or Baptist evangelist.

To sum up: the essential objection to feudalism (the perfect
antithesis to democracy) was that it imposed degrading acts and
attitudes upon the vassal; the essential objection to democracy
is that, with few exceptions, it imposes degrading acts and atti-
tudes upon the men responsible for the welfare and dignity of
the state. The former was compelled to do homage to his
suzerain, who was very apt to be a brute and an ignoramus.

i66 A Mencken Chrestomathy

The latter are compelled to do homage to their constituents,

who in overwhelming majority are certain to be both.

Last Words

From the same, pp. 206-212

One of the merits of democracy is quite obvious: it is perhaps
the most charming form of government ever devised by man.
The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that
are palpably not true — and what is not true, as everyone knows,
is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast
majority of men than what is true. Truth has a harshness that
alarms them, and an air of finality that collides with their in-
curable romanticism. They turn, in all the great emergencies of
life, to the ancient promises, transparently false but immensely
comforting, and of all those ancient promises there is none more
comforting than the one to the effect that the lowly shall in-
herit the earth. It is at the bottom of the dominant religious
system of the modern world, and it is at the bottom of the
dominant political system. Democracy gives it a certain appear-
ance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, func-
tioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to
the world — that he is genuinely running things. Out of his
maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to
him a sense of vast and mysterious power — which is what
makes archbishops, police sergeants and other such magnificoes
happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is
somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters
— which is what makes United States Senators, fortune-tellers
and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it
a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done —
which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.

All these forms of happiness, of course, are illusory. They
don't last. The democrat, leaping into the air to flap his wings
and praise God, is forever coming down with a thump. The
seeds of his disaster lie in his own stupidity: he can never get

IX. Democracy 167

rid of the naive delusion — so beautifully Christian! — that hap-
piness is something to be got by taking it away from the other
fellow. But there are seeds, too, in the very nature of things:
a promise, after all, is only a promise, even when it is supported
by divine revelation, and the chances against its fulfilment may
be put into a depressing mathematical formula. Here the irony
that lies under all human aspiration shows itself: the quest for
happiness, as usual, brings only unhappiness in the end. But
saying that is merely saying that the true charm of democracy
is not for the democrat but for the spectator. That spectator, it
seems to me, is favored with a show of the first cut and calibre.
Try to imagine anything more heroically absurd! What gro-
tesque false pretenses! Wliat a parade of obvious imbecilities!
What a welter of fraud! But is fraud unamusing? Then I retire
forthwith as a psychologist. The fraud of democracy, I contend,
is more amusing than any other — more amusing even, and by
miles, than the fraud of religion. Go into your praying-chamber
and give sober thought to any of the more characteristic demo-
cratic inventions. Or to any of the typical democratic prophets.
If you don’t come out paled and palsied by mirth then you
will not laugh on the Last Day itself, when Presbyterians step
out of the grave like chicks from the egg, and wings blossom
from their scapulae, and they leap into interstellar space with
roars of joy.

I have spoken hitherto of the possibility that democracy may
be a self-limiting disease, like measles. It is, perhaps, something
more: it is self-devouring. One cannot observe it objectively
without being impressed by its curious distrust of itself — its
apparently ineradicable tendency to abandon its whole philos-
ophy at the first sign of strain. I need not point to what happens
invariably in democratic states when the national safety is men-
aced. All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions,
convert themselves, by a process as simple as taking a deep
breath, into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity. Nor is this
process confined to times of alarm and terror: it is going on day
in and day out. Democracy always seems bent upon killing
the tiling it theoretically loves. All its axioms resolve themselves
into thundering paradoxes, many amounting to downright con-
tradictions in terms. The mob is competent to rule the rest of

i68 A Mencken Chrestomathy

us — but it must be rigorously policed itself. There is a govern-
ment, not of men, but of laws — but men are set upon benches
to decide finally what the law is and may be. The highest
function of the citizen is to serve the state — but the first as-
sumption that meets him, when he essays to discharge it, is an
assumption of his disingenuousness and dishonor. Is that as-
sumption commonly sound? Then the farce only grows the
more glorious.

I confess, for my part, that it greatly delights me. I enjoy
democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence
incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards,
trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is
balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down.
Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is
every other form of government: all alike are enemies to decent
men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne
that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long
run, it may turn out that rascality is an ineradicable necessity
to human government, and even to civilization itself — that civi-
lization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not
know. I report only that when the suckers are running well the
spectacle is infinitely exhilarating. But I am, it may be, a some-
what malicious man: my sympathies, when it comes to suckers,
tend to be coy. What I can’t make out is how any man can be-
lieve in democracy who feels for and with them, and is pained
when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any
man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat?


The Anglo-Saxon

From The American Tradition, Prejudices: Fourth Series,

1924, pp. 23-42.

First printed in the Baltimore Evening Sun, July 16, 1923

When I speak of Anglo-Saxons, of course, I speak inexactly and
in the common phrase. Even within the bounds of that phrase
the American of the dominant stock is Anglo-Saxon only par-
tially, for there is probably Just as much Celtic blood in his
veins as Germanic, and his norm is to be found, not south of
the Tyne and west of the Severn, but on the two sides of the
northern border. Among the first English colonists there were
many men of almost pure Teutonic stock from the east and
south of England, and their influence is yet visible in many
characteristic American folkways, in certain traditional Ameri-
can ideas — some of them now surviving only in national hypoc-
risies ~ and, above all, in the fundamental peculiarities of the
American dialect of English. But their Teutonic blood was early
diluted by Celtic strains from Scotland, from the north of Ire-
land, from Wales, and from the west of England, and today
those Americans who are regarded as being most thoroughly
Anglo-Saxons — for example, the mountaineers of the Appa-
lachian slopes from Pennsylvania to Georgia— -are obviously
far more Celtic than Teutonic, not only physically but also
mentally. They are leaner and taller than the true English, and
far more given to moral obsessions and religious fanaticism. A
Methodist revival is not an English phenomenon; it is Welsh.
So is the American tendency, marked by every foreign student
of our history, to turn all political combats into moral crusades.
The English themselves, of course, have been greatly polluted
by Scotch, Irish and Welsh blood during the past three cen-
turies, and for years past their government has been largely in


lyo A Mencken Chrestomathy

the hands of Celts, but though this fact, by making them more
like Americans, has tended to conceal the difference that I am
discussing, it has certainly not sufficed to obliterate it alto-
gether. The English notion of humor remains different from the
American notion, and so does the English view of personal lib-
erty, and on the same level of primary ideas there are many
other obvious differences.

But though I am thus convinced that the American Anglo-
Saxon wears a false label, and grossly libels both of the great
races from which he claims descent, I can imagine no good in
trying to change it. Let him call himself whatever he pleases,
^^atever he calls himself, it must be plain that the term he
uses designates a genuinely distinct and differentiated race —
that he is separated definitely, in character and habits of
thought, from the men of all other recognizable strains — that
he represents, among the peoples of the earth, almost a special
species, and that he runs true to type. The traits that he devel-
oped when the first mixture of races took place in colonial days
are the traits that he still shows; despite the vast changes in his
material environment, he is almost precisely the same, in the
way he thinks and acts, as his forefathers were. Some of the
other great races of men, during the past two centuries, have
changed very noticeably, but the American Anglo-Saxon has
stuck to his hereditary guns. Moreover, he tends to show much
less variation than other races between man and man. No other
race, save it be the Chinese, is so thoroughly regimented.

The good qualities of this so-called Anglo-Saxon are many,
and I am certainly not disposed to question them, but I here
pass them over without apology, for he devotes practically the
whole of his literature and fully a half of his oral discourse to
celebrating them himself, and so there is no danger that they
will ever be disregarded. No other known man, indeed, is so
violently the blowhard, save it be his English kinsman. In this
fact lies the first cause of the ridiculous figure he commonly cuts
in the eyes of other people: he brags and blusters so incessantly
that, if he actually had the combined virtues of Socrates, the
Cid and the Twelve Apostles, he would still go beyond the facts,
and so appear a mere Bombastes Furioso. This habit, I believe,
is fundamentally English, but it has been exaggerated in the

X. Americans 171

Americano by his larger admixture of Celtic blood. In late years
in America it has taken on an almost pathological character, and
is to be explained, perhaps, only in terms of the Freudian necro-
mancy. Braggadocio, in the 100% American — we won the
war,’' "it is our duty to lead the world,” and so on — is probably
no more than a protective mechanism erected to conceal an in-
escapable sense of inferiority.

That this inferiority is real must be obvious to any impartial
observer. Whenever the Anglo-Saxon, whether of the English or
of the American variety, comes into sharp conflict with men of
other stocks, he tends to be worsted, or, at best, to be forced
back upon extraneous and irrelevant aids to assist him in the
struggle. Here in the United States his defeat is so palpable that
it has filled him with vast alarms, and reduced him to seeking
succor in grotesque and extravagant devices. In the fine arts, in
the sciences and even in the more complex sorts of business the
children of the later immigrants are running away from the de-
scendants of the early settlers. To call the roll of Americans
eminent in almost any field of human endeavor above the most
elemental is to call a list of strange and often outlandish names;
even the panel of Congress presents a startling example. Of the
Americans who have come into notice during the past fifty years
as poets, as novelists, as critics, as painters, as sculptors and in
the minor arts, less than half bear Anglo-Saxon names, and in
this minority there are few of pure Anglo-Saxon blood. So in the
sciences. So in the higher reaches of engineering and technology.
So in philosophy and its branches. So even in industry and agri-
culture. In those areas where the competition between the new
and the old bloodstreams is most sharp and clear-cut, say in
New York, in seaboard New England and in the farming States
of the upper Middle West, the defeat of the so-called Anglo-
Saxon is overwhelming and unmistakable. Once his predomi-
nance everywhere was actual and undisputed; today, even where
he remains superior numerically, it is largely sentimental and

The descendants of the later immigrants tend generally to
move upward; the descendants of the first settlers, I believe,
tend plainly to move downward, mentally, spiritually and even
physically. Civilization is at its lowest mark in the United States

172 A Mencken Chrestomathy

precisely in those areas where the Anglo-Saxon still presumes to
rule. He runs the whole South — and in the whole South there
are not as many first-rate men as in many a single city of the
mongrel North. Wherever he is still firmly in the saddle, there
we look for such pathological phenomena as Fundamentalism,
Prohibition and Ku Kluxery, and there they flourish. It is not in
the northern cities, with their mixed population, that the death-
rate is highest, and politics most corrupt, and religion nearest to
voodooism, and every decent human aspiration suspect; it is in
the areas that the recent immigrations have not penetrated,
where the purest Anglo-Saxon blood in the world still flows.
I could pile up evidences, but they are not necessary. The fact is
too plain to be challenged. One testimony will be sufficient: it
comes from two inquirers who made an exhaustive survey of a
region in southeastern Ohio, where "the people are more purely
Americans than in the rest of the State":

Here gross superstition exercises strong control over the
thought and action of a large proportion of the people.
Syphilitic and other venereal diseases are common and in-
creasing over whole counties, while in some communities
nearly every family is afflicted with inherited or infectious
disease. Many cases of incest are known; inbreeding is rife.
Imbeciles, feeble-minded, and delinquents are numerous,
politics is corrupt, and selling of votes is common, petty
crimes abound, the schools have been badly managed and
poorly attended. Cases of rape, assault, and robbery are of
almost weekly occurrence within five minutes' walk of the
corporation limits of one of the county seats, while in an-
other county political control is held by a self-confessed
criminal. Alcoholic intemperance is excessive. Gross im-
morality and its evil results are by no means confined to the
hill districts, but are extreme also in the towns.^

As I say, the American of the old stock is not unaware of this
steady, and, of late, somewhat rapid deterioration — this grad-
ual loss of his old mastery in the land his ancestors helped to

^ Since tlie above was written there has been unqualified confirmation
of it by a distinguished English authority, to wit, Arnold J. Toynbee. See
his Study of History, Vol. I, pp. 466-67, and Vol. II, pp. 311-12.

X. Americans 173

wring from the Indian and the wildcat. He senses it, indeed,
very painfully, and, as if in despair of arresting it in fact, makes
desperate efforts to dispose of it by denial and concealment
These efforts often take grotesque and extravagant forms. Laws
are passed to hobble and cage the citizen of newer stocks in a
hundred fantastic ways. It is made difEcult and socially danger-
ous for him to teach his children the speech of his fathers, or to
maintain the cultural attitudes that he has inherited from them.
Every divergence from the norm of the low-cast Anglo-Saxon is
treated as an attentat against the commonwealth, and punished
with eager ferocity.

It so happens that I am myself an Anglo-Saxon — one of far
purer blood, indeed, than most of the half-bleached Celts who
pass under the name in the United States and England. I am
in part Angle and in part Saxon, and what else I am is safely
white, Nordic, Protestant and blond. Thus I feel free, without
risk of venturing into bad taste, to regard frankly the soi-disant
Anglo-Saxon of this incomparable Republic and his rather less
dubious cousin of the Motherland. How do the two appear to
me, after years spent largely in accumulating their disfavor?
What are the characters that I discern most clearly in the so-
called Anglo-Saxon type of man? I may answer at once that
two stick out above all others. One is his curious and apparently
incurable incompetence — his congenital inability to do any dif-
ficult thing easily and well, whether it be isolating a bacillus or
writing a sonata. The other is his astounding susceptibility to
fears and alarms — in short, his hereditary cowardice.

To accuse so enterprising and successful a race of cowardice,
of course, is to risk immediate derision; nevertheless, I believe
that a fair-minded examination of its history will bear me out.
Nine-tenths of the great feats of derring-do that its sucklings are
taught to venerate in school — that is, its feats as a race, not the
isolated exploits of its extraordinary individuals, most of them
at least partly of other stocks — have been wholly lacking in
even the most elementary gallantry. Consider, for example, the
events attending tlie extension of the two great empires, Eng-
lish and American. Did either movement evoke any genuine
courage and resolution? The answer is plainly no. Both empires
were built up primarily by swindling and butchering unarmed

174 A Mencken Chrestomathy
savages, and after that by robbing weak and friendless nations.
Neither produced a hero above the average run of those in the
movies; neither exposed the folks at home to any serious danger
of reprisal. Almost always, indeed, mercenaries have done the
Anglo-Saxon’s fighting for him — a high testimony to his com-
mon sense, but scarcely flattering, I fear, to the truculence he
boasts of. The British empire was won mainly by Irishmen,
Scotchmen and native allies, and the American empire, at least
in large part, by Frenchmen and Spaniards. Moreover, neither
great enterprise cost any appreciable amount of blood; neither
presented grave and dreadful risks; neither exposed the con-
queror to the slightest danger of being made the conquered. The
British won most of their vast dominions without having to
stand up in a single battle against a civilized and formidable
foe, and the Americanos won their continent at the expense of
a few dozen puerile skirmishes with savages. The total cost of
conquering the whole area from Plymouth Rock to the Golden
Gate and from Lake George to the Everglades, including even
the cost of driving out the French, Dutch, English and Span-
iards, was less than the cost of defending Verdun.

So far as I can make out there is no record in history of any
Anglo-Saxon nation entering upon any great war without allies.
The French have done it, the Dutch have done it, the Germans
have done it, the Japs have done it, and even such inferior na-
tions as the Danes, the Spaniards, the Boers and the Greeks
have done it, but never the English or Americans. Can you
imagine the United States resolutely facing a war in which the
odds against it were as huge as they were against Spain in 1898?
The facts of history are wholly against any such fancy. The
Anglo-Saxon always tries to take a gang with him when he goes
into battle, and even when he has it behind him he is very un-
easy, and prone to fall into panic at the first threat of genuine
danger. Flere I put an unimpeachably Anglo-Saxon witness on
the stand, to wit, the late Charles W. Eliot. I find him saying,
in an article quoted with approbation by the Congressional
Record^ that during the Revolutionary War the colonists now
hymned so eloquently in the school-books 'Tell into a condition
of despondency from which nothing but the steadfastness of
Washington and the Continental army and the aid from France

X. Americans 175

saved them/' and that ‘Vhen the War of 1812 brought grave
losses a considerable portion of the population experienced a
moral collapse, from which they were rescued only by the exer-
tions of a few thoroughly patriotic statesmen and the exploits
of three or four American frigates on the seas" — to say nothing
of an enterprising Corsican gentleman, Bonaparte by name.

In both these wars the Americans had enormous and obvious
advantages, in terrain, in allies and in men; nevertheless, they
fought, in the main, very badly, and from the first shot to the
last a majority of them stood in favor of making peace on almost
any terms. The Mexican and Spanish Wars I pass over as per-
haps too obscenely ungallant to be discussed at all; of the for-
mer, U. S. Grant, who fought in it, said that it was '‘the most
unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."
Who remembers that, during the Spanish War, the whole At-
lantic Coast trembled in fear of the Spaniards' feeble fleet —
that all New England had hysterics every time a strange coal-
barge was sighted on the sky-line, that the safe-deposit boxes of
Boston were emptied and their contents transferred to Worces-
ter, and that the Navy had to organize a patrol to save the coast
towns from depopulation? Perhaps those Reds, atheists and pro-
Germans remember it who also remember that during World
War I the entire country went wild with fear of an enemy who,
without the aid of divine intervention, obviously could not strike
it a blow at all — and that the great moral victory was gained at
last with the assistance of twenty-one allies and at odds of eight
to one.^

But the American Civil War remains? Does it, indeed? The
almost unanimous opinion of the North, in 1861, was that it
would be over after a few small battles; the first soldiers were
actually enlisted for but three months. When, later on, it turned
unexpectedly into a severe struggle, recruits had to be driven to
the front by force, and the only Northerners remaining in favor

2 The case of World War II was even more striking. The two enemies
that the United States tackled had been softened by years of a hard strug-
gle with desperate foes, and those foes continued to fight on. Neither
enemy could muster even a tenth of the materials that the American forces
had the use of. And at the end both were outnumbered in men by odds
truly enormous.

176 A Mencken Chrestomathy

of going on were Abraham Lincoln, a few ambitious generals
and the profiteers. I turn to Dr. Eliot again. “In the closing year
of the war,” he says, “large portions of the Democratic party in
the North and of the Republican party, advocated surrender to
the Confederacy, so downhearted were they.” Downhearted at
odds of three to one! The South was plainly more gallant, but
even the gallantry of the South was largely illusory. The Con-
federate leaders, when the war began, adopted at once the tradi-
tional Anglo-Saxon device of seeking allies. They tried and ex-
pected to get the aid of England, and they actually came very
near succeeding. When hopes in that direction began to fade
(i.0., when England concluded that tackling the North would be
dangerous), the common people of the Confederacy threw up
the sponge, and so the catastrophe, when it came at last, was
mainly internal. The South failed to bring the quaking North
to a standstill because, to bonow a phrase that Dr. Eliot uses in
another connection, it “experienced a moral collapse of unprece-
dented depth and duration.” The folks at home failed to sup-
port the troops in the field, and the troops in the field began
to desert. Even so early as Shiloh, indeed, many Confederate
regiments were already refusing to fight.

This reluctance for desperate chances and hard odds, so obvi-
ous in the military record of the English-speaking nations, is
also conspicuous in times of peace. What a man of another and
superior stock almost always notices, living among so-called
Anglo-Saxons, is (a) their incapacity for prevailing in fair rivalry,
either in trade, in the fine arts or in what is called learning — in
brief, their general incompetence, and (b) their invariable effort
to make up for this incapacity by putting some inequitable
burden upon their rivals, usually by force. The Frenchman, I
believe, is the worst of chauvinists, but once he admits a for-
eigner to his country he at least treats that foreigner fairly, and
does not try to penalize him absurdly for his mere foreignness.
The Anglo-Saxon American is always trying to do it; his history
is a history of recunent outbreaks of blind rage against peoples
who have begun to worst him. Such movements would be in-
conceivable in an efficient and genuinely self-confident people,
wholly assured of their superiority, and they would be equally
inconceivable in a truly gallant and courageous people, disdain-

X. Americans 177

ing unfair advantages and overwhelming odds. Tlieoretically
launched against some imaginary inferiority in the non-Anglo-
Saxon man, either as patriot, as democrat or as Christian, they
are actually launched at his general superiority, his greater fit-
ness to survive in the national environment. The effort is always
to penalize him for winning in fair fight, to handicap him in
such a manner that he will sink to the general level of the Anglo-
Saxon population, and, if possible, even below it. Such devices,
of course, never have the countenance of the Anglo-Saxon minor-
ity that is authentically superior, and hence self-confident and
tolerant. But that minority is pathetically small, and it tends
steadily to grow smaller and feebler. The communal laws and
the communal mores are made by the folk, and they offer all the
proof that is necessary, not only of its general inferiority, but
also of its alarmed awareness of that inferiority. The normal
American of the '^pure-blooded'^ majority goes to rest every
night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the
bed, and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that
his underwear has been stolen.

This Anglo-Saxon of the great herd is, in many important re-
spects, the least civilized of white men and the least capable of
true civilization. His political ideas are crude and shallow. He
is almost wholly devoid of esthetic feeling. The most elemen-
tary facts about the visible universe alarm him, and incite him
to put them down. Educate him, make a professor of him,
teach him how to express his soul, and he still remains palpably
third-rate. He fears ideas almost more cravenly than he fears
men. His blood, I believe, is running thin; perhaps it was not
much to boast of at the start; in order that he may exercise any
functions above those of a trader, a pedagogue or a mob orator,
it needs the stimulus of other and less exhausted strains. The
fact that they increase is the best hope of civilization in America.
They shake the old race out of its spiritual lethargy, and intro-
duce it to disquiet and experiment. They make for a free play
of ideas. In opposing the process, whether in politics, in letters
or in the ages-long struggle toward the truth, the prophets of
Anglo-Saxon purity and tradition only make themselves ridic-

A Mencken Chrestomathy

American Culture

From The National Letters, Prejudices: Second Series,

1920, pp. 65-78.

First printed in the Yale Review, June, 1920, pp. 804-17

The capital defect in the culture of These States is the lack of
a civilized aristocracy, secure in its position, animated by an
intelligent curiosity, skeptical of all facile generalizations, su-
perior to the sentimentality of the mob, and delighting in the
battle of ideas for its own sake. The word I use, despite the
qualifying adjective, has got itself meanings, of course, that I
by no means intend to convey. Any mention of an aristocracy,
to a public fed upon democratic fustian, is bound to bring up
images of stockbrokers' wives lolling obscenely in opera boxes,
or of haughty Englishmen slaughtering whole generations of
grouse in an inordinate and incomprehensible manner, or of
bogus counts coming over to work their magic upon the daugh-
ters of breakfast-food and bathtub kings. This misconception be-
longs to the general American tradition. Its depth and extent
are constantly revealed by the naive assumption that the so-
called fashionable folk of the large cities ~ chiefly wealthy
industrials in the interior-decorator and country-club stage of
culture — constitute an aristocracy, and by the scarcely less re-
markable assumption that the peerage of England is identical
with the gentry that is, that such men as Lord Northcliffe,
Lord Riddel and even Lord Reading were English gentlemen.

Here, as always, the worshiper is the father of the gods, and
no less when they are evil than when they are benign. The in-
ferior man must find himself superiors, that he may marvel at
his political equality with them, and in the absence of recog-
nizable superiors de facto he creates superiors de jure. The sub-
lime principle of one man, one vote must be translated into
terms of dollars, diamonds, fashionable intelligence; the equal-
ity of all men before the law must have clear and dramatic
proofs. Sometimes, perhaps, the thing goes further and is more
subtle. The inferior man needs an aristocracy to demonstrate,
not only his mere equality, but also his actual superiority. The

X. Americans 179

society columns in the newspapers may have some such origin.
They may visualize once more the accomplished journalist’s un-
derstanding of the mob mind that he plays upon so skillfully, as
upon some immense and cacophonous organ, always going fortis-
simo. What the inferior man and his wife see in the sinister
revels of those brummagem first families, I suspect, is often a
massive witness to their own higher rectitude — in brief, to their
firmer grasp upon the immutable axioms of Christian virtue,
the one sound boast of the nether nine-tenths of humanity in
every land under the cross.

'^But this bugaboo aristocracy is actually bogus, and the evi-
dence of its bogusness lies in the fact that it is insecure.. One
gets into it only onerously, but out of it very easily. Entrance is
effected by dint of a long and bitter struggle, and the chief inci-
dents of that struggle are almost intolerable humiliations. The
aspirant must school and steel himself to sniffs and sneers; he
must see the door slammed upon him a hundred times before
ever it is thrown open to him. To get in at all he must show a
talent for abasement — and abasement makes him timorous.
Worse, that timorousness is not cured when he succeeds at last.
On the contrary, it is made even more tremulous, for what he
faces within the gates is a scheme of things made up almost
wholly of harsh and often unintelligible taboos, and the penalty
for violating even the least of them is swift and disastrous. He
must exhibit exactly the right social habits, appetites and preju-
dices, public and private. He must harbor exactly the right en-
thusiasms and indignations. He must have a hearty taste for ex-
actly the right sports and games. His attitude toward the fine
arts must be properly tolerant and yet not a shade too eager.
He must read and like exactly the right books, pamphlets and
public journals. He must put up at the right hotels when he
travels. His wife must patronize the right milliners. He himself
must stick to the right haberdashery. He must live in the right
neighborhood. He must even embrace the right doctrines of re-
ligion. It would ruin him, for all society column purposes, to
move to Union Hill, N. }., or to drink coffee from his saucer,
or to marry a chambermaid with a gold tooth, or to join the
Seventh Day Adventists. Within the boundaries of his curious
order he is worse fettered than a monk in a cell. Its obscure con-

i8o A Mencken Chrestomathy

ception of propriety, its nebulous notion that this or that is
honorable, hampers him in every direction, and very narrowly.
What he resigns when he enters, even when he makes his first
deprecating knock at the door, is every right to attack the ideas
that happen to prevail within. Such as they are, he must accept
them without question. And as they shift and change he must
shift and change with them, silently and quickly.

Obviously, that order cannot constitute a genuine aristocracy,
in any rational sense. "A genuine aristocracy is grounded upon
very much different principles. Its first and most salient character
is its interior security, and the chief visible evidence of that se-
curity is the freedom that goes with it — not only freedom in
act, the divine right of the aristocrat to do what he damn well
pleases, so long as he does not violate die primary guarantees
and obligations of his class, but also and more importantly free-
dom in thought, the liberty to try and err, the right to be his
own man. It is the instinct of a tme aristocracy, not to punish
eccentricity by expulsion, but to throw a mantle of protection
about it — to safeguard it from the suspicions and resentments
of the lower orders. Those lower orders are inert, timid, inhos-
pitable to ideas, hostile to changes, faithful to a few maudlin
superstitions. All progress goes on on the higher levels. It is there
that salient personalities, made secure by artificial immunities,
may oscillate most widely from the normal track. It is within
that entrenched fold, out of reach of the immemorial certainties
of the mob, that extraordinary men of the lower orders may
find their city of refuge, and breathe a clear air. This, indeed, is
at once the hall-mark and the justification of a genuine aristoc-
racy — that it is beyond responsibility to the general masses of
men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and
their no less degraded aversions. It is nothing if it is not auton-
omous, curious, venturesome, courageous, and everything if it
is. It is the custodian of the qualities that make for change and
experiment; it is the class that organizes danger to the service of
the race; it pays for its high prerogatives by standing in the fore-
front of tlie fray.

. No such aristocracy, it must be plain, is now on view in the
United States, The makings of one were visible in the Virginia
of the Eighteenth Century, but with Jefferson and Washington

X. Americans iSi

the promise died. In New England, it seems to me, there was
never anything of the sort, either in being or in nascency: there
was only a theocracy that degenerated very quickly into a plu-
tocracy on the one hand and a caste of sterile pedants on the
other — the passion for God splitting into a lust for dollars and
a weakness for mere words. Despite the common notion to the
contrary — a notion generated by confusing literacy with intelli-
gence — the New England of the great days never showed any
genuine enthusiasm for ideas. It began its history as a slaughter-
house of ideas, and it is today not easily distinguishable from a
cold-storage plant. Its celebrated adventures in mysticism, once
apparently so bold and significant, are now seen to have been
little more than an elaborate hocus-pocus — respectable Uni-
tarians shocking the peasantry and scaring the horned cattle in
the fields by masquerading in the robes of Rosicrucians. The
notions that it embraced in those austere and far-off days were
stale, and when it had finished with them they were dead. So
in politics. Since the Civil War it has produced fewer political
ideas, as political ideas run in the Republic, than any average
county in Kansas or Nebraska. Appomattox seemed to be a vic-
tory for New England idealism. It was actually a victory for the
New England plutocracy, and that plutocracy has dominated
thought above the Housatonic ever since. The sect of profes-
sional idealists has so far dwindled that it has ceased to be of
any importance, even as an opposition. When the plutocracy
is challenged now, it is challenged by the proletariat.

Well, what is on view in New England is on view in all other
parts of the nation, sometimes with ameliorations, but usually
with the colors merely exaggerated.'^ What one beholds, sweep-
ing the eye over the land, is a culture that, like the national lit-
erature, is in three layers — the plutocracy on top, a vast mass
of undifferentiated human blanks bossed by demagogues at the
bottom, and a forlorn intelligentsia gasping out a precarious life
between. I need not set out at any length, I hope, the intel-
lectual deficiencies of the plutocracy — its utter failure to show
anything even remotely resembling the makings of an aristoc-
racy. It is badly educated, it is stupid, it is full of low-caste
superstitions and indignations, it is without decent traditions or
informing vision; above all, it is extraordinarily lacking in the

i 82 a Mencken Chrestomathy

most elemental independence and courage. Out of this class
comes the grotesque fashionable society of our big towns, al-
ready described. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority ■— moral
certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear. Never does it func-
tion more revealingly than in the recurrent pogroms against
radicalism, i.e,, against humorless persons who, like Andrew
Jackson, take the platitudes of democracy seriously. And what is
the theory at the bottom of all these proceedings? So far as it
can be reduced to comprehensible terms it is much less a theory
than a fear — a shivering, idiotic, discreditable fear of a mere
banshee — an overpowering, paralyzing dread that some extra-
eloquent Red, permitted to emit his balderdash unwhipped,
may eventually convert a couple of courageous men, and that
the courageous men, filled with indignation against the plutoc-
racy, may take to the highroad, burn down a nail-factory or
two, and slit the throat of some virtuous profiteer.

Obviously, it is out of reason to look for any hospitality to
ideas in a class so extravagantly fearful of even the most palpa-
bly absurd of them. Its philosophy is firmly grounded upon the
thesis that the existing order must stand forever free from at-
tack, and not only from attack, but also from mere academic
criticism, and its ethics are as firmly grounded upon the thesis
that every attempt at any such criticism is a proof of moral
turpitude. Within its own ranks, protected by what may be re-
garded as the privilege of the order, there is nothing to take the
place of this criticism. In other countries the plutocracy has
often produced men of reflective and analytical habit, eager to
rationalize its instincts and to bring it into some sort of rela-
tionship to the main streams of human thought. The case of
David Ricardo at once comes to mind, and there have been
many others: John Bright, Richard Cobden, George Grote. But
in the United States no such phenomenon has been visible. Nor
has the plutocracy ever fostered an inquiring spirit among its
intellectual valets and footmen, which is to say, among the gen-
tlemen who compose headlines and leading articles for its news-
papers. What chiefly distinguishes the daily press of the United
States from the press of all other countries pretending to culture
is not its lack of truthfulness or even its lack of dignity and
honor, for these deficiencies are common to newspapers every-

X. Americans 183

where, but its incurable fear of ideas, its constant effort to evade
the discussion of fundamentals by translating all issues into a
few elemental fears, its incessant reduction of all reflection to
mere emotion. It is, in the true sense, never well-informed. It is
seldom intelligent, save in the arts of the mob-master. It is never
courageously honest. Held harshly to a rigid correctness of
opinion, it sinks rapidly into formalism and feebleness. Its yel-
low section is perhaps its best section, for there the only vestige
of the old free journalist survives. In the more respectable pa-
pers one finds only a timid and petulant animosity to all ques-
tioning of the existing order, however urbane and sincere — a
pervasive and ill-concealed dread that the mob now heated up
against the orthodox hobgoblins may suddenly begin to unearth
hobgoblins of its own, and so run amok.

For it is upon the emotions of the mob, of course, that the
whole comedy is played. Theoretically, the mob is the reposi-
tory of all political wisdom and virtue; actually, it is the ultimate
source of all political power. Even the plutocracy cannot make
war upon it openly, or forget the least of its weaknesses. The
business of keeping it in order must be done discreetly, warily,
with delicate technique. In the main that business consists in
keeping alive its deep-seated fears — of strange faces, of unfa-
miliar ideas, of unhackneyed gestures, of untested liberties and
responsibilities. The one permanent emotion of the inferior
man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear ■— fear of the un-
known, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants beyond
everything else is security. His instincts incline him toward a so-
ciety so organized that it will protect him at all hazards, and not
only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his
mind — against the need to grapple with unaccustomed prob-
lems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scru-
tinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based.


The Sahara of the Bozart

From Prejudices: Second Series, 1920, pp. 136-54. This was first
printed, in shorter form, in the New York Evening Mailf Nov. 13, 1917. It
produced a ferocious reaction in the South, and I was belabored for months,
and even years afterward in a very extravagant manner. The essay in its
final form, as it is here reproduced, dates sadly, but I have let it stand as a
sort of historical document. On the heels of the violent denunciations of
the elder Southerners there soon came a favorable response from the more
civilized youngsters, and there is reason to believe that my attack had some-
thing to do with that revival of Southern letters which followed in the
middle 1920s

Alas, for the South! Her books have grown fewer —

She never was much given to literature.

In the lamented J. Gordon Coogler, author of these elegiac
lines, there was the insight of a true poet. He was the last bard
of Dixie, at least in the legitimate line. Down there a poet is
now almost as rare as an oboe-player, a dry-point etcher or a
metaphysician. It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a
vacuity. One thinks of the interstellar spaces, of the colossal
reaches of the now mythical ether. Nearly the whole of Europe
could be lost in that stupendous region of worn-out farms,
shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums: one could throw in
France, Germany and Italy, and still have room for tlie British
Isles. And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the prog-
ress it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectu-
ally, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. There are single acres in
Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south
of the Potomac; there are probably single square miles in Amer-
ica. If the whole of the late Confederacy were to be engulfed by
a tidal wave tomorrow, the effect upon the civilized minority of


XL The South 185

men in the world would be but little greater than that of a flood
on the Yang'tse-kiang. It would be impossible in all history to
match so complete a drying-up of a civilization.

I say a civilization because that is what, in the old days, the
South had, despite the Baptist and Methodist barbarism that
reigns down there now. More, it was a civilization of manifold
excellences — perhaps the best that the Western Hemisphere
had ever seen — undoubtedly the best that These States have
ever seen. Down to the middle of the last century, and even be-
yond, the main hatchery of ideas on this side of the water was
across the Potomac bridges. The New England shopkeepers and
theologians never really developed a civilization; all they ever
developed was a government. They were, at their best, tawdry
and tacky fellows, oafish in manner and devoid of imagination;
one searches the books in vain for mention of a salient Yankee
gentleman; as well look for a Welsh gentleman. But in the
South there were men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct and
aristocratic manner in brief, superior men — in brief, gentry.
To politics, their chief diversion, they brought active and orig-
inal minds. It was there that nearly all the political theories we
still cherish and suffer under came to birth. It was there that the
crude dogmatism of New England was refined and humanized.
It was there, above all, that some attention was given to the art
of living — that life got beyond and above the state of a mere in-
fliction and became an exhilarating experience. A certain notable
spaciousness was in the ancient Southern scheme of things. The
Ur-Confederate had leisure. He liked to toy with ideas. He was
hospitable and tolerant. He had the vague thing that we call

But consider the condition of his late empire today. The
picture gives one the creeps. It is as if the Civil War stamped
out every last bearer of the torch, and left only a mob of peasants
on the field. One thinks of Asia Minor, resigned to Armenians,
Greeks and wild swine, of Poland abandoned to the Poles. In
all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate there is 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, or a
single public monument that is worth looking at, or a single

i86 A Mencken Chrestomathy

workshop devoted to the making of beautiful things. Once you
have counted James Branch Cabell (a lingering survivor of the
ancien regime: a scarlet dragon-fly imbedded in opaque amber)
you will not find a single Southern prose writer who can actually
write. And once you have — but when you come to critics, musi-
cal composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like, you
will have to give it up, for 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.

Consider, for example, the present estate and dignity of Vir-
ginia— -in the great days indubitably the premier American
state, the mother of Presidents and statesmen, the home of the
first American university worthy of the name, the arbiter ele-
gantiarum of the Western World. Well, observe Virginia to-
day. It is years since a first-rate man, save only Cabell, has come
out of it; it is years since an idea has come out of it. The old
aristocracy went down the red gullet of war; the poor white trash
are now in the saddle. Politics in Virginia are cheap, ignorant,
parochial, idiotic; there is scarcely a man in office above the rank
of a professional job-seeker; the political doctrine that prevails
is made up of hand-me-downs from the bumpkinry of the Mid-
dle West — Bryanism, Prohibition, all that sort of filthy clap-
trap; the administration of the law is turned over to professors
of Puritanism and espionage; a Washington or a Jefferson,
dumped there by some act of God, would be denounced as a
scoundrel and jailed overnight

Elegance, esprit, culture? Virginia has no art, no literature, no
philosophy, no mind or aspiration of her own. Her education
has sunk to the Baptist seminary level; not a single contribution
to human knowledge has come out of her colleges in twenty-
five years; she spends less than half upon her common schools,
per capita, than any Northern state spends. In brief, an intellec-
tual Gobi or Lapland. Urbanity, politesse, chivalry? Go to! It
was in Virginia that they invented the device of searching for
contraband whiskey in women's underwear. . . . There remains,
at the top, a ghost of the old aristocracy, a bit wistful and in-
finitely charming. But it has lost all its old leadership to fabu-

XL The South 187

lous monsters from the lower depths; it is submerged in an in-
dustrial plutocracy that is ignorant and ignominious. The mind
of the state^ as it is revealed to the nation, is pathetically naive
and inconsequential. It no longer reacts with energy and elas-
ticity to great problems. It has fallen to the bombastic trivialities
of the camp-meeting and the stump. One could no more imag-
ine a Lee or a Washington in the Virginia of today than one
could imagine a Huxley in Nicaragua.

I choose the Old Dominion, not because I disdain it, but pre-
cisely because I esteem it. It is, by long odds, the most civilized
of the Southern states, now as always. It has sent a host of cred-
itable sons northward; the stream kept running into our own
time. Virginians, even the worst of them, show the effects of a
great tradition. They hold themselves above other Southerners,
and with sound pretension. If one turns to such a common-
wealth as Georgia the picture becomes far darker. There the
liberated lower orders of whites have borrowed the worst com-
mercial bounderism of the Yankee and superimposed it upon a
culture that, at bottom, is but little removed from savagery.
Georgia is at once the home of the cotton-mill sweater, of the
Methodist parson turned Savonarola and of the lynching bee.
A self-respecting European, going there to live, would not only
find intellectual stimulation utterly lacking; he would actually
feel a certain insecurity, as if the scene were the Balkans or the
China Coast. There is a state with more than half the area of
Italy and more population than either Denmark or Norway, and
yet in thirty years it has not produced a single idea. Once upon
a time a Georgian printed a couple of books that attracted
notice, but immediately it turned out that he was little more
than an amanuensis for the local blacks — that his works were
really the products, not of white Georgia, but of black Georgia.
Writing afterward as a white man, he swiftly subsided into the
fifth rank. And he is not only the glory of the literature of Geor-
gia; he is, almost literally, the whole of the literature of Georgia
— nay, of the entire art of Georgia.^

Virginia is the best of the South today, and Georgia is per-
haps the worst. The one is simply senile; the other is crass, gross,
vulgar and obnoxious. Between lies a vast plain of mediocrity,
1 The reference here, of course, was to Joel Chandler Harris.

i88 A Mencken Chrestomathy

stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence. In the North, of
course, there is also grossness, crassness, vulgarity. The North, in
its way, is also stupid and obnoxious. But nowhere in the North
is there such complete sterility, so depressing a lack of all civi-
lized gesture and aspiration. One would find it difficult to un-
earth a second-rate city between the Ohio and the Pacific that
isn't struggling to establish an orchestra, or setting up a little
theater, or going in for an art gallery, or making some other
effort to get into touch with civilization. These efforts often fail,
and sometimes they succeed rather absurdly, but under them
there is at least an impulse that deserves respect, and that is the
impulse to seek beauty and to experiment with ideas, and so to
give the life of every day a certain dignity and purpose. You will
find no such impulse in the South. There are no committees
down there cadging subscriptions for orchestras; if a string quar-
tet is ever heard there, the news of it has never come out; an
opera troupe, when it roves the land, is a nine days' wonder.
The little theater movement has swept the whole country, enor-
mously augmenting the public interest in sound plays, giving
new dramatists their chance, forcing reforms upon the commer-
cial theater. Everywhere else the wave rolls high — but along
the line of the Potomac it breaks upon a rock-bound shore.
There is no little theater beyond. There is no gallery of pictures.
No artist ever gives exhibitions. No one talks of such things. No
one seems to be interested in such things.

As for the cause of this unanimous torpor and doltishness, this
curious and almost pathological estrangement from every^thing
that makes for a civilized culture, I have hinted at it already, and
now state it again. The South has simply been drained of all its
best blood. The vast hemorrhage of the Civil War half extermi-
nated and wholly paralyzed the old aristocracy, and so left the
land to the harsh mercies of the poor white trash, now its mas-
ters. The war, of course, was not a complete massacre. It spared
a decent number of first-rate Southerners — perhaps even some
of the very best. Moreover, other countries, notably France and
Germany, have survived far more staggering butcheries, and
even showed marked progress thereafter. But tibe war not only
cost a great many valuable lives; it also brought bankruptcy, de-
moralization and despair in its train — and so the majority of

XL The South 189

the first-rate Southerners that were left, broken in spirit and un-
able to live under the new dispensation, cleared out. A few went
to South America, to Egypt, to the Far East. Most came north.
They were fecund; their progeny is widely dispersed, to the great
benefit of the North. A Southerner of good blood almost always
does well in the North. He finds, ev^en in the big cities, sur-
roundings fit for a man of condition. His peculiar qualities have
a high social value, and are esteemed. He is welcomed by the
codfish aristocracy as one palpably superior. But in the South he
throws up his hands. It is impossible for him to stoop to the
common level. He cannot brawl in politics witli the grandsons
of his grandfather's tenants. He is unable to share their fierce
jealousy of the emerging black — the cornerstone of all their
public thinking. He is anesthetic to their theological and politi-
cal enthusiasms. He finds himself an alien at their feasts of soul.
And so he withdraws into his tower, and is heard of no more.
Cabell is almost a perfect example. His eyes, for years, were
turned toward the past; he became a professor of the grotesque
genealogizing that decaying aristocracies affect; it was only by a
sort of accident that he discovered himself to be an artist. The
South is unaware of the fact to this day; it regards Woodrow
Wilson and John Temple Graves as much finer stylists, and
Frank L. Stanton as an infinitely greater poet. If it has heard,
which I doubt, that Cabell has been hoofed by the Comstocks,
it unquestionably views that assault as a deserved rebuke to a
fellow who indulges a lewd passion for fancy writing, and is a
covert enemy to the Only True Christianity.

What is needed down there, before the vexatious public prob-
lems of the region may be intelligently approached, is a survey
of the population by competent ethnologists and anthropolo-
gists. The immigrants of the North have been studied at great
length, and anyone who is interested may now apply to the
Bureau of Ethnology for elaborate data as to their racial strains,
their stature and cranial indices, their relative capacity for edu-
cation, and the changes that they undergo under American
Kultur, But the older stocks of the South, and particularly the
emancipated and dominant poor white trash, have never been
investigated scientifically, and most of the current generaliza-
tions about them are probably wrong. For example, the general-

igo A Mencken Chrestomathy

ization that they are purely Anglo-Saxon in blood. This I doubt
very seriously. The chief strain down there, I believe, is Celtic
rather than Saxon, particularly in the hill country. French blood,
too, shows itself here and there, and so does Spanish, and so
does German. The last-named entered from the northward, by
way of the limestone belt just east of the Alleghenies. Again, it
is very likely that in some parts of the South a good many of the
plebeian whites have more than a trace of Negro blood. Inter-
breeding under concubinage produced some very light half-
breeds at an early day, and no doubt appreciable numbers of
them went over into the white race by the simple process of
changing their abode. Not long ago I read a curious article by
an intelligent Negro, in which he stated that it is easy for a very
light Negro to pass as white in the South on account of the
fact that large numbers of Southerners accepted as white have
distinctly negroid features. Thus it becomes a delicate and dan-
gerous matter for a train conductor or a hotel-keeper to chal-
lenge a suspect. But the Celtic strain is far more obvious than
any of these others. It not only makes itself visible in physical
stigmata *— e.g,, leanness and dark coloring — but also in mental
traits. For example, the religious thought of the South is almost
precisely identical with the religious thought of Wales. There
is the same naive belief in an anthropomorphic Creator but little
removed, in manner and desire, from an evangelical bishop;
there is the same submission to an ignorant and impudent sacer-
dotal tyranny, and there is the same sharp contrast between doc-
trinal orthodoxy and private ethics. Read Caradoc Evans's iron-
ical picture of the Welsh Wesleyans in his preface to My
Neighbors," and you will be instantly reminded of the Georgia
and Carolina Methodists. The most booming sort of piety, in
the South, is not incompatible with the theory that lynching
is a benign institution. Two generations ago it was not incom-
patible with an ardent belief in slavery.

It is highly probable that some of the worst blood of western
Europe flows in the veins of the Southern poor whites, now poor
no longer. The original strains, according to every honest his-
torian, were extremely corrupt. Philip Alexander Bruce (a Vir-
ginian of the old gentry) says in his "Industrial History of Vir-
ginia in the Seventeenth Century" that the first native-born

XI. The South 191

generation was largely illegitimate. “One of the most common
offenses against morality committed in the lower ranks of life
in Virginia during the Seventeenth Century,” he says, “was
bastardy.” The mothers of these bastards, he continues, were
chiefly indentured servants, and “had belonged to the lowest
class in their native country.” Fanny Kemble Butler, writing of
the Georgia poor whites of a century later, described them as
“the most degraded race of human beings claiming an Anglo-
Saxon origin that can be found on the face of the earth — filthy,
lazy, ignorant, brutal, proud, penniless savages.” The Sunday-
school and the chautauqua, of course, have appreciably mel-
lowed the descendants of these “savages,” and their economic
progress and rise to political power have done perhaps even
more, but the marks of their origin are still unpleasantly plenti-
ful. Every now and then they produce a political leader who
puts their secret notions of the true, the good and the beautiful
into plain words, to the amazement and scandal of tire rest of
the country. That amazement is turned into downright incredu-
lity when news comes that his platform has got him high office,
and that he is trying to execute it.

In the great days of the South the line between the gentry
and the poor whites was very sharply drawn. There was abso-
lutely no intermarriage. So far as I know there is not a single
instance in history of a Southerner of the upper class marrying
one of the bondwomen described by Mr. Bruce. In other socie-
ties characterized by class distinctions of that sort it is common
for the lower class to be improved by extra-legal crosses. That is
to say, the men of the upper class take women of the lower
class as mistresses, and out of such unions spring the extraordi-
nary plebeians who rise sharply from the common level, and so
propagate the delusion that all other plebeians would do the
same thing if they had the chance — in brief, the delusion that
class distinctions are merely economic and conventional, and
not congenital and genuine. But in the South the men of the
upper classes sought their mistresses among the blacks, and after
a few generations there was so much white blood in the black
women that they were considerably more attractive than the
unhealthy and bedraggled women of the poor whites. This pref-
erence continued into our own time. A Southerner of good

ig2 A Mencken Chrestomathy

family once told me in all seriousness that he had reached his
majority before it ever occurred to him that a white woman
might make quite as agreeable a mistress as the octaroons of his
jejune fancy. If the thing has changed of late, it is not the fault
of the Southern white man, but of the Southern mulatto
women. The more sightly yellow girls of the region, with im-
proving economic opportunities, have gained self-respect, and so
they are no longer as willing to enter into concubinage as their
grand-dams were.

As a result of this preference of the Southern gentry for mu-
latto mistresses there was created a series of mixed strains con-
taining the best white blood of the South, and perhaps of the
whole country. As another result the poor whites went unfer-
tilized from above, and so missed the improvement that so con-
stantly shows itself in the peasant stocks of other countries. It
is a commonplace that nearly all Negroes who rise above the
general are of mixed blood, usually with the white predominat-
ing. I know a great many Negroes, and it would be hard for me
to think of an exception. What is too often forgotten is that this
white blood is not the blood of the poor whites but that of the
old gentry. The mulatto girls of the early days despised the
poor whites as creatures distinctly inferior to Negroes, and it
was thus almost unheard of for such a girl to enter into rela-
tions with a man of that submerged class. This aversion was
based upon a sound instinct. The Southern mulatto of today is
a proof of it. Like all other half-breeds he is an unhappy man,
with disquieting tendencies toward anti-social habits of thought,
but he is intrinsically a better animal than the pure-blooded de-
scendant of the old poor whites, and he not infrequently demon-
strates it. It is not by accident that the Negroes of the South
are making faster progress, culturally, than the masses of the
whites. It is not by accident that the only visible esthetic activ-
ity in the South is in their hands. No Southern composer has
ever written music so good as that of half a dozen white-black
composers who might be named. Even in politics, the Negro
reveals a curious superiority. Despite the fact that the race ques-
tion has been the main political concern of the Southern whites
for two generations, to the practical exclusion of everything else,

XL The South ig^

they have contributed nothing to its discussion that has im-
pressed the rest of the world so deeply and so favorably as three
or four books by Southern Negroes.

Entering upon such themes, of course, one must resign one's
self to a vast misunderstanding and abuse. The South has not
only lost its old capacity for producing ideas; it has also taken
on the worst intolerance of ignorance and stupidity. Its prevail-
ing mental attitude for several decades past has been that of its
own hedge ecclesiastics. All who dissent from its orthodox doc-
trines are scoundrels. All who presume to discuss its ways realisti-
cally are damned. I have had, in my day, several experiences in
point. Once, after I had published an article on some phase of
the eternal race question,^ a leading Southern newspaper re-
plied by printing a column of denunciation of my father, then
dead nearly twenty years — a philippic placarding him as an ig-
norant foreigner of dubious origin, inhabiting the Baltimore
ghetto" and speaking a dialect recalling that of Weber & Fields
— two thousand words of incandescent nonsense, utterly false
and beside the point, but exactly meeting the latter-day Southern
notion of effective controversy. Another time, I published a short
discourse on lynching, arguing that the sport was popular in the
South because the backward culture of the region denied the
populace more seemly recreations. Among such recreations I
mentioned those afforded by brass bands, symphony orchestras,
boxing matches, amateur athletic contests, horse races, and so
on. In reply another great Southern journal denounced me as a
man "of wineshop temperament, brass-jewelry tastes and porno-
graphic predilections." In other words, brass bands, in the South,
are classed with brass jewelry, and both are snares of the devil!
To advocate setting up symphony orchestras is pornography!
. . . Alas, when the touchy Southerner attempts a greater ur-
banity, the result is often even worse. Some time ago a colleague
of mine printed an article deploring the arrested cultural de-
velopment of Georgia. In reply he received a number of protests
from patriotic Georgians, and all of them solemnly listed the
glories of the state. I indulge in a few specimens:

2 Si Mutare Potest Aethiops Pellum Suam, Smart Set, Sept, 1917, pp.
1 38-42 .

194 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Who has not heard of Asa G. Candler, whose name is
synonymous with Coca-Cola, a Georgia product?

The first Sunday-school in the world was opened in Sa-

Who does not recall with pleasure the writings of , . .
Frank L. Stanton, Georgia's brilliant poet?

Georgia was the first state to organize a Boys' Corn Club
in tlie South — Newton county, 1904.

The first to suggest a common United Daughters of the
Confederacy badge was Mrs. Raynes, of Georgia.

The first to suggest a state historian of the United
Daughters of the Confederacy was Mrs. C. Helen Plane
(Macon convention, 1896) .

The first to suggest putting to music Heber's 'Trom
Greenland's Icy Mountains" was Mrs. F. R. Goulding, of

And so on, and so on. These proud boasts came, remember,
not from obscure private persons, but from leading Georgians"
— in one case, the state historian. Curious sidelights upon the
ex-Confederate mind! Another comes from a stray copy of a
Negro paper. It describes an ordinance passed by the city coun-
cil of Douglas, Ga., forbidding any trousers presser, on penalty
of forfeiting a $500 bond, to engage in "pressing for both white
and colored." This in a town, says the Negro paper, where prac-
tically all of the white inhabitants have "their food prepared by
colored hands," "their babies cared for by colored hands," and
"the clothes which they wear right next to their skins washed in
houses where Negroes live" — houses in which the said clothes
"remain for as long as a week at a time." But if you marvel at
the absurdity, keep it dark! A casual word, and the united press
of the South will be upon your trail, denouncing you bitterly
as a scoundrelly damnyankee, a Bolshevik Jew.

Obviously, it is impossible for intelligence to flourish in such
an atmosphere. Free inquiry is blocked by the idiotic certainties
of ignorant men. The arts, save in the lower reaches of the
gospel hymn, the phonograph and the political harangue, are all
held in suspicion. The tone of public opinion is set by an up-
start class but lately emerged from industrial slavery into com-

XL The South 195

mercial enterprise — the class of "'bustling”" business men, of
"live wires/” of commercial club luminaries, of "drive”” managers,
of forward-lookers and right-thinkers — in brief, of third-rate
Southerners inoculated with all the worst traits of the Yankee
sharper. One observes the curious effects of an old tradition of
truculence upon a population now merely pushful and impu-
dent, of an old tradition of chivalry upon a population now
quite without imagination. The old repose is gone. The old ro-
manticism is gone. Tlie philistinism of the new type of town-
boomer Southerner is not only indifferent to the ideals of the
Old South; it is positively antagonistic to them. That philistin-
ism regards human life, not as an agreeable adventure, but as a
mere trial of rectitude and efficiency. It is overwhelmingly utili-
tarian and moral. It is inconceivably hollow and obnoxious.
What remains of the ancient tradition is simply a certain charm-
ing civility in private intercourse — often broken down, alas, by
the hot rages of Puritanism, but still generally visible. The
Southerner, at his worst, is never quite the surly cad that the
Yankee is. His sensitiveness may betray him into occasional bad
manners, but in the main he is a pleasant fellow ■— hospitable,
polite, good-humored, even jovial. . . . But a bit absurd. . . .
A bit pathetic.

The Confederate Mind

From the Smart Set, Oct., 1921, pp. 42-43

Many of the curious phenomena which engage and delight the
psychologist in the late Confederate States are probably ex-
plicable as effects of a tradition of truculence operating upon a
population that is congenitally timorous and even poltroonish.
That tradition comes down from the Southern aristocracy of
the old days, which bred it as a part of the general tradition of
feudalism. The old-time Soutiberner of the ruling caste was pri-
marily a cavalier, i.e,, a cavalry officer, and cultivated all the
qualities that go with the trade. He carried arms and knew how
to use them; he cultivated a chivalrous attitude toward women;

196 A Mencken Chrestomathy

he was quick to resent injuries, and enjoyed combat; he tried to
model himself, not upon Cromwell, but upon the Cid. This tra-
dition, as I say, survives, but the actual cavalier is almost extinct.
In his place, making his gestures and trying absurdly to think
his thoughts, there is the Southerner of today, a man usually
of very humble origin and often of true proletarian instincts.
His great-grandfather was not a gentleman, but a farm laborer,
and very probably one bound by terms which made him almost
a slave. "S^en, now, this scion of an inferior stock, moved by
what he regards as his duty as a Southerner, rolls his eye in the
best Chevalier Bayard manner, reaches for his weapon and tries
to scare the vulgar to death — when this spectacle is unfolded
the effect is not unlike that of a sheep trying to bark.

No actual gallantry is left in the South, save as the private
possession of a small minority of surviving first-rate Southerners.
The thing that the new lords of the soil have on tap is simply a
puerile imitation of it. In place of dueling they mob. Instead
of the old high tone of controversy there is nothing but doggery
brawling. These new Southerners, at bottom, are no better and
no worse than any other men of their class. If they follow their
natural instincts they would be no more obnoxious than the
newly emancipated and enriched proletarians of any other re-
gion. But the fatal tradition of truculence lies upon them, and,
yielding to it, they become nuisances. It is as if so many Russian
muzhiks should put on horn-rimmed spectacles and set up shop
as philosophers.

The Calamity of Appomattox

From tlie American Mercury, Sept., 1930, pp. 29-31

No American historian, so far as I know, has ever tried to work
out the probable consequences if Grant instead of Lee had been
on the hot spot at Appomattox. How long would the victorious
Confederacy have endured? Could it have surmounted the diffi-
culties inherent in the doctrine of States’ Rights, so often in-
convenient and even paralyzing to it during the war? Could it

XL The South igy

have remedied its plain economic deficiencies, and become a
self-sustaining nation? How would it have protected itself
against such war heroes as Beauregard and Longstreet, Joe
Wheeler and Nathan B. Forrest? And what would have been its
relations t5 the United States, socially, economically, spiritually
and politically?

I am inclined, on all these counts, to be optimistic. The chief
evils in the Federal victory lay in the fact, from which we still
suffer abominably, that it was a victory of what we now call
Babbitts over what used to be called gentlemen. I am not argu-
ing here, of course, that the whole Confederate army was com-
posed of gentlemen; on the contrary, it was chiefly made up,
like the Federal army, of innocent and unwashed peasants, and
not a few of them got into its corps of officers. But the impulse
behind it, as everyone knows, was essentially aristocratic, and
that aristocratic impulse would have fashioned the Confederacy
if the fortunes of war had run the other way. Whatever the de-
fects of the new commonwealth below the Potomac, it would
have at least been a commonwealth founded upon a concept of
human inequality, and with a superior minority at the helm. It
might not have produced any more Washingtons, Madisons,
Jeffersons, Calhouns and Randolphs of Roanoke, but it would
certainly not have yielded itself to the Heflins, Caraways, Bilbos
and Tillmans.

The rise of such bounders was a natural and inevitable conse-
quence of the military disaster. That disaster left the Southern
gentry deflated and almost helpless. Thousands of the best
young men among them had been killed, and thousands of those
who survived came North. They commonly did well in the
North, and were good citizens. My own native town of Balti-
more was greatly enriched by their immigration, both culturally
and materially; if it is less corrupt today than most other large
American cities, then the credit belongs largely to Virginians,
many of whom arrived with no baggage save good manners and
empty bellies. Back home they were sorely missed. First the
carpetbaggers ravaged the land, and then it fell into the hands of
the native white trash, already so poor that war and Reconstruc-
tion could not make them any poorer. When things began to
improve they seized whatever was seizable, and their heirs and

ig8 A Mencken Chrestomathy

assigns, now poor no longer, hold it to this day. A raw plutoc-
racy owns and operates the New South, with no challenge save
from a proletariat, white and black, that is still three-fourths
peasant, and hence too stupid to be dangerous. The aristocracy
is almost extinct, at least as a force in government, it may sur-
vive in backwaters and on puerile levels, but of the men who
run the South today, and represent it at Washington, not 5%,
by any Southern standard, are gentlemen.

If the war had gone with the Confederates no such vermin
would be in the saddle, nor would there be any sign below the
Potomac of their chief contributions to American Kultur — Ku
Kluxry, political ecclesiasticism, nigger-baiting, and the more
homicidal variety of wowserism. Such things might have arisen
in America, but they would not have arisen in the South. The
old aristocracy, however degenerate it might have become,
would have at least retained sufficient decency to see to that.
New Orleans, today, would still be a highly charming and civi-
lized (if perhaps somewhat zymotic) city, with a touch of Paris
and another of Port Said. Charleston, which even now sprouts
lady authors, would also sprout political philosophers. The Uni-
versity of Virginia would be what Jefferson intended it to be,
and no shouting Methodist would haunt its campus. Richmond
would be, not the dull suburb of nothing that it is now, but a
beautiful and consoling second-rate capital, comparable to Buda-
pest, Brussels, Stockholm or The Hague. And all of us, with the
Middle West pumping its revolting silo juices into the East and
West alike, would be making frequent leaps over the Potomac,
to drink the sound red wine there and breathe the free air.

My guess is that the two Republics would be getting on pretty
amicably. Perhaps they'd have come to terms as early as 1898,
and fought the Spanish-American War together. In 1917 tire
confiding North might have gone out to save the world for de-
mocracy, but the South, vaccinated against both Wall Street
and the Liberal whim-wham, would have kept aloof — and
maybe rolled up a couple of billions of profit from the holy cru-
sade. It would probably be far richer today, independent, than
it is with the clutch of the Yankee mortgage-shark still on its
collar. It would be getting and using his money just the same,
but his toll would be less. As things stand, he not only exploits

XL The South 199

the South economically; he also pollutes and debases it spiritu-
ally. It suffers damnably from low wages, but it suffers even
more from the Chamber of Commerce metaphysic.

No doubt the Confederates, victorious, would have abolished
slavery by the middle 80s. They were headed that way before
the war, and the more sagacious of them were all in favor of it.
But they were in favor of it on sound economic grounds, and
not on the brummagem moral grounds which persuaded the
North. The difference here is immense. In human history a
moral victory is always a disaster, for it debauches and degrades
both the victor and the vanquished. The triumph of sin in 1865
would have stimulated and helped to civilize both sides.

Today the way out looks painful and hazardous. Civilization
in the United States survives only in the big cities, and many of
them — notably Boston and Philadelphia — seem to be sliding
down to the cow country level. No doubt this standardization
will go on until a few of the more resolute towns, headed by
New York, take to open revolt, and try to break out of the
Union. Already, indeed, it is talked of. But it will be hard to
accomplish, for the tradition that the Union is indissoluble is
now firmly established. If it had been broken in 1865 life would
be far pleasanter today for every American of any noticeable de-
cency. There are, to be sure, advantages in Union for everyone,
but it must be manifest that they are greatest for the worst kinds
of people. All the benefit that a New Yorker gets out of Kansas
is no more than what he might get out of Saskatchewan, the
Argentine pampas, or Siberia. But New York to a Kansan is not
only a place where he may get drunk, look at dirty shows and
buy bogus antiques; it is also a place where he may enforce his
dunghill ideas upon his betters.


A Mencken Chrestomathy

A Class A Blunder

From Miscellaneous Notes, Prejudices: Fifth Series,

1926, pp. 291-92.

First printed in the Amencan Mercury, April, 1925, p. 449

The Southern gentry made a capital mistake when they yielded
to pressure from the poor white trash and connived at the dis-
franchisement of the colored brother. Had they permitted him
to vote they would have retained political control of all the
Southern States, for the black, like the peasant everywhere else,
would have followed his natural masters. As it was, control
quickly passed to the white trash, who still maintain it, though
some of them have ceased to be poor. The gentry now struggle
in vain to get back in the saddle; they lack the votes to achieve
the business unaided, and the blacks, who were ready to follow
them in 1870, have become incurably suspicious of them. The
result is that politics in the South remains fathomlessly swinish.
Every civilized Southerner knows it and is ashamed of it, but
the time has apparently passed to do anything about it. To get
rid of its demagogues the South would have to wait until the
white trash were themselves civilized. This would be a matter
demanding almost as much patience as the long vigil of the
Seventh Day Adventists.



From DamnI A Book of Calumny, 1918, pp. 52-33

It is the misfortune of humanity that its history is chiefly written
by third-rate men. The first-rate man seldom has any impulse to
record and philosophize; his impulse is to act; life, to him, is an
adventure, not a syllogism or an autopsy. Thus the writing of
history is left mainly to professors, moralists, theorists, dunder-
heads. Few historians, great or small, have shown any capacity
for the affairs they presume to describe and interpret. Gibbon
was an inglorious failure as a member of Parliament. Thucydides
made such a mess of his naval command that he was exiled from
Athens for twenty years and finally assassinated. Flavius Jo-
sephus, serving as governor of Galilee, lost the whole province
to the Romans, and had to flee for his life. Momssen, elected to
the Prussian Landtag, became an easy mark for the Socialists.

How much better we would understand the habits and nature
of man if there were more historians like Julius Caesar, or even
like Niccolo Machiavelli. Remembering the sharp and devastat-
ing character of their rough notes, think what marvelous his-
tories Bismarck and Frederick the Great might have written.
Such men are privy to the facts; the usual historians have to
depend on deductions, rumors, guesses. Again, such men know
how to tell the truth, however unpleasant; they are wholly free
of that puerile moral obsession which marks the professor. . . •
But how seldom it is that they tell it



A Mencken Chrestomathy

Forgotten Men

From the American Mercury, March, 1928, pp. 280-82

Happy nations, said Cesare Bonesano Beccaria, have no history.
Nor, it appears, have intelligent men; at all events, they are
seldom remembered generally, and almost never with respect.
All the great heroes of the human race have preached things
palpably not true, and practised things palpably full of folly.
Their imbecilities, surviving, constitute the massed wisdom of
Homo sapiens, lord of the lion and the whale, the elephant and
the wolf, though not, as yet, of the gnat and the fly, the cock-
roach and the rat. So surviving, these august imbecilities con-
ceal the high probability that, when they were new, they must
have been challenged sharply by doubting and dare-devil men
— that sober reason must have revolted against them contempo-
raneously, as it does today. But of that revolt, in most cases,
nothing is known. The penalty of intelligence is oblivion.

Consider, for example, the case of those ancient Jews whose
banal speculations about the origin of things still afflict the
whole of Christendom, to say nothing of Islam. Is it possible to
believe that, in the glorious Eighth and Ninth Centuries b.c.,
all Jews swallowed that preposterous rubbish — that the race
was completely devoid of intelligent men, and knew nothing of
an enlightened public opinion? I find it hard to go so far. The
Jews, at that time, had already proved that they were the best of
the desert tribes, and by long odds, and they were fast moving
to the front as city folks, i.e., as civilized men. Yet the only Jew-
ish document that comes down to us from tliat great day is part
of the Book of Genesis, a farrago of nonsense so wholly absurd
that even Sunday-school scholars have to be threatened with
Hell to make them accept it. The kind of mind it reveals is the
kind one encounters today among New York wash-room attend-
ants, Mississippi newspaper editors, and Tennesseee judges. It is
barely above the level of observation and ratiocination of a
bright young jackass.

Are we to assume that this appalling mind was the best Jewish
mind of the time — that Genesis represents the finest flowering

XIL History 203

of the Jewish national genius? To ask the question is to answer
it. The Jews, you may rest assured, were not unanimously of
such low mental visibility. There were enlightened men among
them as well as sorcerers and theologians. They had shrewd and
sophisticated fellows who were to Moses and the other patriarchs
as Thomas Henry Huxley was to Gladstone. They had lost and
happy souls who laughed at Genesis quite as loudly the day it
was released as it is laughed at today by the current damned.
But of these illuminati not a word survives in the records of the
Jews. Of their animadversions upon Moses's highfalutin tosh —
and no doubt those animadversions were searching and devastat-
ing — we lack even so much as the report of a report. Thus all
we know today of the probably brilliant and enterprising intel-
lectual life of the ante-Exile Jews is contained in a compilation
of balderdash by certain of their politicians and ecclesiastics. It
is as if their descendants of our own time were to be measured
by the sonorous rumble-bumble of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and
Otto H. Kahn. It is as if the American civilization we sweat
and prosper under were to go down into history in terms of
Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford and Arthur Brisbane.

Well, why not? Those, perhaps, are the precise terms in
which it is to go down. On second thought, I change perhaps
into no doubt. What has happened invariably in the past will
keep on happening to the end of the chapter. Certainly we
can't expect to escape the fate of Greece and Rome — and both
Greece and Rome are chiefly remembered today (and venerated
by the learned and unintelligent) by the records of their second-
and third-rate men. Is it seriously argued that Plato was the
most enlightened Greek of his age? Then it may be argued with
equal plausibility that Upton Sinclair has been the most en-
lightened American of this one. Item by item the two match; as
political scientists, as professors of esthetics, as experts on the
natural processes. In some ways, true enough, Plato was clearly
superior to Sinclair: for one thing, he was better versed in the
jargon of metaphysics, heavenly maid ~ which is to say, in the
jargon of organized nonsense. But I think that no one will under-
take to deny that Sinclair beats him on the pharmacology of
alcohol, on the evils of voluptuousness, and on the electronic
vibrations of the late Dr. Albert Abrams.

204 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Plato survives today as one of the major glories of Greece.
Put upon oath in a court of law, more specialists in dead ideas
would probably rate him as the greatest Greek of them all. But
you may be sure that there were Athenians in his own day who,
dropping in to hear his Message, carried away a different notion.
Some of them were very bright fellows, and privy to the philo-
sophical arcana. They had heard all the champions, and had
their private views. I suggest somewhat diffidently that there
were ideas in the Republic and the Laws that made them retire
to the nearby wine-shops to snigger. But no one remembers
those immune Athenians today, nor the hard-boiled fellows who
guffawed at the court of Philip of Macedon. The world recalls
only Plato.

Here, I sincerely hope, I shall not be mistaken for one who
seeks to cry that great man down. On the contrary, I venerate
him. There is implicit in his writings, though not often ex-
plicit, the operation of an intellect of a superior order. What-
ever may be said against him, he at least refrained from ratify-
ing the political, theological and epistemological notions that
were current in his time. He was no Athenian Rotarian, but his
very intelligence made him remember, when he got up before
his customers, that it was necessary to adapt his speculations to
their capacities and prejudices. Like Woodrow Wilson in a
later age, he had a weakness for oratory, and got himself en-
meshed in its snares. Some of his principal works are no more
than reports of his harangues, and the heat in them singes the
sense. He suffered, as all reflective men must suffer, from the
fact that what is put into words for the general ear can never
come within even the remotest reach of what is pondered in the
privacy of the study or praying-room.

The case of Abraham Lincoln immediately recalls itself. He
was, I believe, one of the most intelligent men ever heard of in
his realm ■— but he was also a politician, and, in his last years.
President of the Federal Union. The fact worked an imme-
morial cruelty upon him when he visited the battlefield of Get-
iysburg, on November 19, 1863. One may easily imagine the
reflections that the scene and ihe occasion must have inspired
in so sagacious and unconventional a man — at all events, one
may imagine the more obvious of them. They were, it is highly

XIL History 205

probable, of an extremely acrid and unpleasant nature. Before
him stretched row upon row of new-made graves; around him
ranged the gaunt cinders of a witless and abominable war. The
thought must have occurred to him at once that —

But before him there also stretched an acre or two of faces
— the faces of dull Pennsylvania peasants from the adjacent
farms, with here and there the jowls of a Philadelphia politician
gleaming in the pale Winter sunlight. It was too cold that day
to his badly-cushioned bones for a long speech, and the audi-
ence would have been mortally offended by a good one. So old
Abe put away his reflections, and launched into the tried and
sure-fire stuff. Once started, the furor loquendi dragged him on.
Abandoning the simple and crystal-clear English of his consid-
ered utterance, he stood a sentence on its head, and made a
pretty parlor ornament of it. Proceeding, he described the causes
and nature of the war in terms of the current army press bureau.
Finally, he launched a sonorous, meaningless epigram, and sat
down. There was immense applause. TTie Pennsylvania oafs
were delighted. And the speech remains in all the school-books
to this day.

Lincoln had too much humor in him to leave a diary, and so
we do not know what he thought of it the day following, or a
month later, or a year. But it is safe to assume, I believe, that
he vacillated often between laughing at it sourly and hanging
himself. For he was far too intelligent to believe in any such
Kiwanian bombast. He could no more have taken it seriously
than he took the strutting of Mr. Secretary Seward seriously, or
the cerebral steam-pressure of General Grant. He knew it, you
may be sure, for what it was. He was simply doomed, like many
another good man before and after him, to keep his soundest
and loftiest thoughts to himself. Just as Plato had to adapt his
most penetrating and revolutionary thoughts to the tastes and
comprehension of the sophomores assembled to hear him, so
Lincoln had to content himself, on a great occasion, with ideas
comprehensible to Pennsylvania Dunkards, which is to say, to
persons to whom genuine ideas were not comprehensible at all.
Knowing their theological principles, he knew that, in the po-
litical field, they grazed only on pansies.

Nor is this all The highest flights of human intellect are not

2o6 a Mencken Chrestomathy

only inordinately offensive to the overwhelming majority of
men; they are also, at least in large part, incapable of reduction
to words. Thus the best thought of the human race does not
appear in its written records. What is set down in orderly and
seemly sentences, even today, always has some flavor in it of the
stilted rubbish that the Sumerian Icings used to engrave upon
their tombs. The current cliches get into it inevitably; it is never
quite honest. Complete honesty, intellectually, seldom expresses
itself in formal words: its agents of notification are rather winks
and sniggers, hip flasks and dead cats. The language was not
made for it. Reading Shakespeare, a man of penetrating intelli-
gence, one frequently observes him trying to put a really novel
and apposite thought into words — and falling helplessly into
mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. The groundlings pulled
him and the deficiencies of human speech pushed him. The
result is many a magnificent salvo of nonsense, vastly esteemed
by the persons who esteem that sort of thing.

I propose no remedy. In fact, I am convinced that no remedy
is possible, or even imaginable. The human race seems doomed
to run, intellectually, on its lowest gear. Sound ideas, when by
chance they become articulate, annoy it and terrify it; it pre-
fers the sempiternal slobber.


From the Baltimore Evening Sunf Dec. 22 , 1930

It is the law of political revolution that the actual upset of a
government is always preceded by concessions to the malcontent
party. So long as Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico like a house of cor-
rection he was perfectly safe, but the moment he released Fran-
cisco Madero from jail and began to talk of reforming the judi-
ciary, dividing the big estates and widening the suffrage his
doom was sealed, and within a year he was a fugitive and
Madero was President. So with the Czar of Russia, He signed
his own death warrant when he signed the decree calling the
first Duma: even if a World War had never come he would

XII. History 207

have lost his throne inevitably, and his head with it So in many
another case, ancient and modern. There has never been a suc-
cessful revolution out of the clear sky. Always the doomed
despot has prepared for it by making concessions to his enemies.

The psychology behind this phenomenon is so simple that
even a psychoanalyst should be able to penetrate it. What pro-
tects the despot, so long as he lays about him boldly, is the fact
that very few men, even among rebels, have any appreciable
courage. Whether physically or morally, they seldom attack a
power that can really hurt them, and is plainly willing and eager
to do so. But the moment that power shows any sign of fading
into weakness, they become very daring and are hot for defying
it. Next to outright abdication, the chief sign of such weaken-
ing, at least to most men, is a readiness to compromise. They
have no belief whatever in the excuses commonly given for it:
generosity, a sense of justice, conversion to new ideas, and so on.
They always see it, and perhaps quite rightly, as simply a cloak
for fear.

Thus the despot who hedges, no matter how exalted his mo-
tives may be in his own view, appears to his enemies as one who
has lost his grip, and at the first chance they fly at his throat,
usually to the tune of loud protestations of altruism. The leaders
among them appear suddenly to be full of courage, for courage
is always a relative matter, and the man who runs from a lion
in the full possession of its faculties will pull the tail of a lion
down with the palsy. Simultaneously, the camp-followers and
me-toos, hitherto discreetly silent, begin to beat heroically on
washtubs and to demand a chance to get at him.

New England

From The Last New Englander, Prejudices: Fifth Series,
1926, pp. 244-54

Orthodox American history assumes that the witch-burners and
infant-damners had it all their own way in New England, even
down to Revolutionary times. They actually met with sturdy

2o8 a Mencken Chrestomathy

opposition from the start. All their seaports gradually filled up
with sailors who were anything but pious Christian men, and
even the back-country had its heretics, as the incessant wars
upon them demonstrate. The fact that only Puritans could vote
in the towns has deceived the historians; tliey mistake what was
the law for what was really said and done. We have had proofs
in our own time that that error is easy. Made by students of
early New England, it leads to multiple absurdities.

The fact is that the civilization that grew up in the region,
such as it was, owed very little to the actual Puritans; it was
mainly the product of anti-Puritans, either home-bred or im-
ported. Even the school system, so celebrated in legend, owed
whatever value was in it to what were currently regarded as
criminals. The Puritans did not found their schools for the pur-
pose of propagating what is now known as learning; they founded
them simply as nurseries of orthodoxy. Beyond the barest rudi-
ments nothing of any worldly value was taught in them. The
principal subject of study, first and last, was theology, and it
was theology of the most grotesque and insane sort ever cher-
ished by man. Genuine education began in New England only
when the rising minority of anti-Puritans, eventually to become
a majority, rose against this theology, and tried to put it down.
The revolt was first felt at Harvard; it gradually converted a
seminary for the training of Puritan pastors into something re-
sembling an actual university. Harvard delivered New England,
and made civilization possible there. All the men who adorned
that civilization in the days of its glory — Emerson, Hawthorne
and all the rest of them — were essentially anti-Puritans.

Today, save in its remoter villages. New England is no more
Puritan than, say, Maryland or Missouri. There is scarcely a
Protestant clergyman in the entire region who, if the Mathers
could come back to life, would not be condemned by them in-
stantly as a heretic, and even as an atheist. The dominant the-
ology is mild, skeptical and wholly lacking in passion. The
evangelical spirit has completely disappeared. Save in a small
minority of atavistic fanatics, there is a tolerance that is almost
indistinguishable from indifference. Roman Catholicism and
Christian Science are alike viewed amiably. The old heat is gone.
Where it lingers in America is in far places — on the Methodist

XIL History 209

prairies of the Middle West, in the Baptist back-waters of the
South. There, I believe, it still retains not a little of its old
vitality. There Puritanism survives, not merely as a system of
theology, but also as a way of life. It colors every human activity;
it is powerful in politics; learning wears its tinge. To charge a
Harvard professor of today with, agnosticism would sound as
banal as to charge him with playing the violoncello. But his col-
league of Kansas, facing the same accusation, would go damp
upon the forehead, and his colleague of Texas would leave
town between days.

New Deal No. 1

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, Dec. 31, 1934

The state of affairs in France in 1845 ^ groat deal like the

state of affairs in the United States in 1928. The country, after
some heavy grunting and contriving, had at last recovered from
the Napoleonic wars, there was an immensely stupid but im-
mensely respectable King on the throne, the Cabinet, headed by
F. P. G. Guizot, was committed to the principle of *Teace and
no reform, business was good and getting better, the prices of
all stocks and bonds were striking new highs, wages were soaring
with them, and the whole landscape seemed to be covered with
molasses. The English, glowering across the channel, and the
Germans, stealing dark glances over the Rhine, were frankly
envious, and it was at this time, I believe, that the latter in-
vented one of the most eloquent of their phrases, wie Goff in

But in 1847 something slipped, and before the year was out
France was tortured by billions of ants in its pantaloons. No
one seemed to know Just what had happened. One day every-
thing was lovely, and the next day there was a panic on the
Stock Exchange, the shops of Paris were suddenly empty, fac-
tories were closing down everywhere, and hundreds of thou-
sands of Frenchmen were out of work. The politicians, of
course, all had glib explanations, some saying one thing and

210 A Mencken Chrestomathy

some another, and the professors at the Sorbonne issued a great
many contradictory graphs and tables of statistics, but the plain
people distrusted the former as rogues and the latter as idiots,
and in consequence there was much murmuring in the land.

It went on pianissimo for six months or so, and then rose un-
pleasantly to forte, with frequent bursts of sformndo. Simulta-
neously a great many new wizards began to rove die country,
many of them preaching a novel gospel called Socialism, lately
invented by a man named Karl Marx. The whole trouble, said
these wizards, was due to the Rotten Rich. France, it appears,
was still bursting with wealth, but the Rotten Rich were hog-
ging all of it. Look at their elegant carriages in the Bois, with
red wheels, plate-glass doors and coachmen arrayed like am-
bassadors. Regard the obscene way in which they drape silks,
satins, pearls, rubies and diamonds upon their wives, daughters
and concubines. Take a peep, mon cher, into their baroque
mansions, and observe the immoral displays of gilt chairs,
leopard-skin rugs, and hand-painted oil paintings. Above all, my
little rabbit, think of their tight hold upon their docile serf,
that false and wicked King, Louis Philippe.

So on February 24, 1848, Louis Philippe was heaved out, and
a provisional government was set up in his place. This govern-
ment, it turned out later, was operated from behind the scenes
by professional politicians, but all the plain people could see of
it at the start was an impressive Brain Trust, then something
new in the world. There have been many Brain Trusts since,
and some of them have glittered with genius, but certainly there
has never been another that took the shine off this first one. For
it not only included all the political and economic advanced
thinkers of the time, from Louis Blanc to Louis Blanqui, and
from Jacques Cavaignac to Alexandre Ledru-Rollin; it also could
show a gifted proletarian metaphysician, Alexandre Albert, and
a celebrated poet, Alphonse de Lamartine.

These talented men proceeded at once to give France a
Planned Economy. The capitalistic system was abolished over-
night, and in place of it there was established a system of Shared
Wealth, not unlike the late Huey Long's. It was ordained that
the old inequality between man and woman should cease, and

XII. History 211

that every freeborn French citizen should have in future, not
what he could get, but what he yearned for. But where was the
money to come from? From the Rotten Rich, of course. Hadn’t
they been grinding the faces of the poor since the days of
Charlemagne? Weren’t they known to be so full of their ill-
gotten spoils that their very hides were nigh to bursting?

Unfortunately, making them disgorge was not as easy as it
looked. Large numbers of them had departed for Palo Alto with
Louis Philippe, and many had managed to take their gold and
chattels with them. The rest protested that they were broke like
everyone else. Their baroque mansions were boarded up and
their anthropophagous factories were shut down. All through the
Winter jobs became scarcer and scarcer. People began to tramp
through the streets of Paris demanding bread. The Brain Trust
labored day and night on its revolutionary plans to make society
over, but even its boldest and most forward-looking devices
could not keep pace with the backward slosh of events.

Finally, it came out with a new scheme, and announced that
the problem was solved at last. The trouble hitherto, it ex-
plained, had been that the plain people had depended too
much on the Rotten Rich for jobs. Now all that would be
done away with. Henceforth, the dishing out of all jobs would
be in the hands of the Government, which is to say, of the
Brain Trust. Public factories would be erected at once, and
every workman who wanted to work would be accommodated.
There would be no more unemployment in France, and the
workers, instead of yielding up 99% of the fruits of their labor
to capital, would henceforth take all.

The erection of these factories was intrusted to a young ad-
vanced thinker with the charming name of Marie, and he fell
to work furiously. In addition, he prepared to undertake open-
air public works on an enormous scale — the construction of two
huge railway stations in Paris, the dredging of the River Oise,
the building of new canals and railways in all directions, and
so on. But for some reason undetermined — maybe the secret
machinations of the outlawed capitalists, maybe the sinister
workings of the law of supply and demand — all the jobs thus
made failed to accommodate the hordes of jobless. In fact, their

212 A Mencken Chrestomathy

numbers kept on increasing, and soon there were riots in Paris,
and M. Marie was out of a job himself, and a bright young
professor named Thomas was put in his place.

But Professor Thomas came a cropper, too, and by the end of
1848 France was in a far worse state than it had been at the
beginning of its New Deal. Many members of the original
Brain Trust had been sent packing by now, but others always
turned up, and these recruits kept on functioning with in-
creasing assiduity as the dismal year wore on. Every day they
announced some new and grander scheme to bring in the millen-
nium, and every day they abandoned some busted one. Mean-
while, the plain people went on looking for jobs and not finding
them, and the politicians behind the scenes waited for their
chance. It came in December. Within the space of a few days
they turned the Brain Trust out and made the accommodating
Louis Napoleon President of France. At once the Rotten Rich
began to creep back, the closed factories began to reopen, and
there began to be jobs again. Three years later Louis Napoleon
became Emperor.

Some of the details of this story are worth noting. One is that
the Brain Trust, despite all its highfalutin pretensions, was never
anything save a sort of falseface for politicians. They let it rave
on so long as the plain people believed in its magic, but when
that magic was seen to be bogus by everyone tliey emerged from
behind the arras, and took over their old business at the old
stand. Another is that the Brain Trust, though it was made up of
the self-confessed first intellects of the time, scored a complete
goose egg. Not a single one of its fine schemes to bring in the
More Abundant Life really worked. At the end of its operations
all that it had to show was a gigantic public debt, the highest
tax rate ever heard of in France, and an almost endless line of

What this adventure cost the country, first and last, I don't
know, but certainly it must have been many millions of francs.
Its goat was the French taxpayer. He had to pay, in the end, for
all the crazy building of gaudy railway stations, and all that
frantic dredging of rivers and digging of canals. Starting out
with the thesis that the Rotten Rich were scoundrels and ought
to be squeezed, the Brain Trust proceeded easily to the thesis

XI I . History 213

that any man who had any property whatsoever was a scoundrel,
too, and ought to be squeezed equally. The rich, in the main,
managed to escape, but the little fellow could not get away, and
squeezed he surely was.

And what became of the Brain Trust when the show w^as
over? It disappeared as mysteriously as it had come together,
leaving scarcely a trace. The only genius on its roll who was a
man of any actual distinction in the world was the poet, Lamar-
tine. After it blew up, he decided to go in for politics profes-
sionally, and in 1849 he ran for President of France against
Louis Napoleon. Beaten by millions of votes, he returned to the
poetical business, but even at that he could no longer make a
living, and in his last days the French Government had to put
him on the dole. Of such sort were the smart and saucy fellows
who undertook, in the France of a centur}^ ago, to overthrow
the capitalistic system, redistribute wealth, abolish poverty, find
a job for everyone, and bring in the New Jerusalem.

The Greeks

From the American Mercury^ Oct., 1927, pp. 254-55. A review of
The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. V; Cambridge (England), 1927

The Greeks of the palmy days remain the most overestimated
people in all history. Ever since the Renaissance it has been a
high indecorum to question their genius, and never a month
passes that another book does not come out, praising them in
loud, astounding terms. More men of the first rank were assem-
bled in the Athens of Pericles, we are told, than any other
city, or even any other nation, has ever housed. Going further,
we are told that they remain unsurpassed to this day, in quality
as in quantity. Greek science is depicted as the father of all
modern science, Greek art as the Ur-art, Greek philosophy as the
last word in reason, and the Greek government of Pericles's
time as democracy made perfect. In all this, alas, there is mainly
only buncombe. The plain facts are that Greek science, even at
its best, would be hard to distinguish from the science prevail-

214 A Mencken Chrestomathy

ing among Hottentots, Haitians and Mississippi Baptists today,
that Greek art was chiefly only derivative and extremely narrow
in range, that Greek philosophy was quite as idiotic as any other
philosophy, and that the government of the Greeks, even at its
best, was worse than the worst of Tammany. One discovers
plenty of proofs of all this in the present massive volume. It was
written by scholars sharing the usual academic prejudice in
favor of everything Greek, but nevertheless they manage to tell
the truth in it, at least between the lines. They show that the
salient Greek philosophers of Pericles's time were almost identi-
cal with the Chautauqua orators of bucolic America, and that the
more enlightened Greeks regarded them as public nuisances.
They show that beauty, to the Greeks, was not something for
everyday, but a rare luxury and means of display. They show
that the Greek government was knavish and incompetent —
that it was constantly engaging in crooked enterprises abroad,
and frequently became so corrupt and oppressive at home that
the decent people of Athens had to rise up and reform it. And
they show that most of the genuinely intelligent Greeks were
foreigners, and that such natives as showed sense, e.g., Aris-
tophanes, were commonly thrown out of the country.

The Greek language was the first lost tongue recovered in
modern times, and the men who recovered it naturally made as
much as they could of the ideas that came with it. Ever since
the Renaissance it has been a mark of intellectual distinction
to know Greek, though there is no record that knowing it has
ever helped any man to think profitable thoughts. That distinc-
tion, to be sure, now begins to fade and wear thin, but there
was a time, just before the beginning of the current rapid in-
crease of knowledge, when it rose above all other forms of in-
tellectual eminence, and it was during that period tliat the
world was saddled with the exalted view of Greece and the
Greeks that still survives. In so far as it is not a mere sentimen-
tality, it is grounded, I believe, upon the scantiness of our rec-
ords of other peoples, contemporaneous with the Greeks or pre-
ceding them. If die history of Greek philosophy were known
accurately, it would probably turn out to be no more than
an imitation of some earlier philosophy, now forgotten — and
maybe abandoned by its inveritors as nonsense. In architecture

XIL History 215

and the other arts, it is certainly absurd to say that the Greeks
invented anything. They got the column from the Egyptians,
who had perfected it a thousand years before the Parthenon, and
they slavishly followed the Egyptians in their neglect of the
arch. Their excellent materials were accidental, and in working
them they showed no originality. Was the Greek drama really
indigenous? I shall believe it when it is proved that the Sanskrit
drama was also indigenous, and not an imitation of some Per-
sian, or maybe even Assyrian prototype. Were the Greeks scien-
tists? Then so are the modern chiropractors. What they had of
exact knowledge, in fact, was mainly borrowed, and most of it
was spoiled in the borrowing. And the Greek religion? The best
that one may say of it is that none of the intelligent foreigners
who frequented Athens believed in it, and that many of them
were jailed, exiled and even put to deatli for making fun of it.
As for the Greek genius for politics, it revealed its true measure
in the fact that no Greek government ever lasted for more than
a century, and that most of them ended in scandal and disaster.

Plere I make no fatuous attempt to read the Greeks out of
court altogether. They were, for their time, an enterprising and
progressive people, and they left us an immensely rich heritage,
partly of sound ideas and partly of pleasant delusions and super-
stitions. But we probably owe a great deal more to the Egyp-
tians, and quite as much to the lesser peoples who infested the
eastern shores of the Mediterranean, notably the Phoenicians,
the earlier Minoans, the Jews, and the forerunners of the later
Arabs. The one genuinely solid contribution of the Greeks to
human progress lay in their attempt to synthesize and organize
whatever knowledge was afloat in the world of their day. This
business they achieved with great skill. But out of their own
heads they produced little that is valid and important to modern
man, save perhaps in the dreams of pedagogues seeking to as-
tonish schoolboys. The Greeks themselves, restored to earth,
would laugh at the pretension to the contrary, as they laughed
at the Grecomaniac Romans. If they had any virtue above all
others, it was the virtue of skepticism. They were, in that de-
partment at least, the first of modern men. The barbaric surges
and thunders of the Odyssey, in these twilight days of Christen-
dom, are moving only to professors of Greek — which is to say,

2i6 a Mencken Chrestomathy

to men whose opinion on any other subject would be rejected
even by their fellow professors — and the enjoyment of Greek
tragedy, that unparalleled bore, is confined almost wholly to
actresses who have grown too fat for Ibsen; but the ideas of
Lucian and Aristophanes still live, and so do those of the Four


From the American Mercury, Sept., 1929, pp. 23-24

War naturally sucks in those who can be most profitably spared,
and lets go most of those whose talents are really useful. One
hears, now and then, of promising young men cut down too
soon, but the science of statistics scarcely justifies the accom-
panying mourning. Let us turn, for example, to the Civil War.
In the Union Army, during the four years of the war, there were
2,666,999 men who reached the field, and of this number
110,070 were killed in battle or died of wounds, 199,720 died of
disease, and 40,154 perished otherwise — murdered, killed by
accident, or done to death in prisons. Of those who were mur-
dered or died of accident or disease, probably 100,000 would
have died anyhow. Deducting that number, the total net loss
comes to about 250,000. How many men were wounded is not
certain, but probably the number ran to at least 1,000,000.

We don't know, of course, what the dead men would have
done if they had lived, but we may reach some approximation to
it by examining the wounded who survived. How many of them,
after the war, contributed anything that was genuinely interest-
ing to civilization? Searching the record for weary days and
nights I can find but three names: those of Major Ambrose
Bierce, Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Private George
Westinghouse. The typical eminentissimo who survived the
Civil War was not of this company; he was the shallow political
plug, McKinley. All the really important men of the post-Civil
War era, all the men who developed and fecundated such cul-
ture as we now have, from John D. Rockefeller to Walt Whit-
man, from Grover Cleveland to William James, from Mark

XII. History 217

Twain to Cyrus Field, from Andy Carnegie to Mark Hanna,
from William Dean Howells to Bronson Howard, from John
Fiske to James Russell Lowell, and from Willard Gibbs to Brig-
ham Young — all these men were slackers, and leaped not to the
cannon's roar. The three exceptions that research reveals I have
listed. Apply the ratio to those who perished, and it appears
that the Civil War cost American Kultur exactly three-fourths
of a really valuable man. Call Fitz-James O'Brien, who died of
his wounds, the other fourth — and the net loss comes to one

The melancholy conclusion that the science of statistics thus
points to is amply confirmed by a study of military history. Of
all the arts practised by man, the art of the soldier seems to call
for the least intelligence and to develop the least professional
competency. Every battle recorded in history appears as a series
of almost incredible blunders and imbecilities — • always, at least,
on one side, and usually, on both. One marvels, reading the
chronicles, that any major engagement was ever won. Even the
greatest generals — for example, Bonaparte — walk idiotically
into palpable traps, and waste thousands of lives getting them-
selves out. The lesser fry proceed heroically from disaster to dis-
aster, as Burnside did during the Civil War and Joffre during
the World War. The simplest problem of their ancient and ele-
mental business flabbergasts them. They seem to be congenitally
incapable of reasoning clearly, even when all the facts are be-
fore them. And at the enterprise of unearthing those facts they
show only the gross and pathetic ineptitude of a second-rate
lawyer or a third-rate pedagogue.

Whenever, at the practise of their art in the field, they con-
front a problem of any complexity, they have to get help from
civilians, i.e., from men not paralyzed by training in their pro-
fessional numskullery. It was so, as everyone knows, in the war
of 1914-18. The great captains on the two sides lay locked in a
bloody and horrible embrace until engineers, chemists and press-
agents came to their rescue and pried them loose. All the while,
behind the lines, they were laboriously drilling their recruits in
the archaic marchings and counter-marchings of the Old Des-
sauer. ... Yet the human race, after watching such bunglers
perform their gory buffooneries, cheers them when they come

2i8 a Mencken Chrestomathy

home, dazed and empty-headed, and thrusts its highest honors
upon them. What a certificate to its judgment, its common
sense, its sense of humor, its right to survive on earth!

A Bad Guess

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, Nov. ii, 1931. Nations, like men,
seldom learn by experience. England made the same mistake again on Sep-
tember 3, 1939, and the United States followed docilely two years later.
The consequences are now spread before a candid world

Most of England's appalling troubles today are due to a bad
guess: she went into the war on the wrong side in 1914. The
theory of her statesmen, in those days, was that, by joining
France and Russia, she would give a death-blow to a dangerous
rival, Germany, and so be free to run the world. But the scheme
failed to work; moreover, it had unexpected and almost fatal re-
sults. Not only did Germany come out of the mess a dangerous
rival still; France also became a rival, and a very formidable one.
Worse, the United States was pumped up to immense propor-
tions, and began to challenge England's control of the world's
markets. The results are now visible: England has three competi-
tors instead of one, and is steadily going downhill. If she had
gone into the war on the German side she'd be in a much better
situation today. The Germans would be grateful for the help,
and willing to pay for it (while the French are not) ; the French
would be down and out, and hence unable to menace the peace
of Europe; Germany would have Russia in Europe and there
would be no Bolshevik nuisance; England would have all of
Siberia and Central Asia, and there would be no Japanese tlireat
and no Indian revolt; and the United States would still be a
docile British colony, as it was in 1914. English foreign policy,
once so simple and direct, is now confused and irresolute. It
confronts three huge problems, all of them probably insoluble
— to hamstring and dephlogisticate both France and Germany,
to bamboozle the United States (e.g., in the matter of naval
^^disarmament"), and to keep the colonies and dominions from
flying off into space. Yet the English put up monuments to the

XII. History 219

statesmen who got them into this mess. And even taller monu-
ments to King Edward VII, who prepared the way for it by pre-
ferring the patchouli of Paris to the malt liquor of Berlin.

The United States made a similar mistake in 1917. Our real
interests at the time were on the side of the Germans, whose
general attitude of mind is far more American than that of any
other people. If we had gone in on their side, England would
be moribund today, and the dreadful job of pulling her down,
which will now take us forty or fifty years, would be over. We’d
have a free hand in the Pacific, and Germany would be running
the whole Continent like a house of correction. In return for
our connivance there she’d be glad to give us whatever we
wanted elsewhere. There would be no Bolshevism in Russia
and no Fascism in Italy. Our debtors would all be able to pay
us. The Japs would be docile, and we’d be reorganizing Canada
and probably also Australia. But we succumbed to a college
professor who read Matthew Arnold, just as the English suc-
cumbed to a gay old dog who couldn’t bear to think of Prussian
M.P.’s shutting down the Paris night-clubs.

As for the mistake that the Russians made, I leave it to

Undying Glories

From the Smart Set, Nov., 1921, p. 36

The Hapsbtjrgs seem to be quite down and out. The archdukes
of the house, once so steadily in the newspapers, are now heard
of no longer, and the Emperor Karl appears to be a jackass
almost comparable to an American Congressman. But what
a family in the past! To one member Haydn dedicated the
Kaiser quartette, to another Beethoven dedicated the Erz-
herzog trio, and to a third old Johann Strauss dedicated the
Kaiser waltz. Match that record in all human history.


Pater Patrias

From Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918, pp. 7-8

If George Washington were alive today, what a shining mark
he would be for the whole camorra of uplifters, forward-lookers
and professional patriots! He was the Rockefeller of his time,
the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock com-
panies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He
was a bitter opponent of foreign entanglements, and denounced
their evils in harsh, specific terms. He had a liking for forth-
right and pugnacious men, and a contempt for lawyers, school-
masters and all other such obscurantists. He was not pious. He
drank whiskey whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it
handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used
and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom
of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory
dolts, and tried to save the Republic from them. He advocated
no sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, and doubted that
such a panacea existed. He took no interest in the private morals
of his neighbors.

Inhabiting These States today, George would be ineligible
for any office of honor or profit. The Senate would never dare
confirm him; the President would not think of nominating him.
He would be on trial in the newspapers for belonging to the
Money Power. The Sherman Act would have him in its toils;
he would be under indictment by every grand jury south of the
Potomac; the Methodists of his native State would be denounc-
ing him (he had a still at Mount Vernon) as a debaucher of
youth, a recruiting officer for insane asylums, a poisoner of the
home. And what a chance there would be for that ambitious
young district attorney who thought to shadow him on his pere-
grinations — and grab him under the Mann Act!


XIII. Statesmen


Abraham Lincoln

From Five Men at Random, Prejudices: Third Series,

1922, pp. 171-76.

First printed, in part, in the Smart Set, May, 1920, p. 141

Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of
books that seldom, if ever, lose money in the United States —
first, murder stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is
forcibly overcome by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism,
occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lin-
coln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the con-
stant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a
problem as that of his religious ideas surely an important mat-
ter in any competent biography — is yet but half solved. Was he
a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Jesus? I am left in
doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as be-
fitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much
genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional
references to Jesus were thus open to question, what of his
rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the im-
mortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other early
friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but the Rev,
William E. Barton, one of the best of the later Lincolnologists,
argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic
Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time — that nine Christian
churches out of ten, if he were alive today, would admit him to
their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse
than a few warning coughs. As for me, I still wonder.

Lincoln becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of
American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years^
has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows
that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and
had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnish-
ers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster
saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the Y,M.C.A.'s. All
the popular pictures of him show him in his robes of state, and
wearing an expression fit for a man about to be hanged. There

222 A Mencken Chrestomathy

is, so far as I know, not a single portrait of him showing him
smiling — - and yet he must have cackled a good deal, first and
last: who ever heard of a storyteller who didn't? Worse, there is
an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him,
and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of
John Wesley and the Holy Ghost. Wliat could be more absurd?
Lincoln, in point of fact, was a practical politician of long ex-
perience and high talents, and by no means cursed with ideal-
istic superstitions. Until he emerged from Illinois they always
put the women, children and clergy to bed when he got a few
gourds of corn aboard, and it is a matter of unescapable record
that his career in the State Legislature was indistinguishable
from that of a Tammany Nietzsche. Even his handling of the
slavery question was that of a politician, not that of a messiah.
Nothing alarmed him more than the suspicion that he was an
Abolitionist, and Barton tells of an occasion when he actually
fled town to avoid meeting the issue squarely. An Abolition-
ist would have published the Emancipation Proclamation the
day after the first battle of Bull Run. But Lincoln waited un-
til the time was more favorable — until Lee had been hurled
out of Pennsylvania, and more important still, until the politi-
cal currents were safely running his way. Even so, he freed
the slaves in only a part of the country: all the rest con-
tinued to clank their chains until he himself was an angel in

Like William Jennings Bryan, he was a dark horse made sud-
denly formidable by fortunate rhetoric. The Douglas debate
launched him, and the Cooper Union speech got him the Presi-
dency. His talent for emotional utterance was an accomplish-
ment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fire-
works — - the hollow rhodomontades of the era. But in middle
life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost baldly
simple — • and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered to-
day. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most
famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoop-
ings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and
silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost gem-like
perfection — the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical
phrases. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the

XIIL Statesmen 223

whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely ap-
proached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not
sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words
of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers
who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-
determination — that government of the people, by the peo-
ple, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is diffi-
cult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in
that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the
Confederates who fought for the right of tlieir people to govern
themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettys-
burg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of
the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates
went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject
to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country — and for
nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed
scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many con-
victs in the penitentiary.

Portrait of an Immortal

From the American Mercury, Feb., 1929, pp. 251-53. A review of
Meet General Grant, by W. E. Woodward; New York, 1928

The dreadful title of Mr. Woodward's book is not the least of
its felicities. If they had been saying such things in his day it
seems unquestionable that Grant would have said, "Meet the
wife." He was precisely that sort of man. His imagination was
the imagination of a respectable hay and feed dealer, and his
virtues, such as they were, were indistinguishable from those of
a county court clerk. Mr. Woodward, trying to be just to him,
not infrequently gives him far more than he deserves. He was
not, in point of fact, a man of any great competence, even as a
soldier. All the major strategy of die war, including the final ad-
vance on Richmond, was planned by other men, notably Sher-
man. He was a ham as a tactician, and habitually wasted his

224 A Mencken Chrestomathy

men. He was even a poor judge of other generals, as witness his
admiration for Sheridan and his almost unbelievable under-
rating of Thomas and Meade. If he won battles, it was because
he had the larger battalions, and favored the primitive device
of heaving them into action, callously, relentlessly, cruelly, ap-

Thinking was always painful to Grant, and so he never did
any of it if he could help it. He had a vague distaste for war,
and dreamed somewhat boozily of a day when it would be no
more. But that distaste never stayed his slaughters; it only made
him keep away from the wounded. He had no coherent ideas on
any subject, and changed his so-called opinions overnight, and
for no reason at all. He entered the war simply because he
needed a job, and fought his way through it without any appar-
ent belief in its purposes. His wife was a slaveholder to the end.
At Appomattox he showed a magnanimity that yet thrills school-
boys, but before he became President he went over to the Radi-
cal Republicans, and was largely to blame for the worst horrors
of Reconstruction. His belief in rogues was congenital, touch-
ing and unlimited. He filled Washington with them, and de-
fended them against honest men, even in the face of plain proofs
of their villainy. Retired to private life at last, he sought out the
worst scoundrel of them all, gave the fellow control of his whole
modest fortune, and went down to inglorious bankruptcy with
him. The jail gates, that time, were uncomfortably close; if
Grant had not been Grant he would have at least gone on trial.
But he was completely innocent. He was too stupid to be any-
thing else.

Yet, for all his colossal imbecilities, he helped in a wholesale
way to pave Hell with good intentions. Like Joseph Conrad's
Almayer, he always wanted to do the right thing. The trouble
with him was that he could seldom find out what it was. Once
he had got beyond a few elemental ideas, his brain refused to
function. Thereafter he operated by hunches, some of them
good ones, but others almost idiotic. Commanding his vast
armies in the field, he wandered around like a stranger, shabby^
uncommunicative and only defectively respected. In the White
House he was a primeval Harding, without either the diamond
scarf-pin or the cutie hiding in the umbrella closet. He tried, in

XIII. Statesmen 225

his dour, bashful manner, to be a good fellow. There was no
flummery about him. He had no false dignity. But he was the
easiest mark ever heard of. It was possible to put anything over
on him, however fantastic. Now and then, by a flash of what
must be called, I suppose, insight, he penetrated the impostures
which surrounded him, and struck out in his Berserker way for
common decency. But that was not often. His eight years in the
White House were scarlet with scandal. He had a Teapot Dome
on his hands once a month.

Mr. Woodward's portrait, despite its mercies, is an extraordi-
narily brilliant one. The military automaton of the '"Memoirs"
and the noble phrase-maker of the school-books disappears, and
there emerges a living and breathing man, simple-minded, more
than a little bewildered, and infinitely pathetic. Grant went to
the high pinnacles of glory, but he also plunged down the black
steeps of woe, I don't think that his life was a happy one, even
as happiness is counted among such primitive organisms. He
was miserable as a boy, he was miserable at West Point, and he
was miserable in the old army. The Mexican War revolted him,
and he took to drink and lost his commission. For years he faced
actual want. The Civil War brought him little satisfaction, save
for a moment at the end. He was neglected in his early days in a
manner that was wormwood to him, and after luck brought him
opportunity he was surrounded by hostile intrigue. He made
costly and egregious blunders, notably at Shiloh and Cold Har-
bor; he knew the sting of professional sneers; he quailed before
Lee's sardonic eye. His eight years in the White House were
years of tribulation and humiliation. His wife was ill-favored;
his only daughter made a bad marriage; his relatives, both bio-
logical and in-law, harassed and exploited him. He died almost
penniless, protesting that he could no longer trust a soul. He
passed out in gusts of intolerable pain. It is hard to imagine
harder lines.

If, in this chronicle, he sometimes recedes into the back-
ground, and seems no more than a bystander at the show, then
it is because he was often that in life. Other men had a way of
running him —• John A. Rawlins during the war, Hamilton Fish
at Washington, Ferdinand Ward afterward. His relations to the
first-named are discussed in one of Mr. Woodward's most inter-

226 A Mencken Chrestomathy
esting chapters. Rawlins was the Grant family lawyer at Galena,
and had no military experience when the war began. Grant made
him his brigade adjutant, and thereafter submitted docilely to his
domination. Rawlins was a natural pedagogue, a sort of school-
ma’am with a beard. He supervised and limited Grant’s guz-
zling; he edited Grant’s orders; he made and unmade all other
subordinates. “I have heard him curse at Grant,” said Charles A.
Dana, “when, according to his judgment, the general was doing
something that he thought he had better not do. . . . With-
out him Grant would have not been the same man.” Gossip in
the army went even further; it credited Rawlins with actually
sharing command. “The two together,” said James H. Wilson,
“constituted a military character of great simplicity, force and
singleness of purpose, which has passed into history under the
name of Grant.”

A Good Man in a Bad Trade

From the American Mercury, Jan., 1933, pp. 125-27. A review of Grover
Cleveland: a Study in Courage, by Allan Nevins; New York, 1932

We have had more brilliant Presidents than Cleveland, and one
or two who were considerably more profound, but we have never
had one, at least since Washington, whose fundamental charac-
ter was solider and more admirable. There was never any string
tied to old Grover. He got on in politics, not by knuckling to
politicians, but by scorning and defying them, and when he
found himself opposed in what he conceived to be sound and
honest courses, not only by politicians but by the sovereign peo-
ple, he treated them to a massive dose of the same medicine.
No more self-sufficient man is recorded in modern history. There
were times, of course, when he had his doubts like the rest of
us, but once he had made up his mind he stood immovable.
No conceivable seduction could weaken him. There was some-
thing almost inhuman about his fortitude, and to millions of
his contemporaries it seemed more Satanic than godlike. No
President since Lincoln, not even the melancholy Hoover, has

XIIL Statesmen 227

been more bitterly hated, or by more people. But Cleveland,
though he certainly did not enjoy it-— he was, indeed, singu-
larly lacking in the shallower and more comforting sort of ego-
ism — yet did not let it daunt him. He came into office his own
man, and he went out without yielding anything of that char-
acter for an instant.

In his time it was common to ascribe a good part of this vast
steadfastness to his mere bulk. He had a huge girth, shoulders
like the Parthenon, a round, compact head, and the slow move-
ments of any large animal. He was not very tall, but he looked,
somehow, like an enormous natural object — say, the Jungfrau
or Cape Horn. This aspect of the stupendous, almost of the
terrific, was tempting to the primeval psychologists of that in-
nocent day, and they succumbed to it easily. But in the years
that have come and gone since then we have learned a great
deal about fat men. It was proved, for example, by W. H. Taft
that they could be knocked about and made to dance with great
facility, and it was proved by Hoover that their texture may be,
not that of Alps, but that of chocolate eclairs. Cleveland, though
he was also fat, was the complete antithesis of these gentlemen.
There was far more to him than beam and tonnage. When en-
emies had at him they quickly found that his weight was the
least of their difficulties; what really sent them sprawling was
the fact that his whole huge carcass seemed to be made of iron.
There was no give in him, no bounce, no softness. He sailed
through American history like a steel ship loaded with mono-
liths of granite.

He came of an excellent family, but his youth had been a
hard one, and his cultural advantages were not of the best. He
learned a great deal about human nature by sitting with pleasant
fellows in the Buffalo saloons, but he seems to have made but
little contact with the finer and more elusive parts of the spirit-
ual heritage of man, and in consequence his imagination was
not awakened, and he remained all his days a somewhat stodgy
and pedantic fellow. There is no sign in his writings of the wide
and fruitful reading of Roosevelt I, and they show none of the
sleek, shiny graces of Wilson. His English, apparently based
upon Eighteenth Century models, was a horrible example to
the young. It did not even roar; it simply heaved, panted and

228 A Mencken Chrestomathy

grunted. He made, in his day, some phrases, and a few of them
are still remembered, but they are all etudes in ponderosity —
innocuous desuetude, communism of pelf, and so on. The men
he admired were all solid men like himself. He lived through
the Gilded Age, the Mauve Decade and the Purple Nineties
without being aware of them. His heroes were largely lawyers
of the bow-wow type, and it is significant that he seems to have
had little acquaintance with Mark Twain, though Mark edited
a paper in Buffalo during his terms as mayor there. His favorite
American author was Richard Watson Gilder.

The one man who seems to have had any genuine influence
upon him was Richard Olney, first his Attorney-General and
then his Secretary of State. He had such great respect for Olney's
professional skill as a lawyer that he was not infrequently blind
to the man's defects as a statesman. It was Olney who induced
him to send troops to Chicago to put down the Pullman strike,
and Olney who chiefly inspired the celebrated Venezuela mes-
sage. Cleveland, at the start, seems to have been reluctant to
intervene in Chicago, but Olney convinced him that it was both
legal and necessary. In the Venezuelan matter something of the
same sort appears to have occurred. It was characteristic of
Cleveland that, once he had made up his mind, he stuck to his
course without the slightest regard for consequences. Doubts
never beset him. He banged along like a locomotive. If man or
devil got upon the track, then so much the worse for man or
devil. God," he once wrote to Gilder, "has never failed to make
known to me the path of duty."

