Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mencken on America

H. L. Mencken is one of my favorite American intellectuals. I, like many others, was shocked by his ability to put into searing words some of our darkest suspicions, and our most cynical opinions. I lived and studied in northern Italy for a period of six months before I came to America. Naturally, I compared, and still compare, the two experiences. I found America somewhat crass, and sometimes downright vulgar in sensibility, in comparison to Trento. I used to find it difficult to articulate the difference until I read this passage in Mencken's essay, "On Being an American":

And [in America], more than anywhere else I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

What is slightly unsettling about this passage is the fact that America's penchant for crass is not recent. This essay was written in 1922.

Another passage from an article written in 1920 in the Baltimore Sun is almost seer-like in its foresight, and certainly topical. Mencken speaks thus about candidates campaigning for national office:

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

That great and glorious day, obviously, is upon us. It has been, since 2000. (Some would say it first dawned in 1980, when Reagan took office.) Note also, in the passage, the damning assessment of the "plain folk". To their credit, the "plain folk" of the time suffered Mencken's aspersions with a fair degree of tolerance, even wreathed him in laurels. It is doubtful they would, today. And that is a tragedy.

No comments: