Released in 1995, this latest collection of Mencken’s writings contains much of his best work. Proving himself a gifted writer, Mencken wrote about a multitude of subjects: Americana, politics, war, lawyers, religion, women, food, literature, education, philosophy, and of course, his beloved Baltimore. However, it is in the realm of social criticism that Mencken shines as one of the most talented (and uncompromising) writers of the 20th century. Where others gush and swoon, Mencken attacks; ruthlessly exposing the hypocrisy and mediocrity running rampant in American life. Mencken’s newspaper columns were rarely about comforting the masses. Instead, he used his privileged position to reduce the cultural landscape to ashes.
Because the essays are preserved in their original, unedited form, contemporary readers might be shocked by his politically incorrect language (and obvious prejudices). Still, Mencken was no bigot: he blasted everyone, reserving the majority of his ire for whites (in the form of Southern white trash whom Mencken often referred to as subhuman yokels). The essays are taken from several sources, including “Prejudices,” “The Smart Set,” the Baltimore Evening Sun, and “American Mercury” and range in time from the early 1900s to the 1940s.
While some selections are more pointed (and humorous) than others, no essay is without a brilliant insight or observation. Moreover, Mencken remains endlessly quotable (even out of context). From “Nietzsche”: “Christianity also stands in opposition to all intellectual well-being. Sick reasoning is the only sort that it can use as Christian reasoning; it takes the side of everything that is idiotic.” From “The War Upon Intelligence”: “The schools reek with this puerile nonsense.” From “The Public School”: “I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes.” And from “The Cult of Hope”: “Man is inherently vile — but he is never so vile as when he is trying to disguise and deny his vileness.”
Above all, Mencken was unfair, outrageous, mean, savage, misanthropic, and possessed nothing but contempt for the average American. Seeing him as a superstitious boob drunk with self-righteousness, anti-intellectualism, and religious zeal, Mencken believed that it was his duty to reveal how America had ceded control to this ridiculous dimwit. While he preferred to rake America over the coals with dripping contempt, Mencken also wrote celebratory essays on the finer things in life; that which preserved his sanity in the face of so much madness. Alone with his typewriter, cigar, alcoholic beverage, and a good book, Mencken was capable of a deep and abiding joy too often believed to be absent from his life. Still, Mencken believed that praise should be sparing, lest we turn into mindless boosters, unable to distinguish between banality and nobility.