Any man thus obsessed by a concept of duty is bound to seek
support for it somewhere outside himself. He must rest it on
something which seems to him to be higher than mere private
inclination or advantage. Cleveland, never having heard of
Kanf s categorical imperatives and being almost as innocent of
political theory, naturally turned to the Calvinism of his child-
hood. His father had been a Presbyterian clergyman, and he re-
mained a communicant of the family faith to the end. But the
Calvinism that he subscribed to was a variety purged of all the
original horrors. He translated predestination, with its sharp
cocksureness and its hordes of damned, into a sort of benign
fatalism, not unmixed with a stealthy self-reliance. God, he be-

XIIL Statesmen 229

lieved, ordained the order of the world, and His decrees must
ever remain inscrutable, but there was nevertheless a good deal
to be said for hard work, a reasonable optimism, and a sturdy
fidelity to what seemed to be the right. Duty, in its essence,
might be transcendental, but its mandates were issued in plain
English, and no honest man could escape them. There is no
record that Cleveland ever tried to escape them. He was not
averse to popularity, but he put it far below the approval of
conscience. In him all the imaginary virtues of the Puritans
became real.

It is not likely that we shall see his like again, at least in the
present age. The Presidency is now closed to the kind of char-
acter that he had so abundantly. It is going, in these days, to
more politic and pliant men. They get it by yielding prudently,
by changing their minds at the right instant, by keeping silent
when speech is dangerous. Frankness and courage are luxuries
confined to the more comic varieties of runners-up at national
conventions. Thus it is pleasant to remember Cleveland, and
to speak of him from time to time. He was the last of the Ro-
mans. If pedagogy were anything save the puerile racket that it
is he would loom large in the schoolbooks. As it is, he is sub-
ordinated to Lincoln, Roosevelt I and Wilson. This is one of
the things that are the matter with the United States.

Roosevelt I

From Roosevelt: an Autopsy, Prejudices: Second Series,

1920, pp. 107-28.

First printed, in part, in the Smart Set, March, 1920, pp. 138-44

Roosevelt's reaction to World War I must occupy a large part
of any adequate account of him, for that reaction was probably
more comprehensively typical of the man than any other busi-
ness of his life. It displayed not only his whole stock of political
principles, but also his whole stock of political tricks. It plumbed,
on the one hand, the depths of his sagacity, and on the other
hand the depths of his insincerity. Fundamentally, I am con-

230 A Mencken Chrestomathy

vinced, he was quite out of sympathy with, and even quite un-
able to comprehend the body of doctrine upon which the Allies,
and later the United States, based their case. To him it must
have seemed insane when it was not hypocritical, and hypo-
critical when it was not insane. His instincts were profoundly
against a new loosing of democratic fustian upon the world;
he believed in strongly centralized states, founded upon power
and devoted to enterprises far transcending mere internal gov-
ernment; he was an imperialist of the type of Cecil Rhodes,
Treitschke and Delcasse.

But the fortunes of domestic politics jockeyed him into the
position of standing as the spokesman of an almost exactly con-
trary philosophy. The visible enemy before him was Wilson.
What he wanted as a politician was something that he could get
only by wresting it from Wilson, and Wilson was too cunning
to yield it without making a tremendous fight, chiefly by chi-
cane-whooping for peace while preparing for war, playing
mob fear against mob fear, concealing all his genuine motives
and desires beneath clouds of chautauqua rhetoric, leading a
mad dance whose tune changed at every swing. Here was an op-
ponent that more than once puzzled Roosevelt, and in the end
flatly dismayed him. Here was a mob-master with a technique
infinitely more subtle and effective than his own. So lured into
an unequal combat, the Rough Rider got bogged in absurdities
so immense that only the democratic anesthesia to absurdity
saved him. To make any progress at all he was forced into fight-
ing against his own side. He passed from the scene bawling pite-
ously for a cause that, at bottom, it is impossible to imagine
him believing in, and in terms of a philosophy that was as for-
eign to his true faith as it was to the faith of Wilson. In the
whole affair there was a colossal irony. Both contestants were
intrinsically frauds.

When, soon after his death, I ventured in a magazine article
to call attention to Roosevelt's philosophical kinship to the
Kaiser ^ I received letters of denunciation from all parts of the
United States, and not a few forthright demands that I recant
on penalty of lynch law. Prudence demanded that I heed these
demands. We live in a curious and often unsafe country. Haled
1 Roosevelt and Others, Smart Set, March, 1920, pp. 138-44.

XIIL Statesmen 231

before a Roosevelt judge for speeding my automobile, or spit-
ting on the sidewalk, or carrying a jug, I might have been rail-
roaded for ten years under some constructive corollary of the
Espionage Act. But there were two things that supported me
in my contumacy to the departed. One was a profound rever-
ence for and fidelity to the truth, sometimes almost amounting
to fanaticism. The other was the support of the eminent Iowa
right-thinker and patriot, Prof. Dr. S. P, Sherman. Writing in
the Nation, Prof. Dr, Sherman put the thing in plain terms.
"'With the essentials in the religion of the militarists of Ger-
many, he said, "Roosevelt was utterly in sympathy." ^

Utterly? Perhaps the adverb was a bit too strong. There was
in the man a certain instinctive antipathy to the concrete aristo-
crat and in particular to the aristocrat's private code — the prod-
uce, no doubt, of his essentially bourgeois origin and training.
But if he could not go with the Junkers all the way, he could at
least go the whole length of their distrust of the third order —
the undifferentiated masses of men below. Here, I daresay, he
owed a lot to Nietzsche. He was always reading German books,
and among them, no doubt, were "Also sprach Zarathustra" and
"Jenseits von Gut und Bose." In fact, the echoes were constantly
sounding in his own harangues. Years ago, as an intellectual ex-
ercise while confined to hospital, I devised and printed a give-
away of the Rooseveltian philosophy in parallel columns — in
one column, extracts from "The Strenuous Life"; in the other,
extracts from Nietzsche. The borrowings were numerous and un-
escapable. Theodore had swallowed Friedrich as a farm-wife
swallows Peruna — bottle, cork, label and testimonials. Worse,
the draft whetted his appetite, and soon he was swallowing the
Kaiser of the Garde-Kavallerie-mtss and battleship-launching
speeches ““ another somewhat defective Junker. In his palmy
days it was often impossible to distinguish his politico-theologi-
cal bulls from those of Wilhelm; during the war, indeed, I sus-
pect that some of them were boldly lifted by the British press
bureau, and palmed off as felonious imprudences out of Pots-
dam. Wilhelm was his model in Weltpolitik, and in sociology,
exegetics, administration, law, sport and connubial polity no
less. Both roared for doughty armies, eternally prepared — for
2 Roosevelt and the National Psychology, Nation, Nov. 8, 1919,

232 A Mencken Chrestomathy

the theory that the way to prevent war is to make all conceiv-
able enemies think twice, thrice, ten times. Both dreamed of
gigantic navies, with battleships as long as Brooklyn Bridge.
Both preached incessantly the duty of the citizen to the state,
with the soft pedal upon the duty of the state to the citizen.
Both praised the habitually gravid wife. Both delighted in the
armed pursuit of the lower fauna. Both heavily patronized the
fine arts. Both were intimates of God, and announced His de-
sires with authority. Both believed that all men who stood op-
posed to them were prompted by the devil and would suffer for
it in Hell.

If, in fact, there was any difference between them, it was all
in favor of Wilhelm. For one thing, he made very much fewer
speeches; it took some colossal event, such as the launching of a
dreadnaught or the birthday of a colonel-general, to get him
upon his legs; the Reichstag was not constantly deluged with
his advice and upbraiding. For another thing, he was a milder
and more modest man — one more accustomed, let us say, to
circumstance and authority, and hence less intoxicated by the
greatness of his high estate. Finally, he had been trained to
think, not only of his own immediate fortunes, but also of the
remote interests of a family that, in his heyday, promised to
hold the throne for many years, and so he cultivated a certain
prudence, and even a certain ingratiating suavity. He could, on
occasion, be extremely polite to an opponent. But Roosevelt
was never polite to an opponent; perhaps a gentleman, by what
pass as American standards, he was surely never a gentle man.
In a political career of nearly forty years he was never even fair
to an opponent- All his gabble about the square deal was merely
so much protective coloration. No man, facing him in the heat
of controversy, ever actually got a square deal. He took extrava-
gant advantages; he played to the worst idiocies of the mob; he
hit below the belt almost habitually. One never thinks of him
as a duelist, say of the school of Disraeli, Palmerston and, to
drop a bit, Blaine. One always thinks of him as a glorified
bouncer engaged eternally in cleaning out bar-rooms — and not
too proud to gouge when the inspiration came to him, or to
bite in the clinches, or to oppose the relatively fragile brass

XII I . Statesmen 233

knuckles of the code with chair-legs, bung-starters, cuspidors,
demijohns, and ice-picks.

Lawrence Abbott and William Roscoe Thayer, in their ofE-
cial lives, ^ made elaborate efforts to depict their hero as one
born with a deep loathing of the whole Prussian scheme of things.
Abbott even went so far as to hint that the attentions of the
Kaiser, during Roosevelf s historic tour of Europe on his return
from Africa, were subtly revolting to him. Nothing could be
more absurd. Sherman, in the article I have mentioned, blows
up that nonsense by quoting from a speech made by the tourist
in Berlin — a speech arguing for the most extreme sort of mili-
tarism in a manner that must have made even some of the
Junkers blow their noses dubiously. The disproof need not be
piled up; the America that Roosevelt dreamed of was always
a sort of swollen Prussia, truculent without and regimented
within. There was always a clank of the saber in his discourse;
he could not discuss the tamest matter without swaggering in
the best dragoon fashion. Abbott gets into yet deeper waters
when he sets up the doctrine that the invasion of Belgium threw
his darling into an instantaneous and tremendous fit of moral
indignation, and that the curious delay in the public exhibition
thereof, so much discussed afterward, was due to his (Abbott's)
fatuous interference ■— a faux pas later regretted with much bit-
terness, Unluckily, the evidence he offers leaves me full of
doubts. What the doctrine demands that one believe is simply
this: that the man who, for mere commercial advantage and (in
Frederick's famous phrase) to make himself talked of in the
world," tore up the treaty of 1848 between the United States
and Colombia (geb. New Granada), whereby the United States
forever guaranteed the "sovereignty and ownership" of the Co-
lombians in the isthmus of Panama — that this same man, thir-
teen years later, was horrified into a fever when Germany, facing
powerful foes on two fronts, tore up the treaty of 1832, guaran-
teeing, not the sovereignty, but the bald neutrality of Belgium

a neutrality already destroyed, according to the evidence be-
fore the Germans, by Belgium's own acts.

3 Impressions of Theodore Roosevelt, by Abbott, New York, 1920;
Theodore Roosevelt, by Thayer; New York, 1920.

234 ^ Mencken Chrestomathy

It is hard, without an inordinate strain upon the credulity, to
believe any such thing, particularly in view of the fact that this
instantaneous indignation of the most impulsive and vocal of
men was diligently concealed for at least six weeks, with re-
porters camped upon his doorstep day and night, begging him
to say the very thing that he left so darkly unsaid. Can one im-
agine Roosevelt, with red-fire raging within him and sky-rockets
bursting in his veins, holding his peace for a month and a half?
I have no doubt whatever that Abbott, as he says, desired to
avoid embarrassing Wilson-— but think of Roosevelt showing
any such delicacy! For one, I am not equal to the feat. All that
unprecedented reticence, in fact, is far more readily explicable
on other and less lofty grounds. What really happened I pre-
sume to guess. My guess is that Roosevelt, like the great major-
ity of other Americans, was not instantly and automatically out-
raged by the invasion of Belgium. On the contrary, he probably
viewed it as a regrettable, but not unexpected or unparalleled
device of war — if anything, as something rather thrillingly
gaudy and effective — a fine piece of virtuosity, pleasing to a
military connoisseur.

But then came the deluge of Belgian atrocity stories, and the
organized campaign to enlist American sympathies. It suc-
ceeded very quickly. By the middle of August the British press
bureau was in full swing; by the beginning of September the
country was flooded with inflammatory stuff; six weeks after the
war opened it was already hazardous for a German in America
to state his country's case. Meanwhile, the Wilson administra-
tion had declared for neutrality, and was still making a more or
less sincere effort to practise it, at least on the surface. Here was
Roosevelt's opportunity, and he leaped to it with sure instinct.
On the one side was the administration that he detested, and
that all his self-interest (e.g., his yearning to get back his old
leadership and to become President again in 1917) prompted
him to deal a mortal blow, and on the other side was a ready-
made issue, full of emotional possibilities, stupendously pumped
up by extremely clever propaganda, and so far unembraced by
any other rabble-rouser of the first magnitude. Is it any wonder
that he gave a whoop, jumped upon his cayuse, and began
screaming for war? In war lay the confusion of Wilson, and the

XIII. Statesmen 235

melodramatic renaissance of the Rough Rider, the professional
hero, the national Barbarossa.

In all this, of course, I strip the process of its plumes and
spangles, and expose a chain of causes and effects that Roosevelt
himself, if he were alive, would denounce as grossly contumeli-
ous to his native purity of spirit — and perhaps in all honesty. It
is not necessary to raise any doubts as to that honesty. No one
who has given any study to the development and propagation
of political doctrine in the United States can have failed to
notice how the belief in issues among politicians tends to run in
exact ratio to the popularity of those issues. Let the populace
begin suddenly to swallow a new panacea or to take fright at a
new bugaboo, and almost instantly nine-tenths of the master-
minds of politics begin to believe that the panacea is a sure-cure
for all the malaises of the Republic, and die bugaboo an im-
mediate and unbearable menace to all law, order and domestic

At the bottom of this singular intellectual resilience, of course,
there is a good deal of hard calculation; a man must keep up
with the procession of crazes, or his day is swiftly done. But in it
there are also considerations a good deal more subtle, and maybe
less discreditable. For one thing, a man devoted professionally
to patriotism and the wisdom of the fathers is very apt to come
to a resigned sort of acquiescence in all the doctrinaire rubbish
that lies beneath the national scheme of things — to believe, let
us say, if not that the plain people are gifted with an infallible
sagacity, then at least that they have an inalienable right to see
their follies executed. Poll-parroting nonsense as a matter of
daily routine, the politician ends by assuming that it is sense,
even though he doesn't believe it. For another thing, there is the
contagion of mob enthusiasm — a much underestimated mur-
rain. No man is so remote and arctic that he is wholly safe from
that contamination; it explains many extravagant phenomena
of a democratic society; in particular, it explains why the mob
leader is so often a victim to his mob.

Roosevelt, a perfectly typical politician, devoted to ihe trade,
not primarily because he was gnawed by ideals, but because he
frankly enjoyed its rough-and-tumble encounters and its gaudy
rewards, was probably moved in both ways — and also by the

236 A Mencken Chrestomathy

hard calculation that I have mentioned. If, by any ineptness of
the British press-agents and tear-squeezers, indignation over the
invasion of Belgium had failed to materialize — if, worse still,
some gross infringement of American rights by the English had
caused it to be forgotten completely — if, finally, Wilson had
been whooping for war with the populace firmly against him —
in such event it goes without saying that the moral horror of
Roosevelt would have stopped short at a very low amperage,
and that he would have refrained from making it tlie center of
his polity. But with things as they were, lying neatly to his hand,
he permitted it to take on an extraordinary virulence, and be-
fore long all his old delight in German militarism had been
converted into a lofty detestation of German militarism, and its
chief spokesman on this side of the Atlantic became its chief
opponent. Getting rid of that old delight, of course, was not
easily achieved. The concrete enthusiasm could be throttled, but
the habit of mind remained. Thus one beheld the curious spec-
tacle of militarism belabored in terms of militarism of the
Kaiser arraigned in unmistakably kaiserliche tones.

Such violent swallowings and regurgitations were no novelties
to the man. His whole political career was marked, in fact, by
performances of the same sort. The issues that won him most
votes were issues that, at bottom, he didn't believe in; there was
always a mental reservation in his rhetoric. He got into politics,
not as a tribune of the plain people, but as an amateur reformer
of the snobbish type common in the eighties, by the Nation out
of the Social Register. He was a young Harvard man scandalized
by the discovery that his town was run by men with such names
as Michael O'Shaunnessy and Terence Googan — - that his social
inferiors were his political superiors. His sympathies were essen-
tially anti-democratic. He believed in strong centralization —
the concentration of power in a few hands, the strict regimenta-
tion of the nether herd, the abandonment of platitudes. His
heroes were such Federalists as Morris and Hamilton; he made
his first splash in the world by writing about them and praising
them. Worse, his daily associations were with the old Union
League crowd of high-tariff Republicans — men almost apoplec-
tically opposed to every movement from below — safe and sane
men, highly conservative and suspicious men — the profiteers of

XIIL Statesmen 237

peace, as they afterward became the profiteers of war. His early
adventures in politics were not very fortunate, nor did they re-
veal any capacity for leadership. The bosses of the day took him
in rather sportively, played him for what they could get out of
him, and then turned him loose. In a few years he became dis-
gusted and went West. Returning after a bit, he encountered
catastrophe: as a candidate for Mayor of New York he was
drubbed unmercifully. He went back to the West. He was, up
to this time, a comic figure — an anti-politician victimized by
politicians, a pseudo-aristocrat made ridiculous by the moT>
masters he detested.

But meanwhile something was happening that changed the
whole color of the political scene, and was destined, eventually,
to give Roosevelt his chance. That something was a shifting in
what might be called the foundations of reform. Up to now it
had been an essentially aristocratic movement — superior, sniff-
ish and anti-democratic. But hereafter it took on a strongly
democratic color and began to adopt democratic methods. More,
the change gave it new life. What Harvard, the Union League
Club and Godkin's Nation had failed to accomplish, the plain
people now undertook to accomplish. This invasion of the old
citadel of virtue was first observed in the West, and its mani-
festations out there must have given Roosevelt a good deal more
disquiet than satisfaction. It is impossible to imagine him find-
ing anything to his taste in the outlandish doings of the Popu-
lists, the wild schemes of the pre-Bryan dervishes. His instincts
were against all that sort of thing. But as the movement spread
toward the East it took on a certain urbanity, and by the time
it reached the seaboard it had begun to be almost civilized.

With this new brand of reform Roosevelt now made terms.
It was full of principles that outraged all his pruderies, but it at
least promised to work. His entire political history thereafter,
down to the day of his death, was a history of compromises with
the new forces — of a gradual yielding, for strategic purposes,
to ideas that were intrinsically at odds with his congenital preju-
dices. When, after a generation of that sort of compromising,
the so-called Progressive party was organized and he seized the
leadership of it from the Westerners who had founded it, he
performed a feat of wholesale englutination that must forever

238 A Mencken Chrestomathy

hold a high place upon the roll of political prodigies. That is to
say, he swallowed at one gigantic gulp, and out of the same
herculean jug, the most amazing mixture of social, political and
economic sure-cures ever got down by one hero, however valiant,
however athirst — a cocktail made up of all the elixirs hawked
among the boobery in his time, from woman suffrage to the
direct primary, and from the initiative and referendum to the
short ballot, and from Prohibition to public ownership, and from
tmst-busting to the recall of judges.

This homeric achievement made him the head of the most
tatterdemalion party ever seen in American politics ■— a party
composed of such incompatible ingredients and hung together
so loosely that it began to disintegrate the moment it was born.
In part it was made up of mere disordered enthusiasts ~ be-
lievers in anything and everything, pathetic victims of the credu-
lity complex, habitual followers of jitney messiahs, incurable
hopers and snufSers. But in part it was also made up of rich
converts like Roosevelt himself — men eager for office, disap-
pointed by the old parties, and now quite willing to accept any
aid that half-idiot doctrinaires could give them. I have no doubt
that Roosevelt himself, carried away by the emotional hurri-
canes of the moment and especially by the quasi-religious mon-
key-shines that marked the first Progressive convention, gradu-
ally convinced himself that at least some of the doctrinaires, in
the midst of all their imbecility, yet preached a few ideas that
were workable, and perhaps even sound. But at bottom he was
against them, and not only in the matter of their specific reme-
dies, but also in the larger matter of their childish faith in the
wisdom and virtue of the plain people.

Roosevelt, for all his fluent mastery of democratic counter-
words, democratic gestures and all the rest of the armamentar-
ium of the mob-master, had no such faith in his heart of hearts.
He didn't believe in democracy; he believed simply in govern-
ment. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of exist-
ence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration
of authority. He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he
was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of in-
spired prophets and policemen. He was not for democracy as
his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and

XIIL Statesmen 239

must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarchian pat-
tern, almost of the Napoleonic pattern — a paternalism concern-
ing itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and
meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights.
His instincts were always those of the property-owning Tory, not
those of the romantic Liberal. Even when, for campaign pur-
poses, he came to terms with the Liberals his thoughts always
ranged far afield. When he tackled the trusts the thing that he
had in his mind's eye was not the restoration of competition but
the subordination of all private trusts to one great national trust,
with himself at its head. And when he attacked the courts it
was not because they put their own prejudices before the law
but because they refused to put his prejudices before the law.

In all his career no one ever heard him make an argument for
the rights of the citizen; his eloquence was always expended in
expounding the duties of the citizen. I have before me a speech
in which he pleaded for a spirit of kindly justice toward every
man and woman," but that seems to be as far as he ever got in
that direction — and it was the gratuitous justice of the absolute
monarch that he apparently had in mind, not the autonomous
and inalienable justice of a free society. The duties of the citi-
zen, as he understood them, related not only to acts, but also to
thoughts. There was, to his mind, a simple body of primary doc-
trine, and dissent from it was the foulest of crimes. No man
could have been more bitter against opponents, or more unfair
to them, or more ungenerous. In this department, indeed, even
so gifted a specialist in dishonorable controversy as Wilson sel-
dom surpassed him. He never stood up to a frank and chivalrous
debate. He dragged herrings across the trail. He made seductive
faces at the gallery. He capitalized his enormous talents as an
entertainer, his rank as a national hero, his public influence and
consequence. The two great law-suits in which he was engaged
were screaming burlesques upon justice. He tried them in the
newspapers before ever they were called; he befogged them with
irrelevant issues; his appearances in court were not the appear-
ances of a witness standing on a level with other witnesses, but
those of a comedian sure of his crowd. He was, in his dealings
with concrete men as in his dealings with men in the mass, a
charlatan of the very highest skill — and there was in him, it

240 A Mencken Chrestomathy

goes without saying, the persuasive charm o£ the charlatan as
well as the daring deviousness, the humanness of naivete as well
as the humanness of chicane. He knew how to woo — and not
only boobs.

The appearance of such men, of course, is inevitable under
democracy. Consummate showmen, they arrest the wonder of
the mob, and so put its suspicions to sleep. What they actually
believe is of secondary consequence; the main thing is what they
say; even more, the way they say it. Obviously, their activity
does a great deal of damage to the democratic theory, for they
are standing refutations of the primary doctrine that the com-
mon folk choose their leaders wisely. They damage it again in
another and more subtle way. That is to say, their ineradicable
contempt for the minds they must heat up and bamboozle leads
them into a fatalism that shows itself in a cynical and opportu-
nistic politics, a deliberate avoidance of fundamentals. The pol-
icy of a democracy thus becomes an eternal improvisation,
changing with the private ambitions of its leaders and the tran-
sient and often unintelligible emotions of its rank and file.
Roosevelt, incurably undemocratic in his habits of mind, often
found it difficult to gauge those emotional oscillations. The fact
explains his frequent loss of mob support, his periodical jour-
neys into Coventry. There were times when his magnificent
talents as a public comedian brought the proletariat to an al-
most unanimous groveling at his feet, but there were also times
when he puzzled and dismayed it, and so awakened its hos-

I have a notion that he died too soon. His best days were
probably not behind him, but ahead of him. Had he lived ten
years longer, he might have enjoyed a great rehabilitation, and
exchanged his old false leadership of the inflammatory and fickle
mob for a sound and true leadership of the civilized minority.
For the more one studies his mountebankeries as mob-master,
the more one is convinced that there was a shrewd man beneath
the motley, and that his actual beliefs were anything but non-
sensical. The truth of them, indeed, emerges more clearly day
by day. The old theory of a federation of free and autonomous
states has broken down by its own weight, and we are moved
toward centralization by forces that have long been powerful

XII I . Statesmen 241

and are now quite irresistible. So with the old theory of na-
tional isolation: it, too, has fallen to pieces. The United States
can no longer hope to lead a separate life in the world, undis-
turbed by the pressure of foreign aspirations. Roosevelt, by
whatever route of reflection or intuition, arrived at a sense of
these facts at a time when it was still somewhat scandalous to
state them, and it was the capital effort of his life to reconcile
them, in some dark way or other, to the prevailing platitudes,
and so get them heeded. Today no one seriously maintains, as
all Americans once maintained, that the States can go on exist-
ing together as independent commonwealths, each with its own
laws, its own legal theory and its own view of the common con-
stitutional bond. And today no one seriously maintains, as all
Americans once maintained, that the nation may safely potter
on without adequate means of defense. However unpleasant it
may be to contemplate, the fact is plain that the American peo-
ple, during the next century, will have to fight to maintain their
place in the sun.

Roosevelt lived just long enough to see his notions in these
directions take on life, but not long enough to see them openly
adopted. To the extent of his prevision he was a genuine leader
of the nation, and perhaps in the years to come, when his actual
ideas are disentangled from the demagogic fustian in which he
had to wrap them, his more honest pronunciamentoes will be
given canonical honors, and he will be ranked among the
prophets. He saw clearly more than one other thing that was by
no means obvious to his age — for example, the inevitability of
frequent wars under the new world-system of extreme national-
ism; again, the urgent necessity, for primary police ends, of or-
ganizing the backward nations into groups of vassals, each under
the hoof of some first-rate power; yet again, the probability of the
breakdown of the old system of free competition; once more,
the high social utility of the Spartan virtues and the grave dan-
gers of sloth and ease; finally, tifie incompatibility of free speech
and democracy. I do not say that he was always quite honest,
even when he was most indubitably right. But in so far as it was
possible for him to be honest and exist at all politically, he in-
clined toward the straightforward thought and the candid word.
That is to say, his instinct prompted him to tell the truth, just

242 A Mencken Chrestomathy

as the instinct of Wilson prompted him to shift and dissimu-
late. What ailed him was the fact that his lust for glory, when
it came to a struggle, was always vastly more powerful than his
lust for the eternal verities. Tempted sufficiently, he would
sacrifice anything and ever^^thing to get applause. Thus the
statesman was debauched by the politician, and the philosopher
was elbowed out of sight by the popinjay.

What he stood most clearly in opposition to was the superior
pessimism of the three Adams brothers — the notion that the
public problems of a democracy are unworthy the thought and
effort of a civilized and self-respecting man — the same error
that lies in wait for all of us who hold ourselves above the gen-
eral. Against this suicidal aloofness Roosevelt always hurled
himself with brave effect. Enormously sensitive and resilient, al-
most pathological in his appetite for activity, he made it plain
to everyone tliat the most stimulating sort of sport imaginable
was to be obtained in fighting, not for mere money, but for
ideas. There was no aristocratic reserve about him. He was not,
in fact, an aristocrat at all, but a quite typical member of the
upper bourgeoisie. The marks of the thoroughbred were simply
not there. The man was blatant, crude, overly confidential, devi-
ous, tyrannical, vainglorious, sometimes quite childish. One
often observed in him a certain pathetic wistfulness, a reaching
out for a grand manner that was utterly beyond him. But the
sweet went with the bitter. He had all the virtues of the fat and
complacent burgher. His disdain of affectation and prudery was
magnificent. He hated all pretension save his own pretension.
He had a sound respect for hard effort, for loyalty, for thrift,
for honest achievement.

His worst defects were the defects of his race and time. Aspir-
ing to be the leader of a nation of third-rate men, he had to
stoop to the common level. When he struck out for realms
above that level he always came to grief: this was the “unsafe"'
Roosevelt, the Roosevelt who was laughed at, the Roosevelt re-
tired suddenly to cold storage. This was the Roosevelt who, in
happier times and a better place, might have been. Well, one
does what one can.

XIII. Statesmen


In Memoriam: W. J. B.

From Prejudices: Fifth Series, 1926, pp. 64-74. first form this
was printed in tlie Baltimore Evening SuUy July 27, ^ 9 ^$^

Bryan’s death at Dayton, Tenn. I reworked it for the American Mercury ^
Oct., 1925, pp. 158-60. My adventures as a newspaper correspondent at the
Scopes trial are told in my Newspaper Days; New York, 1943, pp. 214—38

Has it been duly marked by historians that William Jennings
Bryan’s last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies?
A curious detail, and not without its sardonic overtones. He
was the most sedulous fly-catcher in American history, and in
many ways the most successful. His quarry, of course, was not
Musca domestica but Homo neandertalensis. For forty years he
tracked it with coo and bellow, up and down the rustic back-
ways of the Republic. Wherever the flambeaux of Chautauqua
smoked and guttered, and the bilge of idealism ran in the veins,
and Baptist pastors dammed the brooks with the sanctified, and
men gathered who were weary and heavy laden, and their wives
who were full of Peruna and as fecund as the shad {Alosa sapi-
dissima), there the indefatigable Jennings set up his traps and
spread his bait. He knew every country town in the South and
West, and he could crowd the most remote of them to suffo-
cation by simply winding his horn. The city proletariat, tran-
siently flustered by him in 1896, quickly penetrated his bun-
combe and would have no more of him; the cockney gallery
jeered him at every Democratic national convention for twenty-
five years. But out where the grass grows high, and the horned
cattle dream away the lazy afternoons, and men still fear the
powers and principalities of the air — out there between the
corn-rows he held his old puissance to the end. There was no
need of beaters to drive in his game. The news that he was com-
ing was enough. For miles the flivver dust would choke the
roads. And when he rose at the end of the day to discharge his
Message there would be such breathless attention, such a rapt
and enchanted ecstasy, such a sweet rustle of amens as the world
had not known since Johann fell to Herod’s ax.

There was something peculiarly fitting in the fact that his
last days were spent in a one-horse Tennessee village, beating

244 ^ Mencken Chrestomathy

off the flies and gnats, and that death found him there. The
man felt at home in such simple and Christian scenes. He liked
people who sweated freely, and were not debauched by the re-
finements of the toilet. Making his progress up and down the
Main street of little Dayton, surrounded by gaping primates
from the upland valleys of the Cumberland Range, his coat laid
aside, his bare arms and hairy chest shining damply, his bald
head sprinkled with dust — so accoutred and on display, he was
obviously happy. He liked getting up early in the morning, to
the tune of cocks crowing on the dunghill. He liked the heavy,
greasy victuals of the farmhouse kitchen. He liked country
lawyers, country pastors, all country people. He liked country
sounds and country smells.

I believe that this liking was sincere — perhaps the only sin-
cere thing in the man. His nose showed no uneasiness when
a hillman in faded overalls and hickory shirt accosted him on
the street, and besought him for light upon some mystery of
Holy Writ. The simian gabble of the cross-roads was not gabble
to him, but wisdom of an occult and superior sort. In the pres-
ence of city folks he was palpably uneasy. Their clothes, I sus-
pect, annoyed him, and he was suspicious of their too delicate
manners. He knew all the while that they were laughing at him
— if not at his baroque theology, then at least at his alpaca
pantaloons. But the yokels never laughed at him. To them he
was not the huntsman but the prophet, and toward the end, as
he gradually forsook mundane politics for more ghostly con-
cerns, they began to elevate him in their hierarchy. When he
died he was the peer of Abraham. His old enemy, Wilson,
aspiring to tire same white and shining robe, came down with
a thump. But Bryan made the grade. His place in Tennessee
hagiography is secure. If the village barber saved any of his hair,
then it is curing gall-stones down there today.

But what label will he bear in more urbane regions? One, I
fear, of a far less flattering kind. Bryan lived too long, and de-
scended too deeply into the mud, to be taken seriously here-
after by fully literate men, even of the kind who write school-
books. There was a scattering of sweet words in his funeral
notices, but it was no more than a response to conventional
sentimentality. The best verdict the most romantic editorial

XIII. Statesmen 245

writer could dredge up, save in the humorless South, was to the
general effect that his imbecilities were excused by his earnest-
ness — that under his clowning, as under that of the juggler of
Notre Dame, there was the zeal of a steadfast soul. But this was
apology, not praise; precisely the same thing might be said of
Mary Baker G. Eddy. The truth is that even Br}'an^s sincerity
will probably yield to what is called, in other fields, definitive
criticism. Was he sincere when he opposed imperialism in the
Philippines, or when he fed it with deserving Democrats in
Santo Domingo? Was he sincere when he tried to shove the
Prohibitionists under the table, or when he seized their banner
and began to lead them with loud whoops? Was he sincere
when he bellowed against war, or when he dreamed of himself
as a tin-soldier in uniform, with a grave reserved at Arlington
among the generals? Was he sincere when he fawned over
Champ Clark, or when he betrayed Clark? Was he sincere when
he pleaded for tolerance in New York, or when he bawled for
the faggot and the stake in Tennessee?

This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me. If the fellow was
sincere, then so was P. T. Barnum. The word is disgraced and
degraded by such uses. He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mounte-
bank, a zany without sense or dignity. His career brought him
into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the
company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching
him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received
in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state.
He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by
a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all
learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things.
He was a peasant come home to the barnyard. Imagine a gentle-
man, and you have imagined everything that he was not. What
animated him from end to end of his grotesque career was sim-
ply ambition — the ambition of a common man to get his hand
upon the collar of his superiors, or, failing that, to get his thumb
into their eyes. He was born with a roaring voice, and it had
the trick of inflaming half-wits. His whole career was devoted to
raising those half-wits against their betters, that he himself
might shine.

His last battle will be grossly misunderstood if it is thought

246 A Mencken Chrestomathy

of as a mere exercise in fanaticism — that is, if Bryan the Funda-
mentalist Pope is mistaken for one of the bucolic Fundamental-
ists. There was much more in it than that, as everyone knows
who saw him on the field. What moved him, at bottom, was
simply hatred of the city men who had laughed at him so long,
and brought him at last to so tatterdemalion an estate. He lusted
for revenge upon them. He yearned to lead the anthropoid rab-
ble against them, to punish them for their execution upon him
by attacking the very vitals of their civilization. He went far be-
yond the bounds of any merely religious frenzy, however inordi-
nate. When he began denouncing the notion that man is a
mammal even some of the hinds at Dayton were agape. And
when, brought upon Clarence Darrow's cruel hook, he writhed
and tossed in a very fury of malignancy, bawling against the
veriest elements of sense and decency like a man frantic — when
he came to that tragic climax of his striving there were snickers
among the hinds as well as hosannas.

Upon that hook, in truth, Bryan committed suicide, as a leg-
end as well as in the body. He staggered from the rustic court
ready to die, and he staggered from it ready to be forgotten,
save as a character in a third-rate farce, witless and in poor taste.
It was plain to everyone who knew him, when he came to Day-
ton, that his great days were behind him — that, for all the fury
of his hatred, he was now definitely an old man, and headed at
last for silence. There was a vague, unpleasant manginess about
his appearance; he somehow seemed dirty, though a close glance
showed him as carefully shaven as an actor, and clad in immacu-
late linen. All the hair was gone from the dome of his head, and
it had begun to fall out, too, behind his ears, in the obscene
manner of Samuel Gompers. The resonance had departed from
his voice; what was once a bugle blast had become reedy and
quavering. Who knows that, like Demosthenes, he had a lisp?
In the old days, under the magic of his eloquence, no one
noticed it. But when he spoke at Dayton it was always audible.

When I first encountered him, on the sidewalk in front of
the office of the rustic lawyers who were his associates in the
Scopes case, the trial was yet to begin, and so he was still ex-
pansive and amiable. I had printed in the Nation^ a week or so

XIIL Statesmen 247

before, an article arguing that the Tennessee anti-evolution law,
whatever its wisdom, was at least constitutional — that the ya-
hoos of the State had a clear right to have their progeny taught
whatever they chose, and kept secure from whatever knowledge
violated their superstitions. The old boy professed to be de-
lighted with the argument, and gave the gaping bystanders to
understand that I was a publicist of parts. Not to be outdone,

I admired the preposterous country shirt that he wore — sleeve-
less and with the neck cut very low. We parted in the manner
of two ambassadors.

But that was the last touch of amiability that I was destined
to see in Bryan. The next day the battle joined and his face be-
came hard. By the end of the week he was simply a walking
fever. Hour by hour he grew more bitter. What the Christian
Scientists call malicious animal magnetism seemed to radiate
from him like heat from a stove. From my place in the court-
room, standing upon a table, I looked directly down upon him,
sweating horribly and pumping his palm-leaf fan. His eyes fasci-
nated me; I watched them all day long. They were blazing
points of hatred. They glittered like occult and sinister gems.
Now and then they wandered to me, and I got my share, for my
reports of the trial had come back to Dayton, and he had read
them. It was like coming under fire.

Thus he fought his last fight, thirsting savagely for blood.
All sense departed from him. He bit right and left, like a dog
with rabies. He descended to demagogy so dreadful that his very
associates at the trial table blushed. His one yearning was to
keep his yokels heated up — to lead his forlorn mob of imbeciles
against the foe. That foe, alas, refused to be alarmed. It in-
sisted upon seeing the whole battle as a comedy. Even Darrow,
who knew better, occasionally yielded to the prevailing spirit.
One day he lured poor Bryan into the folly I have mentioned:
his astounding argument against the notion that man is a mam-
mal. I am glad I heard it, for otherwise Fd never believe it.
There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the
Presidency of the Republic — there he stood in the glare of
the world, uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at. The
artful Darrow led him on: he repeated i% ranted for it, bel-

248 A Mencken Chrestomathy

lowed it in his cracked voice. So he was prepared for the final
slaughter. He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and
shining armor. He was passing out a poor mountebank.

The Archangel Woodrow

From Memoirs of a Subject of the United States, Prejudices: Sixth
Series, 1927, pp. 43-44, and from the Smart Set, Jan., 1921, pp. 142-43

Wilson was a typical Puritan — of the better sort, perhaps, for
he at least toyed with the ambition to appear as a gentleman,
but nevertheless a true Puritan. Magnanimity was simply be-
yond him. Confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor
Debs, all his instincts compelled him to keep Debs in jail. I
daresay that, as a purely logical matter, he saw clearly that the
old fellow ought to be turned loose; certainly he must have
known that Washington would not have hesitated, or Lincoln.
But Calvinism triumphed as his intellectual faculties decayed.
In the full bloom of health, with a plug hat on his head, he
aped the gentry of his wistful adoration very cleverly, but lying
in bed, stripped like Thackeray's Louis XIV, he reverted to his
congenital Puritanism, which is to say, bounderism.

There is a truly devastating picture of him in 'The Story of a
Style," by Dr. William Bayard Hale. Hale was peculiarly
equipped for the business, for he was at one time high in the
literary and philosophical confidence of the late Messiah, and
learned to imitate his gaudy rhetoric with great skill — so per-
fectly, indeed, that he was delegated to write one of the Wood-
rovian books, to wit, 'The New Freedom," once a favorite text
of New Republic Liberals, deserving Democrats, and the tender-
minded in general. But in the end he revolted against both the
new Euphuism and its eminent pa, and when he wrote his book
he tackled both with considerable ferocity, and, it must be added,
vast effect. His analysis of the whole Wilsonian buncombe, in
fact, is appallingly cruel. He shows its ideational hollowness, its
ludicrous strutting and bombast, its heavy dependence upon
greasy and meaningless words, its frequent descents to mere

XIII . Statesmen 249

sound and fury, signifying nothing. In particular, he devotes
himself to a merciless study of what, after all, must remain the
deceased Moseses chief contribution to both history and beauti-
ful letters, viz,, his biography of Washington. This incredible
work is an almost inexhaustible mine of bad writing, faulty gen-
eralizing, childish pussyfooting, ludicrous posturing, and naive
stupidity. To find a match for it one must try to imagine a
biography of the Duke of Wellington by his barber. Well, Hale
spreads it out on his operating table, sharpens his snickersnee
upon his bootleg, and proceeds to so harsh an anatomizing that
it nearly makes me sympathize with the author. Not many of
us — • writers, and hence vain and artificial fellows could un-
dergo so relentless an examination without damage. But not
many of us, I believe, would suffer quite so horribly as Wood-
row. The book is a mass of puerile affectations, and as Hale un-
veils one after the other he performs a sound service for Ameri-
can scholarship and American letters.

I say that his book is cruel, but I must add that his laparot-
omies are carried on with every decorum — that he by no means
rants and rages against his victim. On the contrary, he keeps his
temper even when there is strong temptation to lose it, and his
inquiry maintains itself upon the literary level as much as pos-
sible, without needless descents to political and personal matters.
More than once, in fact, he says very kind things about Wood-
row — a man probably quite as mellow and likable within as
the next man, despite his strange incapacity for keeping his
friends. The Woodrovian style, at the height of the Wilson
hallucination, was much praised by cornfed connoisseurs. I read
editorials, in those days, comparing it to the style of the Biblical
prophets, and arguing that it vastly exceeded the manner of any
living literatus. Looking backward, it is not difficult to see how
that doctrine arose. Its chief sponsors, first and last, were not
men who actually knew anything about writing English, but
simply editorial writers on party newspapers, i.^., men who re-
lated themselves to literary artists in much the same way that
an Episcopal bishop relates himself to Paul of Tarsus. What
intrigued such gentlemen was the plain fact that Wilson was
their superior in their own special field — that he accomplished
with a great deal more skill than they did themselves the great

250 A Mencken Chrestomathy

task of reducing all the difficulties of the hour to a few sonorous
and unintelligible phrases, often with theological overtones —
that he knew better than they did how to arrest and enchant
the boobery with words that were simply words, and nothing
else. The vulgar like and respect that sort of balderdash. A dis-
course packed with valid ideas, accurately expressed, is quite in-
comprehensible to them. What they want is the sough of vague
and comforting words — words cast into phrases made familiar
to them by the whooping of their customary political and eccle-
siastical rabble-rousers, and by the highfalutin style of the news-
papers that they read. Woodrow knew how to conjure up such
words. He knew how to make them glow, and weep. He wasted
no time upon the heads of his dupes, but aimed directly at their
ears, diaphragms and hearts.

But reading his speeches in cold blood offers a curious experi-
ence. It is difficult to believe that even idiots ever succumbed
to such transparent contradictions, to such gaudy processions of
mere counter-words, to so vast and obvious a nonsensicality.
Hale produces sentence after sentence that has no apparent
meaning at all — stuff quite as bad as the worst bosh of Warren
Gamaliel Harding. When Wilson got upon his legs in those
days he seems to have gone into a sort of trance, with all the
peculiar illusions and delusions that belong to a pedagogue gone
mashugga. He heard words giving three cheers; he saw them race
across a blackboard like Marxians pursued by the Polizei; he felt
them rush up and kiss him. The result was the grand series of
moral, political, sociological and theological maxims which now
lodges imperishably in the cultural heritage of the American
people, along with Lincoln's '"government of the people, by
the people," etc.. Perry's "We have met the enemy, and they
are ours," and Vanderbilt's "The public be damned." Tlie im-
portant thing is not that a popular orator should have uttered
such vaporous and preposterous phrases, but that they should
have been gravely received, for weary years, by a whole race of
men, some of them intelligent. Here is a matter that deserves
the sober inquiry of competent psychologists. The boobs took
fire first, but after a while even college presidents — who cer-
tainly ought to be cynical men, if ladies of joy are cynical

XIII. Statesmen 251

women — were sending up sparks, and for a long while anyone
who laughed was in danger of the calaboose.


From the American Mercury^ April, 1933, pp. 588— 90.

First printed, in part, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, Jan. 30, 1933.
Coolidge died Jan. 5, 1933

The editorial writers who had the job of concocting mortuary
tributes to the late Calvin Coolidge, LL.D., made heavy weather
of it, and no wonder. Ordinarily, an American public man dies
by inches, and there is thus plenty of time to think up beautiful
nonsense about him. More often than not, indeed, he threatens
to die three or four times before he actually does so, and each
threat gives the elegists a chance to mellow and adorn their effu-
sions. But Dr. Coolidge slipped out of life almost as quietly and
as unexpectedly as he had originally slipped into public notice,
and in consequence the brethren were caught napping and had
to do their poetical embalming under desperate pressure. The
common legend is that such pressure inflames and inspires a
true journalist, and maketh him to sweat masterpieces, but it is
not so in fact. Like any other literary man, he functions best
when he is at leisure, and can turn from his tablets now and
then to run down a quotation, to eat a plate of ham and eggs,
or to look out of the window.

The general burden of the Coolidge memoirs was that the
right hon. gentleman was a typical American, and some hinted
that he was the most typical since Lincoln. As the English say,
I find myself quite unable to associate myself with that thesis.
He was, in truth, almost as unlike the average of his countrymen
as if he had been born green. The Americano is an expansive
fellow, a back-slapper, full of amiability; Coolidge was reserved
and even muriatic. The Americano has a stupendous capacity for
believing, and especially for believing in what is palpably not
true; Coolidge was, in his fundamental metaphysics, an agnostic.

252 A Mencken Chrestomathy

The Americano dreams vast dreams, and is hag-ridden by a
demon; Coolidge was not mount but rider, and his steed was
a mechanical horse. The Americano, in his normal incarnation,
challenges fate at every step and his whole life is a struggle;
Coolidge took things as they came.

Some of the more romantic of the funeral bards tried to con-
vert the farmhouse at Plymouth into a log-cabin, but the at-
tempt was as vain as their effort to make a Lincoln of good Cal.
His early days, in fact, were anything but pinched. His father
was a man of substance, and he was well fed and well schooled.
He went to a good college, had the clothes to cut a figure there,
and made useful friends. There is no record that he was brilliant,
but he took his degree with a respectable mark, proceeded to
the law, and entered a prosperous law firm on the day of his
admission to the bar. Almost at once he got into politics, and
by the time he was twenty-seven he was already on the public
payroll. There he remained without a break for exactly thirty
years, always moving up. Not once in all those years did he lose
an election. When he retired in the end, it was at his own mo-
tion, and with three or four hundred thousand dollars of tax
money in his tight jeans.

In brief, a darling of the gods. No other American has ever
been so fortunate, or even half so fortunate. His career first
amazed observers, and then dazzled them. Well do I remember
the hot Saturday in Chicago when he was nominated for the
Vice-Presidency on the ticket with Harding. Half a dozen other
statesmen had to commit political suicide in order to make way
for him, but all of them stepped up docilely and bumped them-
selves oS. The business completed, I left the press-stand and
went to the crypt below to hunt a drink. There I found a group
of colleagues listening to a Boston brother who knew Coolidge
well, and had followed him from the start of his career.

To my astonishment I found that this gentleman was offering
to lay a bet that Harding, if elected, would be assassinated be-
fore he had served half his term. There were murmurs, and
someone protested uneasily that such talk was injudicious, for
A. Mitchell Palmer was still Attorney-General and his spies
were all about. But the speaker stuck to his wager.

'1 am simply telling you/' he roared, 'what I know, I know

XIII. Statesmen 253

Cal Coolidge inside and out. He is the luckiest goddam

— in the whole world.

It seemed plausible then, and it is certain now. No other
President ever slipped into the White House so easily, and none
other ever had a softer time of it while there. When, at Rapid
City, S. D., on August 2, 1927, he loosed the occult words, “I
do not choose to run in 1928," was it prescience or onlv luck?
For one, I am inclined to put it down to luck. Surely there was
no prescience in his utterances and maneuvers otherwise. He
showed not the slightest sign that he smelt black clouds ahead;
on the contrary, he talked and lived only sunshine. There was a
volcano boiling under him, but he did not know it, and was
not singed. When it burst forth at last, it was Hoover who got
its blast, and was fried, boiled, roasted and fricasseed. How Dr.
Coolidge must have chuckled in his retirement, for he was not
without humor of a sad, necrotic kind. He knew Hoover well,
and could fathom the full depths of the joke.

In what manner he would have performed himself if the holy
angels had shoved the Depression forward a couple of years —
this we can only guess, and one man's hazard is as good as an-
other's. My own is that he would have responded to bad times
precisely as he responded to good ones — that is, by pulling
down the blinds, stretching his legs upon his desk, and snoozing
away the lazy afternoons. Here, indeed, was his one peculiar
Fachy his one really notable talent. He slept more than any other
President, whether by day or by night. Nero fiddled, but Cool-
idge only snored. When the crash came at last and Hoover be-
gan to smoke and bubble, good Cal was safe in Northampton,
and still in the hay.

There is sound reason for believing that this great gift of his
for self-induced narcolepsy was at the bottom of such modest
popularity as he enjoyed. I mean, of course, popularity among
the relatively enlightened. On lower levels he was revered sim-
ply because he was so plainly just folks — because what little he
said was precisely what was heard in every garage and barber-
shop. He gave the plain people the kind of esthetic pleasure
known as recognition, and in horse-doctor's doses. But what got
him customers higher up the scale of humanity was something
else, and something quite different. It was the fact that he not

254 A Mencken Chrestomathy

only said little, and that little of harmless platitudes all com-
pact, but did even less. The kind of government that he offered
the country was government stripped to the buff. It was govern-
ment that governed hardly at all. Thus the ideal of Jefferson
was realized at last, and the Jeffersonians were delighted.

Well, there is surely something to say for that abstinence,
and maybe a lot. I can find no relation of cause and effect be-
tween the Coolidge somnolence and the Coolidge prosperity,
but it is nevertheless reasonable to argue that if the former had
been less marked the latter might have blown up sooner. We
suffer most, not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory,
but when it is a Jitney Mars Hill, with a tin-pot Paul bawling
from the roof. Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Cool-
idge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two
more. What enlightened American, having to choose between
any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an in-
stant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither
were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a

Imperial Purple

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, Aug. 17, 1931

Most of the rewards of the Presidency, in these days, have come
to be very trashy. The President continues, of course, to be an
eminent man, but only in the sense that Jack Dempsey, Lind-
bergh, Babe Ruth and Henry Ford have been eminent men. He
sees little of the really intelligent and amusing people of the
country: most of them, in fact, make it a sort of point of honor
to avoid him. His time is put in mainly with shabby politicians
and other such designing fellows — - in brief, with rogues and ig-
noramuses. When he takes a little holiday his customary com-
panions are vermin that no fastidious man would consort with.
Dr. Harding, forced to entertain them, resorted to poteen as
an analgesic; Dr. Coolidge loaded them aboard the Mayflower^
and then fled to his cabin, took off his vest and shirt, and went

XIIL Statesmen 255

to sleep; Dr. Hoover hauled them to the Rapidan at 60 miles an
hour, and back at 80 or 90.

The honors that are heaped upon a President are seldom of a
kind to impress and content a civilized man. People send him
turkeys, opossums, pieces of wood from the Constitution, gold-
fish, carved peach kernels, models of the State capitols of Wy-
oming and Arkansas, and pressed flowers from the Holy Land.
Once a year some hunter in Montana or Idaho sends him 20
pounds of bearsteak, usually collect. It arrives in a high state,
and has to be fed to the White House dog. He receives 20 or 30
chain-prayer letters every day, and fair copies of 40 or 50 sets of
verse. Colored clergymen send him illustrated Bibles, madstones
and boxes of lucky powders, usually accompanied by applica-
tions for appointment as collector of customs at New Orleans,
Mobile or Wilmington, N. C., or as Register of the Treasury.
His public rewards come in the form of LL.D.'s from colleges
eager for the publicity — • and on the same day others precisely
like it are given to a champion lawn-tennis player, a banker
known to be without heirs of his body, and a general in the
Army. No one ever thinks to give him any other academic honor;
he is never made a Litt.D., a D.D., an S.T.D., a D.D.S., or a
J.U.D., but always an LL.D. Dr. Hoover, to date, has 30 or
40 such degrees. He apparently knows as little about law as a
court catchpoll, but he is more solidly legum doctor than
Blackstone or Pufendorf.

The health of a President is watched very carefully, not only
by the Vice-President but also by medical men detailed for the
purpose by the Army or Navy. These medical men have high-
sounding titles, and perform the duties of their office in full
uniform, with swords on one side and stethoscopes on the other.
The diet of their imperial patient is rigidly scrutinized. If he
eats a few peanuts they make a pother; if he goes in for some
steamed hard crabs at night, washed down by what passes in
Washington for malt liquor, they complain to the newspapers.
Every morning they look at his tongue, take his pulse and tem-
perature, determine his blood pressure, and examine his eye-
grounds and his knee-jerks. The instant he shows the slightest
sign of being upset they clap him into bed, post Marines to

256 A Mencken Chrestomathy

guard him, put him on a regimen fit for a Trappist, and issue

bulletins to the newspapers.

When a President goes traveling he never goes alone, but al-
ways with a huge staff of secretaries, Secret Service agents, doc-
tors, nurses, and newspaper reporters. Even so stingy a fellow as
Dr. Coolidge had to hire two whole Pullman cars to carry his
entourage. The cost, to be sure, is borne by the taxpayers, but
the President has to put up with the company. As he rolls along
thousands of boys rush out to put pennies on the track, and
now and then one of them loses a finger or a toe, and the train
has to be backed up to comfort his mother, who, it usually
turns out, cannot speak English. When the train arrives any-
where all the town bores and scoundrels gather to greet the
Chief Magistrate, and that night he has to eat a bad dinner,
and to listen to three hours of bad speeches.

The President has less privacy than any other American.
Thousands of persons have the right of access to him, be-
ginning with the British Ambassador and running down to
the secretary of the Republican county committee of Ziebach
county. South Dakota. Among them are the 96 members of the
United States Senate, perhaps the windiest and most tedious
group of men in Christendom. If a Senator were denied admis-
sion to the White House the whole Senate would rise in indig-
nation. And if the minister from Albania were kicked out even
the French and British Ambassadors would join in protesting.
Many of these gentlemen drop in, not because they have any-
thing to say, but simply to prove to their employers or cus-
tomers that they can do it. How long they stay is only partly
determined by the President himself. Dr. Coolidge used to get
rid of them by falling asleep in their faces, but that device is
impossible to Presidents with a more active interest in the visi-
ble world. It would not do to have them heaved out by the
Secret Service men or by the White House police, or to insult
and affront them otherwise, for many of them have wicked
tongues. On two occasions within historic times Presidents who
were irritable with such bores were reported in Washington to
be patronizing the jug, and it took a lot of fine work to put
down the scandal.

All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening solemnly

XI 1 1 . Statesmen 257

to bores and quacks. Anon a secretary rushes in with the news
that some eminent movie actor or football coach has died, and
the President must seize a pen and write a telegram of condo-
lence to the widow. Once a year he is repaid by receiving a cable
on his birthday from King George. Such things are cherished by
Presidents, and they leave them, post mortem, to the Library of
Congress. Anon there comes a day of public ceremonial, and a
chance to make a speech. Alas, it must be made at the annual
banquet of some organization that is discovered, at the last
minute, to be made up mainly of gentlemen under indictment,
or at the tomb of some statesman who escaped impeachment by
a hair. Twenty million voters with IQ's below 60 have their
ears glued to the radio; it takes four days' hard work to concoct
a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be
opened somewhere. Four Senators get drunk and try to neck a
lady politician built like an overloaded tramp steamer. The
Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.


Mr. Justice Holmes

From the American Mercury, May, 1930, pp. 122-24. A review of The
Dissenting Opinions of Mr. Justice Holmes, arranged by Alfred Lief, with
a foreword by George W. Kirchwey; New York, 1930. With additions from
the American Mercury, May, 1932, pp. 123-26

Mr. Justice Holmes’s dissenting opinions have got so much
fawning praise from Liberals that it is somewhat surprising to
discover that Mr. Lief is able to muster but fifty-five of them,
and even more surprising to hear from Dr. Kirchwey that in
only one case did the learned justice stand quite alone, and that
the cases in which he has given expression to the judgment of
the court, or in which he has concurred in its judgment, far out-
number, in the ratio of eight or ten to one, those in which he
felt it necessary to record his dissent.”

