An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken
The tone of this extended essay is established up front by a quote from the subject himself, H.L. Mencken:
“To the extent that I am genuinely educated, I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes and the average pedagogue teaches.”
Mencken, one of America’s finest journalists, was also a world-class iconoclast, and the tone and spirit of his work is captured wonderfully in this short study by Hal Crowther, himself an esteemed author (and 1992 recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award). Mencken should be required reading for everyone (particularly prospective journalists), and An Infuriating American is as good an introduction to the writer as you’ll find.
Crowther’s prose is fearless in tone and content. He is willing to editorialize and present Mencken in all his contradictions—and he doesn’t shy away from the difficult subjects, like racial discrimination. For all his bluster about defying popular opinion and pedagogy, Mencken was a sheep when it came to racism. His comments about Jews and African-Americans, as well as his complicated love affair with Germany post-WWI, are indefensible, and Crowther makes no effort to do so.
But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Mencken drew the ire of many and never held his tongue to avoid criticism. He was an elitist and, one could argue, a misanthrope. “Human progress was one of the myths to which Mencken did not subscribe,” writes Crowther.
I would say the evidence supports this decision.
The breadth of his thought is such that members of all political factions can claim Mencken as one of their own. Crowther establishes his proper place: “Certainly Mencken was a conservative by many measures, and died conspicuously to the right of the intellectual mainstream. But it’s a grievous insult and injustice to imagine him watching Fox News, or celebrating the wisdom of Rush Limbaugh and Ayn Rand.”
This is a wonderful book about a complicated man, and an important object lesson for anyone pursuing a career in journalism, writing or general rabble-rousing.
And during this political season of partisan blowhards and neutered media, is there anything more fitting (or even patriotic) than revisiting an era of bold journalism, back when it was a blue-collar profession of integrity, and not something best illustrated by the film Nightcrawlers.