There is even more surprising stuff in the opinions them-
selves. In three Espionage Act cases, including the Debs case,
one finds a clear statement of the doctrine that, in war time, the
rights guaranteed by the First Amendment cease to have any
substance, and may be set aside summarily by any jury that has
been sufficiently inflamed by a district attorney itching for
higher office. In Fox vs. the State of Washington we learn that
any conduct "which shall tend to encourage or advocate disre-
spect for the law” may be made a crime, and that the protest
of a man who believes that he has been jailed unjustly, and
threatens to boycott his persecutors, may be treated as such a
crime. In Moyer vs. Peabody it appears that the Governor of
a State, "without sufficient reason but in good faith,” may call
out the militia, declare martial law, and jail anyone he happens
to suspect or dislike, without laying himself open "to an action
after he is out of office on the ground that he had no reasonable
ground for his belief.” And in Weaver vs. Palmer Bros, Co, there


XIV. American Immortals 259

is the plain inference that in order to punish a theoretical many
Ay who is suspected of wrong-doing, a State Legislature may
lay heavy and intolerable burdens upon a real man, B, who has
admittedly done no WTOng at all,

I find it hard to reconcile such notions with any plausible con-
cept of Liberalism. They may be good law, but it is impossible
to see how they can conceivably promote liberty. My suspicion
is that the hopeful Liberals of the 20$, frantically eager to find
at least one judge who was not violently and implacably against
them, seized upon certain of Mr. Justice Holmes's opinions
without examining the rest, and read into them an attitude that
was actually as foreign to his ways of thinking as it was to those
of Mr. Chief Justice Hughes. Finding him, now and then, de-
fending eloquently a new and uplifting law which his colleagues
proposed to strike off the books, they concluded that he was a
sworn advocate of the rights of man. But all the while, if I do
not misread his plain words, he was actually no more than an
advocate of the rights of law-makers. There, indeed, is the clue
to his whole jurisprudence. He believed that the law-making
bodies should be free to experiment almost ad libiturriy that tlie
courts should not call a halt upon them until they clearly passed
the uttermost bounds of reason, that everything should be sacri-
ficed to their autonomy, including, apparently, even the Bill of
Rights. If this is Liberalism, then all I can say is that Liberalism
is not what it was when I was young.

In those remote days, sucking wisdom from the primeval
springs, I was taught that the very aim of the Constitution was
to keep law-makers from running amok, and that it was the
highest duty of the Supreme Court, following Marhury vs.
Madison, to safeguard it against their forays. It was not suffi-
cient, so my instructors maintained, for Congress or a State
Legislature to give assurance that its intentions were noble;
noble or not, it had to keep squarely within the limits of the
Bill of Rights, and the moment it went beyond them its most
virtuous acts were null and void. But Mr. Justice Holmes appar-
ently thought otherwise. He held, it would seem, that violating
the Bill of Rights is a rare and difficult business, possible only
by summoning up deliberate malice, and that it is the chief
business of the Supreme Court to keep the Constitution loose

260 A Mencken Chrestomathy

and elastic, so that blasting holes through it may not be too
onerous. Bear this doctrine in mind, and you will have an ade-
quate explanation, on the one hand, of those forward-looking
opinions which console the Liberals — for example, in Lochner
vs. New York (the bakery case), in the child labor case, and in
the Virginia case involving the compulsory sterilization of im-
beciles— and on the other hand, of the reactionary opinions
which they so politely overlook — for example, in the Debs
case, in Bartels vs. Iowa (a war-time case, involving the prohibi-
tion of foreign-language teaching), in the Mann Act case (in
which Dr. Holmes concurred with the majority of the court,
and thereby helped pave the way for the wholesale blackmail
which Mr. Justice McKenna, who dissented, warned against),
and finally in the long line of Volstead Act cases.

Like any other man, of course, a judge sometimes permits
himself the luxury of inconsistency. Mr. Justice Holmes, it seems
to me, did so in the wiretapping case and again in the Abrams
case, in which his dissenting opinion was clearly at variance with
the prevailing opinion in the Debs case, written by him. But I
think it is quite fair to say that his fundamental attitude was
precisely as I have stated it. Over and over again, in these opin-
ions, he advocated giving the legislature full head-room, and
over and over again he protested against using the Fourteenth
Amendment to upset novel and oppressive laws, aimed frankly
at helpless minorities. If what he said in some of those opinions
were accepted literally there would be scarcely any brake at all
upon lawmaking, and the Bill of Rights would have no more
significance than the Code of Manu.

The weak spot in his reasoning, if I may presume to suggest
such a thing, was his tacit assumption that the voice of the
legislature was the voice of the people. There is, in fact, no
reason for confusing the people and the legislature: the two, in
these later years, are quite distinct. The legislature, like the
executive, has ceased, save indirectly, to be even the creature of
the people: it is the creature, in the main, of pressure groups,
and most of them, it must be manifest, are of dubious wisdom
and even more dubious honesty. Laws are no longer made by a
rational process of public discussion; they are made by a process
of blackmail and intimidation, and they are executed in the

XIV. American Immortals 261

same manner. The typical lawmaker of today is a man wholly
devoid of principle — a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish
game. If the right pressure could be applied to him he would
be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism.

It is the aim of the Bill of Rights, if it has any remaining
aim at all, to curb such prehensile gentry. Its function is to set
a limitation upon their power to harry and oppress us to their
own private profit. The Fathers, in framing it, did not have
powerful minorities in mind; what they sought to hobble was
simply the majority. But that is a detail. The important thing is
that the Bill of Rights sets forth, in the plainest of plain lan-
guage, the limits beyond which even legislatures may not go.
The Supreme Court, in Marbury vs. Madison, decided that it
was bound to execute that intent, and for a hundred years that
doctrine remained the corner-stone of American constitutional
law. But in late years the court has taken the opposite line, and
public opinion seems to support it. Certainly Dr. Holmes did
not go as far in that direction as some of his brother judges, but
equally certainly he went far enough. To call him a Liberal is
to make the word meaningless.

Let us, for a moment, stop thinking of him as one, and let
us also stop thinking of him as a litterateur, a reformer, a soci-
ologist, a prophet, an evangelist, a metaphysician; instead, let
us think of him as something that he undoubtedy was in his
Pleistocene youth and probably remained ever after, to wit, a
soldier. Let us think of him, further, as a soldier extraordinarily
ruminative and articulate — in fact, so mminative and articulate
as to be, in the military caste, almost miraculous. And let us
drink of him still further as a soldier whose natural distaste and
contempt for civilians, and corollary yearning to heave them all
into Hell, was cooled and eased by a stream of blood that once
flowed through the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table — in brief,
as a soldier beset by occasional doubts, hesitations, flashes of
humor, bursts of affability, moments of sneaking pity. Observe
that I insert the wary word, “occasional”; it surely belongs there.
On at least three days out of four, during his long years on the
bench, the learned justice remained the soldier — precise, pe-
dantic, unimaginative, even harsh. But on the fourth day a
strange amiability overcame him, and a strange impulse to play

262 A Mencken Chrestomathy

■with heresy, and it was on that fourth day that he acquired his

singular repute as a sage.

There is no evidence in Dr, Holmes's decisions that he ever
gave any really profound thought to the great battle of ideas
which raged in his time. He was interested in those ideas more
or less, and now and then his high office forced him to take a
hand in the battle, but he never did so with anything properly
describable as passionate conviction. The whole uproar, one
gathers, seemed fundamentally foolish to him. Did he have any
genuine belief in democracy? Apparently the answer must be
no. It amused him as a spectacle, and there were times when
he was in the mood to let that spectacle run on, and even to
help it on, but there were other times when he was moved to
haul it up with a sharp command. That, no doubt, is why his
decisions show so wide a spread and so beautiful an incon-
sistency, baffiing to those who would get him into a bottle. He
could, on occasion, state the case for the widest freedom,
whether of the individual citizen or of the representative law-
maker, with a magnificent clarity, but he could also on occasion
give his vote to the most brutal sort of repression. It seems to
me that the latter occasions were rather more numerous than
the former. And it seems to me again, after a very attentive
reading of his decisions, that what moved him when he was
disposed to be complacent was far less a positive love of liberty
than an amiable and half contemptuous feeling that those who
longed for it ought to get a horse-doctor's dose of it, and thereby
suffer a really first-rate belly-ache.

This easy-going cynicism of his is what gave his decisions their
peculiar salacity, and made them interesting as literature. It
separated them sharply from the writings of his fellow judges,
most of whom were frankly dull dogs. He had a considerable
talent for epigram, and like any other man who possesses it
was not shy about exercising it. I do not go so far as to allege
that it colored and conditioned his judgment, that the apt
phrase actually seduced him, but certainly it must be plain
that once his mood had brought him to this or that judgment
the announcement of it was sometimes more than a little af-
fected by purely literary impulses. Now and then, alas, the re-
sult was far more literature than law. I point, for example, to

XIV. American Immortals 263

one of his most celebrated epigrams: "'Three generations of
morons are enough.'" It is a memorable saying, and its essential
soundness need not be questioned, but is it really judicial, or
even legal, in form and content; does it offer that plain guidance
which the higher courts are supposed to provide? What of the
two generations: are they too little? I should not want to be a
nisi prius judge if all the pronunciamentoes of the Supreme
Court were so charmingly succinct and memorable “ and so

The average American judge, as everyone knows, is a mere
rabbinical automaton, with no more give and take in his mind
than you will find in the mind of a terrier watching a rathole.
He converts the law into a series of rubber-stamps, and brings
them down upon the scalped skulls of the just and unjust alike.
The alternative to him, as commonly conceived, is quite as bad
— an uplifter in a black robe, eagerly gulping every new brand
of Peruna that comes out, and converting his pulpit into a sort
of soap-box. Mr. Justice Holmes was neither, and he was better
than either. He was under no illusions about the law. He knew
very well that its aim was not to bring in the millennium, but
simply to keep the peace. But he believed that keeping the peace
was an art that could be practised in various ways, and that if
one of them was by using a club then another was by employ-
ing a feather. Thus the Liberals, who long for tickling with a
great and tragic longing, were occasionally lifted to the heights
of ecstasy by the learned judge's operations, and in fact soared
so high that they were out of earshot of next day's thwack of
the club. I suspect that Dr. Holmes himself, when he heard of
their enthusiasm, was quite as much amused as flattered. Such
misunderstandings are naturally grateful to a skeptic, and they
are doubly grateful to a skeptic of the military order, with his
professional doubt of all persons who think that they think. I
can imagine this skepticism — or, if you chose, cynicism — giv-
ing great aid and comfort to him on January 1, 1932, when he
entered the chamber of the Supreme Court for the last time,
and read his last opinion.

The case was that of one James Dunne, an humble bootician
of Eureka, Calif., and the retiring justice delivered the majority
opinion. Dunne had been tried in California on an indictment

264 A Mencken Chrestomathy

embracing three counts. The first charged him with keeping
liquor for sale, the second with possessing it unlawfully, and the
third with selling it. The jury acquitted him on the second and
third counts, but found him guilty on the first. His counsel
thereupon appealed. The evidence as to all three offenses, it was
shown, was precisely the same. If the prisoner was innocent of
two of them, then how could he be guilty of the third? Mr.
Justice Holmes, speaking for himself and all his fellow justices
save one, swept away this question in the following words:

Consistency in the verdict is not necessary. Each count in
an indictment is regarded as if it was a separate offense. If
separate indictments had been presented against the de-
fendant for possession and for maintenance of a nuisance,
and had been separately tried, the same evidence being of-
fered in support of each, an acquittal on one could not be
pleaded as res judicata of the other. Where the offenses are
separately charged in the counts of a single indictment the
same rule must hold.

I am not learned in the law, but the special gifts of a lawyer
are surely not necessary to see that this judgment disposed com-
pletely of the prohibition of double jeopardy in Article I of the
Bill of Rights. What it said, in plain English, is that a man
may be tried over and over again for what is essentially the same
offense, and that if one, two, three or n juries acquit him he
may yet be kept in the dock, and so on ad infinitum until a jury
is found that will convict him. And what such a series of juries
may do may be done by one single jury — by the simple device
of splitting his one offense into two, three, four or n offenses,
and then trying him for all of them. In order to go free he must
win verdicts of not guilty on every count. But in order to jail
him all the prosecuting attorney needs is a verdict of guilty on

I commend this decision to Liberals who still cherish the de-
lusion that Dr, Holmes belonged to their lodge. Let them paste
it in their Sunday go-to-meeting hats. And I commend to them
also the astounding but charming fact that the one judge who
dissented was Mr. Justice Pierce Butler, for many years the chief
demon in their menagerie. This is what he said:

XIV. American Immortals 265

Excluding the possession negatived by the finding under
the second count, there is nothing of substance left in the
first count, for its specifications were limited to the keeping
for sale of the identical drinks alleged in the second count
to have been unlawfully possessed. . . . The evidence hav-
ing been found insufficient to establish such possession, it
cannot be held adequate to warrant conviction under the
first count. The finding of not guilty is a final determination
that possession, the gravamen of both counts, was not

Professor Veblen

From Prejudices: First Series, 1919, pp. 59-83. An expansion of
Prof. Veblen and the Cow, which appeared in the Smart Set for May, 1919,
pp. 138-44, and made a considerable pother. The events dealt with in this
essay seem far away today, and perhaps a bit incredible, but they deserve
to be recalled, for another and even more preposterous Veblen may be on
us tomorrow. On the advent of the New Deal in 1933 some of the wizards
at Washington tried to revive him, but this time he did not take and was
soon forgotten again. I never met him, but years after 1919 I heard from
some of his friends that my onslaught had greatly upset him, and, in fact,
made him despair of the Republic. He died in 1929

Back in the year 1909, being engaged in a bombastic discussion
with what was then known as an intellectual Socialist (like
the rest of the intelligentsia^ he succumbed to the first fife-corps
of World War I, pulled down the red flag, damned Marx as a
German spy, and began whooping for Woodrow Wilson and
Otto Kahn), I was greatly belabored and incommoded by his
long quotations from a certain Prof. Thorstein Veblen, then
quite unknown to me. My antagonist manifestly attached a
great deal of importance to these borrowed sagacities, for he
often heaved them at me in lengths of a column or two, and
urged me to read every word of them, I tried hard enough, but
found it impossible going. The more I read them, in fact, the
less I could make of tliem, and so in the end, growing impatient
and impolite, I denounced this Prof. Veblen as a geyser of pish-
posh, refused to waste any more time upon his incomprehen-

266 A Mencken Chrestomathy

sible syllogisms, and applied myself to the other Socialist wit-
nesses in the case, seeking to set fire to their shirts.

That old debate, which took place by mail (for the Socialist
lived in levantine luxury on his country estate and I was a wage-
slave attached to a city newspaper), was afterward embalmed
in a dull book, and got the mild notice of a day. The book, by
name, Men vs. the Man, ^ is now as completely forgotten
as Baxter's "Saint's Rest" or the Constitution of the United
States. I myself am perhaps the only man who remembers it at
all, and the only thing I can recall of my opponent's argument
(beyond the fact that it not only failed to convert me to Marx-
ism, but left me a bitter and incurable scoffer at democracy in
all its forms) is his curious respect for the aforesaid Veblen,
and his delight in the learned gentleman's long, tortuous and
(to me, at least) intolerably flapdoodlish phrases.

There was, indeed, a time when I forgot even this — when my
mind was empty of the professor's very name. That was, say,
from 1909 or thereabout to the middle of 1917. During those
years, having lost all my former interest in Socialism, even as a
species of insanity, I ceased to read its literature, and thus lost
track of its Great Thinkers. The periodicals that I then gave an
eye to, setting aside newspapers, were chiefly the familiar Ameri-
can imitations of the English weeklies of opinion, and in these
the dominant Great Thinker was, first, the late Dr. William
James, and, after his decease in 1910, Dr. John Dewey. The
reign of James, as the illuminated will recall, was long and glori-
ous. For three or four years running he was mentioned in every
one of those American Spectators and Saturday Reviews at least
once a week, and often a dozen times. Among the less somber
gazettes of the republic, to be sure, there were other heroes:
Maeterlinck, Rabindranath Tagore, Judge Ben B. Lindsey, and
so on, and still further down the literary and intellectual scale
there were yet others: Hall Caine, Brieux and Jack Johnson
among them, with paper-bag cookery and the twilight sleep to
dispute their popularity. But on the majestic level of the pre-
Villard Nation, among the white and lavender peaks of profes-
sorial ratiocination, there was scarcely a serious rival to James.
Now and then, perhaps, Jane Addams had a month of vogue,
^ New York, 1910. The Socialist was Robert Rives La Monte.

XIV. American Immortals 267

and during one Winter there was a rage for Bergson^ but taking
one day with another James held his own against tlie field.

His ideas, immediately they were stated, became the ideas of
every pedagogue from Harvard to Leland Stanford, and the
pedagogues rammed them into the skulls of the lesser cerebellL
When he died his ghost went marching on: it took three or four
years to interpret and pigeon-hole his philosophical remains and
to take down and redact his messages (via Sir Oliver Lodge,
Little Brighteyes, Wah-Wah the Indian Chief, and other gifted
psychics) from the spirit world. But then, gradually, he achieved
the ultimate, stupendous and irrevocable act of death, and there
was a vacancy. To it Prof. Dr. Dewey was elected by the accla-
mation of all right-thinking and forward-looking men. He was
an expert in pedagogics, metaphysics, psychology, ethics, logic,
politics, pedagogical metaphysics, metaphysical psychology, psy-
chological ethics, ethical logic, logical politics and political
pedagogics. He was artium magister, philosophice doctor and
twice legum doctor. He had written a book called How to
Think."' He sat in a professor's chair and caned sophomores for
blowing spit-balls. Ergo, he was the ideal candidate, and so he
was nominated, elected and inaugurated, and for three years,
more or less, he enjoyed a glorious reign in the groves of sapi-
ence, and the inferior umhilicarii venerated him as they had
once venerated James.

I myself greatly enjoyed and profited by the discourses of
this Prof. Dewey and was in hopes that he would last. Born of
indestructible Vermont stock and a man of the highest bearable
sobriety, he seemed likely to peg along almost ad infinitum, a
gentle and charming volcano of correct thought. But it was not,
alas, to be. Under cover of pragmatism, the serpent's metaphysic
that James had left behind him, there was unrest beneath the
surface. Young professors in remote and obscure universities,
apparently as harmless as so many convicts in the death-house,
were secretly flirting with new and red-hot ideas. Whole squads
of them yielded in stealthy privacy to rebellious and often in-
comprehensible yearnings. Now and then, as if to reveal what
was brewing, a hellmouth blazed and a Dr. Scott Nearing went
sky-hooting through its smoke. One heard whispers of strange
heresies — economic, sociological, even political. Gossip had it

268 A Mencken Chrestomathy

that pedagogy was hatching vipers, nay, was already brought to
bed. But not much of this got into the home-made Saturday
Reviews and Athenceums — a hint or two maybe, but no more.
In the main they kept to their old resolute demands for a pure
civil-service, the budget system in Congress, the abolition of
hazing at the Naval Academy, an honest primary, and justice to
the Filipinos, with extermination of the Prussian monster added
after August, 1914. And Dr. Dewey, on his remote Socratic Alp,
pursued the calm reenforcement of the philosophical principles
underlying these and all other lofty and indignant causes.

Then, of a sudden, Sissl Boom! Ah! Then, overnight, the up-
springing of intellectual soviets, the headlong assault upon all
the old axioms of pedagogical speculation, the nihilistic de-
thronement of Prof. Dewey — and rah, rah, rah for Prof. Dr.
Thorstein Veblenl Veblen? Could it be — ? Aye, it was! My old
acquaintance! The doctor obscurus of my half-forgotten bout
with the so-called intellectual Socialist! The Great Thinker
redivivus! Here, indeed, he was again, and in a few months —
almost it seemed a few days ■— he was all over the Nation^ the
Dial^ the New Republic and the rest of them, his books and
pamphlets began to pour from the presses, the newspapers re-
ported his every wink and whisper, and everybody who was any-
body began gabbling about him. The spectacle, I do not hesi-
tate to say, somewhat disconcerted me and even distressed me.
On the one hand, I was sorry to see so learned and interesting
a man as Dr. Dewey sent back to the insufferable dungeons of
Columbia, there to lecture in imperfect Yiddish to classes of
Grand Street Platos. And on the other hand, I shrunk supinely
from the appalling job, newly rearing itself before me, of re-
reading the whole canon of the singularly laborious and muggy,
the incomparably tangled and unintelligible works of Prof.

But if a sense of duty tortures a man, it also enables him to
achieve prodigies, and so I managed to get through the whole
infernal job. I read 'The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899),
I read 'The Theory of Business Enterprise" (1904), and then
I read 'The Instinct of Workmanship" (1914). A hiatus fol-
lowed; I was racked by a severe neuralgia, with delusions of per-
secution. On recovering I tackled "Imperial Germany and the

XIV. American Immortals 269

Industrial Revolution” (1915). Marasmus for a month, and
then 'The Nature of Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation”
(1917) . What ensued was never diagnosed; probably it was some
low infection of the mesentery or spleen. When it passed off,
leaving only an asthmatic cough, I read 'The Higher Learning
in America” (1918), and then went to Mt Clemens to drink
the Glauber^s salts. Eureka! the business was done! It had
strained me, but now it was over. Alas, a good part of the
agony had been needless. What I found myself aware of, com-
ing to the end, was that practically the whole system of Prof.
Veblen was in his first book and his last — that is, in 'The The-
ory of the Leisure Class,” and "The Higher Learning in Amer-
ica.” ^ I pass on the news to literary archeologists. Read these
two, and you won’t have to read the others. And if even tw’O
daunt you, then read the first. Once through it, though you will
have missed many a pearl and many a pain, you will have an
excellent grasp of the gifted metaphysician’s ideas.

For those ideas, in the main, were quite simple, and often any-
thing but revolutionary in essence. What was genuinely remark-
able about them was not their novelty, or their complexity, nor
even the fact that a professor should harbor them; it was the
astoundingly grandiose and rococo manner of their statement,
the almost unbelievable tediousness and flatulence of the gifted
headmaster’s prose, his unprecedented talent for saying nothing
in an august and heroic manner. There are tales of an actress of
the last generation, probably Sarah Bernhardt, who could put
pathos and even terror into a recitation of the multiplication
table. Something of the same talent, raised to a high power, was
in this Prof. Veblen. If one tunneled under his great moraines
and stalagmites of words, dug down into his vast kitchen-midden
of discordant and raucous polysyllables, blew up the hard, thick
shell of his almost theological manner, what one found in his
discourse was chiefly a mass of platitudes “ the self-evident
made horrifying, the obvious in terms of the staggering.

Marx, I daresay, had said a good deal of it long before him,
and what Marx overlooked had been said over and over again
by his heirs and assigns. But Marx, at this business, labored

2 He wrote four books between The Higher Learning and his death in
1929, but they were only reboilings of old bones, and attracted no notice.

270 A Mencken Chrestomathy

under a technical handicap; he wrote in German, a language he
actually understood. Prof. Veblen submitted himself to no such
disadvantage. Though born, I believe, in These States, and resi-
dent here all his life, he achieved the effect, perhaps without em-
ploying the means, of thinking in some uneaxtlily foreign lan-
guage— say Swahili, Sumerian or Old Bulgarian — and then
painfully clawing his thoughts into a copious but uncertain and
book-learned English. The result was a style that affected the
higher cerebral centers like a constant roll of subway expresses.
The second result was a sort of bewildered numbness of the
senses, as before some fabulous and unearthly marvel. And the
third result, if I make no mistake, was the celebrity of the pro-
fessor as a Great Thinker. In brief, he stated his hollow nothings
in such high, astounding terms that inevitably arrested and blis-
tered the right-thinking mind. He made them mysterious. He
made them shocking. He made them portentous. And so, fling-
ing them at naive and believing souls, he made them stick and

Consider this specimen — the first paragraph of Chapter XIII
of 'The Theory of the Leisure Class”:

In an increasing proportion as time goes on, the anthro-
pomorphic cult, with its code of devout observances, suffers
a progressive disintegration through the stress of economic
exigencies and the decay of the system of status. As this dis-
integration proceeds, there come to be associated and
blended with the devout attitude certain other motives and
impulses that are not always of an anthropomorphic origin,
nor traceable to the habit of personal subservience. Not all
of these subsidiary impulses that blend with the bait of de-
voutness in the later devotional life are altogether congru-
ous with the devout attitude or with the anthropomorphic
apprehension of sequence of phenomena. Their origin be-
ing not the same, their action upon the scheme of devout
life is also not in the same direction. In many ways they
traverse the underlying norm of subservience or vicarious
life to which the code of devout observances and the eccle-
siastical and sacerdotal institutions are to be traced as their
substantial basis. Through the presence of these alien mo-

XIV. Amencan Immortals 271

tives the social and industrial regime of status gradually
disintegrates, and the canon of personal subservience loses
the support derived from an unbroken tradition. Extrane-
ous habits and proclivities encroach upon the field of action
occupied by this canon, and it presently comes about that
the ecclesiastical and sacerdotal structures are partially con-
verted to other uses, in some measure alien to the purpose
of the scheme of devout life as it stood in the days of the
most vigorous and characteristic development of the priest-

Well, what have we here? What does this appalling salvo of
rhetorical artillery signify? What was the sweating professor try-
ing to say? Simply that in the course of time the worship of
God is commonly corrupted by other enterprises, and that the
church, ceasing to be a mere temple of adoration, becomes the
headquarters of these other enterprises. More simply still, that
men sometimes vary serving God by serving other men, which
means, of course, serving themselves. This bald platitude, which
must be obvious to any child who has ever been to a church
bazaar, was here tortured, worried and run through rollers until
it spread out to 241 words, of which fully 200 were unnecessary.
The next paragraph was even worse. In it the master undertook
to explain in his peculiar dialect the meaning of 'That non-rev-
erent sense of aesthetic congruity with the environment which
is left as a residue of the latter-day act of worship after elimina-
tion of its anthropomorphic content^' Just what did he mean
by this "non-reverent sense of sesthetic congruity”? I studied the
whole paragraph for three days, halting only for prayer and
sleep, and I came to certain conclusions. What I concluded was
this: he was trying to say that many people go to church, not
because they are afraid of the devil but because they enjoy the
music, and like to look at the stained glass, the potted lilies and
the rev. pastor. To get this profound and highly original observa-
tion upon paper, he wasted, not merely 241, but more than 300
words. To say what might have been said on a postage stamp he
took more than a page in his book.

And so it went, alas, alas, in all his other volumes— -a cenfs
worth of information wrapped in a bale of polysyllables. In

272 A Mencken Chrestomathy

“The Higher Learning in America” the thing perhaps reached
its damndest and worst. It was as if the practise of that incred-
ibly obscure and malodorous style were a relentless disease, a
sort of progressive intellectual diabetes, a leprosy of the horse
sense. Words were flung upon words until all recollection that
there must be a meaning in them, a ground and excuse for

them, were lost. One wandered in a labyrinth of nouns, adjec-
tives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and
participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable
to walk. It was, and is, impossible to imagine worse English,
within the limits of intelligible grammar. It was clumsy, af-
fected, opaque, bombastic, windy, empty. It was without grace
or distinction and it was often without the most elementary
order. The professor got himself enmeshed in his gnarled sen-
tences like a bull trapped by barbed wire, and his efforts to ex-
tricate himself were quite as furious and quite as spectacular. He
heaved, he leaped, he writhed; at times he seemed to be at the
point of yelling for the police. It was a picture to bemuse the
vulgar and to give the judicious grief.

Worse, there was nothing at the bottom of all this strident
wind-music — the ideas it was designed to set forth were, in the
overwhelming main, poor ideas, and often they were ideas that
were almost idiotic. The concepts underlying, say, “The Theory
of the Leisure Class” were simply Socialism and well water; the
concepts underlying “The Higher Learning in America” were
so childishly obvious that even the poor drudges who wrote edi-
torials for newspapers often voiced tliem, and when, now and

then, the professor tired of this emission of stale bosh and at-
tempted flights of a more original character, he straightway
came tumbling down into absurdity. What the reader then had
to struggle with was not only intolerably bad writing, but also
loose, flabby, cocksure and preposterous thinking. . . , Again
I take refuge in an example. It is from Chapter IV of “The
Theory of the Leisure Class.” The problem before ihe author
here had to do with the social convention which, in pre-Prohibi-
tion 1899, frowned upon the consumption of alcohol by women
— at least to the extent to which men might consume it dec-
orously. Wdl, then, what was his explanation of this conven-
tion? Here^ in brief, was his process of reasoning:

XIV. American Immortals 273

1. The leisure class, which is the predatory class of feu-
dal times, reserves all luxuries for itself, and disapproves
their use by members of the lower classes, for this use takes
away their charm by taking away their exclusive possession.

2. Women are chattels in the possession of the leisure
class, and hence subject to the rules made for inferiors.
"The patriarchal tradition . . . says that the woman, be-
ing a chattel, should consume only what is necessary to her
sustenance, except so far as her further consumption con-
tributes to the comfort or the good repute of her master.'"

3. The consumption of alcohol contributes nothing to
the comfort or good repute of the woman's master, but “de-
tracts sensibly from the comfort or pleasure” of her master.
Ergo, she is forbidden to drink.

This, I believe, was a fair specimen of the Veblenian ratio
cination. Observe it well, for it was typical. That is to say, it
started off with a gratuitous and highly dubious assumption,
proceeded to an equally dubious deduction, and then ended
with a platitude which begged the whole question. What sound
reason was there for believing that exclusive possession was the
hall-mark of luxury? There was none that I could see. It might
be true of a few luxuries, but it was certainly not true of the
most familiar ones. Did I enjoy a decent bath because I knew
that John Smith could not afford one — or because I delighted
in being clean? Did I admire Beethoven's Fifth Symphony be-
cause it was incomprehensible to Congressmen and Methodists
— or because I genuinely loved music? Did I prefer kissing a
pretty girl to kissing a charwoman because even a janitor may
kiss a charwoman — or because the pretty girl looked better,
smelled better and kissed better?

Confronted by such considerations, it seemed to me that
there was little truth left in Prof. Veblen's theory of conspicu-
ous consumption and conspicuous waste — that what remained
of it, after it was practically applied a few times, was no more
than a wraith of balderdash. What could have been plainer
than his failure in the case of the human female? Starting off
with a platitude, he ended in absurdity. No one could deny, I
was willing to grant, that in a clearly limited sense, women oc-

274 Mencken Chrestomathy

cupied a place in the world — or, more accurately, aspired to a
place in the world — that had some resemblance to that of a
chattel. Marriage, the goal of their only honest and permanent
hopes, invaded their individuality; a married woman (I was
thinking, remember, of 1899) became the function of another
individuality. Thus the appearance she presented to the world
was often the mirror of her husband's egoism. A rich man hung
his wife witli expensive clothes and jewels for the same reason,
among others, that he drove an expensive car: to notify every-
body that he could afford it — in brief, to excite the envy of
Marxians. But he also did it, let us hope, for another and far
more powerful reason, to wit, that he delighted in her, that he
loved her — and so wanted to make her gaudy and happy. This
reason, to be sure, was rejected by the Marxians of the time, as
it is rejected by those of ours, but nevertheless, it continued to
appeal very forcibly, and so continues in our own day, to the
majority of normal husbands in the nations of the West. The
American husband, in particular, dresses his wife like a circus
horse, not primarily because he wants to display his wealth upon
her person, but because he is a soft and moony fellow and ever
ready to yield to her desires, however preposterous. If any con-
ception of her as a chattel were actively in him, even uncon-
sciously, he would be a good deal less her slave. As it is, her vi-
carious practise of conspicuous waste commonly reaches such a
development that her master himself is forced into renuncia-
tions — which brought Prof. Dr. Veblen's theory to self-destruc-

His final conclusion was as unsound as his premisses. All it
came to was a plain begging of the question, ^^y does a man
forbid his wife to drink all the alcohol she can hold? Because, he
said, it “detracts sensibly from his comfort or pleasure." In other
words, it detracts from his comfort and pleasure because it de-
tracts from his comfort and pleasure. Meanwhile, the real an-
swer is so plain that even a professor should know it. A man for-
bids his wife to drink too much because, deep in his secret
archives, he has records of the behavior of other women who
drank too much, and is eager to safeguard his wife's connubial
rectitude and his own dignity against what he knows to be cer-
tain invasion. In brief, it is a commonplace of observation, fa-

XIV. American Immortals 275

miliar to all males beyond the age of twentj^-one, that once a
woman is drank the rest is a mere matter of time and place: the
girl is already there. A husband, viewing this prospect, perhaps
shrinks from having his chattel damaged. But let us be soft
enough to think that he may also shrink from seeing humilia-
tion and bitter regret inflicted upon one who is under his pro-
tection, and one whose dignit}^ and happiness are precious to
him, and one whom he regards with deep and (I surely hope)
lasting affection. A man's grandfather is surely not his chattel,
even by the terms of the Veblen theory, yet I am sure that no
sane man would let the old gentleman go beyond a discreet
cocktail or two if a bout of genuine bibbing were certain to be
followed by the complete destruction of his dignity, his chas-
tity and (if a Presbyterian) his immortal soul.

One more example of the Veblenian logic and I must pass
on. On page 135 of Tlie Theorj’ of the Leisure Class he
turned his garish and buzzing searchlight upon another problem
of the domestic hearth, this time a double one. First, why do
we have lawns around our country houses? Secondly, why don't
we use cows to keep them clipped, instead of employing Italians,
Croatians and blackamoors? The first question was answered by
an appeal to ethnology: we delight in lawns because we are the
descendants of a pastoral people inhabiting a region with
a humid climate" — because our dolicho-blond ancestors had
flocks, and thus took a keen professional interest in grass. (The
Marx motif I The economic interpretation of history in E flat.)
But why don't we keep flocks? Wliy do we renounce cows and
hire Jugo-SIavs? Because to the average popular apprehension
a herd of cattle so pointedly suggests thrift and usefulness that
their presence . . . would be intolerably cheap." Plowing
through a bad book from end to end, I could find nothing sillier
than this. Here, indeed, the whole "theory of conspicuous
waste" was exposed for precisely what it was: one per cent plat-
itude and ninety-nine per cent nonsense. Had the genial pro-
fessor, pondering his great problems, ever taken a walk in the
country? And had he, in the course of that walk, ever crossed a
pasture inhabited by a cow (Bos taurus)? And had he, making
that crossing, ever passed astern of the cow herself? And had he,
thus passing astern, ever stepped carelessly, and —

276 A Mencken Chrestomathy

John D.

From the American Mercury, Dec,, 1932, pp, 508-10. A review of God's
i^old* the Story of Rockefeller and His Times, by John T. Flynn; New
York, 1932

When the tale of old John D. Rockefeller's long days and heroic
deeds is summed up at last, it will probably turn out that his
career in business was really the least interesting part of him.
His era saw many more picturesque ornaments of that great
mystery, and not a few of them were his partners — Archbold,
H. H. Rogers, Henry M. Flagler, and so on. Any one of these
would make a better book than Mr. Flynn's — in fact, they are
largely responsible for the goodness of his book as it stands.
Some of them were pirates and some were poets. There was a
vast saltiness in all of them; they gave a pungent flavor to their
times. But Rockefeller, as Mr. Flynn well says, was only a sort of
sublimated bookkeeper. While the others were out in the high-
ways and byways, bellowing and brawling, he remained at home
casting accounts. It was his natural gift for that science which
brought him his billion. Fie knew how to arrange things neatly,
and how to do them cheaply. Fie made the oil business a going
concern by introducing economy into it, and neatness, and hon-
est arithmetic, and all the other kinds of virtue that certified
public accountants esteem. He converted its enormous wastes
into enormous profits, and most of those profits stayed where
they belonged, which is to say, in his own pocket. The rest got
lots of money too, but he always got the most. After thirty years'
hard study of moral theology I can only say that I believe he
deserved it.

Far more interesting than his story of his acquisitions is the
story of his spendings. There is no evidence that he had a sense
of humor, but in days of his first grandeurs he developed a very
good substitute for it, and that substitute sufficed to save him
from the follies which usually consume American millionaires.
When he moved to New York in the early 80s he was already
quite rich enough to bust into what then passed for fashionable
society there. He had at least as much money as the Astors and

XIV. American Immortals 277

probably considerably more than the Vanderbilts. There was no
reason why he should not have bought a yacht for himself, and
begun to train his children for polo and polygamy. But he did
nothing of the sort. Instead, he kept himself and his house
steadfast to the austere Baptist theology of his youth, and had
no truck whatever with Ward McAllister’s fleshpots. On Sunday
mornings he got into a long-tailed coat, put on a plug hat, and
went to church. If Mrs. Rockefeller happened to be detained at
home by household business he made notes of the sermon, and
on his return, re-preached it to her, with pauses for applause.
The children were brought up on the strictest Baptist principles,
and knew little of luxury. There was one tricycle for the four of
them: if they have just one they will learn to give up to one

Nor w^as old John an easy mark for the chiselers w^ho alw’ays
beset rich Americans, flattering them and seeking to rook them.
Upon all of their customary rackets he cast a fishy eye, for he
had notions of his own about the disposition of his money. Tlie
chief of them was to the effect that it was wasteful and foolish
to pay out hard dollars for mere ameliorations. Thus he did not
relieve the concrete poor; he tried to devise schemes that would
work against poverty in general. He put up no hospitals for the
indigent sick: instead, he staked medical research with mil-
lions, and so tried to make sickness less likely. Even in the re-
ligious field he was a hard nut for touring missionaries and other
such racketeers to crack. Sometimes, to be sure, he gave them
money, but always he added a plan for the reorganization and
delousing of their business. In brief, he did not cease to be a
bookkeeper when he shut his actual books, and retired to fight
(and conquer) the ulcers that adorned his gastric mucosa, and
filled him with sadness. On the contrary, he simply took on
more and wider bookkeeping, and in the course of a few years
he had pretty well revolutionized American philanthropy.

Whether or not his scheme was a good one is not yet demon-
strated with any certainty. His chief enterprise, the Rockefeller
Foundation, has unquestionably made some useful contribu-
tions to medical science, but the cost, in all probability, has
gone beyond the net return. Perhaps it would have been more
sensible, instead of trying to set up a sort of Standard Research

278 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Company^ to have spread the money among the multitude oi
smaller units, searching always for the genuine genius and giv-
ing him the equipment he so often lacks. But that plan would
have presented enormous difficulties, and perhaps Rockefeller
did the best thing possible, considering the circumstances of the
time and his own lack of special knowledge. His chief almoner
was always the Rev. Frederick Taylor Gates, a go-getting Bap-
tist clergyman. No doubt an adviser less dependent upon the
Holy Spirit for light would have done better, but it must be said
for Pastor Gates that, taking one day with another, he did pretty

There is no evidence that Rockefeller was ever beset by any
doubts about tlie simple theology of his youth. His innocent
faith, for many years, made him a heavy contributor to the Anti-
Saloon League, and hence one of the chief promoters of the
pestilence of snooping, spying, slugging and blackmail that so
long demoralized the Republic. When, in the end, he began to
have doubts about the matter he quietly withdrew his support
and went into prayer, and in due course there emanated from
him, through his son John, a blast so devastating that what was
left of Prohibition collapsed overnight. The Baptist clergy were
flabbergasted, and their indignation was immense. But not
many of them gave voice to it, for it was beyond their daring to
flout a Rockefeller. The two Johns, indeed, remained the most
eminent and authoritative Baptists extant, though the younger
one also upset the Geistliche by patronizing a tabernacle which
subscribes to open communion and is thus full of suspicious
characters, Baptistically speaking.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Rockefellers, in
the last analysis, was their fidelity to this rustic and preposterous
shamanism. Most Americans, when they accumulate money,
climb the golden rainspout of the nearest Episcopal Church,
wherein the crude Yahweh of the backwoods is polished and
perfumed, and speaks the vulgate with an English a. But the
Rockefellers clung to the primeval rain-god of the American
hinterland, and never showed any sign of being ashamed of
Him. The old Hell of the Bible was Hell enough for them.


A Good Man Gone Wrong

A review of Doomed Ship, by Judd Gray; New York, 1928, in the
American Mercury, Feb., 1929, pp. 254-55. printed in

the Baltimore Evening Sun, Jan. 2, 1928. After the review appeared I re-
ceived a letter from one of Mr. Gray's closest relatives, approving and sup-
porting my theory as to the origins of his crime

Mr. Gray went to the electric chair in Sing Sing on January 11,
1928, for his share in the butchery of Mrs. Ruth Snyder's hus-
band. The present book was composed in his last days, and ap-
pears with the imprimatur of his devoted sister. From end to
end of it he protests pathetically that he was, at heart, a good
man. I believe him. The fact, indeed, is spread all over his singu-
larly naive and touching record. He emerges from it as the
almost perfect model of the Y.M.C.A. alumnus, the conscien-
tious husband and father, the Christian business man, the virtu-
ous and God-fearing Americano. It was his very virtue, festering
within him, that brought him to his appalling doom. Another
and more wicked man, caught in the net of La Snyder, would
have wriggled out and gone on his way, scarcely pausing to
thank God for the fun and the escape. But once poor Judd had
yielded to her brummagem seductions, he was done for and he
knew it. Touched by sin, he shriveled like a worm on a hot
stove. From the first exchange of wayward glances to the final
agony in the chair the way was straight and inevitable.

All this sounds like paradox, but I offer it seriously, and as a
psychologist of high gifts. What finished the man was not his
banal adultery with his suburban sweetie, but his swift and over-
whelming conviction that it was mortal sin. The adultery itself
was simply in bad taste: it was, perhaps, something to be
ashamed of, as stealing a poor taxi-driver's false teeth would be
something to be ashamed of, but it was no more. Elks and


28o a Mencken Chrestomathy

Shrineis do worse every day, and suffer only transient qualms.
But to Gray, with his Presbyterian upbringing and his idealistic
view of the corset business, the slip was a catastrophe, a calam-
ity. He left his tawdry partner in a daze, marveling that there
could be so much wickedness in the world, and no belch of fire
from Hell to stop it. Thereafter his demoralization proceeded
from step to step as inexorably and as beautifully as a case of
Bright’s disease. The woman horrified him, but his very honor
became a kind of fascination. He resorted to her as a Christian
dipsomaniac resorts to the jug, protestingly, tremblingly and
helplessly. In his blinking eyes she became an amalgam of all
the Loreleis, with the Rum Demon peeping over her shoulder.
Whatever she ordered him to do he did at once, like a man
stupefied by some diabolical drug. When, in the end, she or-
dered him to butcher her oaf of a husband, he proceeded to the
business almost automatically, wondering to the last instant
why he obeyed and yet no more able to resist than he was able,
on the day of retribution, to resist his 2,000 volts.

In his narrative he makes much of this helplessness, and spec-
ulates somewhat heavily upon its cause. That cause, as I hint, is
clear enough: he was a sincere Presbyterian, a good man. What
is the chief mark of such a good man? That he cannot differen-
tiate rationally between sin and sin — that a gnat gags him as
badly as a camel. So with poor Gray. His initial peccadillo
shocked him so vastly that he could think of himself thereafter
only as a sinner unspeakable and incorrigible. In his eyes the
step from adultery to murder was as natural and inevitable as
the step from the cocktail-shaker to the gutter in the eyes of a
Methodist bishop. He was rather astonished, indeed, that he
didn’t beat his wife and embezzle his employers’ funds. Once
the conviction of sin had seized him he was ready to go the
whole hog. He went, as a matter of record, somewhat beyond it.
His crime was of the peculiarly brutal and atrocious kind that
only good men commit. An Elk or a Shriner, persuaded to mur-
der Snyder, would have done it with a certain decency. More-
over, he would have demanded a plausible provocation. But
Gray, being a good man, performed the job with sickening fe-
rocity, and without asking for any provocation at all. It was suf-
ficient for him that he was full of sin, that God had it in for

XV. Odd Fish 281

him, that he was hopelessly damned. His crime, in fact, was a
sort of public ratification of his damnation. It was his way of
confessing. If he had any logical motive it was his yearning to
get into Hell as soon as possible. In his book, to be sure, he
speaks of Hell under the name of Heaven. But that is mere
blarney, set down for the comfort of his family. He was too good
a Presbyterian to have any illusions on the point: he was, in
fact, an amateur theologian of very respectable attainments. He
went to the chair fully expecting to be in Hell in twenty

It seems to me that his story is a human document of im-
mense interest and value, and that it deserves a great deal more
serious study than it will probably get. Its moral is plain. Sin
is a dangerous toy in the hands of the virtuous. It should be
left to the congenitally sinful, who know when to play with it
and when to let it alone. Run a boy through a Presbyterian
Sunday-school and you must police him carefully all the rest of
his life, for once he slips he is ready for anything.


From Prejudices: Sixth Series, 1927, pp. 305-11. Valentino died
Aug. 23, 1926. This piece first appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun^
Aug, 30, 1926

By one of the chances that relieve the dullness of life and make
it instructive, I had the honor of dining with this celebrated
gentleman in New York, a week or so before his fatal illness.
I had never met him before, nor seen him on the screen; the
meeting was at his instance, and, when it was proposed, vaguely
puzzled me. But soon its purpose became clear enough. Valen-
tino was in trouble and wanted advice. More, he wanted advice
from an elder and disinterested man, wholly removed from the
movies and all their works. Something that I had written, fall-
ing under his eye, had given him the notion that I was a judi-
cious fellow. So he requested one of his colleagues, a lady of the
films, to ask me to dinner at her hotel.

The night being infernally warm, we stripped ofE our coats.

282 A Mencken Chrestomathy

and came to terms at once. I recall that he wore suspenders of
extraordinary width and thickness. On so slim a young man
they seemed somehow absurd, especially on a hot Summer
night. We perspired horribly for an hour, mopping our faces
with our handkerchiefs, the table napkins, the corners of the
tablecloth, and a couple of towels brought in by the humane
waiter. Then there came a thunderstorm, and we began to
breathe. The hostess, a woman as tactful as she is charming, dis-
appeared mysteriously and left us to commune.

The trouble that was agitating Valentino turned out to be
very simple. The ribald New York papers were full of it, and
that was what was agitating him. Some time before, out in
Chicago, a wandering reporter had discovered, in the men's
wash-room of a gaudy hotel, a slot-machine selling talcum-
powder. That, of course, was not unusual, but the color of the
talcum-powder was. It was pink. The news made the town gig-
gle for a day, and inspired an editorial writer on the Chicago
Tribune to compose a hot weather editorial. In it he protested
humorously against the effeminization of the American man,
and laid it lightheartedly to the influence of Valentino and his
sheik movies. Well, it so happened that Valentino, passing
through Chicago that day on his way east from the Coast, ran
full tilt into the editorial, and into a gang of reporters who
wanted to know what he had to say about it. What he had to
say was full of fire. Throwing off his 100% Americanism and re-
verting to the mores of his fatherland, he challenged the edi-
torial writer to a duel, and, when no answer came, to a fist fight.
His masculine honor, it appeared, had been outraged. To the
hint that he was less than he, even to the extent of one half of
one per cent., there could be no answer save a bath of blood.

Unluckily, all this took place in the United States, where the
word honor, save when it is applied to the structural integrity
of women, has only a comic significance. When one hears of
the honor of politicians, of bankers, of lawyers, of the United
States itself, everyone naturally laughs. So New York laughed
at Valentino. More, it ascribed his high dudgeon to mere pub-
licity-seeking: he seemed a vulgar movie ham seeking space.
The poor fellow, thus doubly beset, rose to dudgeons higher
still. His Italian mind was simply unequal to the situation.

XV. Odd Fish 283

So he sought counsel from the neutral^ aloof and seasoned.
Unluckily, I could only name the disease, and confess frankly
that there was no remedy none, that is, knowm to any ther-
apeutics within my ken. He should have passed over the gibe of
the Chicago journalist, I suggested, with a lofty snort — per-
haps, better still, with a counter gibe. He should have kept
away from the reporters in New York. But now, alas, the mis-
chief was done. He was both insulted and ridiculous, but there
was nothing to do about it. I advised him to let the dreadful
farce roll along to exhaustion. He protested that it was infa-
mous. Infamous? Nothing, I argued, is infamous that is not
true. A man still has his inner integrity. Can he still look into
the shaving-glass of a morning? Then he is still on his two legs
in this world, and ready even for the Devil. We sweated a great
deal, discussing these lofty matters. We seemed to get nowhere.

Suddenly it dawned upon me — I was too dull or it was too
hot for me to see it sooner — that what we were talking about
was really not what we were talking about at all. I began to ob-
serve Valentino more closely. A curiously naive and boyish
young fellow, certainly not much beyond thirt}^, and with a dis-
arming air of inexperience. To my eye, at least, not handsome,
but nevertheless rather attractive. There was some obvious fine-
ness in him; even his clothes were not precisely those of his hor-
rible trade. He began talking of his home, his people, his early
youth. His words w^ere simple and yet somehow very eloquent.
I could still see the mime before me, but now and then, briefly
and darkly, there was a flash of something else. That something
else, I concluded, was what is commonly called, for want of a
better name, a gentleman. In brief, Valentino's agony was the
agony of a man of relatively civilized feelings throwm into a
situation of intolerable vulgarity, destructive alike to his peace
and to his dignity — nay, into a whole series of such situations.

It was not that trifling Chicago episode that was riding him;
it was the whole grotesque futility of his life. Had he achieved,
out of nothing, a vast and dizzy success? Then that success was
hollow as well as vast — a colossal and preposterous nothing.
Was he acclaimed by yelling multitudes? Then every time the
multitudes yelled he felt himself blushing inside. The old story
of Diego Valdez once more, but with a new poignancy in it

284 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Valdez, at all events, was High Admiral of Spain. But Valen-
tino, with his touch of fineness in him — he had his common-
ness, too, but there was that touch of fineness — Valentino was
only the hero of the rabble. Imbeciles surrounded him in a
dense herd. He was pursued by women ~ but what women!
(Consider the sordid comedy of his two marriages — the brum-
magem, star-spangled passion that invaded his very death-bed!)
The thing, at the start, must have only bewildered him. But in
those last days, unless I am a worse psychologist than even the
professors of psychology, it was revolting him. Worse, it was
making him afraid.

I incline to think that the inscrutable gods, in taking him off
so soon and at a moment of fiery revolt, were very kind to him.
Living, he would have tried inevitably to change his fame — if
such it is to be called — into something closer to his heart's de-
sire. That is to say, he would have gone the way of many an-
other actor — the way of increasing pretension, of solemn arti-
ness, of hollow hocus-pocus, deceptive only to himself. I believe
he would have failed, for there was little sign of the genuine
artist in him. He was essentially a highly respectable young man,
which is the sort that never metamorphoses into an artist. But
suppose he had succeeded? Then his tragedy, I believe, would
have only become the more acrid and intolerable. For he would
have discovered, after vast heavings and yearnings, that what he
had come to was indistinguishable from what he had left. Was
the fame of Beethoven any more caressing and splendid than
the fame of Valentino? To you and me, of course, the question
seems to answer itself. But what of Beethoven? He was heard
upon the subject, viva voce, while he lived, and his answer sur-
vives, in all the freshness of its profane eloquence, in his music.
Beethoven, too, knew what it meant to be applauded. Walking
with Goethe, he heard something that was not unlike the mur-
mur that reached Valentino through his hospital window. Bee-
thoven walked away briskly. Valentino turned his face to the

Here was a young man who was living daily the dream of mil-
lions of other young men. Here was one who was catnip to
women. Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was
one who was very unhappy.

XV. Odd Fish


An American Bonaparte

From the American Mercury, Dec., 1924, pp. 444-46.

Bonaparte died June 28, 1921

So far, to my considerable amazement, no vandalic psychog-
rapher has violated the tomb of one of the strangest Americans
ever seen on land or sea, to wit, the Hon. Charles Joseph Bona-
parte, LL.D., Secretary of the Navy and later Attorney-General
in the Cabinet of the illustrious Roosevelt I. This neglect is
hard to understand, for he was unquestionably sui generis — a
truly fabulous compound of Sicilian brigand and Scotch blue-
nose, a pawky and cruel wit and yet the most humorless of men,
a royalist in his ever}^ instinct and yet a professional democrat
and Puritan wowser all his days long. When he died, alas, he
was already forgotten, but he surely deserv^es to be blown up
with literary gases and made to dance before connoisseurs of the
preposterous and incredible.

Bonaparte was a grandson of that younger brother of Napo-
leon I who married the fair Betsy Patterson, of Baltimore,
daughter to an eminent Babbitt of the time, Scotch in origin.
This young brother, Jerome, deserted Betsy at Napoleon's order,
but not before she became the mother of a son. The son, who
called himself Jerome Bonaparte-Patterson, was the father, in
his turn, of two sons, one of whom was Charles Joseph. Betsy
herself, after Jerome deserted her, returned to America, and
lived to a great age. She did not die, in fact, until 1879, and
during her last years she accumulated a very large property. Old
Baltimore remembered her as she plodded about the town in
rain and shine, collecting her rents. She took charge of the edu-
cation of her grandsons, sent Charles Joseph to Harvard, set
him up as a law}'er, and when she died left him a million in
gilt-edged real estate.

The other grandson, Jerome Napoleon, was never heard of,
but Charles Joseph began to make a noise in his native Balti-
more in the 70s, when he was just out of Harvard. The public
school in America was then just getting on its legs, and Bona-
parte, who had been brought up as a Catholic, was violently

286 A Mencken Chrestomathy

against it. His opposition^ characteristically^ was carried on in a
very doctrinaire manner; he argued, in the end, that it was as
outrageous for the State to supply free schools as it would be for
it to provide free soup-houses. Some wit thereupon gave him
the nickname of Soup-House Charlie, and it stuck to him for
thirty years. But the public schools did not long detain him. In
the early 80s, when Civil Service Reform began to be heard of,
he joined its legions with a whoop, and thereafter, until his
death, he spent half of his free energies bawling for the merit
system in public office and the other half trying to wreck it as a
Republican politician.

It was through the National Civil Service Reform League
that Roosevelt first came into contact with him. They had many
things in common. Both were reformers who were yet adept at
every trick of practical politics. Both sobbed for democracy, and
distrusted the concrete democrat. Both consecrated themselves
to Service, and were yet highly alert to the main chance. Bona-
parte, I suspect, had secret doubts about Roosevelt, as he had
about all men, but on Roosevelt's side it was a genuine love af-
fair. He not only admired Bonaparte's caustic wit and immense
(if disorderly) learning; he was also greatly flattered by the at-
tentions of a man whom he looked upon as of royal blood.
When he became President he put Bonaparte into the Cabinet
at the first opportunity, and made frequent references there-
after to the fact that a member of an imperial house sat at his
table. Bonaparte was the worst Secretary of the Navy ever heard
of. It was not so much that he was incompetent as that he was
indolent. For weeks running his attendance at his office was con-
fined to an hour a day. He left Baltimore by the 11 o'clock train,
got to Washington at noon, dashed to the Navy Department,
and then caught the 1 o'clock train back to Baltimore. Only on
Cabinet days did he linger longer in the capital.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt was delighted with him, and pres-
ently made him Attorney-General. In this high office his indo-
lence was of the utmost value to all predatory gentlemen of
wealth. He sat for three years, and during the whole time the
trusts were well and happy. Nevertheless, there is a record that,
on one occasion, at least, he bestirred himself. This was when
Roosevelt made one of his periodical onslaughts upon the an-

XV. Odd Fish 287

archists — • the predecessors^ in political boncombe, of the mod-
em Reds. Certain Italians at Paterson, N. }., printed a small an-
archist newspaper, in Italian, and sent it through the mails. It
had only the most meagre circulation, and its contents were so
mild that prosecuting the editors was out of the question, but
Roosevelt wanted to make a sensation by barring it from the
mails. The problem was put up to Bonaparte as Attorney-Gen-
eral. After weeks of cogitation he produced an opinion which,
years later, was to be the foundation-stone of all the patriotic
endeavors of Burleson, Palmer, Daugherty and Burns. In brief,
he decided that, while there was no warrant in law for barring
the paper from the mails, it should be done anyhow, for the
Italians who ran it would have no practicable means of redress
after the business was accomplished. In other words, he laid
down the rule that it is all right to invade a citizen's right so
long as he can't help himself. This principle, which Roosevelt
adopted instantly and gladly, is now embodied in many of the
decisions of our highest courts, and is thus firmly established in
American jurisprudence. Roosevelt and Bonaparte put it there.

Bonaparte, as I have said, was a Catholic. In fact, he was a
very earnest one, and was never absent from his pew in the Bal-
timore Cathedral at high mass on Sunday morning. But he had
more Scotch blood in him than Latin, and so he became, in his
old age, that strangest of hybrids, a Catholic Puritan. Had he
lived long enough and kept his vigor he would have been the
most violent of Prohibitionists. As it was he, he specialized in
the pursuit of the scarlet woman. For years he was one of the
chief backers of the Baltimore Anti-Vice Society, and his en-
thusiasm kept up even after the grand archon of tlie organiza-
tion, a Methodist clergyman, had been taken in homosexual
practises at the y.M.C A. and had to leave town between days.
It was common gossip in Baltimore that the Bonaparte estate
included a number of old rookeries that were rented by ladies
of joy. Nevertheless, Bonaparte demanded the blood of these
fair creatures in season and out of season, and in the end he
stirred up the town to such an extent that vice was formally
prohibited and abolished, absolutely and forever. From that day
to this, so I hear, not a single act of illicit carnality has ever been
perpetrated in Baltimore.

288 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Bonaparte lived to be nearly seventy, and died childless and
relatively poor. His property had gradually slipped through his
fingers, though he was the most assiduous of business men, and
seldom missed a day at his office. It was only in public office
that he was indolent. He belonged to all known reform organi-
zations, made endless speeches against public and private sin,
and wrote incessantly. His style was extremely florid and com-
plex. It was common for him to write sentences of five hundred
words. In my newspaper days I often handled his pronuncia-
mentoes. Not infrequently I would make two or three para-
graphs out of a single sentence. But for all this copiousness he
wrote clearly; his longest sentence, given wind enough, could be
parsed. His books, once widely read by believers in the re-
forms he advocated, are now forgotten. His speeches and essays
moulder in newspaper files. Few persons seem to recall him
at all.

Yet he was an enormously racy and amusing fellow and his
story, done with any sort of skill, would make an extremely
interesting book. I mention one thing more about him, and
then resign him to the literary anatomists. He got into the
Roosevelt Cabinet mainly, if not solely, because he was a Bona-
parte: the fact caressed Roosevelt’s vanity. The same fact got
him an audience the moment he was out of Harvard, and so
opened the way for his career as a reformer. All his life he was
chiefly conspicuous, not on his own account, but as the grand-
nephew of Napoleon I. Nevertheless, the relationship seemed
to interest him personally not at all. He never made any public
reference to it; he never visited France, nor had any visible
communication with the rest of the Bonaparte family. Once,
denounced as a Frenchman and hence sinful, he defended him-
self by maintaining that he hadn’t a drop of French blood —
that he was Italian and Scotch. Beyond that, so far as I know,
he never mentioned the Bonapartes.

XV. Odd Fish


Sister Aimee

From the Baltimore Evening Sun^ Dec. 13, 1926. This was written at
the height of La McPherson's stormy career. Earlier in 1926 she had mys-
teriously disappeared, and there was a dreadful hullabaloo among her cus-
tomers. When she returned just as mysteriously she told an incredible tale
of having been kidnapped. It w^as soon established that she had been on a
love-trip with one of her employes, a baldheaded and one-legged electrician,
and she w'as thereupon charged with perjury and put on trial. She escaped
easily enough, but the scandal badly damaged her business, and she was
soon supplanted as the ranking ecclesiastic of the United States by Bishop
James Cannon, Jr. She died, almost forgotten, in 1944

The rev. sister in God, I confess, greatly disappointed me. Ar-
riving in Los Angeles out of the dreadful deserts of Arizona and
New Mexico, I naturally made tracks to hear and see the town's
most distinguished citizen. Her basilica turned out to be at a
great distance from my hotel, far up a high hill and in the midst
of a third-rate neighborhood. It was a cool and sunshiny Sun-
day afternoon, the place was packed, and the whisper had gone
around that Aimee was heated up by the effort to jail her, and
would give a gaudy show. But all I found myself gaping at,
after an hour, was an orthodox Methodist revival, with a few
trimmings borrowed from the Baptists and the Holy Rollers —
in brief, precisely the sort of thing that goes on in the shabby
suburbs and dark back streets of Baltimore, three hundred
nights of every year.

Aimee, of course, is richer than most evangelists, and so she
has got herself a plant that far surpasses anything ever seen in
shabby suburbs. Her temple to the One God is immensely wide
-—as wide, almost, as the Hippodrome in New York — and
probably seats 2,500 customers. There is a full brass band down
in front, with a grand piano to one side of it and an organ to
the other. From the vast gallery, built like that of a theater,
runways run along the side walls to what may be called the
proscenium arch, and from their far ends stairways lead down
to the platform. As in many other evangelical bull-rings, there
are theater seats instead of pews. Some pious texts are em-
blazoned on the wall behind the platform: I forget what they

290 A Mencken Chrestomathy

say. There are no stained-glass windows. The architecture, in
and out, is of the Early Norddeutscher-Lloyd Rauchzimmer
school, with modifications suggested by the filling-stations of
the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. The whole building
is very cheaply made. It is large and hideous, but I don't think
it cost much. Nothing in Los Angeles appears to have cost
much. The town is inconceivably shoddy.

As I say, Aimee has nothing on tap to make my eyes pop,
old revival fan that I am. The proceedings began with a solemn
march by the brass band, played about as well as the average
Salvation Army could have done it, but no better. Then a
brother from some remote outpost filed down the aisle at the
head of a party of fifty or sixty of the faithful. They sang a
hymn, the brother made a short speech, and then he handed
Aimee a check for $500 for her Defense Fund. A quartet fol-
lowed, male, a bit scared, and with Army haircuts. Two little
girls then did a duet, to the music of a ukulele played by one
of them. Then Aimde prayed. And then she delivered a brief
harangue. I could find nothing in it worthy of remark. It was
the time-honored evangelical hokum, made a bit more raucous
than usual by the loud-speakers strewn all over the hall. A
brother who seemed to be a sort of stage manager held the
microphone directly under Aimee's nose. When, warmed by
her homiletic passion, she turned this way or that, he followed
her. It somehow suggested an attentive deck steward, plying his
useful art on a rough day. Aimee wore a long white robe, with
a very low-cut collar, and over it there was a cape of dark
purple. Her thick hair, piled high, turned out to be of mahog-
any brown. I had heard that it was a flaming red.

The rest of the orgy went on in the usual way. Groups of
four, six, eight or twenty got up and sang. A large, pudgy,
soapy-looking brother prayed. Aimee herself led the choir in a
hymn with a lively tune and very saucy words, chiefly aimed at
her enemies. Two or three times more she launched into brief
addresses. But mostly she simply ran the show. While the quar-
tets bawled and the band played she was busy at a telephone
behind the altar or hurling orders in a loud stage-whisper at
sergeants and corporals on the floor. Obviously, a very manag-
ing woman, strongly recalling the madame of a fancy-house on

XV. Odd Fish 291

a busy Saturday night. A fixed smile stuck to her from first
to last.

What brought this commonplace and transparent mounte
bank to her present high estate, with thousands crowding her
tabernacle daily and money flowing in upon her from whole
regiments of eager dupes? The answer, it seems to me, is as
plain as mud. For years she had been wandering about the
West, first as a side-show wriggler, then as a faith healer, and
finally as a cow-town evangelist. One day, inspired by God,
she decided to try her fortune in Los Angeles. Instantly she was
a roaring success. And why? For the plain reason that there
were more morons collected in Los Angeles than in any other
place on earth — because it was a pasture foreordained for evan-
gelists, and she was the first comer to give it anything low
enough for its taste and comprehension.

The osteopaths, chiropractors and other such quacks had long
marked and occupied it. It swarmed with swamis, spiritualists,
Christian Scientists, crj^stal-gazers and the allied necromancers.
It offered brilliant pickings for real estate speculators, oil-stock
brokers, wire-tappers and so on. But the town pastors were not
up to its opportunities. They ranged from melancholy High
Church Episcopalians, laboriously trying to interest retired Iowa
alfalfa kings in ritualism, down to struggling Methodists and
Baptists, as earnestly seeking to inflame the wives of the same
monarchs with the crimes of die Pope. All this was over the
heads of the trade. The lowans longed for something that they
could get their teeth into. They wanted magic and noise. They
wanted an excuse to whoop.

Then came Aimee, with the oldest, safest tricks out of the
pack of Dr, Billy Sunday, Dr, Gipsy Smith and the rest of the
old-time hell-robbers, and to them she added capers from her
circus days. In a montli she had Los Angeles sitting up. In six
months she had it in an uproar. In a year she was building her
rococo temple and her flamboyant Bible College and the half-
wits were flocking in from twenty States. Today, if her temple
were closed by the police, she could live on her radio business
alone. Every word she utters is carried on the air to every forlorn
hamlet in those abominable deserts, and every day the mail
brings her a flood of money.

292 A Mencken Chrestomathy

The effort to jail her has disingenuousness in it, and ilie more
civilized Angelenos all sympathize with her, and wish her well.
Her great success raised up two sets of enemies, both powerful.
One was made up of the regular town clergy, who resented her
raids upon their customers. The other was composed of the
town Babbitts who began to fear that her growing celebrity
was making Los Angeles ridiculous. So it was decided to bump
her off, and her ill-timed morganatic honeymoon with the bald-
headed and wooden-legged Mr. Ormiston offered a good chance.
But it must be manifest to any fair observer that there is very
little merit in the case against her. What she is charged with,
in essence, is perjury, and the chief specification is that, when
asked if she had been guilty of unchastity, she said no. I submit
that no self-respecting judge in the Maryland Free State, drunk
or sober, would entertain such a charge against a woman, and
that no Maryland grand jury would indict her. It is unheard
of, indeed, in any civilized community for a woman to be tried
for perjury uttered in defense of her honor. But in California,
as everyone knows, the process of justice is full of unpleasant
novelties, and so poor Aimee, after a long and obscene hearing,
has been held for trial.

The betting odds in the Los Angeles saloons are 50 to 1 that
she will either hang the jury or get a clean acquittal. I myself,
tarrying in the town, invested some money on the long end, not
in avarice, but as a gesture of sympathy for a lady in distress.
The local district attorney has the newspapers on his side, and
during the progress of Aimee's hearing he filled one of them,
in the chivalrous Southern California manner, with denuncia-
tions of her. But Aimee herself has the radio, and I believe that
the radio will count most in the long run. Twice a day, week
in and week out, she caresses the anthropoids of all that dusty,
forbidding region with her lubricious coos. And twice a day she
meets her lieges of Los Angeles face to face, and has at them
with her shiny eyes, her mahogany hair, her eloquent hips, and
her lascivious voice. It will be a hard job, indeed, to find twelve
men and true to send her to the hoosegow. Unless I err griev-
ously, our Heavenly Father is with her.


To Him That Hath

From the Smart Set, May, 1920, pp. 33-34

Perhaps the most valuable of all human possessions, next to
an aloof and sniffish air, is the reputation of being well-to-do.
Nothing else so neatly eases one's way through life. Tliere is in
90% of all men ~ and in 99% of all Marxists, W'ho value money
far beyond its worth, and are always thinking of it and itching
for it — an irresistible impulse to crook the knee to wealth, to
defer to the power that it carries with it, to see all sorts of
superiorities in the man who has it, or is said to have it. True
enough, envy goes with the craven neck, but it is envy somehow
purged of menace: the inferior man, at bottom, is afraid to do
evil to the man with money; he is even afraid to think evil of
him — that is, in any patent and offensive way. What stays his
natural hatred of his superior, I daresay, is the sneaking hope
that he may get some of the money by being polite that it
will pay him better to caress than to strike.

■\^^atever the psychological process, he always arrives at a
great affability. Give out tlie news that one has just made a kill-
ing in the stock market, or robbed some confiding widow of
her dower, or swindled the government in some patriotic enter-
prise, and at once one will discover that one's shabbiness is a
charming eccentricity, and one's judgment of wines worth hear-
ing, and one's political hallucinations wortliy of attention. The
man who is thought to be poor never gets a fair chance. No one
wants to listen to him. No one gives a damn what he thinks
or knows or feels. No one has any desire for his good opin-
ion. I discovered this principle early in life, and have put it
to use ever since. I have got a great deal more out of men (and
women) by having the name of being a well-heeled fellow
than I have ever got by being decent to them, or by dazzling


294 A Mencken Chrestomathy

them with my sagacity, or by hard industry, or by a personal

beauty that is singular and ineffable.


From the Baltimore Evening Sun^ Jan. 14, 1935

All the quacks and cony-catchers now crowding the public
trough at Washington seem to be agreed upon one thing, and
one thing only. It is the doctrine that the capitalistic system is
on its last legs, and will presently give place to something
nobler and more scientific.” There is, of course, no truth in
this doctrine whatsoever. It collides at every point with the
known facts. There is not the slightest reason for believing that
capitalism is in collapse, or that anything proposed by the cur-
rent wizards would be any better. The most that may be said
is that the capitalistic system is undergoing changes, some of
them painful. But those changes will probably strengthen it
quite as often as they weaken it

We owe to it almost everything that passes under the general
name of civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the
world since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere ex-
penditure of human energy, nor even to the flights of human
genius, for men had worked hard since the remotest times, and
some of them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been
due to the accumulation of capital. That accumulation per-
mitted labor to be organized economically and on a large scale,
and thus greatly enhanced its productiveness. It provided the
machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and lib-
erated the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost
indistinguishable from a mule. Most of all, it made possible a
longer and better preparation for work, so that every art and
handicraft greatly widened its scope and range, and multitudes
of new and highly complicated crafts came in.

We owe to capital the fact that the medical profession, for
example, is now really useful to mankind, whereas formerly it
was useful only to the charlatans who practised it. It took accu-

XVI . Economics 295

mulated money to provide the long training that medicine be-
gan to demand as it slowly lifted itself from the level of a sorry
trade to that of a dignified art and science — money to keep the
student while he studied and his teachers while they instructed
him, and more money to pay for the expensive housing and
materials that they needed. In the main, all that money came
from private capitalists. But whether it came from private capi-
talists or from the common treasury, it was always capital,
which is to say, it was always part of an accumulated surplus. It
never could have been provided out of the hand-to-mouth in-
come of a non-capitalistic society.

When the Bolsheviki, a gang of frauds almost comparable to
our own Brain Trust, took over the control of affairs in Russia,
they had to throw overboard at once one of the cardinal articles
of their ostensible creed. That article was to the effect that all
the sorrows of the world were due to the fact that the working-
man, under capitalism, had lost ownership in his tools. All the
classical authorities on Socialism, from Marx and Engels down-
ward, had stressed this loss heavily, and the Utopia they vi-
sioned was always one in which the workingman should get his
tools back, and become an independent producer, working for
himself alone, and giving none of the value he created to a
wicked capitalist. But the moment the Bolsheviki came into
power they had to shelve all this, and since then nothing has
been heard about it save from their American gulls. A shrewd
set of shysters, eager only to run Russia as their private preserve,
they saw instantly that their main job was to accumulate capi-
tal, for without it half of their victims would starve. The old
capital of the country had been destroyed by war. An easy way
to get more would have been to borrow it, but no one would
lend, so the Bolsheviki had to accumulate fresh capital of their

This they managed to do by sweating the Russian workers
in a manner never before seen on earth, at all events in modern
times. The workers, at the start, resisted, especially the farmers,
and in consequence Russia had a couple of famines, and the hat
had to be passed in the capitalistic countries to feed the starving.
But by slaughtering the rebellious farmers and organizing the
jobless into a huge army, the Bolsheviki presently managed to

296 A Mencken Chrestom athy

bring the workers of Russia to heel, and since then those poor
fish have been worked like prisoners in a chain gang, and have
got pretty much the same wages. All the produce of their labor,
over and above subsistence far more suitable to rats than to
men, has gone into the coffers of the Bolsheviki. Thereby the
Bolsheviki have accumulated a store of new capital, and now
they use it not only to build ever larger and larger factories,
each manned by hordes of workers who own nothing but their
hands, but also to provide luxurious quarters for themselves,
including an embassy at Washington so gaudy that it is the
envy of every banker in the town.

Thus one of the fundamental principles of Marxism has
been reduced to absurdity in the house of its professed disci-
ples. They may be scoundrels, and no doubt they are, but
they also have a considerable cunning, and are thus well aware
that nothing properly describable as modern civilization can
be carried on without capital. And by capital I mean precisely
what they mean when they denounce it for foreign consump-
tion — that is, I mean a surplus accumulated, not in the pock-
ets of workers, but in the pockets of persons who provide them
with the means to work, and not under control of those who
produce it, but under the control of those who have managed
to collar it. The shabby politicians, puerile pedagogues and
briefless lawyers who have raged and roared at Washington
since 1933 would go the same way if they had the chance.
Some of them, perhaps, are actually stupid enough to believe
that the world could get along without capitalism, but others
surely must be shrewd enough to note what has happened in
Pvussia. But whether they are only plain idiots or clever rogues,
they all talk grandly about capitalism's decay, and even those
who allege that they are trying to save it keep on mouthing the
nonsense that it is on its deathbed. You will find the same
hollow blah in all the organs of the More Abundant Life, and
every day it issues from some dotty pedagogue yearning for a
Government job.

There is no sense in it whatever. The modern world could
no more get along without accumulated capital than it could
get along without police or paved streets. The greatest change
imaginable is simply the change that has occurred in Russia —

XVL Economics 297

a transfer of capital from private owners to professional poli-
ticians. If you think this would do the individual any good,
then all you need do to be undeceived is to ask any American
letter-carrier. He works for a master capitalist named Uncle
Sam and he will be glad to tell you how hard he has to sweat
for every nickel he gets.

On Getting a Living

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, May 12, 1924

Since the great reform in medical education in America,
launched by the American Medical Association some years
ago, it has become, to all intents and purposes, a sheer impos-
sibility for a medical student to w^ork his way to a degree. He
could do it very readily in the old days. Everywhere there were
medical colleges that would accept a youth direct from the
plow and turn him out a full-fledged M.D. in three years of
easy work. But no more. Today he must have an A.B. or at
least the half of it before he may even begin to study, and
then he must put in four years of extremely hard work before
he gets his M.D., and pledge himself to service a year or two
more as an interne before he begins to practise.

It seems harsh, but why should the rest of us get into a
sweat about it? For one, I see no sound reason. I haven't the
slightest objection to being dosed and consoled, when I am ill,
by a medical man whose father (or someone else) paid for
his education, and who thus got it in comfort and with an easy
mind. I can discern absolutely no ground for believing that the
doctor who had to spend half or two-thirds of his time in
college getting a living should be any more competent. Nor,
for that matter, any more humane in his charges. It is not well-
to-do men who love money most, but men who are needy. I
do not say, of course, that every student who works his way
must necessarily succumb to the fumes of the dollar; I merely
say that he is enormously more apt to succumb than his brother
of easier means. His attention is concentrated too constantly

298 A Mencken Chrestomathy

and painfully upon the question of getting a living, and that
sort of attitude is obviously a bad one to bring into any of the
arts or sciences. The artist and the scientist ~ and the physi-
cian, in a sense, is botli — is a man who is presumed to be in-
terested primarily in his work, not in its emoluments. He can
do genuinely good work, indeed, only to the extent that he is
so interested. The moment he begins habitually to engage in
enterprises that offer him only profit he ceases to be either an
artist or a scientist, and becomes a mere journeyman artisan.

True enough, a medical man who is intensely interested in
his work, without regard to its material rewards — such a medi-
cal man often makes a great deal of money. If he has genuine
ability, indeed, he almost invariably does so. But it is ex-
tremely difficult to put the cart before the horse. That is to
say, it is extremely difficult to practise medicine primarily as a
business, and at the same time keep up its dignity as an art
and a science. The man who does so is on the wrong track. He
is heading toward the chiropractors, not toward the Osiers.

The change that has come over medical education is rela-
tively recent. With it has come a tremendous improvement in
the equipment of the young medical man. In the old days he
often entered college defectively prepared, and after strug-
gling through found that he was barely started. Some men, of
unusual resolution, kept up the struggle — getting a living, so
to speak, with one hand and continuing their professional
training with the other. But the majority succumbed to a few
easy formulae and got no further; the country was crowded
with half-educated and incompetent doctors. Today there is a
palpable improvement. The Class A medical schools, to be
sure, cannot engage to turn out only first-rate men, but they
can at least get rid of the hopeless incompetents — they can at
least guarantee that no man will be launched upon the public
unless he is decently equipped and of reasonable fitness for
his work.

This will work a hardship upon the young man who cannot
meet the new standards, and it will work a hardship scarcely
less upon the young man who can meet them only by dint of
herculean effort and sacrifice. But what these men lose the
general public will gain, and surely that gain is not to be

XVI. Economics 299

sniffed at Now and then, perhaps, a young man of great prom-
ise, well fitted naturally for medical work, will be kept out,
but for every such man a hundred utter incompetents will be
kept out. The bitter must go with tlie sweet. Eventually, no
doubt, there will be funds for the assistance of likely students
who can't pay their own w^ay, as there are already funds for the
assistance of young men who aspire to the sacerdotal art and
mystery. Meanwhile, the study of medicine will tend to be re-
stricted to the sons of well-to-do fathers. Well, why not? I see
no reason for believing that the sons of well-to-do fathers, tak-
ing one with another, are apt to be less fitted for it than the
sons of poor fathers: on tlie contraiy^ I am convinced that they
are apt to be far more fitted for it. In any case, we patients
have no reason to complain — and there are many more of us
than there are of medical students.

All the professions in America would be materially improved
in dignity and usefulness if they became more snobbish — that
is, if they were less accessible to novices from the sub-profes-
sional classes. There is no impediment in this grand and
puissant Republic to the rise of any family from the lowest
economic depths to the heights of learning, power and honor,
and no reflective man would have it otherwise; but nothing, I
submit, is accomplished by speeding the process unduly, or by
attempting to short-circuit it. A family ought to seek economic
security before it aspires higher; its first business should be to
get the means to pay its way. This is surely not a difficult enter-
prise, for it is accomplished every day by thousands of persons
of very modest capacities. We all hear so much about the mil-
lionaires that we overlook the much more numerous fellows,
obscure Babbitts, most of them, who succeed less gaudily but
every bit as surely — the hundreds of thousands of Americans
who accumulate enough to keep the wolf from the door and
to give their children good starts in life. The children of the
millionaires are often crushed beneath their money, and the
children of the poor are crippled and ruined by the lack of it.
But the children of the Babbitts have the world before them.
They can do whatever they want to do — and that freedom is
of immense value to them in whatever they undertake.

I believe that it would be a very good thing for the country

500 A Mencken Chrestomathy

if they monopolized the professions, as they do in almost all
other countries. Frederick the Great, asked why he gave com-
missions in the Prussian army only to Junker^ replied simply,
'‘Because they will not lie and cannot be bought. A profound
saying. The essence of a genuine professional man is that he
cannot be bought. He is least apt to be bought, I believe, when
his need of money is least exigent and desperate.

Personal Note

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, June 12, 1922

The easiest job I have ever tackled in this world is that of
making money. It is, in fact, almost as easy as losing it. Almost,
but not quite.


The Educational Process

From Education, Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp. 238-65.
First printed in the New York Evening Mail, Jan. 23, 1918

Next to the clerk in holy orders, the fellow with the foulest jot
in the world is the schoolmaster. Both are underpaid, both fall
steadily in authority and dignity, and both wear out their
hearts trying to perform the impossible. How much the world
asks of them, and how little they can actually deliver! The
clergyman’s business is to save the human race from Hell. If
he saves one-eighth of one per cent., even within the limits of
his narrow flock, he does magnificently. The schoolmaster’s is
to spread the enlightenment, to make the great masses of the
plain people think — and thinking is precisely the thing that
the great masses of the plain people are congenitally and eter-
nally incapable of.

Is it any wonder that the poor birchman, facing this labor
that would have staggered Sisyphus, seeks refuge from its es-
sential impossibility in a Chinese maze of empty technic? The
ghost of Pestalozzi, once bearing a torch and beckoning to-
ward the heights, now leads down dark stairways into the
black and forbidding dungeons of Teachers College, Colum-
bia. The art of pedagogics becomes a sort of puerile magic, a
thing of preposterous secrets, a grotesque compound of false
premisses and illogical conclusions. Every year sees a craze for
some new solution of the teaching enigma, an endless series of
flamboyant arcana. The worst extravagances of priyat dozent
experimental psychology are gravely seized upon; the uplift
pours in its ineffable principles and discoveries; mathematical
formula are marked out for every emergency; there is no sure-
cure so idiotic that some superintendent of schools will not
swallow it. The aim seems to be to reduce the whole teaching


302 A Mencken Chrestomathy

process to a sort of automatic reaction, to discover some master
formula that will not only take the place of competence and
resourcefulness in the teacher but that will also create an arti-
ficial receptivity in the child. Teaching becomes a thing in it-
self, separable from and superior to the thing taught. Its mas-
ter}^ is a special business, a sort of transcendental high jumping.
A teacher well grounded in it can teach anything to any child,
just as a sound dentist can pull any tooth out of any jaw.

All this, I need not point out, is in sharp contrast to the
old theory of teaching. By that theory mere technic was simpli-
fied and subordinated. All that it demanded of the teacher
told off to teach, say, geography, was that he master the facts
in the geography book and provide himself with a stout rattan.
Thus equipped, he was ready for a test of his natural peda-
gogical genius. First he exposed the facts in the book, then he
gilded them with whatever appearance of interest and impor-
tance he could conjure up, and then he tested the extent of
their transference to the minds of his pupils. Those pupils
who had ingested them got apples; those who had failed got
fanned. Followed the second round, and the same test again,
with a second noting of results. And then the third, and
fourth, and the fifth, and so on until the last and least pupil
had been stuffed to his subnormal and perhaps moronic brim.

I was myself grounded in the underlying delusions of what
is called knowledge by this austere process, and despite the
eloquence of those who support newer ideas, I lean heavily in
favor of it, and regret to hear that it is no more. It was crude,
it was rough, and it was often not a little cruel, but it at
least had two capital advantages over all the systems that have
succeeded it. In the first place, its machinery was simple; even
the stupidest child could understand it; it hooked up cause
and effect with the utmost clarity. And in the second place, it
tested the teacher as and how he ought to be tested — that is,
for his actual capacity to teach, not for his mere technical vir-
tuosity. There was, in fact, no technic for him to master, and
hence none for him to hide behind. He could not conceal a
hopeless inability to impart knowledge beneath a correct pro-
fessional method.

That ability to impart knowledge, it seems to me, has very

XVIL Pedagogy 303

little to do with technical method. It may operate at full func-
tion without any technical method at all, and contrariwise, the
most elaborate of technical methods cannot make it operate
when it is not actually present. And what does it consist of?
It consists, first, of a natural talent for dealing with children,
for getting into their minds, for putting things in a way that
they can comprehend. And it consists, secondly, of a deep be-
lief in the interest and importance of the thing taught, a con-
cern about it amounting to a kind of passion. A man who
knows a subject thoroughly, a man so soaked in it that he eats
it, sleeps it and dreams it — this man can almost always teach
it with success, no matter how little he knows of technical
pedagogy. That is because there is enthusiasm in him, and be-
cause enthusiasm is as contagious as fear or the barber's itch.
An enthusiast is willing to go to any trouble to impart the
glad news bubbling within. He thinks that it is important and
valuable for to know; given the slightest glow of interest in a
pupil to start with, he will fan that glow to a flame. No hollow
hocus-pocus cripples him and slows him down. He drags his
best pupils along as fast as they can go, and he is so full of
the thing that he never tires of expounding its elements to the

This passion, so unordered and yet so potent, explains the
capacity for teaching that one frequently observes in scientific
men of high attainments in their specialties — for example,
Huxley, Ostwald, Karl Ludwig, Jowett, William G. Sumner,
Halsted and Osier — men who knew nothing whatever about
the so-called science of pedagogy, and would have derided its
alleged principles if they had heard them stated. It explains,
too, the failure of the general run of high-school and college
teachers — men who are competent, by the professional stand-
ards of pedagogy, but who nevertheless contrive only to make
intolerable bores of the things they presume to teach. No in-
telligent student ever learns much from the average drover of
undergraduates; what he actually carries away has come out of
his textbooks, or is the fruit of his own reading and inquiry.
But when he passes to the graduate school, and comes among
men (if he is lucky) who really understand the subjects they
teach, and, what is more, who really love them, his store of

304 A Mencken Chre stoma thy

knowledge increases rapidly, and in a very’ short while, if he
has any intelligence at all, he learns to think in terms of the
thing he is studying.

So far, so good. But an objection still remains, the which
may be couched in the following terms: that in the average
college or high school, and especially in the elementary school,
most of the subjects taught are so bald and uninspiring that
it is difficult to imagine them arousing the passion I have
been describing — in brief, that only a donkey could be enthu-
siastic about them. In witness, think of the four elementals:
reading, penmanship, arithmetic and spelling. This objection,
at first blush, seems dismaying, but only a brief inspection
is needed to show that it is really of very small validity. It
is made up of a false assumption and a false inference. The
false assumption is that there are no donkeys in our schools
and colleges today. The false inference is that there is any
sound reason for prohibiting teaching by donkeys, if only the
donkeys know how to do it, and to do it well. The facts
stand in almost complete antithesis to these notions. The
truth is that the average schoolmaster, on all the lower levels,
is and always must be essentially and next door to an idiot,
for how can one imagine an intelligent man engaging in so
puerile an avocation? And the truth is that it is precisely his
inherent idiocy, and not his technical equipment as a peda-
gogue, that is responsible for whatever modest success he now

I here attempt no heavy Jocosity, but mean exactly what I
say. Consider, for example, penmanship. A legible handwrit-
ing, it must be obvious, is useful to all men, and particularly to
the lower orders of men. It is one of the few things capable of
acquirement in school that actually helps them to make a liv-
ing. Well, how is it taught today? It is taught, in the main,
by schoolmarms so enmeshed in a complex and unintelligible
technic that, even supposing them able to write clearly them-
selves, they find it quite impossible to teach their pupils.
Every few years sees a radical overhauling of the whole busi-
ness. First the vertical hand is to make it easy; then certain
curves are the favorite magic; then there is a return to slants
and shadings. No department of pedagogy sees a more hide-

XVIL Pedagogy ^05;

ous cavorting of quacks. In none is the natural talent and en-
thusiasm of the teacher more depressingly crippled. And the
result? The result is that our American school children write
abominably — that a clerk or stenographer with a simple, legi-
ble hand becomes almost as scarce as one with Greek.

Go back, now, to the old days. Penmanship was then taught,
not mechanically and ineffectively, by unsound and shifting
formula, but by passionate penmen with curly patent-leather
hair and far-away eyes -- in brief, by the unforgettable profes-
sors of our youth, with their flourishes, their hea\y down-
strokes and their lovely birds-with-letters-in-their-bills. You re-
member them, of course. Asses all! Preposterous popinjays and
numskullsl Pathetic imbeciles! But they loved penmanship,
they believed in the glory and beauty of penmanship, they
were fanatics, devotees, almost martyrs of penmanship — and
so they got some touch of that passion into their pupils. Not
enough, perhaps, to make more flourishers and bird-blazoners,
but enough to make sound penmen. Look at your old writing
book; observe the excellent legibility, the clear strokes of your
'Time is money. Then look at your child's.

Such idiots, despite the rise of "scientific" pedagogy, have
not died out in the world. I believe that our schools are full
of them, both in pantaloons and in skirts. There are fanatics
who love and venerate spelling as a tom-cat loves and vener-
ates catnip. There are grammatomaniacs; schoolmarms who
would rather parse than eat; specialists in an objective case
that doesn't exist in English; strange beings, otherwise sane
and even intelligent and comely, who suffer under a split in-
finitive as you or I would suffer under gastro-enteritis. There
are geography cranks, able to bound Mesopotamia and Be-
luchistan. There are zealots for long division, experts in the
multiplication table, lunatic worshipers of the binomial the-
orem. But the system has them in its grip. It combats their
natural enthusiasm diligently and mercilessly. It tries to con-
vert them into mere technicians, clumsy machines. It orders
them to teach, not by the process of emotional osmosis which
worked in the days gone by, but by formulas that are as baf-
fling to the pupil as they are paralyzing to the teacher. Imag-
ine what would happen to one of them who stepped to the

506 A Mencken Chrestomathy

blackboard, seized a piece of chalk, and engrossed a bird that
held the class spell-bound — a bird with a thousand flowing
feathers, wings bursting with parabolas and epicycloids, and
long ribbons streaming from its bill. Imagine the fate of one
who began Honesty is the best policy” with an H as florid
and — to a child — as beautiful as the initial of a medieval
manuscript. Such a teacher w'ould be cashiered and handed
over to the secular arm; the very enchantment of the assem-
bled infantry would be held as damning proof against him.
And yet it is just such teachers that we should try to discover
and develop. Pedagogy needs their enthusiasm, their naive be-
lief in their own grotesque talents, their capacity for commu-
nicating their childish passion to the childish.

But this would mean exposing the children of the Republic
to contact with monomaniacs, half-wits? Well, what of it?
The vast majority of them are already exposed to contact with
half-wits in their own homes; they are taught the word of God
by half-wits on Sundays; they will grow up into Knights of
Pythias, Odd Fellows, Red Men and other such half-wits in
the days to come. Moreover, as I have hinted, they are already
fact to face with half-wits in the actual schools, at least in
three cases out of four. The problem before us is not to dispose
of this fact, but to utilize it. We cannot hope to fill the
schools with persons of high intelligence, for persons of high
intelligence simply refuse to spend their lives teaching such
banal things as spelling and arithmetic. Among the teachers
male we may safely assume that 95% are of low mentality,
else they would depart for more appetizing pastures. And
even among the teachers female the best are inevitably weeded
out by marriage, and only the worst (with a few romantic ex-
ceptions) survive.

The task before us, as I say, is not to make a vain denial of
this cerebral inferiority of the pedagogue, nor to try to combat
and disguise it by concocting a mass of technical balderdash,
but to search out and put to use the value lying concealed in
it. For even stupidity, it must be plain, has its uses in the
world, and some of them are uses that intelligence cannot
meet. One would not tell off a Galileo to drive an ash-cart or
an Ignatius Loyola to be a stock-broker, or a Mozart to lead

XVIL Pedagogy 307

the orchestra in a night-club. By the same token, one would
not ask a Duns Scotus to instruct sucklings. Such men would
not only be wasted at the job; the}^ would also be incompe-
tent. The business of dealing with children, in fact, demands
a certain jejunity of mind. The best teacher, until one comes
to adult pupils, is not the one who knows most, but the one
who is most capable of reducing knowledge to that simple
compound of the obvious and the wonderful which slips into
the infantile comprehension. A man of high intelligence, per-
haps, may accomplish the thing by a conscious intellectual
feat. But it is vastly easier to the man (or woman) whose
habits of mind are naturally on the plane of a child's. The
best teacher of children, in brief, is one who is essentially

If I had my way I should expose all candidates for berths
in the grade-schools to the Binet-Simon test, and reject all
those who revealed a mentality of more than fifteen years.
Plenty would still pass. Moreover, they would be secure
against contamination by the new technic of pedagogy. Its
vast wave of pseudo-psychology would curl and break against
the hard barrier of their innocent and passionate intellects —
as it probably does, in fact, even now. They would know noth-
ing of learning situations, integration, challenges, emphases,
orthogenics, mind-sets, differentia, and all the other fabulous
fowl of the Teachers College aviary. But they would see in
reading, writing and arithmetic the gaudy charms of profound
knowledge, and they would teach these ancient branches, now
so abominably in decay, with passionate gusto, and irresistible
effectiveness, and a gigantic success.


From the Baltimore Evening Sun, Oct. 8, 1928

It always makes me melancholy to see the boys going to
school. During the half hour before 9 o'clock they stagger
through the square in front of my house in Baltimore with

5o8 a Mencken Chrestomathy

the despondent air of New Yorkers coming up from the ferries
to work. It happens to be uphill, but I believe they'd lag as
much if they were going down. Shakespeare, in fact, hints as
much in the Seven Ages. In the afternoon, coming home, they
leap and spring like gazelles. They are tired, but they are
happy, and happiness in the young always takes the form of
sharp and repeated contractions of the striped muscles, espe-
cially in the legs, arms and larynx.

The notion that schoolboys are generally content with their
lot seems to me to be a sad delusion. They are, in the main,
able to bear it, but they like it no more than a soldier enjoys
life in a foxhole. The need to endure it makes actors of them;
they learn how to lie — perhaps the most valuable thing, to a
citizen of Christendom, that they learn in school. No boy
genuinely loves and admires his teacher; the farthest he can
go, assuming him to have all of his wits, is to tolerate her as
he tolerates castor oil. She may be the loveliest flower in the
whole pedagogical garden, but the most he can ever see in her
is a jailer who might conceivably be worse.

School-days, I believe, are the unhappiest in the whole span
of human existence. They are full of dull, unintelligible tasks,
new and unpleasant ordinances, brutal violations of common
sense and common decency. It doesn't take a reasonably
bright boy long to discover that most of what is rammed into
him is nonsense, and that no one really cares very much
whether he learns it or not. His parents, unless they are in-
fantile in mind, tend to be bored by his lessons and labors,
and are unable to conceal the fact from his sharp eyes. His
first teachers he views simply as disagreeable policemen. His
later ones he usually sets down quite accurately as asses.

It is, indeed, one of the capital tragedies of youth-— and
youth is the time of real tragedy — that the young are thrown
mainly with adults they do not quite respect. The average boy
of my time, if he had had his free choice, would have put in
his days with Amos Rusie or Jim Corbett; a bit later he would
have chosen Roosevelt. But a boy sees such heroes only from
afar. His actual companions, forced upon him by the inexor-
able decrees of a soulless and irrational state, are schoolma'ams,

XVII. Pedagogy 309

male and female^ which is to say, persons of trivial and nn-
romantic achievement, and no more capable of inspiring emu-
lation in a healthy boy than so many midwives or dog-catchers.

It is no wonder that schoolboys so often turn for stimulus
from their teachers to their fellows. The fact, I believe, is largely
to blame for the juvenile lawlessness that prevails in America,
for it is the relatively daring and lawless bo}’S who stand out
from the mass, and so attract their weaker brethren. But what-
ever the consequences, the thing itself is quite natural, for a boy
with superabundant energy flogging him yearns for experiment
and adventure. What he gets out of his teachers is mainly the
opposite. On the female side they have the instincts of duennas,
and on the male side they seldom rise above the level of scout-
masters and Y.M.C.A. secretaries. It would be hard enough for
a grown man, with alcohol and cynicism aiding him, to endure
such society. To a growing boy it is torture.

I believe that things were better in the days before maudlin
harridans, searching the world for atrocities to put down,
alarmed the school boards into abolishing corporal punishment.
The notion that it was degrading to boys is silly. In the main,
their public opinion indorsed it as both just and humane. I
went to a school where rattanning was resorted to when needed.
Its effects, I am convinced, were excellent. It preserved the
self-respect of the teachers, and so tended to make the boys
respect them. Given command, they actually exercised it. I
never heard of a boy complaining, after the smarting in his
gluteus maximus had passed off, that he had been used cruelly
or unjustly. He sometimes bawled during the operation, but he
was content afterward. The teachers in that school were not
only respected by the boys, but more or less liked. The males
among them seemed to be men, not milksops.

But even so, attendance upon their s&nces was a dull busi-
ness far more often than it was exhilarating, and every boy in
their classes began thinking of the closing bell the instant the
opening bell clanged. Keeping up with the pace they set was
cruel to the stupid boys, and holding back to it was even more
cruel to the intelligent ones. The things that they regarded as
important were not, as a rule, interesting to the boys, and the

310 A Mencken Chrestomathy

things that the boys liked they only too often appeared to re-
gard as low. I incline to believe, looking backward, that the boys
were right far oftener than they w^ere wrong.

Today the old pedagogy has gone out, and a new and compli-
cated science has taken its place. Unluckily, it is largely the
confection of imbeciles, and so the unhappiness of the young
continues. In the w’hole realm of human learning there is no
faculty more fantastically incompetent than that of pedagogy.
If you doubt it, go read the pedagogical journals. Better still,
send for an armful of the theses that Kandidaten write and pub-
lish when they go up for their Ph.D.'s. Nothing worse is to be
found in the literature of astrology, scientific salesmanship, or
Christian Science. But the poor schoolma'ams, in order to get
on in their trade, must make shift to study it, and even to
master it. No wonder their dreams are of lawful domestic love,
even with the curse of cooking thrown in.

The school-children of today are exposed to this cataract of
puerility from the time they escape from the kindergarten until
the time they escape into college or wage-slavery. Are their
lives happy? Ask yourself if you would be happy if you had to
listen six or seven hours a day to speeches by spiritualists and
Seventh Day Adventists, It must be dreadful for a bright child
to submit to such vivisection, and its discomforts are surely not
ameliorated by the fact that the poor ma'am is suffering too. It
is no longer sufficient that she love her art and practise it dili-
gently. She must also sweat through Summer-school every year,
damning her luck and boldly laying on more and more rouge.
In the end her mind is a black abyss of graphs and formulas, by
bogus statistics out of snide psychology, and she is no more fit
to teach than an adding machine.

There should be more sympathy for school-children. The idea
that they are happy is of a piece with the idea tliat the lobster
in the pot is happy. They are, in more ways than one, the worst
and most pathetic victims of the complex of inanities and cruel-
ties called civilization. The human race is so stupid that it has
never managed to teach them its necessary tricks and delusions
in a painless and pleasant manner. The cats and dogs do better
by their young, and so, in fact, do savages. All that is taught to
the end of grammar school could be imparted to an intelligent

XVIL Pedagogy 311

child, by genuinely scientific methods, in two years and with-
out any cruelty worse than that involved in pulling a tooth. But
now it takes nine years, and in a long series of laparotomies
without anesthetics.

Is anything really valuable ever learned at school? I some-
times doubt it. Moreover, many wiser men doubt it, though
they commonly make an exception of reading and writing. The
ma’am, they say, can teach her customers to read and wTite:
afterward, whatever they learn they pick up themselves. I go
further. I believe that even in the matter of reading and writing
children commonly teach themselves, or one another. The
ma’am may show them how to learn, and make them w^ant to
do so, but she seldom actually teaches them. She is too busy
making out reports, passing examinations, and trying to find out
what the innumerable super-gogues who beset her desire her to
do and say. She is as unhappy as her charges, and hates learn-
ing quite as bitterly.

I suggest hanging all the professors of pedagogy, arming
the ma’am with a rattan, and turning her loose. Back to Bach!
The new pedagogy has got so complicated that it often for-
gets the pupil altogether, just as the new medicine often forgets
the patient It is driving the poor ma’ams crazy, and convert-
ing the children into laboratory animals. I believe that the old
sing-song system, with an occasional fanning of the posterior,
was better. At all events, it was simpler. One could grasp it
without graphs.

Classical Learning

From the New York American, January 20, 1936

A PALL of medievalism still hangs over the universities of the
world, including even some of the universities of this great free
Republic. The highest degree that the latter offer in course is
still called the doctorate in philosophy, though philosophy it-
self is only a gaudy kind of logic-chopping, and hardly more
valid as a science than astrology. And in most universities

512 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Latin retains something of the academic respectability that it
had in the year 1350. To be sure, all of the boys are not forced
to master it, but those who do so are still thought to be more
refined and scholarly than those who do not.

During the Middle Ages, when every educated man spoke it,
Latin was esteemed for its everyday utility, and for no other
reason. It was the lingua franca of Christendom, and no man
could get around in the world who lacked it. But not a single
soul, so far as I have been able to make out, ever ventured to
argue that acquiring its complicated and irrational grammar
was an elevating intellectual exercise, or that the literature writ-
ten in it was better than any other literature. These imbecilities
were invented after Latin had ceased to be useful, not while it
was in use by all educated men. The medieval student had no
illusions about it. He studied it because it enabled him to learn
other things, not because he had any respect for it in itself. He
regarded his struggles with it as a filthy chore, to be accom-
plished as quickly as possible, and he read its classical literature
so little that most of the chief works thereof went out of print,
so to speak, and were almost forgotten.

Their revival by pedagogues of later ages has proved only that
the medieval student was right. In them, in fact, one finds
precious little that is worth reading. The literatures of Eng-
land, France and Germany have immensely more to offer in
every department of thought, and even the literature of Spain,
Italy and Russia offer quite as much. No rational man can go
through the endless volumes of the Loeb Library without con-
cluding that the Romans were an essentially dull and practical
people, without much more fancy in them than a Congressman
or a cow doctor. They had their high virtues, of course, but a
lush and charming imagination was certainly not one. They
were not poets, but policemen and lawyers.

XVI I . Pedagogy 313

The Boon of Culture

From tlie American Mercury, Sept, 1931, pp. 36-48

E\^ry American college president it appears, is in dut\^ bound
to write and utter at least one book upon the nature, aims and
usufructs of the Higher Education. Tliat responsibility lies
upon him as heavily as the obligation to edit at least one edi-
tion of The Deserted Village"' lies upon every professor of
English. As a rule, he puts it off to his later Autumn days, when
the hemlock of senility has begun to dull the edge of his trou-
bles, but he seldom dodges it altogether. I have on my shelves
a long row of such books, and I have read all of them in a re-
spectful and hopeful spirit, for I think I may call myself, with-
out vanity, a fan of learned men. But I must add in all honesty
that I have yet to find, in any such tome, anything properly de-
scribable as wisdom.

What afflicts all of them — or, at all events, all of them that
I have collected and read — is the assumption that the chief if
not the only end of education is education. This, in the United
States, is very far from true. Only a small minorit)^^ of boys and
girls go to college for the purpose of stuffing their heads with
knowledge, whether real or false; the majority go there simply
because it has come to be the prudent thing to do. What they
get out of it is mainly what they will get, later on, out of join-
ing country clubs, Rotary, the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, and
other such fraternities — a feeling that they have somehow
plunged into the main current of correct American thought,
that they have emerged from the undifferentiated mass and
gained admittance into an organized and privileged class, that
they have ceased to be nobodies and come to be somebodies.

The impulse to make this grade is not to be confused with
mere social pushing, which may go on (and usually does) on
much lower levels. Nor is it to be confused, on the other hand,
with genuine intellectual aspiration. The basic motive is prob-
ably a desire for security rather than a yearning for superiority.
The virtue of a college degree is that it shuts off the asking of
certain kinds of questions, some of them embarrassing. It is a

314 A Mencken Chrestomathy

certificate of safeh; both to the holder and to the nation in
ceil oral. A craduate is one who has been trained to act accord-
ing to a pattern that is publicly considered to be normal and
trustworthy. When he gets his diploma he makes a change, not
in mere station, but in status. It lifts him over a definite fence,
and maketh him to lie down in greener pastures.

Perhaps all of this should have been put into the past tense
instead of the present. The general confidence in ^'education”
has greatly multiplied the candidates for it, and this mutiplica-
tion has encouraged the proliferation of colleges. They spring
up, in fact, in ever}* third country town, and operating them
becomes a kind of racket, carried on by all sorts of dubious per-
sons, lay and clerical. They are even spattered over such bar-
baric States as Mississippi and North Dakota, where it would
be dangerous to be educated in any real sense. The result is
somewhat unhappy. The public belief that four years in college
make a boy measurably more reliable, socially speaking, than he
was before is still entertained, but it begins to be suspected that
one college is not precisely like another. Thus there is a notice-
able movement among the lesser ones to imitate, as closely as
possible, the greater ones — first, by throwing off tlieir theologi-
cal obsessions (the real moving springs, in many cases, of their
being), and secondly, by going in for gaudy Gothic buildings,
and other such prodigalities.

But these gestures fool only the most naive. Everyone who
knows anything at all knows that a boy who has been through
Harvard or Yale is apt to run far nearer to the American ideal
than a boy who has been through, say, the Hardshell Baptist
'"University” of Smithville, Okla. He has been broken to an
older, and hence to a better esteemed tradition, he has encoun-
tered more ornaments of it, and he has seen more impressive
evidences of its value. No one knows this better than the gradu-
ate of the Hardshell seminary. It doesn't take him long to dis-
cover that what he sweated to attain was not quite attained,
after all — that if he has escaped from the scullery he is not yet
admitted to the first table in the hall. He is somewhat in the
position of a conscript who went through all the pains of train-
ing, and then missed service at the front. Such a conscript is,

XVII. Pedagogy 315

of course, a war hero, but he is plainly a war hero of a lesser

I suspect that a growing realization of all this is gradually
filling the United States with inferiority complexes of a pecul-
iarly malignant type. We are turning out thousands of col-
lege graduates who will have to go through life explaining and
apologizing, which is precisely what college training among us
is mainly designed to prevent. They have got the appearance
without the essence. In fact, such one-legged collegians are
already innumerable, for tliere have been bad colleges in the
country since the earliest days. One cannot fail to obser\’e their
discomfort in the presence of graduates of the more tasts^ and
reliable seminaries. They have, in many cases, far more actual
education than the latter, but they lack the inner assurance;
they are not so confident that sound American opinion re-
spects and trusts them. Nor does it. It is a sad state of mind
to be in.

If I had a son I should send him to Harvard, for more is to
be had for the money there than anywhere else — more that is
real, and will last. I don't think he'd learn more at Cambridge
than he could learn at Siwash ( given any desire to learn at all),
but I believe a Harvard diploma would help him a great deal
more in his later life, American ideas being what they are,
whether God cast him for the role of metaphysician or for that
of investment securities broker.

Bearers of the Torch

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, March 12, 1923

The great problems of human society are plainly too vexatious
and difficult to be set before college undergraduates or pupils
yet lower down the scale. The best that the teacher can hope
to do, considering the short time at his disposal and the small
attention that he can engage, is to fill his students with certain
broad generalizations and conclusions. But precisely v^hat gen-

3i6 a Mencken Chrestomathy

eralizations and conclusions? Obviously, the safest are those
that happen to be ofEcial at the moment, not only because they
are most apt to slip into the minds of the pupils with least
resistance, but also and more importantly because they are
most apt to coincide with the prejudices, superstitions and ways
of thought of the pedagogue himself, an ignorant and ninth-
rate man.

In brief, the teaching process, as commonly observed, has
nothing to do with the investigation and establishment of facts,
assuming that actual facts may ever be determined. Its sole pur-
pose is to cram the pupils, as rapidly and as painlessly as possi-
ble, with the largest conceivable outfit of current axioms, in all
departments of human thought — to make the pupil a good
citizen, which is to say, a citizen differing as little as possible,
in positive knowledge and habits of mind, from all other citi-
zens. In other words, it is the mission of the pedagogue, not
to make his pupils think, but to make them think right, and
the more nearly his own mind pulsates with the great ebbs
and flows of popular delusion and emotion, the more admir-
ably he performs his function. He may be an ass, but that is
surely no demerit in a man paid to make asses of his customers.

This central aim of the teacher is often obscured by pedagog-
ical pretension and bombast. The pedagogue, discussing him-
self, tries to make it appear that he is a sort of scientist. He is
actually a sort of barber, and just as responsive to changing
fashions. That this is his actual character is now, indeed, a
part of the official doctrine that he must inculcate. On all
hands, he is told plainly by his masters that his fundamental
function in America is to manufacture an endless corps of
sound Americans. A sound American is simply one who has put
out of his mind all doubts and questionings, and who accepts
instantly, and as incontrovertible gospel, the whole body of of-
ficial doctrine of his day, whatever it may be and no matter
how often it may change. The instant he challenges it, no mat-
ter how timorously and academically, he ceases by that much to
be a loyal and creditable citizen of the Republic.


Psychologists in a Fog

From the American Mercury, July, 1927, pp. 5 8 2-8 3. A review of Psy-
chology: a simplification, by Loyd Ring Coleman and Saxe Commins. New
York, 1927

The so-called science of psychology is now in chaos, with no
sign that order is soon to be restored. It is hard to find two of
its professors who agree, and when the phenomenon is encoun-
tered it usually turns out that one of them is not a psychologist
at all, but simply a teacher of psychology. Even the Freudians,
whose barbaric raid first demoralized and scattered the placid
experts of the old school, now quarrel among themselves.
Worse, the same psychologist frequently turns upon and de-
vours himself. The case of Dr. William McDougall, late of
Harvard, comes to mind at once.^ Every time he prints a new
book, which is very frequently, he changes his list of instincts.
Some of the others go much further: Dr. McDougall, indeed,
is a conservative. These gay boys, at short intervals, throw over-
board their whole baggage. There are psychologists in America
who started out with the classical introspective psycholog}^,
abandoned two-thirds of it in order to embrace Freudism, then
took headers into Behaviorism, and now incline toward the
Gestalt revelation of Kohler and KoflBca. Some say one thing
and some another. It is hard for the layman to keep his head
in this whirl. Not even anthropology offers a larger assortment
of conflicting theories, or a more gaudy band of steaming and
blood-sweating professors.

Nevertheless, certain general tendencies show themselves, and
in the long run they may lay the foundation of a genuinely
rational and scientific psychology. The chief of them is the tend-
ency to examine the phenomena of the mind objectively, and

^ McDougall left Harvard for Duke in 1927. He died in 1938.


318 A Mencken Chrestomathy

with some approach to a scientific method. The old-time psy-
chologist did not bother with such inquiries, some of which
are very laborious. He simply locked himself in his study, pon-
dered on the processes of his own pondering, and then wrote
his book. If, as an aid to his speculations, he went to the length
of mastering the elements of physiolog}^, he regarded himself as
very advanced, and was so regarded by his customers. Basically,
he w’as a metaphysician, not a scientist. His concepts of the
true were constantly mellow^ed and ameliorated by concepts of
the what ought to be true. These old-time psychologists, like
the metaphysicians, had a great gift for inventing terminology,
and their masterpieces still harass the students in the more back-
ward seminaries of learning. Most of them, again like the meta-
physicians, believed that they had sufficiently described a thing
when they had given it a name.

But the psychology of today is mainly experimental. Its pro-
fessors do not attempt to account for the thought process by
introspection, but by observation. Their learning is not on phi-
losophy, but on physiology. So far, it must be confessed, they
have failed to solve any of the fundamental problems of psy-
chology —for example, the problem of consciousness — but
they have swept away a great mass of futile speculation, and
unearthed a large number of interesting, if often embarrassing
facts. Here the Behaviorists, who are relatively recent comers
in the field, have done some good work. Being psychologists,
they are of course inclined to nonsense, and so one finds them
plunging into doctrines that war upon common observation —
for example, the doctrine that the qualities of the mind are
never inherited, but spring wholly out of environmental causes
— , but they have at least cleared off the old view of the mental
machine as a mechanism working in a sort of vacuum, with no
relation to the other organs of the body. These Behaviorists
have proved, what should have been obvious long ago: that a
man thinks with his liver as well as with his brain — in brief,
that the organism is an actual organism, and not a mere con-
geries of discordant units. In their studies of children, in partic-
ular, they have got at some simple and useful facts, and so
disposed of a formidable accumulation of idle speculations. But
their formula is too simple to be wholly true, and they seem

XVIIL Psychology 319

very likely to min it by trying to get more work out of it than
it is capable of.

So with the Freudians. So with the Gestalt enthusiasts. So
with the endocrine psychologists. So with all the rest. Why
don’t they get together as the pathologists, physiologists and
other scientists get together, pool their facts, scrap their the-
ories, and so lay the foundations of a rational psycliolog}^?
Messrs. Coleman and Commins hint at the reason. No profes-
sional kudos is to be got by pooling facts. The one way to make
a splash in psychology is to come out with a new and revolu-
tionary theory. In other words, public opinion among psychol-
ogists is not yet genuinely enlightened. They paddle around in
what ought to be a science, but they are not quite scientists.
Some day, perhaps, they will make the grade, and so become
brothers to the pathologists. But at this moment they are nearer
the osteopaths.

The Mind of the Slave

From Contributions to the Study of Vulgar Psychology,
Prejudices: Fourth Series, 1924, pp. 261-68

One of the forgotten divisions between men and men is that
separating those who enjoy the work they have to do in the
world and those who suffer it only as a necessary evil. The dis-
tinction, despite its neglect by psychologists, is probably very
important — certainly far more important than the current di-
visions between producers and exploiters, dolichocephalic Nor-
dic blonds and brachycephalic Mediterraneans, Darwdnians and
Christians, Republicans and Democrats, Protestants and Cath-
olics. A man's politics, theology and other vices engage his
attention, after all, only in his moments of leisure, and the
shape of his cranium has very little demonstrable influence
upon what habitually goes on within it, but the nature of the
work he does in the world conditions every thought and im-
pulse of his life, and his general attitude toward it is almost
indistinguishable from his general attitude toward the cosmos.

At the one extreme lies the unmitigated slave — the man

320 A Mencken Chrestomathy

who has to spend his whole life performing tasks that are in-
curably uninteresting, and that offer no soothing whatever to
his Ysmity. At the other extreme is what Beethoven called the
free artist — the man who makes a living, with no boss directly
over him, doing things that he enjoys enormously, and that he
would keep on doing gladly, even if all economic pressure upon
him disappeared. To the second category belong all the happi-
est men in the world, and hence, perhaps, all the most useful
men. For what is done with joy is always better done, whether
it be fashioning a material object, thinking out a problem or
kissing a girl; and the man who can make the rest of humanity
pay him for being happy is obviously a better man than the
general, or, at all odds, a luckier one. Here luck and superiority
are one and the same. The fact that Joseph Conrad could
write better than I was, in a sense, a matter of pure chance. He
was born with his talent; he did not earn it. Nevertheless, it was
just as real as if he had got it by Christian endeavor, and his
superiority to me was thus perfectly genuine.

The slave is always conscious of his slaver}^, and makes con-
stant and often desperate efforts to mitigate it or to get rid of
it altogether. Sometimes he seeks that mitigation in outside
activities that promise to give him the sense of dignity and im-
portance that his daily labor denies him; sometimes he tries to
give a false appearance of dignity to his work itself. The last
phenomenon must be familiar to every American; it is respon-
sible for various absurd devices to pump up lowly trades by
giving them new and high-sounding names. I point, for exam-
ple, to those of the real-estate agent and the undertaker. Nei-
tlier trade, it must be obvious, offers any stimulation to men of
genuine superiority. One could not imagine a Beethoven, a
Lincoln or even a Coolidge getting any joy out of squeezing
apartment-house tenants or pickling Odd Fellows. Both jobs,
indeed, fail to satisfy the more imaginative sort of men among
those compelled to practise them. Hence these men try to dig-
nify them with hocus-pocus. The real-estate agent, seeking to
conceal his real purpose in life, lets it be known grandly that he
is an important semi-public functionary, that he has conse-
crated himself to Service and is a man of Vision -- and to prove
it he immerses himself in a private office with a secretary to

XVI 1 1 . Psychology 321

insult his customers, joins Rotary, and begins to call himself a
realtor, a word as idiotic as flu, pep or gent The ambitious
washer of the dead, until very lately a sort of pariah in all civi-
lized societies, like the hangman and the dog-catcher, proceeds
magnificently along the same route. At regular intervals I re-
ceive impressive literature from a trade-union of undertakers
calling themselves the Selected Morticians. By this literature it
appears that the members thereof are professional men of a
rank and dignity comparable to judges or archbishops, and they
are hot for the subtlest and most onerous kind of Service, and
even eager to offer their advice to the national government. In
brief, the realtor complex all over again. I do not laugh at these
soaring embalmers; I merely point out that their nonsense
proves how little the mere planting of martyred lodge brothers
satisfies their interior urge to be important and distinguished —
an urge that is in all of us.

But most of the trades pursued by slaves, of course, offer no
such opportunities for self-deceptive flummery. The clerk work-
ing in the lime and cement warehouse of some remote town of
the Foreign Missions Belt cannot conceivably convince himself
that his profession is noble; worse, he cannot convince any-
one else. And so with millions of other men in this great Re-
public, both urban and rural — millions of poor fellows doomed
their life long to dull, stupid and tedious crafts — the lower
sort of clerks, truck-drivers, farmers, petty officials, grabbers of
odd jobs. They must be downright idiots to get any satisfac-
tion out of their work. Happiness, the feeling that they too are
somebody, the sense of being genuinely alive, must be sought
in some other direction. In the big cities, that need is easily
met. Here there is a vast and complex machiner}^ for taking the
slave's mind off his desolateness of spirit — movie cathedrals to
transport him into a land of opulence and romance, where men
(whom he always identifies with himself) are brave, rich and
handsome, and women (whom he identifies with his wife — or
perchance with her younger sister) are clean, well-dressed and
beautiful; newspapers to delight and instruct him with their
sports pages, their comic strips and their eloquent appeals to
his liberality, public spirit and patriotism; radio to play the
latest jazz for him; baseball, races, gambling, harlotry and games

322 A Mencken Chrestomathy

in arenas; a thousand devices to make him forget his woes. It is
this colossal opportunity' to escape from life that brings yokels
swarming to the cities, not any mere lust for money. The yokel
is actually far more comfortable on his native soil; the city
crowds and exploits him, and nine times out of ten he remains
desperately poor. But the city at least teaches him how to forget
his poverty; it amuses him and thrills him w^hile it is devour-
ing him.

But millions of the slaves, of course, must remain in the
small towns or on the land; the cities can't absorb all of them,
nor even half of them. They thus confront the problem of mak-
ing life bearable out of their own meagre resources. The devices
that they adopt —• political, religious and social — are familiar
to all of us, and account fully, it seems to me, for some of the
phenomena of American life that are most puzzling to foreign
observers. The hoop-la revival with its psychopathological basis;
the violent bitterness of rural politics; the prosperity of the
clownish fraternal orders; the persistent popularity of barbari-
ties of a dozen varieties — all these things are no more than
manifestations of the poor hind's pathetic effort to raise him-
self out of his wallow, to justify and dignify his existence, to
escape from the sordid realities that daily confront him. To
snort and froth at a revival makes him conspicuous, prominent,
a man of mark; it is therefore easy to induce him to do it. To
hold a petty country office is eminence; hence he struggles for it
frantically. To belong to the Red Men gives him a mysterious
and sinister dignity, and fills him with a sense of power and con-
sequence; he falls for it as quickly as a city intellectual falls for
the Legion dhonneur or an LL.D. All these things make him
forget, at least transiently, that he remains a miserable worm,
and of little more actual importance on earth than his own

Long ago, I suggested tliat a good way to diminish lynching
in the South would be to establish brass bands in all the coun-
try towns. The bad music, I argued, would engage and enchant
both the blackamoors and the poor white trash, and so dis-
courage the former from crime and the latter from seeking a
savage satisfaction in its punishment. I now improve and em-
bellish that suggestion. That is to say, I propose that the band

X\^IIL Psychology 323

scheme be shelved, and that bull-fighting be established as a
substitute. Why not, indeed? Cattle have to be killed, and the
Southern poor white is admittedly a savage. Why not combine
the necessary slaughter of horned quadrupeds with a show that
will give that savage a thrill and take his mind from his lowly
lot, and turn him from seeking escape in politics, murder and
voodoo? Bull-fights in the South would not only abolish lynch-
ings; they would also undermine Fundamentalism. Life would
be safer and happier in Georgia if the pure Anglo-Saxons down
there could work off their steam by going weekly to a phzd de
toroSf and there see official picador es, banderilleroSy and mata-
dors, all of them good Democrats and baptized men, lynch and
burn (or even merely geld) a reluctant and protesting male of
Bos tdurus.

The Crowd

From Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918, pp. 45-47

Gustave Le Bon and his school, in their discussions of the psy-
chology of crowds, put forward the doctrine that the individual
man, cheek by jowl with the multitude, drops down an intel-
lectual peg or two, and $0 tends to show the mental and emo-
tional reactions of his inferiors. It is thus that they explain the
well-known violence and imbecility of crowds. The crowd, as a
crowd, performs acts that many of its members, as individuals,
would never be guilty of. Its average intelligence is very low;
it is inflammatory, vicious, idiotic, almost simian. Crowds, prop-
erly worked up by skillful demagogues, are ready to believe any-
thing, and to do anything.

Le Bon, I daresay, is partly right, but also partly wrong. His
theory is probably too flattering to the average numskull. He
accounts for the extravagance of crowds on the assumption that
the numskull, along with the superior man, is knocked out of
his wits by suggestion — that he, too, does things in association
that he would never think of doing singly. The fact may be ac-
cepted, but the reasoning raises a doubt. The numskull runs
amok in a crowd, not because he has been inoculated with new

324 A Mencken Chrestomathy

rascality by the mysterious crowd influence, but because his
habitual rascality now has its only chance to function safely.
In other words, the numskull is vicious, but a poltroon. He re-
frains from all attempts at lynching a cappella, not because it
takes suggestion to make him desire to lynch, but because it
takes the protection of a crowd to make him brave enough to
ti)' it

WTiat happens when a crowd cuts loose is not quite what
Le Bon and his followers describe. Tlie few superior men in it
are not straightway reduced to the level of the underlying stone-
heads. On the contrary, they usually keep their heads, and
often make efforts to combat the crowd action. But the stone-
heads are too many for them; the fence is torn down or the
blackamoor is burned. And why? Not because the stoneheads,
normally virtuous, are suddenly criminally insane. Nay, but be-
cause they are suddenly conscious of the power lying in their
numbers — because they suddenly realize that their natural vi-
ciousness and insanity may be safely permitted to function. In
other words, the particular swinishness of a crowd is perma-
nently resident in the majority of its members — in all those
members, that is, who are naturally ignorant and vicious — say
90%. All studies of mob psychology are defective in that they
underestimate this viciousness. The lower orders of men are
actually incurable rascals, either individually or collectively. De-
cency, self-restraint, the sense of justice, courage — these virtues
belong to a small minority of men. This minority seldom runs
amok. Its most distinguishing character, in truth, is its resist-
ance to all running amok. The third-rate man, though he may
wear the false whiskers of a first-rate man, may always be de-
tected by his inability to keep his head in the face of an appeal
to his emotions. A whoop strips off his disguise.

XVIII. Psychology 325

The Art Eternal

From Contributions to the Study of Vulgar Psychology,
Prejudices: Fourth Series, 1924, pp. 269-77.

First printed in the New York Evening Mail, July 5, 19 iS

One of the laudable by-products of the Freudian quaclceiy’ is
the discovery that lying, in most cases, is involuntar}' and in-
evitable ~ that the liar can no more avoid it than he can avoid
blinking his eyes when a light flashes or jumping when a bomb
goes off behind him. At its worst, indeed, this necessih^ takes
on a downright pathological character, and is thus as innocent
as seiatica. It is part of the morbid baggage of hysterics and
neurasthenics: their lying is simply a symptom of their con-
vulsive effort to adjust themselves to an environment which
bears upon them too harshly for endurance. The rest of us are
not quite so hard pushed, but pushed we all are. In us the
thing works through the inferiority complex, which no man
can escape. He who lacks it entirely is actually reckoned insane
by the fact: his satisfaction with his situation in the world is
indistinguishable from a delusion of grandeur. The great ma-
jority of us — all, in brief, who are normal — pass through life
in constant revolt against our limitations, objective and sub-
jective. Our conscious thought is largely devoted to plans and
specifications for cutting a better figure in human society’, and
in our unconscious the business goes on much more steadily
and powerfully. No healthy man, in his secret heart, is content
with his destiny. He is tortured by dreams and images as a
child is tortured by the thought of a state of existence in which
it would live in a candy-store and have two stomachs.

Lying is the product of the unconscious yearning to realize
such visions, and if the policeman, conscience, prevents the lie
being put into plain words, then it is at least put into more or
less plausible acts. We all play parts when we face our fellow-
men, as even poets have noticed. No man could bring himself
to reveal his true character, and, above all, his true limitations
as a citizen and a Christian, his true meannesses, his true im-
becilities, to his friends, or even to his wife. Honest autobiog-

326 A Mencken Chrestomathy

raphy is therefore a contradiction in terms: the moment a man
considers himself, even in pettOy he tries to gild and fresco him-
self. Tlius a man’s wife, however realistic her view of him, al-
ways flatters him in the end, for the w^orst she sees in him is
appreciably better, by the time she sees it, than what is actu-
ally there. What she sees, even at times of the most appalling
domestic revelation and confidence, is not the authentic man
at all, but a compound made up in part of the authentic man
and in part of his projection of a gaudy ideal. The man who
is most respected by his wife is the one who makes this pro-
jection most vivid — that is, the one who is the most daring and
ingratiating liar. He can never, of course, deceive her utterly,
but if he is skillful he may at least deceive her enough to make
her happy.

Omnis homo mendax: thus the Psalmist. So far the Freud-
ians merely parrot him. What is new in their gospel is the
doctrine that lying is instinctive, normal, and unavoidable —
that a man is forced into it by his very will-to-live. This doctrine
purges the business of certain ancient embarrassments, and re-
stores innocence to the heart. Think of a lie as a compulsion
neurose, and you think of it more kindly. I need not add, I
hope, that this transfer of it from the department of free will
to that of determinism by no means disposes of the penalty that
traditionally pursues it, supposing it to be detected and resented.
The proponents of free will always make the mistake of as-
suming that the determinists are simply evil fellows looking for
a way to escape the just consequences of their transgressing.
No sense is in that assumption. If I lie on the witness-stand and
am detected by the judge, I am jailed for perjury forthwith,
regardless of my helplessness under compulsion. Here justice
refuses absolutely to distinguish between a misfortune and a
tort: the overt act is all it is concerned with. But as jurispru-
dence growls more intelligent and more civilized it may change
its tune, to the benefit of liars, which is to say, to the benefit
of humanity. Science is unflinchingly deterministic, and it has
begun to force its determinism into morals. On some shining
tomorrow a psychoanalyst may be put into the box to prove
that pajury is simply a compulsion neurose, like beating time

XVIIL Psychology 327

with the foot at a concert or counting the lampposts along the

However, I have but small faith in millenniums, and do not
formally predict this one. Nor do I pronounce any moral judg-
ment, pro or con: moral judgments, as old Friedrich used to
say, are foreign to my nature. But let us not forget that lying,
per se, is not forbidden by the moral code of Christendom.
Holy Writ dismisses it cynically, and the statutes of all civilized
states are silent about it. Only the Chinese, indeed, make it a
penal offense. Perjury, of course, is prohibited everywhere, and
also any mendacity which amounts to fraud and deprives a
fellow-man of his property. But that far more common form
of truth-stretching which has only the lesser aim of augmenting
the liar's personal dignity and consequence is looked upon with
a very charitable eye. So is that form which has the aim of
helping another person in the same way. In the latter direction
lying may even take on the stature of a positive virtue. The late
King Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, attained to great
popularity throughout Christendom by venturing into down-
right perjury. Summoned into a court of law to give expert
testimony regarding some act of adultery, he lied like a gentle-
man, as the phrase goes, to protect a woman. The lie, to be
sure, was intrinsically useless; no one believed that the lady
was innocent. Nevertheless, every decent Christian applauded
the perjurer for his good intentions, including even the judge
on the bench, sworn to combat false witness by every resource
of forensics. All of us, worms that we are, occasionally face the
alternatives that confronted Edward. On the one hand, we
may tell the truth, regardless of consequences, and on the other
hand we may mellow it and sophisticate it to make it humane
and tolerable.

For the habitual truth-teller and truth-seeker, indeed, the
world has very little liking. He is always unpopular, and not
infrequently his unpopularity is so excessive that it endangers
his life. Run your eye back over the list of martyrs, lay and
clerical: nine- tenths of them, you will find, stood accused of
nothing worse than honest efforts to find out and announce the
truth. Even today, with the scientific passion become familiar

328 A Mencken Chrestomathy

in the world, the general view of such fellows is highly un-
favorable. The typical scientist, the typical critic of institutions,
the typical truth-seeker in every field is held under suspicion
by the great majority of men, and variously beset by posses of
relentless foes. If he tries to find out the truth about arterio-
sclerosis, or surgical shock, or cancer, he is denounced as a
scoundrel by the Christian Scientists, the osteopaths and the
anti-vivisectionists. If he tries to tell the truth about the gov-
ernment, its agents seek to silence him and punish him. If he
turns to fiction and endeavors to depict his fellow-men accu-
rately, he has the Comstocks on his hands. In no field can he
count upon a friendly audience, and freedom from assault.
Especially in the United States is his whole enterprise view^ed
with bilious eye. The men the American people admire most
extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest
most violently are those who try to tell them the truth. A Gali-
leo could no more be elected President of the United States
than he could be elected Pope of Rome. Both high posts are
reserved for men favored by God with an extraordinary genius
for swathing the bitter facts of life in bandages of soft illusion.



From the Baltimore Evening Sun, April 6, 1931

In the sciences hypothesis always precedes law, which is to say^
there is always a lot of tall guessing before a new fact is estab-
lished. The guessers are often quite as important as the fact-
finders; in truth, it would not be difficult to argue that they
are more important. New facts are seldom plucked from the
clear sky; they have to be approached and smelled out by a
process of trial and error, in which bold and shrewd guessing is
an integral part. The Greeks were adepts at such guessing, and
the scientists of tlie world have been following the leads they
opened for more than two thousand years. Unluckily, the sup-
ply of Greek guesses is now running out, and so science begins
to show a lack of imagination. What is needed is a new supply
of guessers. Mathematical physics has produced a pretty good
one in the person of Dr. Einstein, but some of the other sci-
ences seem to have none, and suffer badly from that lack —
for example, physiology. It has been piling up facts for more
than a century past, but the meaning of most of them remains
occult. If it could develop a Class A guesser he would soon be
one of its magnificoes, and of a rank comparable to that of
Du BoiS'Reymond, Johannes Muller, Lavoisier, Malpighi or


From tbe same, April 6, 1931

The trouble with human progress is that it tends to go too
fast— that is, too fast for the great majority of comfortable


330 A Mencken Chrestomathy

and incurious men. Its agents are always in a hurry, and so be-
come unpopular. If Darwin had printed 'The Origin of Spe-
cies'’ as a serial running twenty or thirty years he might have
found himself, at the end of it, a member of the House of
Lords or even Archbishop of Canterbury. But he disgorged it
in one stupendous and appalling dose, and in consequence he
alarmed millions, including many of his fellow scientists, and
got an evil name. To this day, though all of the soundest (and
thus most revolutionary’) of his ideas have become platitudes,
he continues to be thought of much as Simon Legree, Tliomas
Paine and John Wilkes Booth are thought of. To name a new
public-school after him would cause almost as grave a scandal
as to name it after Lillian Russell. In at least two-thirds of the
American States one of the easiest ways to get into public office
is to denounce him as a scoundrel. But by the year 2030, I
daresay, what remains of his doctrine, if anything, will be ac-
cepted as complacently as the Copernican cosmography is now
accepted. His offense was simply that he was too precipitate.

Caveat Against Science

From the American Mercury, Sept., 1927, pp. 126-27,

A review of Science: The False IMessiah, by C. E. Ayres;
Indianapolis, 1927

Mr. Ayres, formerly a member of the staff of the New Re-
public, has served his time as a professor of philosophy, and,
like any ofher metaphysician in a machine age, is full of vague
fevers and shooting pains. In the present volume he endeavors
gallantly to reduce them to a series of theses, with supporting
syllogisms, but though he enjoys the gift of utterance and is,
in fact, extraordinarily articulate for a philosopher, his argu-
ment remains, nevertheless, somewhat inchoate. What I gather
from it chiefly is the sad thought that science, after all, can-
not teach us how to live. It accumulates immense pyramids
of facts, but the facts turn out, on examination, to be mean-
ingless. What if the astronomers discover that the temperature

XIX. Science 331

at the core of a certain star is 750,000 degrees Centigrade?
What if the electron reveals itself as a speck of vacuum per-
forming a witless and eternal dance? WTiat if epinephrin is
synthesized, and even Gordon gin? What if a distinguished
movie actor is found to be a perfect specimen of Eoanthropus
dawsoni? Wliat if someone proves that a straight line is no
longer the shortest distance between two points? All the really
important human problems remain unsolved. Nothing in any
of the triumphs of science will help a man to determine
whether, having $50 to invest, he will do better to put it in the
missionary box or buy some worthy girl a set of necking tools.
Mr. Ayres, it appears, long ago gave up any hope of light from
the purely physical sciences: chemistr}^, physics, patholog}',
physiology, zoology, chiropractic, golf, etc. But psychology' still
lured him, and he began to investigate it — just in time to see
the behaviorists turn Man into a teetotum, not unlike the elec-
tron. There remained anthropology, but now even anthropol-
ogy runs to graphs and tables of statistics, laws and more laws,
all impersonal, all devoid of metaphysical content, all extremely
mortifying to a philosopher.

Mr. Ayres seems to have a fear that the end is not yet — that
science, having turned its back upon the moral order of the
world, will one day return to put it down, maybe by force —
that is, that we are facing scientific tyranny almost as bad as the
old theological tyranny or the current political tyranny. WTien
science has become supreme,"' he says, in the last sentence of
his book, any attempt to rectify its formulas will be perse-
cuted as heresy." But here, I believe, he is simply judging sci-
ence in terms of the crimes of philosophy. There is not the
slightest sign that science, in itself, has any such malign ambi-
tion. Its aim is simply to establish the facts. It has no more
interest in the moral significance of those facts than it has in
the moral significance of a streptococcus. It must be amoral
by its very nature: the minute it begins separating facts into
the two categories of good ones and bad ones it ceases to be
science and becomes a mere nuisance, like theology. Never-
theless, there is a certain uncomfortable reason in Mr. Ayres's
fears. Science itself will never send him to the stake, but the
quacks who hang about its flanks may one day try to do so.

332 A Mencken Chrestomathy
Such quacks are already numerous, and they tend to disguise
themselves as scientists, and to be accepted by the world in
that character. I point, for example, to the so-called hygienists,
and especially to those who are also public jobholders. The-
oretically and by their own representation, these singularly
cocksure men are scientists; actually they are simply moralists,
and of the same lineage as Prohibition agents. The body of
exact facts lying under their pretensions is of very modest di-
mensions, and so far as I am aware not one of those facts was
unearthed by their own efforts. They are to pathology as astrol-
ogers are to astronomy. It is certainly by no mere coincidence
that they are the only claimants to scientific authority in the
whole modern world who make any demand that the police
enforce their decrees.

But there is no reason why Mr. Ayres should permit these
hygienists to alarm him. Their present high puissance is not
due to the fact that science is running amok, but to the fact
that science is still impotent. If it had the authority that he
sees in his unpleasant visions, and the moral fervor that he
seems to think must go therewith, it would be hanging hy-
gienists today. But I don't believe that it would actually hang
them, even if it had the power. To science, a hygienist is sim-
ply a natural phenomenon, like a philosopher or a Congress-
man; all three stand upon an equal footing in its sight. Their
moral passion is no more to be put down by force than is a
bishop's passion to cultivate the rich; it is simply something to
be studied calmly, as the habits of the crayfish are studied. Is
that study sterile? Of course it is-— to the sort of man to
whom it is sterile. That sort of man is not content with facts;
he also craves advice. It is the business of philosophers to give
him that advice. Functioning as theologians, as publicists, as
metaphysicians and what not, they have been doing so for five
or six thousand years. No doubt it has done him a lot of

But there are also men who do not crave such advice. Those
are the men to whom science is a reality. They believe that
there is something intrinsically agreeable about learning some-
thing not hitherto known. They get the same stimulation out
of widening their knowledge that the customer of the theolo-

XIX. Science 333

gians and metaphysicians gets out of being instructed in his
duties toward God, the Armenians, his brother-in-law, and the
memory of Woodrow Wilson. It is a form of effort that is rela-
tively new in the world, and hence it is not mentioned in the
sacred books. No known church teaches that a man could get
into Heaven by discovering the hypothetical element lying be-
tween molybdenum and ruthenium, or by determining the ex-
act value of ir. More, no man could hope to be elected Presi-
dent for doing it, or even to membership in the Elks, or the
American Academy of Arts and Letters, or the Actors' Equitj^'.
Nevertheless, as I say, there are men who are interested in such
achievements, and esteem their fruits. They constitute a very
small minority of the human race. They alone are concerned
with science, or have any understanding of its peculiar values.
It is as impossible to imagine them engaging in the t}Tanny
that Mr. Ayres fears as it is to imagine the rest of mankind
comprehending their attitude — or escaping tyranny at other

The Eternal Conundrum

From the Amencan Mercury, Feb., 1931, pp. 232-54.

A review of The Mysterious Universe, by Sir James Jeans;

New York, 1930

When I was a boy it was commonly taught that all astronomers,
soon or late, went crazy. In this theory there was probably no
truth, but it was based nevertheless on a sound observation, to
wit, that the astronomers of that day, more than any other men
of science, ran to daring speculations about the nature and goal
of the universe, and the purpose behind it Their successors
still do so, and it is no wonder, for their business brings them
far closer than any other scientists ever come to the funda-
mental mysteries of creation.

Contrast that business, for example, with the daily work of
a biologist. The phenomena that a biologist has to do with
nearly all lie within narrow limits of space and time, and the
questions that he asks himself about them are almost always

534 A Mencken Chrestomathy
answerable in ways consonant with evetyday experience. When
he has explained this one in terms of surface tension, that one
in terms of osmosis, and a third one in terms of Mendel's law,
he has pretty well satisfied his professional curiosity, and that
of-his customers. All the materials of his trade are to be found
in his own small corner of the visible universe, and the actions
and reactions that he observes going on among them all seem
perfectly logical, and follow natural laws that are not hard to

Even life itself, considered biologically, is not very mysterious.
No biologist, so far, has ever set it going in inert matter, but
there is nothing in its apparent nature, as revealed by investiga-
tion and experiment, which forbids the hope of setting it going
at some time hereafter. Thus biologists seldom give any time
to speculating about the ultimate constitution of matter, or
about the origin of the universe, or about the motives, if any,
behind the natural laws that they observe and record. Most of
them care little for such exercises, and it is rare to find one who
show's any leaning toward mystical ways of thought. They are,
as a class, a hard-headed and matter-of-fact lot. When one
chances to be born with a mystical taint, he usually forsakes
biology at the first opportunity, and, like Alfred Russel Wal-
lace, William James and Hans Driesch, gives himself over to
frank metaphysics.

With astronomers, and with physicists in general, the case
is different. They are constantly colliding with questions which
take them beyond the superficial flow of phenomena and into
the realm of ultimates. They do a great deal of their work, not
on the safe ground where knowledge is abundant and may be
arranged in orderly systems, but on the borderline between the
known and the unknowable, where every equation is bound to
have a couple of x's in it. Proceeding, say, from the molecule,
of which a lot may be learned, to the atom, of which less may
be learned, and then to the electron, of which still less may be
learned, they presently find themselves confronting shapes and
forces of which nothing, it would seem, can be learned. If they
were all ideal scientific men they would sit down at this place,
and wait patiently for further light. But having gone so far into
the unknown, they pant to go further, and it is thus common

XIX. Science 335

for them, in the absence of objective facts, to resort to sub-
jective speculations.

If they are thorough materialists, as sometimes happens, they
entertain us with pictures of an infinite, irrational and intrinsi-
cally incomprehensible universe, running without motive power
but otherwise not unlike an immense internal-combustion en-
gine. But if there is any trace of the common Christian heritage
in them — and, alas, there often is — they begin to speculate
about the nature of the motive power, and soon they are con-
juring up a will behind it, and inflicting one more God upon
a sweating and distracted world. That God, as usual, follows
the pattern of themselves. Dr. Robert A. Millikan's is an elderly
Unitarian born in Morrison, 111 ., who took his Ph.D. at Colum-
bia in 1895, got the Nobel Prize in 1923, and is a member of
the Valley Hunt Club of Pasadena, Calif. Dr. A. S. Edding-
ton's is a Quaker imperfectly denaturized at Cambridge and
now a don there. By the same token. Sir James Jeans's is a

This Jeans God shows rather more plausibility than the
others, and is much more refined. He lacks both the hearty,
beefy bucolicity of Millikan's Middle Western Corn-God and
the sickly chlorosis of Eddington's gaseous Quaker. He neither
belches nor swoons. His tastes and habits of mind, as de-
scribed by His creator, correspond very aptly with the way the
universe seems to be run. If a human mathematician ran it, it
w^ould be, in fact, pretty much what it is now. In particular,
positing a mathematical God disposes neatly of certain diflE-
culties that have long badgered physicists. This is no place to
describe them in detail: suffice it to say that they involve a
number of apparent irregularities in the flow of phenomena —
a number of unaccountable variations in what has been re-
garded as natural law. Sometimes, it appears, electrons do not
jump according to a regular system, but irregularly, like grass-
hoppers in a meadow. Again, light does not move in a straight
line, but along some sort of curve. Yet again, time has a vari-
able value, according to the place and the observer. Such aber-
rations are hard to fit into a strictly mechanical universe, but
they slip very smoothly into one operated on a mathematical
plan, for mathematics, as everyone knows, does not confine it-

336 A Mencken Chrestomathy

self to immutable phenomena, but also takes an interest in the
va\’enng and fickle kind. A whole, and very important branch
of the science is devoted to mere probabilities, and there are
others, much used by statisticians, which try to get a certain
rough order into downright chaos. It is Sir James's idea that
many of the apparently unruly and intractable phenomena
which now puzzle physicists (and especially astronomers) may
be brought to something approaching coherence by thinking of
them in mathematical terms. So he suggests that the whole uni-
verse may be no more than a prodigious exercise in some sort
of calculus, and that God may be, not the engineer that many
scientists have hitherto imagined, but a mathematician.

It is a charming conceit, and Sir James develops it with great
skill and address. He is one of the most competent writers on
physics now extant, with a really extraordinary gift for making
the most diflBcult of scientific concepts understandable. Even
the Einstein speculations about space and time, in his hands,
take on a kind of clarity. Nevertheless, I can only report that, in
the present case, he leaves at least one very friendly reader quite
unconvinced. The 'doose-jointedness" that he discovers in the
universe by no means “destroys the case for absolutely strict cau-
sation." All it really brings us to is an uneasy realization that our
present stock of knowledge is far from complete. Not only are
there plain gaps in it; there are also parts of it that are obviously
dubious. I believe that fully four-fifths of what cocksure physi-
cists now tell us about the nature and behavior of electrons
will be laughed at on some near tomorrow, and that most of the
phenomena which now seem to be lawless and hence inex-
plicable will be reduced to law and order at the same time. All
we really know is that we do not yet know what this law is.
Physicists, as a class, are far too eager to make mysteries. Facing
the dark, they are always seeing things. If chemists were sim-
ilarly given to fanciful and mystical guessing, they would have
hatched a quantum theory forty years ago to account for the
variations that they observed in atomic weights. But they kept
on plugging away in their laboratories without calling in either
mathematicians or theologians to aid them, and eventually they
discovered the isotopes, and what had been chaos was reduced
to the most exact sort of order.

XIX. Science 337

The same thing, no doubt, will happen in the domain of
physics, once the physicists forget that they were once baptized,
and begin to apply themselves honestly to the problems of tlieir
business. They have, in late years, made a great deal of prog-
ress, though it has been accompanied by a considerable quack-
ery. Some of the notions which they now try to foist upon the
world, especially in the astronomical realm and about the
atom, are obviously nonsensical, and will soon go the way of all
unsupported speculations. But there is nothing intrinsically in-
soluble about the problems they mainly struggle with, and soon
or late really competent physicists will arise to solve them.
These really competent physicists, I predict, will be too busy
in their laboratories to give any time to either metaphysics or
theology. Both are eternal enemies of every variety of sound
thinking, and no man can monkey with them without losing
something of his good judgment.

The Universe

From the Smart Sety Oct., 1922, pp. 142-44

Astronomers, it seems to me, dispose in too cavalier a manner
of the notion (so often revived in the Hearst Sunday news-
papers) that there may be life on planets other than the earth,
and even on certain stars. Uranus and Neptune, they say, are
too hot; Mercury is too hot on one side and too cold on the
other (what of the regions where the two climates meet?); Ve-
nus suffers from the same defect; Mars lacks air and water;
Jupiter is covered with a cloud of steam; so is Saturn; as for the
moon, it has no air. But all these objections simply beg the
question, for the most they prove (and in the case of Mars and
Venus there is doubt even here) is that the planets of the solar
system cannot support the sort of life that the earth supports —
to wit, life based upon unstable compounds of carbon, hydro-
gen, oxygen and nitrogen. Is there any reason for believing that
no other sort of life is possible? If so, then I have never heard
of it. To me, at least, with my facile fancy, it is quite easy to

338 A Mencken Chrestomathy

imagine living forms composed, not of carbon, hydrogen, oxy-
gen and nitrogen, but of platinum, tantalum, rhodium and
tungsten, none of which melts at less than 3,000 degrees Fahr-
enheit. I go even further: I can imagine living beings whose
bodies are not solid, but liquid — as, in fact, ours are, all save
a small part. Or even gaseous. If the Lord God Almighty, by
combining carbon and the three gases, can make an Ambas-
sador at the Court of St. James’s, I see absolutely no reason why
he cannot make a monad of helium and fluorine. Here I, too,
make a gratuitous supposition: I speak of a monad, i.e., of a
definite cell. But why should life be the exclusive function of
cells? Isn’t it possible to imagine living beings without definite
form? The whole interstellar space, in fact, may be full of them,
and their cavortings may be the cause of some of the phenom-
ena observed by Dr. Einstein. There may be sun-worms that
flourish as contentedly in the terrific temperature of the sun as
a Bierfisch flourishes in a keg of Lowenbrau. There may be
supermen on Neptune and Uranus with skulls of fire-brick and
bowels of asbestos. It is neither probable nor improbable: we
simply do not know. But it is certainly not impossible.

Even without abandoning the carbon concept of living mat-
ter we may easily conceive of life on Mercury, Venus, Mars,
Jupiter and Saturn, to say nothing of the moon. If Jupiter and
Saturn are surrounded by clouds of visible steam, then they
cannot be quite as hot as certain astronomers assume, for visible
steam is steam that is hovering about a temperature of 212
degrees Fahrenheit: above that it becomes as transparent as air.
There are plenty of low organisms, even on the earth, that are
able to survive a bath of live steam for a considerable time; on
Jupiter and Saturn they may be able to survive it long enough
to grow up, love, marry, beget and decay. As for the absence of
air and water on Mars and the moon, it is a deficiency of very
small importance. If the Martians need hydrogen and oxygen,
as we do, they may get both out of the solid crust of their
planet — ■ as we’d probably try to do if all the rivers ran dry and
the air began to grow too thin for us. Many low organisms ex-
ist without free oxygen, and there are probably some that get
along with little, if any, hydrogen. The extreme cold of some of
the planets *— running down, perhaps, to absolute zero, or mi-

XIX. Science 339

nus 273 degrees Centigrade — offers an obstacle of even less im-
portance. It is ver}^ probable that there exist on earth today a
number of primitive forms of life that could survive this tem-
perature: a Scotsman could do it if whiskey did not freeze at
minus 130. Thus I incline to suspect that some of the planets
may swarm with life, just as the earth does, and that it is just
as useless and obscene as it is here. The theor/ that the earth
is improved by its fauna — to such a degree, indeed, that it is
the special care and concern of Divinity — is one that I find
myself unable to subscribe to. The most charming spots on
earth, in fact, are precisely those in w’hich living creatures^
whether insects or men, are rarest.

The Boons of Civilization

From the American Mercury, Jan., 1931, pp. 33-35

“What we call progress,'" said Havelock Ellis, “is the exchange
of one nuisance for another nuisance." The thought is so obvi-
ous that it must occur now and then even to the secretary of
the Greater Zenith Booster League, There may be persons who
actually enjoy the sound of the telephone bell, but if they exist
I can only say that I have never met them. It is highly probable
that the telephone, as it stands today, represents more sheer
brain power than any other familiar invention. A truly im-
mense ingenuit}^ has gone into perfecting it, and it is as far be-
yond its progenitor of 1880 as a battleship is beyond Fulton's
Clermont But all the w^hile no one has ever thought of improv-
ing the tone of its bell. The sound remains intolerably harsh
and shrill, even when efforts are made to damp it. With very
little trouble it might be made deep, sonorous and even sooth-
ing. But the telephone engineers let it remain as it was at the
start, and millions of people suffer under its assault at every
hour of the day.

The telephone, I believe, is the greatest boon to bores ever
invented. It has set their ancient art upon a new level of ef-
ficiency and enabled them to penetrate the last strongholds of

340 A Mencken Chrestomathy

privacy. All the devices that have been put into service against
them have failed. I point, for example, to that of having a pri-
vate telephone number, not listed in the book. Obviously, there
is nothing here to daunt bores of authentic gifts. Obtaining
private telephone numbers is of the elemental essence of their
craft. Thus the poor victim of their professional passion is beset
quite as much as if he had his telephone number limned upon
the sky in smoke. But meanwhile his friends forget it at critical
moments and he misses much pleasant gossip and many an op-
portunity for vinous relaxation.

It is not only hard to imagine a world without telephones; it
becomes downright impossible. They have become as necessary
to the human race, at least in the United States, as window
glass, newspapers or aspirin. Every now and then one hears of
a man who has moved to some remote village to get rid of
them, and there proposes to meditate and invite his soul in the
manner of the Greek philosophers, but almost always it turns
out that his meditations run in the direction of Rosicrucianism,
the Single Tax, farm relief, or some other such insanity. I have
myself ordered my telephone taken out at least a dozen times,
but every time I found urgent use for it before the man arrived,
and so had to meet him with excuses and a drink. A telephone
bigwig tells me tliat such orders come in at the rate of scores a
day, but that none has ever been executed. I now have two
telephones in my house, and am about to put in a third. In
the years to come, no doubt, there will be one in every room, as
in hotels.

Despite all this, I remain opposed to the telephone theoret-
ically, and continue to damn it. It is a great invention and of
vast value to the human race, but I believe it has done me, per-
sonally, almost as much harm as good. How often a single call
has blown up my whole evening's work, and so exacerbated my
spirit and diminished my income! I am old enough to remem-
ber when telephones were very rare, and romantic enough to
believe that I was happier then. But at worst I get more out of
them than I get out of any of the other current wonders: for
example, the radio, the phonograph, the movie, and the auto-
mobile. I am perhaps the first American ever to give up auto-
mobiling, formally and honestly. I sold my car so long ago as

XIX. Science

1919, and have never regretted it. When I must move about in
a city too large for comfortable walking I employ a taxicab,
which is cheaper, safer and far less trouble than a private car.
WTien I travel further I resort to the Pullman, by long odds the
best conveyance yet invented by man. The radio, I admit, has
potentialities, but they will remain in abes’ance so long as the
air is laden and debauched by jazz, idiotic harangues by frauds
who do not know what they are talking about, and the horrible
garglings of ninth-rate singers. The phonograph is just as bad,
and the movie is ten times worse.

Of all the great inventions of modern times the one that has
given me most comfort and joy is one that is seldom heard of,
to wit, the thermostat. I was amazed, some time ago, to hear
that it was invented at least a generation ago. I first heard of it
during the War of 1914—18, when some kind friend suggested
that I throw out the coal furnace that was making steam in my
house and put in a gas furnace. Naturally enough, I hesitated,
for the human mind is so constituted. But the day I finally suc-
cumbed must remain ever memorable in my annals, for it saw
me move at one leap from an inferno into a sort of paradise.
Everyone will recall how bad the coal was in those heroic days.
The patriotic anthracite men loaded their culm-piles on cars,
and sold them to householders all over the East. Not a furnace-
man was in practise in my neighborhood: all of them were
working in the shipyards at $15 a day. So I had to shovel coal
myself, and not only shovel coal, but sift ashes. It was a truly
dreadful experience. Worse, my house w^as alw'ays either too hot
or too cold. When a few pieces of actual coal appeared in the
mass of slate the temperature leaped up to 85 degrees, but most
of the time it was between 45 and 50.

The thermostat changed all that, and in an instant. I simply
set it at 68 degrees, and then went about my business. When-
ever the temperature in the house went up to 70 it automat-
ically turned off the gas under the furnace in the cellar, and
there was an immediate return to 68. And if the mercury, keep-
ing on, dropped to 66, then the gas went on again, and the tem-
perature was soon 68 once more. I began to feel like a man
liberated from the death-house. I was never too hot or too cold.
I had no coal to heave, no ashes to sift. My house became so

342 A Mencken Chrestomathy

dean that I could wear a shirt five days. I began to feel like
work, and rapidly turned out a series of imperishable contribu-
tions to the national letters. My temper improved so vastly
that my family began to suspect senile changes. Moreover, my
cellar became as clean as the rest of the house, and as roomy as
a barn. I enlarged my wine-room by looo cubic metres. I put
in a cedar closet big enough to hold my whole wardrobe. I
added a vault for papers, a carpenter shop, and a praying

For all these boons and usufructs I was indebted to the in-
ventor of the thermostat, a simple device but incomparable.
Fd print his name here, but unfortunately I forget it. He was
one of the great benefactors of humanity. I wouldn't swap him
for a dozen Marconis, a regiment of Bells, or a whole army
corps of Edisons. Edison's life-work, like his garrulous and non-
sensical talk, has been mainly a curse to humanity: he has
greatly augmented its stock of damned nuisances. But the man
who devised the thermostat, at all events in my private opinion,
was a hero comparable to Shakespeare, Michelangelo or Bee-


Christian Science

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, Feb. 28, 1927

In more than one American State, I gather, a Christian Science
practitioner is forbidden to accept fees from the faithful. That
is, he may not accept fees as fees. If a grateful patient, cured
of cancer or hydrophobia by his sorcery, tips him $5 or $10, it
is apparently all right, but if he sends in a bill he may be jailed
for it. What could be more idiotic? Either the citizen of this
great Republic is a free man or he is not a free man. If he is,
then he has a plain right, when he is ill, to consult any medi-
cine man he fancies, and quite as plain a right to pay that
medicine man for his services — openly, without impediment,
and according to a scale satisfactory to him. If that right be
taken away, then one of his essential liberties is taken away
and the moment a Christian Scientist begins to lose an es-
sential liberty, then all the rest of us begin to lose ours.

The fact that a certain section of medical opinion supports
the existing laws is surely no argument for their justice and rea-
sonableness. A certain section of medical opinion, in late years,
has succumbed to the messianic delusion. Its spokesmen are
not content to deal with the patients who come to them for
advice; they conceive it to be their duty to force their advice
upon everyone, including especially those who don't want it.
That duty is purely imaginary. It is bom of vanity, not of pub-
lic spirit. The impulse behind it is not altruism, but a mere
yearning to run things. A physician, however learned, has no
more right to intrude his advice upon persons who prefer the
advice of a Christian Scientist, a chiropractor or a pow-wow
doctor than he has to intrude it upon persons who prefer the
advice of some other physician.

Here, I hope, I shall not be suspected of inclining toward the


344 ^ Mencken Chrestomathy

Eddvan buncombe. It seems to me to be pure balderdash, I
believe that the services a Christian Science practitioner offers
to his customers are no more valuable than the service a foot-
wash evangelist offers to a herd of country jakes. But the right
to freedom obviously involves the right to be foolish. If what I
say must be passed on for its sagacity by censors, however wise
and prudent, then I have no free speech. And if what I may be-
lieve — about gall-stones, the Constitution, castor-oil, or God —
is conditioned by law, then I am not a free man.

It is constantly argued by the proponents of legislation
against quacks that it is necessary for the public safety — that
if it is not put upon the books, the land will be ravaged by
plagues, and that the death-rate will greatly increase, to the im-
mense damage of the nation. But in all this there are a great
many more assumptions than facts, and even more false infer-
ences than assumptions. What reason is there for believing that
a high death-rate, in itself, is undesirable? To my knowledge
none whatever. The plain fact is that, if it be suitably selective,
it is extremely salubrious. Suppose it could be so arranged that
it ran to 100% a year among politicians, executive secretaries,
drive chairmen, and the homicidally insane? What rational
man would object?

I believe that the quack healing cults set up a selection that
is almost as benign and laudable. They attract, in the main,
two classes: first, persons who are incurably ill, and hence be-
yond the reach of scientific medicine, and second, persons of
congenitally defective reasoning powers. They slaughter these
unfortunates by the thousand even more swiftly and surely
than scientific medicine (say, as practised by the average neigh-
borhood doctor) could slaughter them. Does anyone seriously
contend that this butchery is anti-social? It seems to me to be
quite the reverse. The race is improved as its misfits and half-
wits are knocked off. And life is thereby made safer and cheaper
for the rest of us.

The section of medical opinion that I have mentioned stands
against these obvious facts. It contends that the botched and
incompetent should be kept alive against their will, and in the
face of their violent protests. To what end? To the end, first,
that the rest of us may go on carrying them on our backs. To

XX. Quackery 345

the end, second, that they may multiply gloriously, and so bur-
den our children and grandchildren. But to the end, mainly,
that hordes of medical bus}-bodies, unequal to the strain of
practise, may be kept in comfort.

Every now and then one of these busybodies, discovering
that some imbecile woman is having her child treated for a
fractured skull or appendicitis by a Christian Scientist, fills the
newspapers with clamor and tries to rush the poor woman to
jail. A great sobbing ensues: it appears at once that it is the
dut}^ of the government (i.e., of certain jobholders) to rescue
children from the follies of their parents. Is that duty real? If
so, then let us extend it a bit. If it arises when a foolish mother
tries to cure her child of diabetes by calling in a healer to read
nonsense out of Science and Health,” then doesn't it arise
equally when another foolish mother feeds her darling indigest-
ible victuals? And if bad food is sufficient reason to summon
the Polizei, then what of bad ideas?

The truth is that the inhumanity of Christian Science moth-
ers is grossly exaggerated. They are, in the main, exactly like
other mothers. So long as little Otto is able to yell they try
home remedies whether castor oil or Christian Science is all
one. But when it becomes plain that he is seriously ill, they send
for the doctor — and the ensuing hocus-pocus is surely not to
be laid at their doors. What is the actual death-rate among the
offspring of Christian Scientists? If it can be proved to be more
than 5% above the death-rate among the infant patrons of free
clinics I shall be glad to enter a monastery and renounce the

As a lifelong patriot and fan for human progress I should re-
joice if it were five times what it is. Is it desirable to preserve
the lives of children whose parents read and take seriously such
dreadful bilge as is in "Science and Health”? If so, then it is
also desirable to cherish the children of parents who believe
that a horse-hair put into a bottle of water will turn into a
snake. Such strains are manifestly dysgenic. Their persistence
unchecked would quickly bring the wffiole human race down to
an average IQ of 10 or 15. Being intelligent would become a
criminal offense everywhere, as it already is in Mississippi and
Tennessee. Thus a genpinely enlightened State would endow


A Mencken Chrestomathy

Christian Science and chiropractic on eugenic principles, as our
great universities already endow football. Failing that, it is die
plain duty of statesmanship to let nature take its course.


From Dives Into Quackery, Prejudices: Sixth Series,

1927, pp. 217-27.

First printed in part in the Baltimore Evening Sun^ Dec. 8, 1924,
and in part in the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 13, 1927

This preposterous quackery flourishes lushly in the back reaches
of the Republic, and begins to conquer the less civilized folk
of the big cities. As the old-time family doctor dies out in the
country towns, with no competent successor willing to take
over his dismal business, he is followed by some hearty black-
smith or ice-wagon driver, turned into a chiropractor in six
months, often by correspondence. In Los Angeles the Damned
there are probably more chiropractors than actual physicians,
and they are far more generally esteemed. Proceeding from the
Ambassador Hotel to the heart of the town, along Wilshire
boulevard, one passes scores of their gaudy signs; there are even
many chiropractic "'hospitals. The morons who pour in from
the prairies and deserts, most of them ailing, patronize these
'"hospitals" copiously, and give to the chiropractic pathology
the same high respect that they accord to the theology of the
town sorcerers. That pathology is grounded upon the doctrine
that all human ills are caused by the pressure of misplaced ver-
tebrse upon the nerves which come out of the spinal cord — in
other words, that every disease is the result of a pinch. This,
plainly enough, is buncombe. The chiropractic therapeutics rest
upon the doctrine that the way to get rid of such pinches is to
climb upon a table and submit to a heroic pummeling by
a retired piano-mover. This, obviously, is buncombe doubly

Both doctrines were launched upon the world by an old
quack named Andrew T. Still, the father of osteopathy. For
years the osteopaths merchanted them, and made money at the

XX. Quackery 347

trade. But as they grew opulent they grew ambitious, i.e., they
began to study anatomy and physiology^ The result w^as a
gradual abandonment of Papa StilFs ideas. The high-toned oste-
opath of today is a sort of eclectic. He tries anything that prom-
ises to work, from tonsillectomy to the x-rays. With four years'
training behind him, he probably knows more anatomy than
the average graduate of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, or
at all events, more osteology. Thus enlightened, he seldom has
much to say about pinched nerves in the back. But as he aban-
doned the Still revelation it was seized by the chiropractors, led
by another quack, one Palmer. This Palmer grabbed the
pinched nerve nonsense and began teaching it to ambitious
farm-hands and out-at-elbow Baptist preachers in a few easy
lessons. Today the backwoods swarm with chiropractors, and
in most States they have been able to exert enough pressure
on the rural politicians to get themselves licensed.^ Any lout
with strong hands and arms is perfectly equipped to become a
chiropractor. No education beyond the elements is necessary.
The takings are often high, and so the profession has attracted
thousands of recruits — retired baseball players, work-weary
plumbers, truck-drivers, longshoremen, bogus dentists, dubious
preachers, cashiered school superintendents. Now and then a
quack of some other school — say homeopathy — plunges into
it. Hundreds of promising students come from the intellectual
ranks of hospital orderlies.

Such quackeries suck in the botched, and help them on to
bliss eternal. When these botched fall into the hands of com-
petent medical men they are very likely to be patched up and
turned loose upon the world, to beget their kind. But massaged
along the backbone to cure their lues, they quickly pass into
the last stages, and so their pathogenic heritage perishes with
them. What is too often forgotten is that nature obviously in-
tends the botched to die, and that every interference with that
benign process is full of dangers. That the labors of quacks tend
to propagate epidemics and so menace the lives of all of us, as
is alleged by their medical opponents — this I doubt. The fact

i It is not altogetlier a matter of pressure. Large numbers of rustic legis-
lators are themselves believers in chiropractic. So are many members of

348 A Mencken Chrestomathy

is that most infectious diseases of any seriousness throw out
such alarming s}TOptoms and so quickly that no sane chiro-
practor is likely to monkey with them. Seeing his patient break-
ing out in pustules^ or choking, or falling into a stupor, he takes
to the woods at once, and leaves the business to the nearest
medical man. His trade is mainly with ambulant patients; they
must come to his studio for treatment. Most of them have
lingering diseases; they tour all the neighborhood doctors be-
fore they reach him. His treatment, being nonsensical, is in ac-
cord with the divine plan. It is seldom, perhaps, that he actu-
ally kills a patient, but at all events he keeps many a worthy
soul from getting well.

The osteopaths, I fear, are finding this new competition seri-
ous and unpleasant. As I have said, it was their Hippocrates,
the late Dr. Still, who invented all of the thrusts, lunges, yanks,
hooks and bounces that the lowly chiropractors now employ
with such vast effect, and for years the osteopaths had a mo-
nopoly of them. But when they began to grow scientific and
ambitious their course of training was lengthened until it took
in all sorts of tricks and dodges borrowed from the regular doc-
tors, or resurrection men, including the plucking of tonsils,
adenoids and appendices, the use of the stomach-pump, and
even some of the legerdemain of psychiatry. They now harry
their students furiously, and turn them out ready for anything
from growing hair on a bald head to frying a patient with the
x-rays. All this new striving, of course, quickly brought its in-
evitable penalties. The osteopathic graduate, having sweated so
long, was no longer willing to take a case of delirium tremens
for $2, and in consequence he lost patients. Worse, very few
aspirants could make the long grade. The essence of osteopathy
itself could be grasped by any lively farm-hand or night watch-
man in a few weeks, but the borrowed magic baffied him. Con-
fronted by the phenomenon of gastrulation, or by the curious
behavior of heart muscle, or by any of the current theories of
immunity, he commonly took refuge, like his brother of the
orthodox faculty, in a gulp of laboratory alcohol, or fled the
premises altogether. Thus he was lost to osteopathic science,
and the chiropractors took him in; nay, they welcomed him.
He was their meat. Borrowing that primitive part of osteopathy

XX. Quackery 349

which was comprehensible to the meanest understanding, they
threw the rest overboard, at the same time denouncing it as a
sorcery invented by the Medical Trust. Thus they gathered in
the garage mechanics, ash-men and decayed welter-weights, and
the land began to fill with their graduates. Now^ there is a chiro-
practor at every cross-roads.

I repeat that it eases and soothes me to see them so prosper-
ous, for they counteract the evil work of the so-called science of
public hygiene, which now seeks to make imbeciles immortal. If
a man, being ill of a pus appendix, resorts to a shaved and fumi-
gated longshoreman to have it disposed of, and submits will-
ingly to a treatment involving balancing him on McBurney’s spot
and playing on his vertebra as on a concertina, then I am will-
ing, for one, to believe that he is badly wanted in Heaven. And
if that same man, having achieved lawfully a lovely babe, hires a
blacksmith to cure its diphtheria by pulling its neck, then I do
not resist the divine will that there shall be one less radio fan
later on. In such matters, I am convinced, the laws of nature
are far better guides than the fiats and machinations of medi-
cal busybodies. If the latter gentlemen had their way, death,
save at the hands of hangmen, policemen and other such legal-
ized assassins, would be abolished altogether, and the present
differential in favor of the enlightened would disappear. I can’t
convince myself that that would work any good to the world.
On the contrary, it seems to me that the current coddling of
the half-witted should be stopped before it goes too far — if,
indeed, it has not gone too far already. To that end nothing
operates more cheaply and effectively than the prosperity of
quacks. Every time a bottle of cancer oil goes through the mails
Homo americanus is improved to that extent. And ever}" time
a chiropractor spits on his hands and proceeds to treat a gastric
ulcer by stretching the backbone the same high end is achieved.

But chiropractic, of course, is not perfect. It has superb po-
tentialities, but only too often they are not converted into con-
crete cadavers. The hygienists rescue many of its foreordained
customers, and, turning them over to agents of the Medical
Trust, maintained at the public expense, get them cured. More-
over, chiropractic itself is not certainly fatal: even an Iowan
with diabetes may survive its embraces. Yet worse, I have a sus-

350 A Mencken Chrestomathy
picion that it sometimes actually cures. For all I know (or any
orthodox pathologist seems to know) it may be true that cer-
tain malaises are caused by the pressure of vagrom vertebra
upon the spinal nerves. And it may be true that a hearty ex-
boilermaker, by a vigorous yanking and kneading, may be able
to relieve that pressure. \^^at is needed is a scientific inquiry
into the matter, under rigid test conditions, by a committee of
men learned in the architecture and plumbing of the body, and
of a high and incorruptible sagacity. Let a thousand patients
be selected, let a gang of selected chiropractors examine their
backbones and determine what is the matter with them, and
then let these diagnoses be checked up by the exact methods
of scientific medicine. Then let the same chiropractors essay to
cure the patients whose maladies have been determined. My
guess is that the chiropractors' errors in diagnosis will run to at
least 95% and that their failures in treatment will push 99%.
But I am willing to be convinced.

Where is such a committee to be found? I undertake to
nominate it at ten minutes' notice. The land swarms with men
competent in anatomy and pathology, and yet not engaged as
doctors. There are thousands of hospitals, with endless clinical
material. I offer to supply the committee with cigars and music
during the test. I offer, further, to supply both the committee
and the chiropractors with sound wet goods. I offer, finally, to
give a bawdy banquet to the whole Medical Trust at the con-
clusion of the proceedings.^

2 This offer was made in 1927. There were no takers. After World War
II the jobholders at Washin^on, many of them patrons of chiropractic
themselves, decided that any veteran who longed to study the science was
eligible to receive assistance under the G.I. Bill of Rights. Thus a multitude
of fly-by-night chiropractic schools sprang up, and their students were
ranked, officially, precisely on all fours with those who studied at Harvard.

XX. Quackery


The Fruits of Comstockery

From Four Moral Causes, Prejudices: Fifth Series, 1926, pp. 15-16.

Comstock was bom in 1844 and died in 1915

In 1873, when the late Anthony Comstock began his great
Christian work, the American flapper, or, as she was then called,
the young lady, read Godefs Ladies' Book. Today she reads —
but if you want to find out what she reads simply take a look
at the fiction magazines which rise mountain-high from every
news-stand. It is an amusing and at the same time highly in-
structive commentary upon the effectiveness of moral legislation.
The net result of long years of Comstockery is complete and
ignominious failure. All its gaudy raids and alarms have simply
gone for naught.

In Comstock's heyday "'Three Weeks” was still regarded as a
very salacious book. The wives of Babbitts read it in the kitchen,
with the blinds down; it was hidden under every pillow in
every finishing school in the land. Today "Three Weeks” would
be dismissed as intolerably banal by school girls of thirteen. I
began reviewing current American fiction in 1908. The change
that I note since then is immense. When I started out a new
novel dealing frankly with the physiology and pathology of sex
was still something of a novelty. It was, indeed, so rare that I
always called attention to it. Today it is a commonplace. The
surprise now comes when a new novel turns out to be chemi-
cally pure. Try to imagine an American publisher, in these days,
getting alarmed about Dreiser's ""Sister Carrie” and suppressing
it before publication. The oldest and most dignified houses
would print it without question; they print far worse every day.
Yet in 1900 it seemed so lewd and lascivious that the publisher
who put it into type got into a panic of fright, and hid the
whole edition in the cellar. Today that same publisher is ad-
vertising an edition of Walt Whitman's ""Leaves of Grass,”
with ""A Woman Waits for Me” printed in full.

Comstock was a Puritan of the old school, and had no belief
whatever in virtue per se. A good woman, to him, was simply
one who was efficiently policed. Unfortunately for him, there

352 A Mencken Chrestomathy

rose up, mthin the bounds of his own sect, a school of uplifters,
to wit, the sex hygienists, who began to merchant quite con-
trary ideas. They believed that sin was often caused by igno-
rance — that many a virtuous girl was undone simply because
she didn’t know what her young man was doing. These uplifters
held that unchastity was not the product of a congenital tend-
ency to it in the female, but of the sinister enterprise of the
male, flowing out of his superior knowledge and sophistication.
So they set out to spread the enlightenment. If all girls of six-
teen, they argued not unplausibly, knew as much about the
dreadful consequences of sin as the average police lieutenant or
midwife, there would be no more seductions, and in accord-
ance with that theory, they began printing books describing
the discomforts of parturition and Ihe terminal symptoms of
lues. These books they broadcast in numerous and immense
editions. Comstock, of course, wns bitterly against the scheme.
He had no faith in the solemn warnings; he saw only the new
and startling frankness, and he believed firmly that its one ef-
fect would be to "'arouse a libidinous passion ... in the mind
of a modest woman.” But he lost the battle, and, with it, the
war. After the young had read the sex hygiene books they be-
gan to observe that what was set out in novels was very evasive,
and that much of it was downright untrue. So they began to
murmur, to snicker, to boo. One by one the old-time novelists
went on the shelf. I could make up a long and melancholy roll
of them. Their sales dropped off; they began to be laughed at.
In place of them rose a new school, and its aim was to Tell All.
With this new school Comstock and his heirs have been wres-
tlmg ever since, and with steadily increasing bad fortune. Every
year they make raids, perform in the newspapers and predict the
end of the world, but every year the average is worse than the
worst of the year before.

As a book-worm I have got so used to lewd and lascivious
books that I no longer notice them. They pour in from all direc-
tions. The most virtuous lady novelists write things that would
have made a bartender blush to death two decades ago. If I
open a new novel and find nothing about copulation in it, I
suspect at once that it is simply a reprint of some forgotten
novel of 1885, with a new name. When I began reviewing I

XX. Quackery 553

used to send my review copies, after I had sweated through
them, to the Y.M.C.A. By 1920 I was sending all discarded
novels to a medical college.

The Foundations of Quackery

From tlie Baltimore Evening Sun, June 4, 1923

No democratic delusion is more fatuous than that which holds
that all men are capable of reason, and hence susceptible to
conversion by evidence. If religions depended upon evidence for
their prolongation, then all of them would collapse. It is not
only that the actual evidence they offer is extremely dubious;
it is mainly that the great majority of the men they seek to
reach are quite incapable of comprehending any evidence, good
or bad. They must get at such men through their feelings or
resign getting at them altogether.

So in all other regions of the so-called mind. I have often
pointed out how politics, under democracy, invariably translates
itself from the domain of logical ideas to the domain of mere
feelings, usually simple fear — how every great campaign in
American history, however decorously it started with a state-
ment of principles, has always ended with a violent pursuit of
hobgoblins. The great majority of the half-wits who followed
William Jennings Bryan in his three Presidential battles were
certainly not attracted to him by his complex and nonsensical
economic doctrines; those doctrines, in fact, dealt with such un-
familiar and difficult concepts that not one in ten thousand of
the loudest Bryanites could understand them at all. What at-
tracted them was not Bryan's economics but his adroit demon-
ology; an evangelist by divine inspiration, he invented demons
that palsied them and took their breath, and so they stormed
after him.

The number of men eligible to membership in such mobs is
always underestimated. That is to say, the number of men
capable of anything properly describable as logical reasoning is
always put too high. Worse, the great progress of all the exact

354 ^ Mencken Chrestomathy

sciences in our own time tends to diminish it constantly. There
was a time, and it was much less than a century ago, when any
man of sound sense and fair education could understand all of
the concepts commonly employed in the physical sciences, and
even most of those used in the speculative sciences. In medi-
cine, for example, there was nothing beyond the comprehension
of the average intelligent layman. But of late that has ceased
to be true, to the great damage of the popular respect for
knowledge. Only too often, when a physician of today tries to
explain to his patient what is the matter with him, he finds it
impossible to get the explanation into terms within the patient's
understanding. The latter, if he is intelligent enough, will face
the fact of his lack of training without rancor, and content him-
self with whatever parts of the exposition he can grasp. But
tliat sort of intelligence, unluckily, is rather rare in the world;
it is confined, indeed, to men of the sort who are said to have
the scientific mind, x.c., a very small minority of men. The
average man, finding himself getting beyond his depth, instantly
concludes that what lies beyond is simply nonsense.

It is this fact which accounts for the great current prosperity
of such quackeries as osteopathy, chiropractic and Christian
Science. The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by
the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the
absurdly simple. Unless a man is already equipped with a con-
siderable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiologj^,
no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant
by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot
enough, can grasp the whole theor}^ of chiropractic in twenty
minutes. The fact that such imbeciles prosper increasingly in
the world, and gain adherents in constantly superior circles
that is, among persons of more and more apparent education
and culture — is no more than proof that the physical sciences
are becoming increasingly recondite and diflBcult, and that the
relative numbers of persons congenitally incapable of compre-
hending them is growing year by year.

XX. Quackery


Hooey from the Orient

From the Americdn Mercury\ Nov.» 1931, pp. 379—80.

A review of The Mysterious \fadamc, by C. E. Bechofer Roberts;
New York, 1951

The likeness of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91), geb .
Kahn, founder and for sixteen years grand panjandrum of the
Theosophical Society, to Mrs. Mar\^ Baker G. Eddy must strike
every connoisseur of the higher mountebanker}^ Both emerged
from obscure and stupid family circles, both invented romantic
biographies for themselves, both played heavily with love be-
fore giving it up as a bad job, both began their professional
careers as conventional magicians and only gradually developed
their own arcana, both were copious and shameless plagiarists,
both suffered from life-long malaises, both were constantly be-
set by demons, both loved money and knew how to get it, both
suspected their immediate followers of evil designs, and both
have been purged post mortem of their plentiful blunders and
rascalities, and elevated to what amounts substantially to saint-

La Eddy, on the whole, must be set down as the more respect-
able character. Her three marriages are hard to explain, and her
stealings from Quimby and other such forerunners defy ex-
planation altogether, but her New England upbringing saved
her from the more gross and overt kinds of indecorum. La
Blavatsky, a Russian of mixed Slavic, Jewish, and German an-
cestry, was a far rougher person. She smoked incessantly in a
day when it was simply not done by ladies, she swore like a
second mate, and there is sound reason for believing that she
once committed bigamy. But these peccadilloes add to her
charm almost as much as they take away from her respectability.
She was, indeed, a most salty and amusing old harridan.

Also, she was a fraud pure and unadulterated — a fraud de-
liberate, unconscionable and unmitigated. She started out in
life as a professional spiritualist, and the banal tricks of that
amusing trade were always her chief reliances. She materialized
the forms of Koot Hoomi and her other preposterous mahatmas

356 A Mencken Chrestomathy

precisely as the hard-working mediums in back streets material-
ize the forms of Wali-Wab the Indian chief. That is to say, she
had them confected of stuffed pillows and other such lowly
stuff, and then danced them before her dupes in dark rooms.
She had a cabinet with a sliding door in the back, and from it
she produced letters from Tibet (all written in her own hand,
with curious Russified letters) and other such marvels. Her
books were all clumsy plagiarisms. In "Isis Unveiled” a diligent
critic discovered 2000 passages borrowed from other treatises
on occultism, not to mention 700 blunders ""in names, words
and numbers” and 600 ""mis-statements of fact.” She was caught
over and over again. Her very assistants exposed her more than
once, with exact specifications. But she relied confidently upon
the illimitable credulity of her followers, and was not disap-
pointed. Like the patrons of Mrs. Eddy, they were insatiable
gluttons for punishment. The more she was exposed, the more
firmly they believed in her.

Thousands of them continue to do so to this day. Theosophy
has never made the worldly success of Christian Science, but it
still has a ponderable following, both in Europe and in Amer-
ica, and every now and then the faithful are worked by some
new operator. Its tenets are unanimously nonsensical. They are
not merely dubious; they are downright insane. In part they are
borrowed from the mooney speculations of such European
mystics as Jakob Bbhme, in part they come from the common
claptrap of professional occultists (which is to say, of persons
on a level, morally and intellectually, with mind-readers at
county fairs), and in part they are a stale and ignorant rehash
of so-called oriental philosophy. This oriental philosophy is the
product of Hindus who believe that cows have souls, that adepts
can fly through the air without the use of wings or gasoline,
and that a man who permits his daughter to go unmarried so
much as twenty-four hours beyond the onset of puberty is
doomed to Hell. In brief, it is the product of degraded igno-
ramuses who make India a sewer of superstition.

How does it come that such imbecilities win converts in the
West, and are even spoken of respectfully, now and then, by
presumably learned men? There are two reasons. The first is
that they are embodied in scriptures which also include a great

XX. Quackery 357

deal of metapliysics — and metaphysics, to certain t^^pes of
mind, always seems profound, even when it is palpably balder-
dash, The other is that not a few of the more ancient Indian
ideas, working their way westward by way of Persia, Eg\'pt and
Greece, were embedded in Christianity by the Early Fathers,
and have thus come to have a familiar and pious flavor. But
they are just as silly in the Book of Revelation and in the lucu-
brations of Athanasius, Tertullian and Augustine as they' are in
the Indian Vedas. To discuss them seriously is to turn one’s
back upon every intellectual decency. They are precisely equiva-
lent to the philosophizing of phrenologists, chiropractors and

One Blavatsky tells far more about the human race than a
whole herd of psychologists. Her works offer massive proof that,
even in the midst of what seems to be civilization, Neanderthal
Man is still with us.

The Executive Secretary

From Prejudices: Sixth Series, 1927, pp. 266-72

Some time ago, encountering a bishop of my acquaintance on
a train, I found him suffering from a bad cold and what used
to be called a fit of the vapors. The cause of his dual disorder
soon became manifest. He was smarting under the slings and
arrows of executive secretaries. By virtue of his transcendental
office, he was naturally a man of wide influence in the land, and
so they tried to enlist his interest in their multitudinous and
often nefarious schemes. Every morning at 8 o’clock, just as he
was rolling over for a last brief dream of Heaven, he was
dragged to the telephone to hear their night-letters, and tliere,
on unlucky days, he stood for as much as half an hour, with his
episcopal feet bare, and rage gradually mounting in his episco-
pal heart. Thus, on a cold morning, he had caught his cold,
and thus he had acquired his bad humor.

This holy man, normally a most amiable fellow, told me that
he believed the number of executive secretaries in the United

358 A Mencken Chrestomathy

States was increasing at the rate of at least a thousand a week.
He said that he knew of 30,000 in the field of Christian and
moral endeavor alone. He estimated that the average number
of dues-pa}ing members behind each one did not run much be-
yond half a dozen. Nine-tenths of them, he said, were supported
by two or three well-heeled fanatics. These fanatics, mainly re-
tired Babbitts and their wives, longed to make a noise in the
world, and so escape oblivion. It was the essence of the execu-
tive secretary's art and mystery to show them how to do it.
Chiefly it was done by discovering bugaboos and giving chase
to them. But secondarily it was done by hauling poor ecclesi-
astics out of bed on frosty mornings, and making them listen
to endless night-letters about the woes of the Jews, the need of
intensive missionary effort in Siam, the plot of Moscow to set
up soviets in Lowell, Mass,, and the absolute necessity of deeper
w^aterways from the Lakes to the Atlantic.

The executive secretary is relatively new in the world. Like his
colleague in well-paid good works, the Y.M.C.A. secretary, he
has come into being since the Civil War. Compared to him, his
predecessor of ante-bellum days was an amateur and an idiot.
That predecessor had no comfortable office in a gaudy sky-
scraper, he got no lavish salary, and he had no juicy expense-
account. On the contrary, he paid his own way, and, especially
when he worked for Abolition, which was usually, he sometimes
had to take a beating into the bargain. The executive secretary
of today is something else again. He belongs to the order of
live wires. He speaks the language of up-and-coming men, and
is not sparing witli it at the sessions of Rotary and Kiwanis.
Not uncommonly a shady and unsuccessful newspaper reporter
or a press-agent out of a job, he quickly becomes, by virtue of
his craft, a Man of Vision. The cause that he represents for
cash in hand is not merely virtuous; it is, nine times out of ten,
divinely inspired. If it fails, then civilization will also fail.

It is a good job that he has — far better than legging it on the
street for some gorilla of a city editor— far, far better than
traversing the sticks ahead of a No. 4 company. There is no
need to get up at 7 a.m. and there is no need to fume and strain
after getting up. Once three or four — or maybe even only one
or two — easy marks with sound bank accounts have been

XX. Quackery 3 39

snared, the new nationar' — or perhaps it is 'hnternationar' —
association is on its legs, and all that remains is to have brilliant
stationery printed, put in a sightly stenographer, and begin
deluging bishops, editors and the gullible generally with litera-
ture. The executive secretary, if he has any literary' passion in
him, may prepare this literature himself, but more often he
employs experts to do it. Once a year he launches a drive. But
it is only for publicity. The original suckers pay the freight.
\Vlien they wear out, the executive secretary starts a new asso-

Such sharks now swarm in every American city. The ofEce-
buildings are full of them. Their prosperity depends very largely
upon the singular complaisance of the newspapers. Some time
ago Mr. Stanley Walker, a New York journalist of sense and
experience, examined a typical copy of one of the great New
York dailies. He found that there were sixty-four items of local
news in it — and that forty-two of them could be plainly traced
to executive secretaries, and other such space-grabbers. The ex-
ecutive secretary, of course, does not have at his editors crudely.
He seldom accompanies his item of “news"' with any intima-
tion that he is paid a good salary for planting it, and he dis-
courages all inquiries into the actual size, aims and personnel
of his organization. Instead he commonly postures as the mere
agent of men and women known to be earnest and altruistic
philanthropists. These philanthropists are the suckers upon
whom he feeds. They pay his salary, maintain his office, and
keep up his respectability in newspaper offices. What do they
get out of it themselves? In part, no doubt, an honest feeling
that they are doing good: the executive secretary, in fact, has
to convince them of it before he is in a position to tackle the
newspapers at all. But in part, also, they enjoy the publicity —
and maybe other usufructs too. In the United States, indeed,
doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of
persons with something to sell.

Some time ago, sweating under this assault of executive secre-
taries, the editors of a great American newspaper hit upon a
scheme of relief. It took the form of a questionnaire — • some-
thing not seldom used, and to vast effect, by executive secre-
taries themselves. This questionnaire had a blank in which the

360 A Mencken Chrestomathy

executive secretary was asked to write his full name and ad-
dress, and the amount of his annual salary. In other blanks
there was room for putting down the total income and outgo
of his association, with details of every item amounting to more
than 1% of the whole, and for a full list of its contributors and
employes, with the amount given by every one of the former
contributing more than 1% and the salary received by every
one of the latter getting more than 1%. This simple question-
naire cut down the mail received from executive secretaries by
at least one half. Many of them did not answer at all. Many
others, answering, revealed the not surprising fact that their
high-sounding national and international organizations were ac-
tually small clubs of a few men and women, and that they
themselves consumed most of the revenues. It is a device that
might be employed effectively by other American newspapers.
When the executive secretaries return their answers by mail,
which is usually the case, they are under pressure to answer
truthfully, for answering otherwise is using the mails to obtain
money by fraud, and many worthy men are jugged at Atlanta
and Leavenworth for that offense.

The Husbandman

From Prejudices: Fourth Series, 1924, pp. 43-60.

First printed in the American Mercury ^ March, 1924, pp. 293-96

Let the farmer, so far as I am concerned, be damned forever-
more. To Hell with him, and bad luck to him. He is a tedious
fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite, the eternal
Jack of the human pack. He deserves all that he ever suffers
under our economic system, and more. Any city man, not in-
sane, who sheds tears for him is shedding tears of the crocodile.

No more grasping, selfish and dishonest mammal, indeed, is
known to students of the Anthropoidea, When the going is
good for him he robs the rest of us up to the extreme limit of
our endurance; when the going is bad he comes bawling for
help out of the public till. Has anyone ever heard of a farmer

XX. Quackery 361

making any sacrifice of his own interests, howwer slight, to the
common good? Has anyone ever heard of a farmer practising or
advocating any political idea that was not absolutely self-seeking
— that was not, in fact, deliberately designed to loot the rest of
us to his gain? Greenbackism, free silver, the government guar-
antee of prices, bonuses, all the complex fiscal imbecilities of
tiie cow State John Baptists — these are the contributions of
tlie virtuous husbandmen to American political theorv% There
has never been a time, in good seasons or bad, w-hen his hands
were not itching for more; there has never been a time when he
was not ready to support any charlatan, how^ever grotesque, who
promised to get it for him. Only one issue ever fetches him, and
that is the issue of his own profit. He must be promised some-
thing definite and valuable, to be paid to him alone, or he is
oflE after some other mountebank. He simply cannot imagine
himself as a citizen of a commonwealth, in duty bound to give
as well as take; he can imagine himself only as getting all and
giving nothing.

Yet w^e are asked to venerate this prehensile moron as the
Ur-burgher, the citizen par excellence, the foundation-stone of
the state! And why? Because he produces something that all
of us must have — that we must get somehow on penalty of
death. And how do we get it from him? By submitting help-
lessly to his unconscionable blackmailing — by paying him, not
under any rule of reason, but in proportion to his roguery and
incompetence, and hence to the direness of our need. I doubt
that the human race, as a whole, would submit to that sort of
high-jacking, year in and year out, from any other necessary
class of men. But the farmers carry it on incessantly, without
challenge or reprisal, and the only thing that keeps them from
reducing us, at intervals, to actual famine is their own imbecile
knavery. They are all willing and eager to pillage us by starving
us, but they canT do it because they can't resist attempts to
swindle each other. Recall, for example, the case of the cotton-
growers in the South. Back in the 1920s they agreed among
themselves to cut down the cotton acreage in order to inflate
the price — and instantly every party to the agreement began
planting more cotton in order to profit by the abstinence of
his neighbors. That abstinence being wholly imaginary, the

362 A Mencken Chrestomathy

price of cotton fell instead of going up ■— and then the entire
pack of scoundrels began demanding assistance from the na-
tional treasury — in brief;, began demanding that the rest of
us indemnify them for the failure of their plot to blackmail us.

The same demand is made sempiternally by the wheat farm-
ers of the Middle West. It is the theory of the zanies who per-
form at Washington that a grower of wheat devotes himself to
that banal art in a philanthropic and patriotic spirit — that he
plants and harvests his crop in order that the folks of the cities
may not go without bread. It is the plain fact that he raises
wheat because it takes less labor than any other crop — because
it enables him, after working no more than sixty days a year, to
loaf the rest of the tw^elve months. If wheat-raising could be
taken out of the hands of such lazy fellahin and organized as
the production of iron or cement is organized, the price might
be reduced by two-thirds, and still leave a large profit for entre-
preneurs. But what would become of the farmers? Well, what
rational man gives a hoot? If wheat went to $10 a bushel to-
morrow, and all the workmen of the cities became slaves in
name as well as in fact, no farmer in this grand land of freedom
would consent voluntarily to a reduction of as much as Vs of a
cent a bushel. 'The greatest wolves, said E. W, Howe, a grad-
uate of the farm, "are tlie farmers who bring produce to town
to sell." Wolves? Let us not insult Canis lupus. I move the
substitution of Hycena hycena.

Meanwhile, how much truth is in the common theory that
the husbandman is harassed and looted by our economic system,
that the men of the cities prey upon him — specifically, that he
is the chronic victim of such devices as the tariff, railroad regu-
lation, and the banking system? So far as I can make out, there
is none whatever. The net effect of our present banking system
is that the money accumulated by the cities is used to finance
the farmers, and that they employ it to blackmail the cities.
As for the tariff, is it a fact that it damages the farmer, or bene-
fits him? Let us turn for light to the worst tarijff act ever heard
of in human history: that of 1922. It put a duty of 30 cents a
bushel on wheat, and so barred out Canadian wheat, and gave
the American farmer a vast and unfair advantage. For months
running the difference in the price of wheat on the two sides

XX. Quackery ^65

of the American-Canadian border — wheat raised on farms not
a mile apart ~ ran from 25 to 30 cents a bushel. Danish butter
was barred out by a duty of 8 cents a pound — and the Ameri-
can farmer pocketed the 8 cents. Potatoes carried a duty of ;o
cents a hundredweight — and the potato-growers of Maine,
eager to mop up, raised such an enormous crop that the market
was glutted, and they went bankrupt, and began bawling for
government aid. High duties w^ere put, too, upon meats, upon
cheese, upon wool — in brief, upon practically ever\ihing that
the farmer produced. But his profits w^ere taken from him by
even higher duties upon manufactured goods, and by high
freight rates? Were they, indeed? There was, in fact, no duty
at all upon many of the things he consumed. There was no
duty, for example, upon shoes. The duty upon woolen goods
gave a smaller advantage to the manufacturer than the duty
on wool gave to the farmer. So with the duty on cotton goods.
Automobiles were cheaper in the United States than anywhere
else on earth. So were all agricultural implements. So were gro-
ceries. So were fertilizers.

But here I come to the brink of an abyss of statistics, and had
better haul up. The enlightened reader is invited to investigate
them for himself; they will bring him, I believe, some surprises.
They by no means exhaust the case against the consecrated
husbandman, I have said that the only political idea he can
grasp is one which promises him a direct profit. It is, alas, not
quite true: he can also grasp one which has the sole effect of
annoying and damaging his enemy, the city man. The same
mountebanks who get to Washington by promising to augment
his gains and make good his losses devote whatever time is left
over from that enterprise to saddling the rest of us with op-
pressive and idiotic laws, all hatched on the farm. There, where
the cows low through the still night, and the jug of Peruna
stands behind the stove, and bathing begins, as at Biarrite, with
the vernal equinox ~ there is the reservoir of all the nonsensical
legislation which makes the United States a buffoon among the
great nations. It was among country Methodists, practitioners
of a theology degraded almost to the level of voodooism, that
Prohibition w^as invented, and it was by country Methodists,
nine-tenths of them actual followers of the plow, that it was

364 A Mencken Chrestomathy

fastened upon the rest of us, to the damage of our bank ac-
counts, our dignity and our viscera. What lay under it, and
under all the other crazy enactments of its category, was no
more and no less than the yokel's congenital and incurable
hatred of the city man — his simian rage against everyone who,
as he sees it, is having a better time than he is.

The same animus is visible in innumerable other moral stat-
utes, all ardently supported by the peasantry. For example, the
Mann Act. The aim of this amazing law, of course, is not to
put down adultery; it is simply to put down that variety of
adultery which is most agreeable. What got it upon the books
was the constant gabble in the rural newspapers about the by-
zantine debaucheries of urban antinomians — rich stockbrokers
who frequented Atlantic City from Friday to Monday, movie
actors who traveled about the country with beautiful wenches,
and so on. Such aphrodisiacal tales, read beside the kitchen-
stove by hinds condemned to monogamous misery with stupid,
unclean and ill-natured wives, naturally aroused in them a vast
detestation of errant cockneys, and this detestation eventually
rolled up enough force to attract the attention of the quacks
who make laws at Washington. The result was the Mann Act.
Since then a number of the cow States have passed Mann Acts
of their own, usually forbidding the use of automobiles 'Tor
immoral purposes." But there is nowhere a law forbidding the
use of cow-stables, hay-ricks and other such familiar rustic at-
eliers of sin. That is to say, there is nowhere a law forbidding
yokels to drag virgins into infamy by the crude technic prac-
tised since Tertiary times on the farms; there are only laws for-
bidding city youths to do it according to the refined technic of
the great Babylons.

Such are the sweet-smelling and altruistic agronomists whose
sorrows are the Leitmotiv of our politics, whose welfare is al-
leged to be the chief end of democratic statecraft, whose patri-
otism is the so-called bulwark of this so-called Republic.

XX. Quackery


From Damn! A Book of Calumni% 1918, pp. 80-85.

First printed in the New York Evening Mail, Feb. 2, 1918

I OFTEN wonder how much sound and nourishing food is fed
to the animals in the zoological gardens of America ever}’ week,
and try to figure out what the public gets in return for the
cost thereof. The annual bill must surely run into millions; one
is constantly hearing how much beef a lion downs at a meal,
and how many tons of hay an elephant dispatches in a month.
And to what end? To the end, principally, that a horde of su-
perintendents and keepers may be kept in easy jobs. To the
end, secondarily, that the least intelligent minority’ of the pop-
ulation may have an idiotic show to gape at on Sunday after-
noons, and that the young of the species may be instructed
in the methods of amour prevailing among chimpanzees and
become privy to the technic employed by jaguars, hyenas and
polar bears in ridding themselves of lice.

So far as I can make out, after laborious visits to some of the
chief zoos of the nation, no other imaginable purpose is served
by their existence. One hears constantly, true enough (mainly
from the gentlemen they support) that they are educational.
But how? Just what sort of instruction do they radiate, and
what is its value? I have never been able to find out. The sober
truth is that they are no more educational than so many fire-
men s parades or displays of skyrockets, and that all they actu-
ally offer to the public in return for the taxes spent upon them
is a form of idle and witless amusement, compared to which
a visit to a penitentiary, or even to a State Legislature in ses-
sion, is informing, stimulating and ennobling.

Education your grandmother! Show me a schoolboy who has
ever learned anything valuable or important by watching a
mangy old lion snoring away in its cage or a family of monkeys
fighting for peanuts. To get any useful instruction out of such
a spectacle is palpably impossible. The most it can imaginably
impart is that the stripes of a certain sort of tiger run one way
and the stripes of another sort some other way, that hyenas

366 A Mencken Chrestomathy

and polecats smell worse than Greek 'bus boys, that the Latin
name of the raccoon (who was unheard of by the Romans) is
Procyon lotor. For the dissemination of such banal knowledge,
absurdly emitted and defectively taken in, the taxpayers of the
United States are mulcted. As well make them pay for teach-
ing policemen the theory of least squares, or for instructing
roosters in the laying of eggs.

But zoos, it is argued, are of scientific value. They enable
learned men to study this or that. Again the facts blast the
theorjr. No scientific discovery of any value whatsoever, even
to the animals themselves, has ever come out of a zoo. The zoo
scientist is the old woman of zoology, and his alleged wisdom
is usually exhibited, not in the groves of actual learning, but
in the Sunday newspapers. He is to biology what the late Ca-
mille Flammarion was to astronomy, which is to say, its court
jester and reductio ad ahsurdum. When he leaps into public
notice with some new pearl of knowledge, it commonly turns
out to be no more than the news that Marie Bashkirtseff, the
Russian lady walrus, has had her teeth plugged with zinc and
is expecting twins. Or that Pishposh, the man-eating alligator,
is dowm with locomotor ataxia. Or that Damon, the grizzly,
has just finished his brother Pythias in the tenth round, chew-
ing off his tail, nose and remaining ear.

Science, of course, has its uses for the lower animals. A dili-
gent study of their livers and lights helps to an understanding
of the anatomy and physiology, and particularly of the pathol-
ogy, of man. They are necessary aids in devising and manufac-
turing many remedial agents, and in testing the virtues of those
already devised; out of the mute agonies of a rabbit or a dog
may come relief for a baby with diphtheria, or means for an
archdeacon to escape the consequences of his youthful follies.
Moreover, something valuable is to be got out of a mere study
of their habits, instincts and ways of mind — knowledge that,
by analogy, may illuminate the parallel doings of the genus
homo, and so enable us to comprehend the primitive mental
processes of the rev. clergy.

But it must be obvious that none of these studies can be
made in a zoo. The zoo animals, to begin with, provide no
material for the biologist; he can find out no more about their

XX. Quackery 367

insides than what he discerns from a safe distance and through
the bars. He is not allowed to tr\' his germs and specifics upon
them; he is not allowed to vivisect them. If he would find out
what goes on in the animal body under this condition or that,
he must turn from the inhabitants of the zoo to the customar}^
guinea pigs and dogs, and buy or steal them for himself. Nor
does he get any chance for profitable inquiry^ when zoo animals
die (usually of lack of exercise or ignorant doctoring), for their
carcasses are not handed to him for autopsy, but at once stuffed
with gypsum and excelsior and placed in some museum.

Least of all do zoos produce any new knowledge about ani-
mal behavior. Such knowledge must be got, not from animals
penned up and tortured, but from animals in a state of nature.
A professor studying the habits of the giraffe, for example, and
confining his observations to specimens in zoos, would inevi-
tably come to the conclusion that the giraffe is a sedentary and
melancholy beast, standing immovable for hours at a time and
employing an Italian to feed him hay and cabbages. As well
proceed to a study of the psychology of a jurisconsult by first
immersing him in Sing Sing, or of a juggler by first cutting off
his hands. Knowledge so gained is inaccurate and imbecile
knowledge. Not even a professor, if sober, would give it any
faith and credit.

There remains, then, the only true utility of a zoo: it is a
childish and pointless show for the unintelligent, in brief, for
children, nurse-maids, visiting yokels and the generality' of the
defective. Should the taxpayers be forced to sweat millions for
such a purpose? I think not. The sort of man who likes to
spend his time watching a cage of monkeys chase one another,
or a lion gnaw its tail, or a lizard catch flies, is precisely the
sort of man whose mental weakness should be combatted at
the public expense, and not fostered. He is a public liability and
public menace, and society should seek to improve him. In-
stead of that, we spend a lot of money to feed his degrading
appetite and further paralyze his mind. It is precisely as if the
community provided free champagne for dipsomaniacs, or hired
lecturers to convert the Army to the doctrines of the Quakers,


Pathological Note

From the Smart Set, Dec., 1919, pp. 66-67

The E3CACT nature of disease is a matter that still gives pause to
MM. the pathologists. All that may be said about it with any
certainty is that a given condition is an apparent departure from
the normal balance, and it tends to destroy the organism and
produce death. When one comes to non-lethal abnormality, it
would be absurd to assume that it is to be regarded, ipso facto^
as regrettable. The perfectly normal human being, tlie abso-
lutely average man, is surely anything but an ideal creature. A
great many admittedly abnormal men, even in the direction of
what is called disease, are his obvious superiors, and this class
includes many so-called men of genius. As for the fact that dis-
ease tends to produce death, this is a matter of small signifi-
cance. Life itself tends to produce death; living is a sort of grad-
ual dying. All that distinguishes what is known as a healthy
man from what is known as a diseased man is that the latter
promises to die sooner — and even this probability is not always
borne out by the event. Men ajEHicted with diseases regarded as
fatal often live so long that their physicians begin to regard
them as personal enemies and have to get them out of the way,
by giving them doses out of the black bottle.

The fact is that certain diseased states are very favorable to
the higher functioning of the organism — more favorable, in-
deed, ftan states of health. One of the diseases that American
gobs were saved from in 1917 by the virtuous watchfulness of
the Hon. Josephus Daniels is of such curious effect upon the
mental powers that, under certain conditions, it would be much
more sensible to call it a benefit than a handicap. Trae enough,
ninety-nine out of a hundred victims who show signs of its
mental effect move toward insanity, but the hundredth moves

XXI. The Human Body 369

toward genius. Beethoven, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were
such victims, if the word may be used of giants, llie mild tox-
emia accompanying the disease kept them keyed up to stupen-
dous effort. All three died of it in the end, but while they lived
it acted upon them like some extraordinarily powerful stimu-
lant, and there is little doubt that their great achievements were
at least partly due to it.

In this case, of course, ideas of loathsomeness reinforce mere
fear, and so most sane men w^ould rather do without the stimu-
lation than face the disease. But there are other maladies, not
popularly regarded as loathsome, which also seem to prick up
the intellect. One of them is tuberculosis. It is perfectly possible
that the superior mental development of the white races may
be due to the fact that they have suffered from tuberculosis for
many centuries. History shows a vast number of extraordinar}'
consumptives, and it is common observation that even the stu-
pidest man, once he is attacked by the tubercle bacilli, begins
to exhibit a certain alertness. Perhaps the time will come when
promising young men, instead of being protected from such dis-
eases at all hazards, will be deliberately infected with them, just
as soils are now inoculated with nitrogen-liberating bacteria.

This plan, of course, will tend to diminish the length of their
days, but that will be no objection to it, for its aim will not be
to improve the candidates quantitatively, but to improve them
qualitatively. The science of hygiene, which is largely in the
hands of quacks, lays too much stress upon mere longevity, and
when it gets be}'ond longevity it seeks only the good of common
men. To produce better stockbrokers, Knights of Pythias, Sons
of the Revolution, corner grocerymen, labor leaders and other
such cocci, it is necessary, of course, to keep them physically
well, for if they are valuable at all, it is chiefly as physical ma-
chines. They serve to reverse and complete the great nitrogen-
fixing process of vegetable life. But if it were possible to produce
a Chopin with a few doses of tubercle bacilli, even at the cost
of killing him at thirty-nine, it would surely be worth w^hile.
And if a technique is ever worked out for producing a Beetho-
ven, or even making measurably more likely the production of
a Beethoven, with any other pathogenic organisms, then cer-
tainly only idiots will complain if they kill him at fifty-seven.

A Mencken Chrestomathy


The Striated Muscle Fetish

From the American Mercury ^ June, 1931, pp. 156-58

In the American colleges, anon and anon, there goes on a cru-
sade against the gross over-accentuation of athletic sports and
pastimes, but it is not likely that it will ever yield any substantial
reform. On the one hand, college authorities, and especially col-
lege presidents, are far too politic a class of men to take any
really effective steps against an enterprise that brings in such
large sums of money, and on the other hand they are far too
conventional to challenge the common delusion that athletics,
in themselves, are uplifting and hence laudable. The most one
hears, even from the radicals among them, is that it is somehow
immoral for college stadiums to cost five times as much as col-
lege libraries; no one ever argues that the stadiums ought to be
abolished altogether. Yet it is plain that that position might be
very plausibly maintained.

The popular belief in athletics is grounded upon the theor}^
that violent exercise makes for bodily health, and that bodily
health is necessary to mental vigor. Both halves of this theory
are highly dubious. There is, in fact, no reason whatever for be-
lieving that such a game as, say, football improves the health of
those who play it. On the contrary, there is every reason for be-
lieving that it is deleterious. The football player is not only ex-
posed constantly to a risk of grave injury, often of an irremedi-
able kind; he is also damaged in his normal physiological
processes by the excessive strains of the game, and the exposure
that goes with playing it. If it were actually good for half-growm
boys to wallow for several hours a day in a muddy field, with
their heads bare and the bleak autumnal skies overhead, then it
would also be good for them to be sprayed with a firehose be-
fore going to bed. And if it were good for their non-playing
schoolmates to sit watching them on cold and windy bleachers
then it would also be good for those schoolmates to hear their
professors in the same place.

The truth is that athletes, as a class, are not above the normal
in health, but below it. Despite all the attention that they get

XXL The Human Body

from dietitians, rubbers and the medical facult}% they are for-
ever beset by malaises, and it is almost unheard of for one of
them to pass through an ordinaiy season without a spell of ill-
ness. When a college goes in for any given sport in the grand
manner it always has to prepare five or six times as many players
as the rules demand, for most of its stars are bound to be dis-
abled at some time or other. Not a few, after a game or two,
drop out altogether, and are heard of no more. Some are crip-
pled on the field, but more succumb to the mere wear and tear.
In other words, the exercise they get does not really improve
their vigor; it only develops and reveals their lack of vigor. The
survivors are not better animals than they were; they were
simply better animals than the general in the first place.

The cult of health, indeed, has been carried to plainly pre-
posterous lengths. It is whooped up, in large part, by medical
men turned uplifters, f.c., by men trained in medicine but with
no talent for it, and an aversion to it. The public hygiene move-
ment is chiefly in the hands of such quacks, and they seem to
have a powerful and baleful influence upon colleagues who
should know better. This influence shows itself, inter alia^ in
the current craze to employ heliotherapy in a wholesale and
irrational manner, without any consideration whatever for the
comfort of the patient or the nature of his disease. My predic-
tion is that exposing sick people to glaring sunlight, or to any
kind of artificial light that simulates it, will some day go as far
out of fashion as bleeding them has gone today. The fact is
that, to the higher varieties of civilized man, sunlight is often
injurious, and their natural inclination to keep out of it is sound
in instinct. If it were beneficial, then farmers would be healthier
than cit\^ men, which they are surely not, Man has apparently
sought the shade since his earliest days on earth, and all of his
anthropoid ancestors seem to have been forest dwellers.

Fresh air is another medicament that will be trusted less here-
after than it is today. Everyone can recall the time w%en poor
consumptives were exposed to the wintry blasts on mountain-
tops. Most of them, of course, died painful deaths, but the re-
covery of those who didn't was ascribed to the rarefied air. But
now it begins to be understood that the only valuable part of
this treatment was the rest, which the roaring of the winds ob-

JJ2 A Mencken Chrestomathy

vioosly impeded rather than helped. At about the same time
the pedagogues of tlie United States also succumbed to the
fresh air craze, and the taxpayers were rooked into laying out
millions for elaborate and costly ventilating systems for the
public schools. But now it has been found that the air which
comes in around the edges of an ordinary window is all the
pupils really need, and the pedagogues, abandoning their in-
sane ventilating systems, begin to bellow for expensive quartz
window-panes, to let in the ultra-violet rays. This lunacy will
last a while, and then go out. Even pedagogues, it appears, have
a certain capacity for learning.

But not much. In the matter of athletics they are hampered
by bad training. Most of tliem, at least in the colleges, are them-
selves college graduates, and thus accept the campus scale of
values. Inasmuch as the average boy of eighteen would far
rather be heavy-weight champion of the world than Einstein,
that scale is heavily loaded in favor of mere physical prowess.
The poor 'gogues, subscribing to it, can never quite rid them-
selves of a sneaking admiration for football stars. Practically
every one of them, when he dreams at night, dreams that he is a
reincarnation of Sandow. Thus they cannot be trusted to make
any really vigorous onslaught upon the college athletic racket.
If a reform ever comes, it will not come from college faculties,
but from college trustees, most of whom are fortunately with-
out college training. But these trustees, alas, have their dreams
too: they dream that they are J. P. Morgans. Thus the only way
to get rid of the combats of gorillas which now bring millions
to the colleges will be to invent some imbecility which brings in
even more. To that enterprise, I regret to have to report, I find
myself unequal.

Moral Tale

From the Baltimore Sun, April ii, 1935.
Welch was born in 1850 and died in 1934

The late Dr. William H. Welch, one of the stars of the Johns
Hopkins Medical School, was a sort of walking reductio ad ah-

XXL The Human Body 373

surdum of some of the most confident theories of his fellow
resunection-men. For diet he cared precisely nothing, yet he
lived to be 84. In exercise he took so little interest that he never
had a golf-stick or even a billiard-cuc in his hands, yet he was
hale and hearty” until his last brief illness. And to top it all, he
came into the world with the verj* sort of physique which, if the
insurance statisticians are to be believed, means certain death
before 50.

Dr. Welch was hardly more than five feet six inches in height,
but he must have weighed close to 200 pounds. With his broad
brow, fine eyes and closely-clipped beard, he was a veiy* distin-
guished-looking man, yet it would have been difficult to prove
legally that he had a neck. His massive head, in fact, sat directly
on his sturdy chest, and a foot below it there were the begin-
nings of a majestic paunch. This is the build, according to the
professors of such matters, that offers ideal soil for a long list
of incurable malaises. It spells high blood-pressure, kidney de-
terioration and heart disease. Wlien it is combined with a dis-
taste for exercise, a habit of sitting up until all hours of the
night and an enlightened appreciation of each and every varietj”
of sound food and drink, it is tantamount, so we are told, to be-
ing sentenced to die in the electric-chair at 43. Yet Dr. Welch
lived 14 years and 22 days beyond the canonical three-score and
ten and had a grand time to the end. And when he died at last
it was not of any of the diseases his colleagues had been warn-
ing him against for 60 years.

A year or so before his death I happened to sit beside him
one day at lunch. The main dish was country ham and greens,
and of it he ate a large portion, washing it down wuHi several
mugs of beer. There follow^ed lemon meringue pie. He ate an
arc of at least 75 degrees of it, and eased it into his system with
a cup of coffee. Then he lighted a six-inch panatela and smoked
it to the butt. And then he ambled off to attend a medical
meeting and to prepare for dinner. The night before, so I gath-
ered from his talk, he had been to a banquet, and sat until 11.30
listening to bad speeches and breathing tobacco smoke. The
wines had been good enough for him to remember them and
mention them. Returning to his bachelor quarters, he had read
until 1 o'clock and then turned in. The morning before our

374 ^ Mencken Chrestomathy

meeting he had devoted to meditation in an easy-chair, cigar in
hand. At the lunch itself, I forgot to say, he made a speech, be-
ginning in English and finishing in German.

What are we to gather, brethren, from Dr. Welch's chart?
Simply that pathology is still far from an exact science, es-
pecially in the department of forecasting. In the presence of
what are assumed to be causes the expected effects do not al-
ways or necessarily follow. Here was a man who stood in the
very front rank of the medical profession, and yet his whole life
was a refutation of some of its most confident generalizations.
He lived to be pallbearer to scores of colleagues who made 36
holes of golf a week a religious rite, and to scores more who
went on strict diets at 30 and stuck to them heroically until
they died at 50 or 60.

Comfort for the Ailing

From the American MerciiTy, March, 1930, pp. 288-89

To the gods who run the cosmos, disease and health probably
look pretty much alike. I am not, of course, privy to the secret
lucubrations of Yahweh, but it is certainly imaginable that a
hearty, incandescent boil gives Him quite as much satisfaction
as a damask cheek, and maybe a great deal more. The boil, I
suspect, is harder to fashion, if only because it is more complex,
and hence it must be more stimulating to the artist. As for a
carcinoma, a strangulated hernia or a case of paralysis agitans,
it must needs fill its eminent Designer with a very soothing pro-
fessional warmth. Second-rate gods, it is manifest, could never
have invented such things. They show a high degree of inge-
nuity, and something hard to distinguish from esthetic passion.

What is the thing called health? Simply a state in which the
individual happens transiently to be perfectly adapted to his
environment. Obviously, such states cannot be common, for
the environment is in constant flux. Am I perfectly well today,
with the temperature 55 and a light wind blowing? Then I can't
be perfectly well tomorrow, with the mercury at 30, and a wild
gale roaring out of the North. Moreover, I am abstemious to-

XXL The Human Body 375

day, for it is my sainf s day, and in consequence my poor duo-
denum is quiescent; tomorrow will be my Uncle Wolfgang's
birthday, and I must gorge and guzzle. A week hence, accord-
ing to the insurance actuaries, the chances are one in so many
that my heart will begin to cut capers, for I am getting into the
age for it. Twenty years hence it is at least a ten to ^ne bet that
ril be stuffed and in the National Museum at Washington.
And so, as they say, it goes.

Uninterrupted health is probably possible only to creatures of
very simple structure, beginning, say, with the Rhizopoda and
running up to schoolboys. They have little conflict with their
environment, for they make few demands upon it. So long as
it does not bombard them in a gross and ovenvhelming man-
ner, like a falling house, they are scarcely conscious of it. But on
higher levels there is a vastly greater sensitiveness, and so there
is much more illness. History tells us of few really distinguished
men who were completely healthy: the biography of the high-
toned is always largely concerned with aches and malaises. In
the great days of the Greeks only the athletes were good insur-
ance risks — and of the athletes, then as now, we hear nothing
save that they were athletes. There must have been thousands
of them, first and last, but not one of them, as he grew older,
ever amounted to anything. No doubt the average hero of the
games spent his last days keeping a wine-shop or serving as
night-watchman at the Academy. Meanwhile, the philosophers
pored over the works of Hippocrates, and were steady customers
of all the quacks who sw'armed in from the East.

Happiness, like health, is probably also only a passing acci-
dent. For a moment or tw'O the organism is irritated so little
that it is not conscious of it; for the duration of that moment
it is happy. Thus a hog is always happier than a man, and a
bacillus is happier than a hog. The laws of the cosmos seem
to be as little concerned about human felicitj^ as the laws of the
United States are concerned about human decency. \¥hoever
set them in motion apparently had something quite different in
mind something that we cannot even guess at. The very life
of man seems to be no more than one of their inconsidered
by-products. One may liken it plausibly to the sparks that fly
upward when a blacksmith fashions a horse-shoe. Tlie sparks

376 A Mencken Chrestomathy

are undoubtedly more brilliant than the horse-shoe, but all the
while tliey remain secondary to it. If the iron could speak, it
would probably complain of them as a disease. In the same way,
I daresay, man is a disease of the cosmos. . . . But here I be-
gin to argue in a circle, for I started out by suggesting that dis-
ease itself may be only a higher form of normalcy. Perhaps I
had better shut down.

Eugenic Note

From the same, June, 1924, pp. 188-89

Has anyone ever given credit to the Black Death for the Ren-
aissance ~ in other words, for modern civilization? I can find
no mention of any such theory in the books; most of them try
to make it appear, vaguely and unpersuasively, that the Ren-
aissance was somehow set off by the fall of Constantinople in
1453. But how could the fall of one of the most civilized of
cities have stimulated the progress of civilization? Somehow, I
detect a non sequitur here. Other authorities allege that the
Renaissance began when scholars from the East appeared at
Rome, some of them from Constantinople and some from other
places: this, we are told, was about the year 1400. But there is
really very little evidence for the fact. Scholars from the East
had been familiar to the Romans for at least a thousand years,
and yet they had left few marks upon Italian thought. More-
over, the Renaissance, when it got under way at last, was car-
ried forward, not by scholars from the East, but by Italians. All
the great names of the time, in every field from architecture to
politics, are Western, not Eastern. There is, indeed, no more
evidence in the records that scholars from the East had any-
thing to do with the business than there is that Sioux Indians
had a hand in it. The Renaissance was thoroughly occidental;
its greatest achievements would have been utterly unintelligible
to an Eastern pundit It did not revive and carry on a work
dropped at Constantinople when the Turks approached; it be-
gan a work that Constantinople knew absolutely nothing about.

XXL The Human Body 377

But if Italians launched the Renaissance, with Germans and
Frenchmen following after, then why did they wait until the
Fourteenth Century to do it? If they were barbarians in the
year 1300, how did they manage to convert themselves into
highly civilized men — perhaps the most civilized ever seen on
earth; certainly vastly more civilized than the grossly overrated
Greeks — by 1450? Are we to assume that they were suddenly
inspired by God? Or that large numbers of them began to mu-
tate in a De Vriesian manner, highly astonishing to the biolo-
gist? I do not believe that it is necessary to dally with any such
theories. The Renaissance, it seems to me, is easily and suffi-
ciently explained by the fact that the Black Death, raging from
1334 to 1351, exterminated such huge masses of the European
proletariat that the average intelligence and enterprise of the
race were greatly lifted, and that this purged and improved so-
ciety suddenly functioned splendidly because it was no longer
hobbled from below. For a thousand years the population of
Europe had been steadily increasing, and its best men had been
forced, in consequence, to devote themselves to the wasteful
business of politics — the grabbing of new territories, the open-
ing of markets, the policing of the proletariat. Their ability
thus had no opportunity to function in a dignified and splen-
did manner; they were condemned to such dull, degrading tasks
as harass United States Senators, generals in the Army, Tam-
many bosses, college presidents and captains of industry. Then,
like a bolt from the blue, came the Black Death. In less than
twenty years it reduced the population of Europe by at least
50% — - and yet it left substantially all of the wealth of Europe
untouched. More, it killed its millions selectively; the death-
rate among the upper classes, as every Sunday-school scholar
reading the Decameron of Boccaccio knows, was immensely less
than the death-rate among the submerged. The net result was
that Europe emerged from the pandemic with the old pressure
of population relieved, all the worst problems of politics in abey-
ance, plenty of money, and a newly-found leisure. The best
brains of the time, thus suddenly emancipated, began to func-
tion freely and magnificently. There ensued what we call the


A Purge for Legislatures

From Prejudices: Sixth Series, 1927, pp. 44-53. First printed in the
American Mercury, Aug., 1926, pp. 414-16. I repeated my proposal in The
Law-Making Racket, Baltimore Evening Sun, April 13, 1931

A MOOD of constructive criticism being upon me, I propose
forthwith that the method of choosing legislators now prevail-
ing in the United States be abandoned and that the method
used in choosing juries be substituted. That is to say, I propose
that the men who make our laws be chosen by chance and
against their will, instead of by fraud and against the will of
all the rest of us, as now. But isn't the jury system itself im-
perfect? Isn’t it occasionally disgraced by gross abuse and scan-
dal? Then so is the system of justice devised and ordained by
the Lord God Himself. Didn't He assume that the Noachian
Deluge would be a lasting lesson to sinful humanity — that it
would put an end to all manner of crime and wickedness, and
convert mankind into a race of Presbyterians? And wasn't Noah
himself, its chief beneficiary, lying drunk, naked and uproarious
within a year after the ark landed on Ararat? All I argue for
the jury system, invented by man, is that it is measurably bet-
ter than the scheme invented by God. It has its failures and its
absurdities, its abuses and its corruptions, but taking one day
with another it manifestly works. It is not the fault of juries that
so many murderers go unwhipped of justice, and it is not the
fault of juries that so many honest men are harassed by pre-
posterous laws. The juries find the gunmen guilty: it is func-
tionaries higher up, all politicians, who deliver them from the
noose, and turn them out to resume tlieir butcheries.

So I propose that our Legislatures be chosen as our juries are
now chosen — that the names of all the men eligible in each
assembly district be put into a hat (or, if no hat can be found
that is large enough, into a bathtub), and that a blind moron,


XXIL Utopian Flights 379

preferably of tender years, be delegated to draw out one. Let
the constituted catchpolls then proceed swiftly to this man s
house, and take him before he can get away. Let him be brought
into court forthwith, and put under bond to serve as elected,
and if he cannot furnish the bond, let him be kept until the ap-
pointed day in the nearest jail.

The advantages that this system would offer are so vast and
so obvious that I hesitate to venture into the banality of rehears-
ing them. It would in the first place, save the commonwealtli
the present excessive cost of elections, and make political cam-
paigns unnecessary. It would in the second place, get rid of all
the heart-burnings that now flow out of every contest at the
polls, and block the reprisals and charges of fraud that now is-
sue from the heart-burnings. It would, in the third place, fill all
the State Legislatures with men of a peculiar and unprece-
dented cast of mind — men actually convinced that public
service is a public burden, and not merely a private snap. And
it would, in the fourth and most important place, completely
dispose of the present degrading knee-bending and trading in
votes, for nine-tenths of the legislators, having got into office
unwillingly, would be eager only to finish their duties and go
home, and even those who acquired a taste for the life would
be unable to do anything to increase the probability, even by
one chance in a million, of their reelection.

The disadvantages of the plan are very few, and most of
them, I believe, yield readily to analysis. Do I hear argument
that a miscellaneous gang of tin-roofers, delicatessen dealers
and retired bookkeepers, chosen by hazard, would lack the vast
knowledge of public affairs needed by makers of laws? Then I
can only answer (a) that no such knowledge is actually neces-
sary, and (b) that few, if any, of die existing legislators possess
it. The great majority of public problems, indeed, are quite
simple, and any man may be trusted to grasp their elements
in ten days who may be — and is — trusted to unravel the ob-
fuscations of two gangs of lawyers in the same time. In this de-
partment the so-called expertness of so-called experts is largely
imaginary. My scheme would have the capital merit of barring
them from the game. They would lose dieir present enormous
advantages as a class, and so their class would tend to disappear.

380 A Mencken Chrestomathy

Would that be a disservice to tlie state? Certainly not. On the
contrary, it would be a service of the first magnitude, for the
worst curse of democracy, as we suffer under it today, is that it
makes public office a monopoly of a palpably inferior and ig-
noble group of men. They have to abase themselves in order
to get it, and they have to keep on abasing themselves in order
to hold it. The fact reflects itself in their general character,
which is obviously low. They are men congenitally capable of
cringing and dishonorable acts, else they would not have got
into public life at all. There are, of course, exceptions to that
rule among them, but how many? What I contend is simply
that the number of such exceptions is bound to be smaller in
the class of professional job-seekers than it is in any other class,
or in the population in general. What I contend, second, is
that choosing legislators from that population, by chance,
would reduce immensely the proportion of such slimy men in
the halls of legislation, and that the effects would be instantly
visible in a great improvement in the justice and reasonableness
of the laws.

Are juries ignorant? Then they are still intelligent enough to
be entrusted with your life and mine. Are they venal? Then
they are still honest enough to take our fortunes into their
hands. Such is die fundamental law of the Germanic peoples,
and it has worked for nearly a thousand years. I have launched
my proposal that it be extended upward and onward, and the
mood of constructive criticism passes from me. My plan be-
longs to any reformer who cares to lift it.

A Chance for Millionaires

From the New York Evening Mail, 1918

On the general stupidity and hunkerousness of millionaires a
formidable tome might be written — a job I resign herewith to
anyone diligent enough to assemble the facts. Not only do they
gather in their assets by processes which never show any origi-
nality, but are always based upon a few banal principles of swin-

XXIL Utopian Flights 381

dling; they also display the same lack of lesource and ingenuity
in getting rid of them. It is years since any American millionaire
got his money in any new and stimulating way, and it is years
since any American millionaire got rid of his money by any de-
vice worthy the admiration of connoisseurs.

Setting aside the pathetic dullards who merely hang on to
their accumulations, like dogs hoarding bones, the rich men of
the Republic may be divided into two grand divisions, accord-
ing to their varying notions of what is a good time. Those in
the first division waste their funds upon idiotic dissipation or
personal display. They are the Wine Jacks, social pushers and
horsy fellows — the Thaws, Goulds and so on. Those in the
second division devote themselves to buying public esteem by
gaudy charities and a heavy patronage of the arts and sciences.
They are the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Morgans, et al.

The second crowd, it seems to me, are even more dull and
unimaginative than the first, and show less originality. One
never hears of them doing anything new; they are forever im-
itating one another in something old. They build hospitals, or
establish libraries, or collect works of art, or endow colleges, or
finance some scientific institution or other — and after that
their fancy is exhausted. John D. Rockefeller, probably the
most intelligent of them, actually did nothing new with his
billions. He staked a few charities, he trustified certain religious
enterprises, he capitalized medical research — and that is all.
Every one of these things had been done before. John did not
invent them, and neither did he greatly improve them. The
late John Pierpont Morgan I was even less original. The only
use he could find for his money was to lavish it on art collec-
tions. With the passion of a miser piling up gold, he scoured
the world for pictures, pots, furniture and fabrics, taking the
good with the bad, and often, if rumor is to be believed, the
bogus with the real. His accumulations finally surpassed those
of all other men, living or dead. He was the champion of cham-
pions, the John L. Sullivan of art patrons. And then he died,
and left all that chaos of beauty and ugliness to his son, who
dispersed a large part of it, just as a less opulent son sells off his
dead father's wornout clotlies.

Such frenzied inordinateness is obviously empty, and perhaps

^82 A Mencken Chrestomathy

almost maniacal. Morgan's actual taste was probably that of
any other rich banker; there are hints of its true dignity in the
fact that he bought the original manuscript of Dickens's
'‘Christmas Carol/' and regarded it as a lofty work, and had it
read aloud to him every Christmas. Had he been poorer he
would have collected, I daresay, gaudy sets of Bulwer Lytton,
Guy de Maupassant and Balzac, or Denby Sadler etchings, or
Rogers groups. He was simply a Philistine with an unlimited
bank account. His services to art were scarcely greater than
those of a moderately intelligent dealer.

I need not call a further roll. You will think of other examples
yourself, and you will see at once how little ingenuity they have
brought to the spending of their money. The trouble with
nearly all of them is simple. Their primary motive in pouring
out millions is to gain the good will and adulation of ihe gen-
eral public, which is to say, of the general mass of dolts and
noodles, and so they are restricted to enterprises which fall
within the comprehension of such noodles, and excite their
admiration. This bars out at once all schemes that are likely to
appeal to a civilized man, for it is a peculiarity of such a man
that he is usually in favor of whatever the mob is against, and
against whatever it is in favor of. The millionaire who would
make a genuine splash with his money must reject this com-
mon motive and adopt a contrary motive. That is to say, he
must set himself to do, not what is popular, but precisely what
is most unpopular. So far not one of die fraternity has shown
imagination enough for that business.

Meanwhile, the opportunities are so numerous and so invit-
ing that they bring tears to the eyes. Even old ideas may be im-
proved, embellished, made mellow. Think, for example, of the
scheme of the late D. O. Mills. He erected the two so-called
Mills hotels in New York — and was canonized as a great phi-
lanthropist. But suppose he had built them, not in New York,
but at Newport, Palm Beach or the Virginia Hot Springs. Sup-
pose he had set them down in the very midst of American snob-
dom, and then invited all his decayed mechanics, unsuccessful
peddlers and gentlemen out of work to come in and make
themselves at home. As things stand, Mills is remembered by
one American in 2,000,000; even many of his guests have

XXI L Utopian Flights 383

scarcely heard of him. Had he been a man of originality his
name would be as immortal as that of Lorenzo Borgia.

On the theological side many stimulating enterprises invite.
I often think of the noble divertissement that John D. Rocke-
feller could have got by giving $100,000,000 to the Mormons^,
first to finance a nation-wide campaign in favor of polygamy,
then to buy legislation authorizing it from the State Legisla-
tures, and then to pay for a fight to a finish before the Supreme
Court of the United States, with all the leading barristers of
the nation for the defense. The combat would have been gaudy,
thrilling, incomparable. Millions of Americans would have been
converted; the newspapers would have fallen one by one; in
the end it might have been possible to put through a constitu-
tional amendment not only authorizing polygamy, but even
making it obligatory. John got no such fun out of the Rocke-
feller Institute, nor out of his gifts to Baptist missions in Co-
chin-China. Carnegie got no such fun out of his libraries. Mor-
gan got no such fun out of his squirrel-like hoarding up of
dingy paintings and moth-eaten old sofas.

A still more gorgeous opportunity offers itself in the Souths
Among the native fauna down there are 10,000,000 colored folk
of defective culture and inflammable habits. Theoretically,
tliese Moors are all Christians, but as a matter of fact their
faith is still adulterated by many ideas inherited from their
African ancestors. The average religious ceremony among them
is wild and vociferous. Not infrequently, indeed, the gendarmes
have to shut off their deafening supplications, that the adja-
cent gentry may be able to get some sleep. These facts have
often suggested to the judicious that Christianity, in its au-
thentic form, is a cult not quite suited to the genius of the
darker races. In Africa, where it has had to meet the competi-
tion of Moslemism, it has, in fact, usually succumbed. Hun-
dreds of thousands of native Africans, converted by the gallant
efforts of our own missionaries, have later gone over to the
Crescent witli a whoop, and sometimes butchered their late
pastors in celebration of their apostacy. From end to end of
the Dark Continent, indeed, Mohammedanism has swept like
a whirlwind. No other known faith appeals so eloquently to
the untutored Ethiop.

384 A Mencken Chrestomathy

What I here hint at is the millionaire who imported a ship-
load of Moslem evangelists from Arabia, schooled them in Eng-
lish by intensive cultivation, and then turned them loose in
Georgia — that such a millionaire, at all events, would suffer
little from boredom during the ensuing carnage, and that his
name would have an assured place in the history of the Con-
federate States. I am a poor man, but if the hat is passed I shall
be glad to contribute to the project $1,000,000 in Mississippi
bonds of the issue of 1838.

The Malevolent Jobholder

From the American Mercury, June, 1924, pp. 156-59. This was written
long before the New Deal afflicted the country with a great mass of new ad-
ministrative law and a huge horde of new and extra-tyrannical jobholders.
I am more than ever convinced that it embodied a good idea

In the immoral monarchies of the continent of Europe, now
happily abolished by God's will, there was, in the old days of
sin, an intelligent and effective way of dealing with delinquent
officials. Not only were they subject, when taken in downright
corraption, to the ordinary processes of the criminal laws; in
addition they were liable to prosecution in special courts for
such offenses as were peculiar to their offices. In this business
the abominable Prussian state, though founded by Satan, took
the lead. It maintained a tribunal in Berlin that devoted itself
wholly to the trial of officials accused of malfeasance, corrup-
tion, tyranny and incompetence, and any citizen was free to
lodge a complaint with the learned judges. The trial was public
and in accord with rules fixed by law. An official found guilty
could be punished summarily and in a dozen different ways. He
could be reprimanded, reduced in rank, suspended from office
for a definite period, transferred to a less desirable job, re-
moved from the rolls altogether, fined, or sent to jail. If he was
removed from office he could be deprived of his right to a pen-
sion in addition, or fined or jailed in addition. He could be
made to pay damages to any citizen he had injured, or to apol-
ogize publicly.

XXIL Utopian Flights 385

All this, remember, was in addition to his liability under the
ordinary law, and the statutes specifically provided that he
could be punished twice for the same offense, once in the or-
dinary courts and once in the administrative court. Thus, a
Prussian official who assaulted a citizen, invaded his house
without a warrant, or seized his property without process of
law, could be deprived of his office and fined heavily by the ad-
ministrative court, sent to jail by an ordinary court, and forced to
pay damages to his victim by either or both. Had a Prussian judge
in those far-off days of despotism, overcome by a brain-storm of
kaiserliche passion, done any of the high-handed and irrational
things that our own judges. Federal and State, do almost every
day, an aggrieved citizen might have haled him before the ad-
ministrative court and recovered heavy damages from him, be-
sides enjoying the felicity of seeing him transferred to some dis-
mal swamp in East Prussia, to listen all day to the unintelligible
perjury of anthropoid Poles. The law specifically provided that
responsible officials should be punished, not more leniently
than subordinate or ordinary offenders, but more severely. If a
corrupt policeman got six months a corrupt chief of police got
two years. More, these statutes were enforced with Prussian bar-
barity, and the jails were constantly full of errant officials.

I do not propose, of course, that such medieval laws be set
up in the United States. We have, indeed, gone far enough in
imitating the Prussians already; if we go much further the
moral and enlightened nations of the world will have to unite in
a crusade to put us down. As a matter of fact, the Prussian
scheme would probably prove ineffective in the Republic, if
only because it involved setting up one gang of jobholders to
judge and punish another gang. It worked very well in Prussia
before the country was civilized by force of arms because, as
everyone knows, a Prussian official was trained in ferocity from
infancy, and regarded every man arraigned before him, whether
a fellow official or not, as guilty ipso facto; in fact, any thought
of a prisoner's possible innocence was abhorrent to him as
a reflection upon the Polizeiy and by inference, upon the
Throne, the whole monarchical idea, and God. But in America,
even if they had no other sentiment in common, which would
be rarely, judge and prisoner would often be fellow Democrats

386 A Mencken C h res to math y

or fellow Republicans, and hence jointly interested in protect-
ing their party against scandal and its members against the loss
of their jobs. Moreover, the Prussian system had another plain
defect: the punishments it provided were, in the main, plati-
tudinous and banal. They lacked dramatic qualify, and they
lacked ingenuity and appropriateness. To punish a judge taken
in judicial crim. con. by fining him or sending him to jail is a bit
too facile and obvious. What is needed is a system {a) that
does not depend for its execution upon the good-will of fellow
jobholders, and (b) that provides swift, certain and unpedantic
punishments, each fitted neatly to its crime.

I announce without further ado that such a system, after due
prayer, I have devised. It is simple, it is unhackneyed, and I
believe that it would work. It is divided into two halves. The
first half takes the detection and punishment of the crimes of
jobholders away from courts of impeachment, congressional
smelling committees, and all the other existing agencies — f.^.,
away from other jobholders — and vests it in the whole body
of free citizens, male and female. The second half provides that
any member of that body, having looked into the acts of a job-
holder and found him delinquent, may punish him instantly and
on the spot, and in any manner that seems appropriate and
convenient — and that, in case this punishment involves phys-
ical damage to the jobholder, the ensuing inquiry by the grand
jury or coroner shall confine itself strictly to the question
whether the jobholder deserved what he got. In other words, I
propose that it shall be no longer malum in se for a citizen to
pummel, cowhide, kick, gouge, cut, wound, bruise, maim, burn,
club, bastinado, flay or even lynch a jobholder, and that it shall
be malum prohibitum only to the extent that the punish^
ment exceeds the jobholder's deserts. The amount of this ex-
cess, if any, may be determined very conveniently by a petii
jury, as other questions of guilt are now determined. The
flogged judge, or Congressman, or other jobholder, on being
discharged from hospital — or his chief heir, in case he has
perished — goes before a grand jury and makes complaint, and,
if a true bill is found, a petit jury is empaneled and all the evi-
dence is put before it. If it decides that the jobholder deserves
the punishment inflicted upon him, the citizen who inflicted

XXIL Utopian Flights 387

it is acquitted with honor. If, on the contrary, it decides that
this punishment was excessive, then the citizen is adjudged
guilty of assault, mayhem, murder, or whatever it is, in a degree
apportioned to the difference between what the jobholder de-
served and what he got, and punishment for that excess follows
in the usual course.

The advantages of this plan, I believe, are too patent to need
argument. At one stroke it removes all the legal impediments
which now make the punishment of a recreant jobholder so
hopeless a process, and enormously widens the range of possible
penalties. They are now stiff and, in large measure, illogical;
under the system I propose they could be made to fit the crime
precisely. Say a citizen today becomes convinced that a certain
judge is a jackass — that his legal learning is defective, his sense
of justice atrophied and his conduct of cases before him tyran-
nical and against decency. As things stand, it is impossible to
do anything about it. A judge cannot be impeached on the
mere ground that he is a jackass; the process is far too costly
and cumbersome, and there are too many judges liable to the
charge. Nor is anything to be gained by denouncing him pub-
licly and urging all good citizens to vote against him when he
comes up for rejection, for his term may run for ten or fifteen
years, and even if it expires tomorrow and he is defeated the
chances are good that his successor will be quite as bad, and
maybe even worse. Moreover, if he is a Federal judge he never
comes up for reelection at all, for once he has been appointed
by the President of the United States, on the advice of his more
influential clients and with the consent of their agents in die
Senate, he is safe until he is so far gone in senility that he has
to be propped on the bench with pillows.

But now imagine any citizen free to approach him in open
court and pull his nose. Or even, in aggravated cases, to cut off
his ears, throw him out of the window, or knock him in the
head with an ax. How vastly more attentive he would be to his
duties! How diligently he would apply himself to the study of
the law! How careful he would be about the rights of litigants
before him! How polite and even suave he would become! For
judges, like all the rest of us, are vain fellows: they do not enjoy
having their noses pulled. The ignominy resident in the opera-

388 A Mencken Chrestomathy

tion would not be abated by the subsequent trial of the puller,
even if he should be convicted and jailed. The fact would still
be brilliantly remembered that at least one citizen had deemed
the judge sufficiently a malefactor to punish him publicly, and
to risk going to jail for it. A dozen such episodes, and the
career of any judge would be ruined and his heart broken, even
though the jails bulged with his critics. He could not maintain
his air of aloof dignity on the bench; even his catchpolls would
snicker at him behind their hands, especially if he showed a
cauliflower ear, a black eye or a scar over his bald head. More-
over, soon or late some citizen who had at him would be
acquitted by a petit jury, and then, obviously, he would have
to retire. It might be provided by law, indeed, that he should
be compelled to retire in that case — that an acquittal would
automatically vacate the office of the offending jobholder.

Portrait of an Ideal World

From Prejudices: Fourth Series, 1924, pp. 175-79.

First printed in the American Mercury, Feb., 1924, pp. 201-03

Tbl\t alcohol in dilute aqueous solution, when taken into the
human organism, acts as a depressant, not as a stimulant, is
now so much a commonplace of knowledge that even the more
advanced varieties of physiologists are beginning to be aware of
it The intelligent layman no longer resorts to the jug when he
has important business before him, whether intellectual or man-
ual; he resorts to it after his business is done, and he desires to
release his taut nerves and reduce the steam-pressure in his
spleen. Alcohol, so to speak, unwinds us. It raises the threshold
of sensation and makes us less sensitive to external stimuli, and
particularly to those that are unpleasant. Putting a brake upon
all the qualities which enable us to get on in the world and
shine before our fellows — for example, combativeness, shrewd-
ness, diligence, ambition — , it releases the qualities which mel-
low us and make our fellows love us ~ for example, amiability,
generosity, toleration, humor, sympathy, A man who has taken

XXII . Utopian Flights 389

aboard two or three cocktails is less competent than he was be-

fore to steer a battleship down the Ambrose Channel^ or to cut
off a leg, or to draw up a deed of trust, or to conduct Bach's
B minor mass, but he is immensely more competent to enter-
tain a dinner party, or to admire a pretty girl, or to hear Bach's
B minor mass. The harsh, useful things of the world, from pull-
ing teeth to digging potatoes, are best done by men who are as
starkly sober as so many convicts in the death-house, but tiie
lovely and useless things, the charming and exhilarating things,
are best done by men with, as the phrase is, a few sheets in
the wind. Pithecanthropus erectus was a teetotaler, but the an-
gels, you may be sure, know what is proper at 5 p.m.

All this is so obvious that I marvel that no utopian has ever
proposed to abolish all the sorrows of the world by the simple
device of getting and keeping the whole human race gently
stewed. I do not say drunk, remember; I say simply gently
stewed — and apologize, as in duty bound, for not knowing how
to describe the state in a more seemly phrase. The man who is
in it is a man who has put all of his best qualities into his show-
case. He is not only immensely more amiable than the cold
sober man; he is immeasurably more decent. He reacts to all
situations in an expansive, generous and humane manner. He
has become more liberal, more tolerant, more kind. He is a
better citizen, husband, father, friend. The enterprises that
make human life on this earth uncomfortable and unsafe are
never launched by such men. They are not makers of wars; they
do not rob and oppress anyone. All the great villainies of his-
tory have been perpetrated by sober men, and chiefly by tee-
totalers. But all the charming and beautiful things, from the
Song of Songs to terrapin a la Maryland, and from the nine
Beethoven symphonies to the Martini cocktail, have been given
to humanity by men who, when the hour came, turned from
well water to something with color to it, and more in it than
mere oxygen and hydrogen.

I am well aware, of course, that getting the whole human race
stewed and keeping it stewed, year in and year out, would pre-
sent formidable technical difficulties. It would be hard to make
the daily dose of each individual conform exactly to his private
needs, and hard to get it to him at precisely the right time. On

590 A Mencken Chrestomathy
the one hand there would be the constant danger that large
minorities might occasionally become cold sober, and so start
wars, theological disputes, moral reforms, and other such um
pleasantnesses. On the other hand, there w^ould be danger that
other minorities might proceed to actual intoxication, and so
annoy us all with their fatuous bawling or maudlin tears. But
such technical obstacles, of course, are by no means insurmount-
able. Perhaps they might be got around by abandoning the ad-
ministration of alcohol per ora and distributing it instead by
impregnating the air with it. I throw out the suggestion, and
pass on. Such questions are for men skilled in therapeutics,
government and business efhciency. They exist today and their
enterprises often show a high ingenuity, but, being chiefly sober,
they devote too much of their time to harassing the rest of us.
Half-stewed, they would be ten times as genial, and perhaps at
least half as efScient. Thousands of them, relieved of their pres-
ent anti-social duties, would be idle, and eager for occupation.
I trust to them in this small matter. If they didn't succeed com-
pletely, they would at least succeed partially.

The objection remains that even small doses of alcohol, if
each followed upon the heels of its predecessor before the ef-
fects of the latter had worn off, would have a deleterious effect
upon the physical health of the race — that the death-rate would
increase, and whole categories of human beings would be exter-
minated. The answer here is that what I propose is not length-
ening the span of life, but augmenting its joys. Suppose we
assume that its duration is reduced 20%. My reply is that its de-
lights will be increased at least 100%. Misled by statisticians,
we fall only too often into the error of worshiping mere figures.
To say that A will live to be eighty and B will die at forty is
certainly not to argue plausibly that A is more to be envied
than B. A, in point of fact, may have to spend all of his eighty
years in Kansas or Arkansas, with nothing to eat save corn
and hog-meat and nothing to drink save polluted river water,
whereas B may put in his twenty years of discretion upon the
C6te d'Azur, wie Gott im Frankreich. It is my contention that
the world I picture, assuming the average duration of human
life to be cut down even 50%, would be an infinitely happier
and more charming world than that we live in today — that no

XXII. Utopian Flights 391

intelligent human being, having once tasted its peace and joy,
would go back voluntarily to the harsh brutalities and stupidi-
ties that we now suffer, and idiotically strive to prolong. If in-
telligent Americans, in these depressing days, still cling to life
and try to stretch it out longer and longer, it is surely not logi-
cally, but only instinctively. It is the primeval brute in them
that hangs on, not the man. The man knows only too well that
ten years in a genuine civilized and happy country would be
infinitely better than a geological epoch under the curses he
must now face and endure every day.

Moreover, there is no need to admit that the moderate alco-
holization of the whole race would materially reduce the dura-
tion of life. A great many of us are moderately alcoholized
already, and yet manage to survive quite as long as the blue-
noses. As for the blue-noses themselves, who would repine if
breathing alcohol-laden air brought them down with delirium
tremens and so sterilized and exterminated them? The advan-
tage to the race in general would be obvious and incalculable.
All the worst strains — which now not only persist, but even
prosper — would be stamped out in a few generations, and so
the average human being would move appreciably away from,
say, the norm of a Baptist clergyman in Georgia and toward the
norm of Shakespeare, Mozart and Goethe. It would take asons,
of course, to go all the way, but there would be progress with
every generation, slow but sure. Today, it must be manifest,
we make no progress at all; instead we slip steadily backward.
That the average civilized man of today is inferior to the aver-
age civilized man of two or three generations ago is too plain
to need arguing. He has less enterprise and courage; he is less
resourceful and various; he is more like a rabbit and less like
a lion. Harsh oppressions have made him what he is. He is the
victim of tyrants. Well, no man with two or three cocktails in
him is a tyrant. He may be foolish, but he is not cruel. He may
be noisy, but he is also tolerant, generous and kind. My pro-
posal would restore Christianity to the world. It would rescue
mankind from moralists, pedants and brutes.


The Hills of Zion

From Prejudices: Fifth Series, 1926, pp. 75-86. In its first form this
was a dispatch to the Baltimore Evening Sun. I wrote it on a roaring hot
Sunday afternoon in a Chattanooga hotel room, naked above the waist and
with only a pair of BVDs below

It was hot weather when they tried the infidel Scopes at Dav-
ton, Tenn., but I went down there very willingly, for I was
eager to see something of evangelical Christianity as a going
concern. In the big cities of the Republic, despite the endless
efforts of consecrated men, it is laid up with a wasting disease.
The very Sunday-school superintendents, taking jazz from the
stealthy radio, shake their fire-proof legs; their pupils, moving
into adolescence, no longer respond to the proliferating hor-
mones by enlisting for missionary service in Africa, but resort
to necking instead. Even in Dayton, I found, though the mob
was up to do execution upon Scopes, there was a strong smell
of antinomianism. The nine churches of the village were all
half empty on Sunday, and weeds choked their yards. Only two
or three of the resident pastors managed to sustain themselves
by their ghostly science; the rest had to take orders for mail-
order pantaloons or work in the adjacent strawberry fields; one,
I heard, was a barber. On the courthouse green a score of sweat-
ing theologians debated the darker passages of Holy Writ day
and night, but I soon found that they were all volunteers, and
that the local faithful, while interested in their exegesis as an
intellectual exercise, did not permit it to impede the indigenous
debaucheries. Exactly twelve minutes after I reached the village
I was taken in tow by a Christian man and introduced to the
favorite tipple of the Cumberland Range: half corn liquor and
half Coca-Cola. It seemed a dreadful dose to me, but I found
that the Dayton illuminati got it down with gusto, rubbing
their tummies and rolling their eyes. I include among them the


XXI 11. Souvenirs of a Journalist 393

chief local proponents of the Mosaic cosmogony. They were all
hot for Genesis, but their faces were far too florid to belong to
teetotalers, and when a pretty girl came tripping down the
main street, which was very often, they reached for the places
where their neckties should have been with all the amorous en-
terprise of movie actors. It seemed somehow strange.

An amiable newspaper woman of Chattanooga, familiar with
those uplands, presently enlightened me. Dayton, she explained,
was simply a great capital like any other. That is to say, it was
to Rhea county what Atlanta was to Georgia or Paris to France.
That is to say, it was predominantly epicurean and sinful. A
country girl from some remote valley of the county, coming into
town for her semi-annual bottle of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable
Compound, shivered on approaching Robinson s drug-store
quite as a country girl from up-State New York might shiver
on approaching the Metropolitan Opera House. In every village
lout she saw a potential white-slaver. The hard sidewalks hurt
her feet. Temptations of the flesh bristled to all sides of her,
luring her to Flell. This newspaper woman told me of a session
with just such a visitor, holden a few days before. The latter
waited outside one of the town hot-dog and Coca-Cola shops
while her husband negotiated with a hardware merchant across
the street. The newspaper woman, idling along and observing
that the stranger was badly used by the heat, invited her to step
into the shop for a glass of Coca-Cola. The invitation brought
forth only a gurgle of terror. Coca-Cola, it quickly appeared, was
prohibited by the country lady’s pastor, as a levantine and Hell-
sent narcotic. He also prohibited coffee and tea — and piesl He
had his doubts about white bread and boughten meat. The
newspaper woman, interested, inquired about ice-cream. It was,
she found, not specifically prohibited, but going into a Coca-
Cola shop to get it would be clearly sinful. So she offered to get
a saucer of it, and bring it out to the sidewalk. The visitor
vacillated — and came near being lost. But God saved her in
the nick of time. When the newspaper woman emerged from
the place she was in full flight up the street. Later on her hus-
band, mounted on a mule, overtook her four miles out the
mountain pike.

This newspaper woman, whose kindness covered city infidels

394 A Mencken Chrestomathy
as well as Alpine Christians, offered to take me back in the hills
to a place where the old-time religion was genuinely on tap.
The Scopes jury, she explained, was composed mainly of its
customers, with a few Dayton sophisticates added to leaven the
mass. It would thus be instructive to climb the heights and ob-
serve the former at their ceremonies. The trip, fortunately,
might be made by automobile. There was a road running out
of Dayton to Morgantown, in the mountains to the westward,
and thence beyond. But foreigners, it appeared, would have to
approach the sacred grove cautiously, for the upland worshipers
were very shy, and at the first sight of a strange face they would
adjourn their orgy and slink into the forest. They were not to be
feared, for God had long since forbidden them to practise assas-
sination, or even assault, but if they were alarmed a rough trip
would go for naught. So, after dreadful bumpings up a long
and narrow road, we parked our car in a little woodpath a mile
or two beyond the tiny village of Morgantown, and made the
rest of the approach on foot, deployed like skirmishers. Far off
in a dark, romantic glade a flickering light was visible, and out
of the silence came the rumble of exhortation. We could dis-
tinguish the figure of the preacher only as a moving mote in the
light: it was like looking down the tube of a dark-field micro-
scope. Slowly and cautiously we crossed what seemed to be a
pasture, and then we stealthily edged further and further. The
light now grew larger and we could begin to make out what was
going on. We went ahead on all fours, like snakes in the grass.
From the great limb of a mighty oak hung a couple of crude
torches of the sort that car inspectors thrast under Pullman cars
when a train pulls in at night. In the guttering glare was the
preacher, and for a while we could see no one else. He was an
immensely tall and thin mountaineer in blue jeans, his collar-
less shirt open at the neck and his hair a tousled mop. As he
preached he paced up and down under the smoking flambeaux,
and at each turn he thrust his arms into the air and yelled
"'Glory to Godf' We crept nearer in the shadow of the corn-
field, and began to hear more of his discourse. He was preaching
on the Day of Judgment. The high kings of the earth, he roared,
would all fall down and die; only the sanctified would stand up
to receive the Lord God of Flosts. One of these kings he men-

XXIII. Souvenirs of a Journalist 395

tioned by name, the king of what he called Greece-y.^ The king
of Greece-y, he said, was doomed to Hell. We crawled forward
a few more yards and began to see the audience. It was seated
on benches ranged round the preacher in a circle. Behind him
sat a row of elders, men and women. In front were the younger
folk. We crept on cautiously, and individuals rose out of the
ghostly gloom. A young mother sat suckling her baby, rocking
as the preacher paced up and down. Two scared little girls
hugged each other, their pigtails down their backs. An im-
mensely huge mountain woman, in a gingham dress, cut in one
piece, rolled on her heels at every Glory to Godf' To one side,
and but half visible, was what appeared to be a bed. We found
afterward that half a dozen babies were asleep upon it

The preacher stopped at last, and there arose out of the dark-
ness a woman with her hair pulled back into a little tight knot.
She began so quietly that we couldn't hear what she said, but
soon her voice rose resonantly and we could follow her. She was
denouncing the reading of books. Some wandering book agent,
it appeared, had come to her cabin and tried to sell her a speci-
men of his wares. She refused to touch it. Why, indeed, read a
book? If what was in it was true, then everything in it was al-
ready in the Bible. If it was false, then reading it would imperil
the soul. This syllogism from the Caliph Omar complete, she
sat down. There followed a hymn, led by a somewhat fat brother
wearing silver-rimmed country spectacles. It droned on for half
a dozen stanzas, and then the first speaker resumed the floor.
He argued that the gift of tongues was real and that education
was a snare. Once his children could read the Bible, he said,
they had enough. Beyond lay only infidelity and damnation.
Sin stalked the cities. Dayton itself was a Sodom. Even Morgan-
town had begun to forget God. He sat down, and a female
aurochs in gingham got up. She began quietly, but was soon
leaping and roaring, and it was hard to follow her. Under cover
of the turmoil we sneaked a bit closer.

A couple of other discourses followed, and there were two or
three hymns. Suddenly a change of mood began to make itself
felt. The last hymn ran longer than the others, and dropped
gradually into a monotonous, unintelligible chant. The leader
1 Grecia? Cf, Daniel viii, 21.

396 A Mencken Chrestomathy

beat time with his book. The faithful broke out with exulta-
tions. When the singing ended there was a brief palaver that
we could not hear, and two of the men moved a bench into the
circle of light directly under the flambeaux. Then a half-grown
girl emerged from the darkness and threw herself upon it. We
noticed with astonishment that she had bobbed hair. 'This
sister,” said the leader, "has asked for prayers.” We moved a
bit closer. We could now see faces plainly, and hear every
word. At a signal all the faithful crowded up to the bench and
began to pray — not in unison, but each for himself. At another
they all fell on their knees, their arms over the penitent. The
leader kneeled facing us, his head alternately thrown back dra-
matically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips
like bullets from a machine-gun — appeals to God to pull the
penitent back out of Hell, defiances of the demons of the air,
a vast impassioned jargon of apocalyptic texts. Suddenly he rose
to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in the
tongues ^ — blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose
to a higher register. The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk,
like that of a man throttled. He fell headlong across the pyra-
mid of supplicants.

From the squirming and jabbering mass a young woman
gradually detached herself — a woman not uncomely, with a
pathetic homemade cap on her head. Her head jerked back, the
veins of her neck swelled, and her fists went to her throat as
if she were fighting for breath. She bent backward until she
was like half a hoop. Then she suddenly snapped forward. We
caught a flash of the whites of her eyes. Presently her whole
body began to be convulsed — ■ great throes that began at the
shoulders and ended at the hips. She would leap to her feet,
thrust her arms in air, and then hurl herself upon the heap.
Her praying flattened out into a mere delirious caterwauling. I
describe the thing discreetly, and as a strict behaviorist. The
lady's subjective sensations I leave to infidel pathologists, privy
to the works of Ellis, Freud and Moll. Whatever they were,
they were obviously not painful, for they were accompanied by
vast heavings and gurglings of a joyful and even ecstatic nature.
And they seemed to be contagious, too, for soon a second peni-
2 Mark xvi, 17.

XXIIL Souvenirs of a Journalist 397

tent, also female, joined the first, and then came a iiiird, and a
fourth, and a fifth. The last one had an extraordinary violent
attack. She began with mild enough jerks of the head, but in a
moment she was bounding all over the place, like a chicken
with its head cut off. Every time her head came up a stream
of hosannas would issue out of it Once she collided with a
dark, undersized brother, hitherto silent and stolid. Contact
with her set him off as if he had been kicked by a mule. He
leaped into the air, threw back his head, and began to gargle
as if with a mouthful of BB shot Then he loosed one tre-
mendous, stentorian sentence in the tongues, and collapsed.

By this time the performers were quite oblivious to the pro-
fane universe and so it was safe to go still closer. We left our
hiding and came up to the little circle of light. We slipped into
the vacant seats on one of the rickety benches. The heap of
mourners was directly before us. They bounced into us as they
cavorted. The smell that they radiated, sweating there in that
obscene heap, half suffocated us. Not all of them, of course, did
the thing in the grand manner. Some merely moaned and rolled
their eyes. The female ox in gingham flung her great bulk on
the ground and jabbered an unintelligible prayer. One of the
men, in the intervals between fits, put on his spectacles and
read his Bible. Beside me on the bench sat the young mother
and her baby. She suckled it through the whole orgy, obviously
fascinated by what was going on, but never venturing to take
any hand in it. On the bed just outside the light the half a dozen
other babies slept peacefully. In the shadows, suddenly appear-
ing and as suddenly going away, were vague figures, whether of
believers or of scoffers I do not know. They seemed to come and
go in couples. Now and then a couple at the ringside would
step out and vanish into the black night. After a while some
came back, the males looking somewhat sheepish. There was
whispering outside the circle of vision. A couple of Model T
Fords lurched up the road, cutting holes in the darkness with
their lights. Once someone out of sight loosed a bray of

All this went on for an hour or so. The original penitent, by
this time, was buried three deep beneath the heap. One caught
a glimpse, now and then, of her yellow bobbed hair, but then

398 A Mencken Chrestomathy

she would vanish again. How she breathed down there I don’t
know; it was hard enough six feet away, with a strong five-cent
cigar to help. Wlien the praying brothers would rise up for a
bout with the tongues their faces were streaming with perspira-
tion. The fat harridan in gingham sweated like a longshoreman.
Her hair got loose and fell down over her face. She fanned her-
self with her skirt. A powerful old gal she was, plainly equal in
her day to a bout with obstetrics and a week’s washing on the
same morning, but this was worse than a week’s washing. Fi-
nally, she fell into a heap, breathing in great, convulsive gasps.

Finally, we got tired of the show and returned to Dayton. It
was nearly eleven o’clock — an immensely late hour for those
latitudes — but the whole town was still gathered in the court-
house yard, listening to the disputes of theologians. The Scopes
trial had brought them in from all directions. There was a friar
wearing a sandwich sign announcing that he was the Bible
champion of the world. There was a Seventh Day Adventist
arguing that Clarence Darrow was the beast with seven heads
and ten horns described in Revelation xiii, and that the end of
the world was at hand. There was an evangelist made up like
Andy Gump, with the news that atheists in Cincinnati were
preparing to descend upon Dayton, hang the eminent Judge
Raulston, and burn the town. There was an ancient who main-
tained that no Catholic could be a Christian. There was the
eloquent Dr. T. T. Martin, of Blue Mountain, Miss., come to
town with a truck-load of torches and hymn-books to put Dar-
win in his place. There was a singing brother bellowing apoca-
lyptic hymns. There was William Jennings Bryan, followed
everywhere by a gaping crowd. Dayton was having a roaring
time. It was better than the circus. But the note of devotion
was simply not there; the Daytonians, after listening a while,
would slip away to Robinson’s drug-store to regale themselves
with Coca-Cola, or to the lobby of the Aqua Hotel, where the
learned Raulston sat in state, judicially picking his teeth. The
real religion was not present. It began at the bridge over the
town creek, where the road makes oiS for the hills.

XXIII. Souvenirs of a Journalist 399

Dempsey vs. Carpentier

From the New York Worlds July 3, 1921. During the 20s and 30s I
often undertook newspaper commissions, and always enjoyed them vastly.
I covered the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in Boyle's Thirty Acres, Jersey City,
N. J., July 2, 1921, for the World and the Baltimore Sun jointly. Carpentier
was the favorite, not only of the populace but also of the sporting reporters,
mainly because Dempsey was disliked for evading service in World War I.
These sporting reporters were nearly all inclined to see what they wanted
to see, to wit, the severe punishment of Dempsey by Carpentier. Accord-
ingly, they reported that Dempsey had been almost knocked out in the
second or third round. This rapidly developed into a sort of superstition,
which was not laid until both Carpentier and Dempsey denounced it as

In the great combat staged there in that colossal sterilizer be-
neath the harsh Jersey sun there was little to entertain the
fancier of gladiatorial delicacies. It was simply a brief and hope-
less struggle between a man full of romantic courage and one
overwhelmingly superior in every way. This superiority was cer-
tainly not only in weight nor even in weight and reach.

As a matter of fach the difference in weight was a good deal
less than many another championship battle has witnessed, and
Carpentier's blows seldom failed by falling short. What ailed
them was that they were not hard enough to knock out Demp-
sey or even to do him any serious damage. Whenever they
landed Dempsey simply shook them off. And in the intervals
between them he landed dozens and scores of harder ones. It
was a clean fight, if not a beautiful one. It was swift, clear-cut,
brilliant and honest

Before half of the first round was over it must have been plain
to even the policemen and Follies girls at the ringside that poor
Carpentier was done for. Dempsey heaved him into the ropes,
indeed, at the end of the first minute and thereafter gave him
such a beating that he was plainly "gone by the time he got to
his corner. Blow after blow landed upon his face, neck, ribs,
belly and arms. Two-thirds of them were upper cuts at very
short range — blows which shook him, winded him, confused
him, hurt him, staggered him, A gigantic impact was behind

400 A Mencken Chrestomathy

them. His face began to look Hobby; red marks appeared all

over his front.

WTiere was his celebrated right? Obviously he was working
hard for a chance to unlimber it. He walked in boldly, taking
terrific punishment with great gallantry. Suddenly the opportu-
nit}^ came and he let it fly. It caught Dempsey somewhere along
the frontiers of his singularly impassive face. The effect upon
him was apparently no greater than that of a somewhat angry
slap upon an ordinary ox. His great bulk hardly trembled. He
blinked, snuffled amiably and went on. Five seconds later Car-
pentier was seeking cover behind the barricade of his own
gloves, and Dempsey was delivering colossal wallops under it,
over it and headlong through it.

He fought with both hands, and he fought all the time. Car-
pentier, after that, was in the fight only intermittently. His
right swings reached Dempsey often enough, but as one fol-
lowed another they hurt him less and less. Toward the end he
scarcely dodged them. More and more they clearly missed him,
shooting under the arms or sliding behind his ears.

In the second round, of course, there was a moment when
Carpentier appeared to be returning to the fight. The crowd,
eager to reward his heroic struggle, got to its legs and gave him
a cheer. He waded into Jack, pushed him about a bit, and now
and then gave him a taste of that graceful right. But there w’’as
no left to keep it company, and behind it there was not enough
amperage to make it burn. Dempsey took it, shook it off, and
went on.

Clout, clout, cloutl In the space of half a minute Carpentier
stopped twenty-five sickening blows most of them short, and
all of them cruelly hard. His nose began to melt. His jaw sagged.
He heaved pathetically. Because he stood up to it gamely, and
even forced the fighting, the crowd was for him, and called it
his round. But this view was largely that of amateurs familiar
only with rough fights between actors at the Lambs club. Ob-
served more scientifically, the round was Jack's. When it closed
he was as good as new — and Carpentier was beginning to go

It was not in the second, but in the third round that Car-
pentier did his actual best. Soon after the gong he reached Jack

XXIIL Souvenirs of a Journalist 401

with a couple of uppers that seemed to have genuine steam in
them, and Jack began to show a new wariness. But it was only
for a moment. Presently Carpentier was punching holes through
the air with wild rights that missed the champion by a foot,
and the champion was battering him to pieces with shorts that
covered almost every square inch of his upper works. They came
in pairs, right and left, and then in quartets, and then in oc-
tets, and then almost continuously.

Carpentier decayed beneath them like an Autumn leaf in
Vallombrosa. Gently and pathetically he fluttered down. His
celebrated right by this time gave Jack no more concern. It
would have taken ten of them to have knocked out even Fatty
Arbuckle. They had the effect upon the iron champion of pet-
ting with a hot water bag. Carpentier went to his corner bloody
and bowed. It was all over with the high hopes of that gallant
France. He had fought a brave fight; he had kept the faith —
but the stars were set for Ireland and the Mormons.

The last round was simply mopping up. Carpentier was on
the floor in half a minute. I doubt that Dempsey hit him hard
in this round. A few jabs, and all the starch was out of his
neck. He got up at nine, and tried a rush. Jack shoved him
over, and gave him two or three light ones for good measure
as he went down again. He managed to move one of his legs,
but above the waist he was dead. When the referee counted ten
Dempsey lifted him to his feet and helped him to his stool.

With his arms outstretched along the ropes, he managed to
sit up, but all the same he was a very badly beaten pug. His
whole face was puffy and blood ran out of his nose and mouth.
His fagade was one great mass of hoof-prints. Between them his
skin had the whiteness of a mackereFs belly. Gone were all his
hopes. And with them, the hard francs and centimes, at ruinous
rates of exchange, of all the beauty and chivalry of France,
Many Frenchmen were in the stand. They took it as Carpentier
fought ““ bravely and stoically. It was a hard and a square battle,
and there was no dishonor in it for the loser.

But as a spectacle, of course, it suffered by its shortness and
its one-sidedness. There was never the slightest doubt in any
cultured heart, from the moment the boys put up their dukes,
that Dempsey would have a walk-over.

402 A Mencken Chrestomathy

As I say^ it was not only or even mainly a matter of weight.
Betw^een tlie two of them, as they shook hands, there w^as no
very noticeable disparity in size and bulk. Dempsey was the
larger, but he certainly did not tower over Carpentier. He was
also a bit the tliicker and solider, but Carpentier was thick and
solid too. What separated them so widely was simply a differ-
ence in fighting technique. Carpentier was the lyrical fighter,
prodigal with agile footwork and blows describing graceful
curves. He fought nervously, eagerly and beautifully. I have
seen far better boxers, but I have never seen a more brilliant
fighter — that is, with one hand.

Dempsey showed none of that st}^le and passion. He seldom
moved his feet, and never hopped, skipped or jumped. His
strategy consisted in the bare business: {a) oi standing up to it
as quietly and solidly as possible; and (b) of jolting, bumping,
thumping, bouncing and shocking his antagonist to death with
the utmost convenient despatch.

This method is obviously not one for gladiators born subject
to ordinary human weaknesses and feelings; it presents advan-
tages to an antagonist who is both quick and strong; it grounds
itself, when all is said, rather more on mere toughness than on
actual skill at fighting. But that toughness is certainly a handy
thing to have when one hoofs the fatal rosin. It gets one around
bad situations. It saves the day when the vultures begin to
circle overhead.

To reinforce his left Dempsey has a wallop in his right hand
like the bump of a ferryboat into its slip. The two work con-
stantly and with lovely synchronization. The fighter who hopes
to stand up to them must be even tougher than Jack is, which
is like aspiring to be even taller than the late Cy Sulloway. Car-
pentier simply fell short. He could not hurt Dempsey, and he
could not live through the Dempsey bombardment. So he per-
ished there in that Homeric stewpan, a brave man but an un-
wise one.

The show was managed with great deftness, and all the ante-
cedent rumors of a frame-up were laid in a manner that will
bring in much kudos and mazuma to Mons. Tex Rickard, the
manager, hereafter. I have never been in a great crowd that was

XXIIL Souvenirs of a Journalist 403

more orderly, or that had less to complain of in the way of
avoidable discomforts.

Getting out of the arena, true enough, involved some hot
work with the elbows; the management, in fact, put in small
fry after the main battle in order to hold some of the crowd
back, and so diminish the shoving in the exits, which were too
few and too narrow. If there had been a panic in the house,
thousands would have been heeled to death. But getting in was
easy enough, the seats though narrow were fairly comfortable,
and there was a clear view of the ring from every place in the
monster bowl. Those who bought bleacher tickets, in fact, saw
just as clearly as those who paid $50 apiece for seats at the

The crowd in the more expensive sections was well-dressed,
good-humored and almost distinguished. The common allega-
tion of professional moralists that prize fights are attended by
thugs was given a colossal and devastating answer. No such
cleanly and decent looking gang was ever gathered at a Billy
Sunday meeting, or at any other great moral outpouring that I
have ever attended. All the leaders of fashionable and theatrical
society were on hand, most of them in checkerboard suits and
smoking excellent cigars, or, if female, in new hats and pretty

Within the range of my private vision, long trained to es-
thetic alertness, there was not a single homely gal. Four rows
ahead of me there were no less than half a dozen who would
have adorned the 'Tollies. Behind me, clad in pink, was a
creature so lovely that she caused me to miss most of the pre-
liminaries. She rooted for Carpentier in the French language,
and took the count with heroic fortitude.

How Legends are Made

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, July 5, 1921

The late herculean combat between Prof. Dempsey and Mons.
Carpentier, in addition to all its other usufructs, also had some

404 A Mencken Chrestomathy

lessons in it for the psychologist — that is, if any psychologist
can be found who is not an idiot. One was a lesson in the
ways and means whereby legends are made, that man may be
kept misinformed and happy on this earth, and hence not too
willing to go to Hell. I allude specifically to a legend already
in full credit throughout the lengtli and breadth of Christem
dom, to wit, the legend that Carpentier gave Dempsey some
fearful wallops in tire second round of their joust, and came
within a micromillimeter of knocking him out. Loving the truth
for its own sake, I now tell it simply and hopelessly. No such
wallops were actually delivered. Dempsey was never in any more
danger of being knocked out than I was, sitting there in the
stand with a very pretty gal just behind me and five or six just
in front.

In brief, the whole story is apocryphal, bogus, hollow and
null, imbecile, devoid of substance. The gallant Frog himself,
an honest as w^ell as a reckless man, has testified clearly that, by
the time he came to the second round, he was already substan-
tially done for, and hence quite incapable of doing any execu-
tion upon so solid an aurochs as Dempsey. His true finish came,
in fact, in the first round, when Dempsey, after one of Car-
pentier's flashy rights, feinted to his head, caused him to duck,
and then delivered a devastating depth-bomb upon the back of
his neck. This blow, says Carpentier, produced a general agglu-
tination of his blood corpuscles, telescoped his vertebrae, and
left him palsied and on the verge of Cheyne-Stokes breathing.
To say that any pug unaided by supernatural assistance, after
such a colossal shock, could hit von Dempsey hard enough to
hurt him is to say that a Sunday-school superintendent could
throw a hippopotamus. Nevertheless, there stands the legend,
and Christendom will probably believe it as firmly as it be-
lieves that Jonah swallowed the whale. It has been printed mul-
titudinously. It has been cabled to all the four quarters of the
earth. It enters into the intellectual heritage of tlie human race.
How is it to be accounted for? What was the process of its

Having no belief in simple answers to the great problems of
being and becoming, I attempt a somewhat complex one. It
may be conveniently boiled down to the following propositions:

XXIIL Souvenirs of a Journalist 405

(a) The sympathies of a majority of the intelligentsia
present were with M. Carpentier, because (1) he was
matched with a man plainly his superior^ (2) he had come
a long way to fight, (3) he was the challenger, (4) he was
an ex-soldier, whereas his opponent had ducked the draft.

(b) He was (1) a Frenchman, and hence a beneficiary
of the romantic air which hangs about all things French,
particularly to Americans who question the constitution-
ality of Prohibition and the Mann Act; he was (2) of a
certain modest social pretension, and hence palpably above
Professor Dempsey, a low-brow.

(c) He was polite to newspaper reporters, the surest
means to favorable public notice in America, whereas the
oaf, Dempsey, was too much afraid of them to court them.

(d) He was a handsome fellow, and made love to all
the sob-sisters-

(e) His style of fighting was open and graceful, and
grounded itself upon active footwork and swinging blows
that made a smack when they landed, and so struck the in-
experienced as deft and effective.

All these advantages resided within M. de Carpentier himself.

Now for a few lying outside him:

{a) The sporting reporters, despite their experience,
often succumb to (c) above. That is, they constantly over-
estimate the force and effect of spectacular blows, and as
constantly underestimate the force and effect of short, close
and apparently unplanned blows.

(b) They are all in favor of prize-fighting as a sport,
and seek to make it appear fair, highly technical and ro-
mantic; hence their subconscious prejudice is against a cap-
ital fight that is one-sided and without dramatic moments.

(c) They are fond, like all the rest of us, of airing their
technical knowledge, and so try to gild their reports with
accounts of mysterious transactions that the boobery looked
at but did not see.

(d) After they have predicted confidently that a given
pug will give a good account of himself, they have to save
their faces by describing him as doing it.

^o6 A Mencken Chrestomathy

(e) They are, like all other human beings, sheep-like,
and docilely accept any nonsense that is launched by a man
who knows how to impress them.

I could fish up other elements out of the hocus-pocus, but
here are enough. Boiled down, the thing simply amounts to
this: that Carpentier practised a style of fighting tliat was more
spectacular and attractive than Dempsey's, both to the laiety
present and to the experts; that he was much more popular than
Dempsey, at least among the literati and the nobility and gen-
try; and that, in the face of his depressing defeat, all his parti-
sans grasped eagerly at the apparent recovery he made in the
second round — when, by his own confession, he was already
quite out of it — and converted that apparent recovery into an
onslaught which came within an ace of turning the tide for him.

But why did all the reporters and spectators agree upon the
same fiction? The answer is easily given: all of them did not
agree upon it. Fully a half of them knew nothing about it
when they left the stand; it was not until the next day that they
began to help it along. As for those who fell upon it at once,
they did so for the simple reason that the second round pre-
sented the only practicable opportunity for arguing that Car-
pentier was in the fight at all, save perhaps as an unfortunate
spectator. If they didn’t say that he had come near knocking
out Dempsey in that round, they couldn’t say it at all. So they
said it — and now every human being on this favorite planet
of Heaven believes it, from remote missionaries on the Upper
Amazon to lonely Socialists in the catacombs of Leavenworth,
and from the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding on his alabaster
throne to tlie meanest Slovak in the bowels of the earth. I sweat
and groan on this hot night to tell you the truth, but you will
not believe me. The preponderance of evidence is against me.
In six more days, no doubt, I’ll be with you, rid of my indigesti-
ble facts and stuffed with the bosh that soothes and nourishes
man. . . . Aye, why wait six days? Tomorrow I’ll kiss the book,
and purge my conscience.

Meanwhile, I take advantage of my hours of grace to state
the ribald and immoral truth in plain terms, that an occasional
misanthrope may be rejoiced. Carpentier never for a single in-

XXII I . Souvenirs of a Journalist 407

slant showed the slightest chance of knocking out Dempsey. His
fighting was prettier than Dempsey’s; his blows swung from the
shoulder; he moved about gracefully; when he struck the spot
he aimed at (which was very seldom), it was with a jaunty and
charming air. But he was half paralyzed by that clout on the
posterior neck in the very first round, and thereafter his wallops
were no more dangerous to Dempsey than so many cracks with
a bag stuffed with liberty cabbage. '\^en, in the second round,
he rushed in and delivered the two or three blows to the jaw
that are alleged to have shaken up the ex-non-conscript, he got
in exchange for them so rapid and so powerful a series of
knocks that he came out of the round a solid mass of bruises
from the latitude of McBurney’s point to the bulge of the
frontal escarpment.

Nor did Dempsey, as they say, knock him out finally with a
right to the jaw, or with a left to the jaw, or with any single
blow to any other place. Dempsey knocked him out by beating
him steadily and fearfully, chiefly with short-arm jabs — to the
jaw, to the nose, to the eyes, to the neck front and back, to the
ears, to the arms, to the ribs, to the kishkas. His collapse was
gradual. He died by inches. In the end he simply dropped in
his tracks, and was unable to get up again — perhaps the most
scientifically and thoroughly beaten a man that ever fought in
a championship mill. It was, to my taste, almost the ideal fight
There was absolutely no chance to talk of an accidental blow,
or of a foul. Carpentier fought bravely, and, for the first minute
or two, brilliantly. But after that he went steadily down hill,
and there was never a moment when the result was in doubt
The spectators applauded the swinging blows and the agile foot-
work, but it was the relentless pummeling that won the fight

Such are the facts. I apologize for the Babylonian indecency
of printing them.

408 A Mencken Chrestomathy


From the Baltimore Evening Sun^ June 15, 1920. Written on my return
from the Republican National Convention in Chicago, which nominated
Warren G, Harding for the Presidency. Henry Cabot Lodge, then a Sena-
tor from Massachusetts and one of the leaders of the Republican party, was
permanent chairman of the convention. I came back from Chicago on the
same train that carried him, and in fact had the compartment next to his.
The weather was very hot and there was no air-conditioning. In the morn-
ing coming into Washington he astounded humanity by appearing in the
corridor in his shirt-sleeves. Harding died on Aug. 2, 1923, and Lodge on
Nov. 9, 1924

What Lodge thinks of it, viewing all that ghastly combat of
mountebanks in ironical retrospect, would make an interesting
story — perhaps the most interesting about the convention that
could be told, or even imagined. He presided over the sessions
from a sort of aloof intellectual balcony, far above the swarm-
ing and bawling of the common herd. He was there in the
flesh, but his soul was in some remote and esoteric Cathay.
Perhaps even the presence of the flesh was no more than an
optical delusion, a mirage due to the heat. At moments when
the whole infernal hall seemed bathed in a steam produced by
frying delegates and alternates alive, he was as cool as an under-
taker at a hanging. He did not sweat like the general. He did
not puff. He did not fume. If he put on a fresh collar every
morning it was mere habit and foppishness — a sentimental
concession to the Harvard tradition. He might have worn the
same one all week.

It was delightful to observe the sardonic glitter in his eye, his
occasional ill-concealed snort, his general air of detachment
from the business before him. For a while he would watch the
show idly, letting it get more and more passionate, vociferous
and preposterous. Then, as if suddenly awakened, he would
stalk into it wiih his club and knock it into decorum in half a
minute. I call the thing a club; it was certainly nothing properly
describable as a gavel. The head of it was simply a large globe
of hard wood, as big as an ordinary cantaloupe. The handle
was perhaps two feet long. The weight of it I can't estimate.
It must have been light, else so frail a man would have found

XXII I . Souvenirs of a Journalist 409

it too much for him. But it made a noise like the breaking in a
door, and before that crash whole delegations went down.

Supporting it was the Lodge voice, and behind the voice the
Lodge sneer. That voice seemed quite extraordinary in so slim
and ancient a man. It had volume, resonance, even a touch of
music: it was pleasant to hear, and it penetrated that fog of
vaporized humanity to great depth. No man who spoke from
the platform spoke more clearly, more simply or more effec-
tively. Lodge’s keynote speech, of course, was bosh, but it was
bosh delivered with an air— -bosh somehow dignified by the
manner of its emission. The same stuff, shoveled into the at-
mosphere by any other statesman on the platform, would have
simply driven the crowd out of the hall, and perhaps blown up
the convention then and there. But Lodge got away with it be-
cause he was Lodge — because there was behind it his unescap-
able confidence in himself, his disarming disdain of discontent
below, his unapologetic superiority.

This superiority was and is quite real. Lodge is above the
common level of his party, his country and his race, and he
knows it very well, and is not disposed toward the puerile hy-
pocrisy of denying it. He has learning. He has traditions behind
him. He is absolutely sure of himself in all conceivable Ameri-
can societies. There was a profound irony in the r61e that he
had to play at Chicago, and it certainly did not escape him.
One often detected him snickering into his beard as the obscene
farce unrolled itself before him. He was a nurse observing
sucklings at their clumsy play, a philosopher shooing chickens
out of the corn. His delight in the business visibly increased as
the climax was approached. It culminated in a colossal chuckle
as the mob got out of hand, and the witches of crowd folly
began to ride, and the burlesque deliberations of five intolerable
days came to flower in the half-frightened, half-defiant nomina-
tion of Harding — a tin-horn politician with the manner of a
rural corn doctor and the mien of a ham actor.

I often wonder what such a man as Lodge thinks secretly of
the democracy he professes to cherish. It must interest him
enormously, at all events as spectacle, else he would not waste
his time upon it. He might have given over his days to the
writing of bad history — an avocation both amusing and re-

410 A Mencken Chrestomathy

spectable, with a safe eminence as its final reward. He might
have gone in for diplomacy and drunk out of the same jug with
kings. He might have set up general practise as a Boston intel-
lectual, groaning and sniffing an easy way through life in the
lofty style of the Adams brothers. Instead he dedicated himself
to politics, and spent years mastering its complex and yet fun-
damentally childish technique.

Well, what reward has it brought him? At 73 he is a boss in
the Senate, holding domination over a herd of miscellaneous
mediocrities by a loose and precarious tenure. He has power,
but men who are far beneath him have more power. At the
great quadrennial pow-wow of his party he plays the part of
bellwether and chief of police. Led by him, the rabble com-
plains bitterly of lack of leadership. And when the glittering
prize is fought for, he is shouldered aside to make way for a
gladiator so bogus and so preposterous that the very thought of
him must reduce a scion of the Cabots to sour and sickly mirth.

A superior fellow? Even so. But superior enough to disdain
even the Presidency, so fought for by fugitives from the sewers?
I rather doubt it My guess is that the gaudy glamor of the
White House has intrigued even Henry Cabot — that he would
leap for the bauble with the best of them if it were not clearly
beyond his reach. The blinding rays, reflected from tlie brazen
front of Roosevelt, bathed him for a while; he had his day on
the steps of the throne, and I suspect that he was not insensi-
tive to the thrill of it. On what other theory can one account
for his sober acceptance of the whole Roosevelt hocus-pocus
save on this th