H. L. Mencken and the Yiddo-Americans


The Skeptic
A Life of H. L. Mencken
By Terry Teachout
432 pages. HarperCollins. $29.95.

H. L. Mencken on Religion
Edited by S. T. Joshi
330 pages.  Prometheus Books. $29.

When I hear the name H.L. Mencken, I think anti-Semite. This is a new development in my reading life. Once upon a time, I might have thought gadfly or newspaperman, but now it’s anti-Semite all the way. Why? I blame this less-than-free association on the buzz emanating from Terry Teachout’s book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. In The Skeptic, and in review after review, we’re reminded that Mencken didn’t like the Jewsnot a novel proposition, but one that always feels like breaking news to Menckeniacs like myself. While Teachout didn’t intend to demote the Sage of Baltimore to the Poster Boy for Prejudice (“It is not his anti-Semitism for which he will be remembered—but that he was an anti-Semite cannot now reasonably be denied”), this seems to be the book’s legacy: at least for the non-Gentile crowd. I speak from experience. Thanks to the Teachout Effect, the first thing I did on opening H. L. Mencken on Religion, a new collection edited by S. T. Joshi, was to check the Index for an entry on anti-Semitism. I didn't find one. But then I jumped over to the Js and discovered 16 listings for “Jews,” at which point I paused and thought, “This could get ugly.”

Now some of you may object that hunting for bigotry is a defensive way to read, and you may be right. But it’s an approach many readers, no matter how sophisticated or objective or literary, will take—with or without my prompting. (It may be useful to remember Harold Bloom’s contention that “reading is defensive warfare.”) My idea is to document how historical sensitivity affects our thinking about Mencken, and see if we can’t learn something about our author, and ourselves, in the process. So, tochis afn tish, as they used to say: Let’s see what kind of mensch this Mencken was.

Here’s a typical selection from Mencken on Religion: a column from the September 1924 edition of American Mercury. Menckenwrites that the “anti-Semitic movement” of the day “had actually done [the Jews] a great deal of good—that their position is actually more secure to-day, with attacks upon them going on openly, than it was when all they heard about themselves was flattering.” He then issues a three-point bulletin explaining the benefits of religious intolerance:

First of all, it enables them to see clearly who their enemies are, and to plan their defense intelligently. Secondly, it makes them privy, in so far as they have sense, to see their faults, and inspires them to mend their ways. Thirdly, it serves as a test of their leaders, and gives them a means of distinguishing between good and bad. Their most conspicuous leaders, in the days of their immunity, were bad ones—noisy rabbis of the newspaper interview species, professional charitymongers with active press-agents, advertisers with the manners of mule drivers and gang bosses. Such vermin, I believe, built up a prejudice against the whole race. The Jews to-day, under heavy fire, show a tendency to supplant them with better men, and the change will be to their lasting benefit.

Mencken’s language is interesting, from a stylistic perspective. Though he aims to be the American Nietzsche, he sounds more like a Jazz Age Jonathan Swift—an accidental satirist rather than a tough-talking philosopher. The what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger argument has been significantly endangered by modern history proving beyond doubt that anti-Semitism can be quite murderous. And one wonders at the word “vermin,” a favorite Nazi metaphor, and imagines what sort of resonance it had for American readers in 1924. Then one might think what the Jews’ “faults” were, and how they might “mend their ways”—both of which recall David Mamet’s definition of Reformed Judaism (“reformed, which is to say changed for the better, and, implicitly, penitent”)—and conclude that their main fault was being Jewish. Finally, and most significantly, one must note that Mencken’s underlying assumption—that the enemies of the Jews are always out there, always ready to attack, and so Jews should be on guard—harmonizes with the historical suspicions of many Jewish readers.

Passages like the above made me close Mencken on Religion and open up A Choice of Days, a book of autobiographical essays that first acquainted me with Mencken. I wanted to find what originally drew me to the writing; surely I wouldn’t have read him if he were a mere Jew-hater. On rereading, I found Mencken’s wit and time-defying prose superbly refreshing (“At the instant I became aware of the cosmos we all infest I was sitting my mother’s lap and blinking at a great burst of light, some of them red and others green, but most of them only the bright yellow of flaring gas”), so much so that I temporarily forgot my hunt for anti-Semitism. But I also found something else: Buried in Mencken’s essay, "The Caves of Learning," is, of all things, a shiny nugget of philo-Semitism.

In "The Caves," Mencken recalls attending school with Jews at the end of the 19th century at something called F. Knapp’s Institute. “There was no enmity,” writes Mencken, “between the Chosen and the Goyim in the old professor’s establishment, and no sense of difference in their treatment.” At the Institute the boy became accustomed to words like kosher and schlemiel and learned the rudiments of Hebrew. Mencken writes that by the time he left for the Polytechnic, “I had forgotten all the letters save aleph, beth, vav, yodh, and resh. These I retain more or less to the present day, and whenever I find myself in the society of an orthodox rabbi I always show them off.” It's hilarious to think that Mencken had about as much Hebrew school as your average Reform Jew. In fact, he knew about as much Hebrew as the famed scholar Walter Benjamin: According to Cynthia Ozick, writing in the New Yorker, “Benjamin was briefly inspired by [Gershom] Scholem’s example to study Hebrew, though he never progressed much beyond the alphabet.”

On the other, less happy, hand, "The Caves" includes the following sentences: “The Jewish boys of Baltimore, in that innocent era, were still palpably and unashamedly Jews, with Hittite noses, curly hair, and such given names as Aaron, Leon, Samuel and Isaac. I never encountered one named Sidney, Malcolm or Wesley, nor even Charles or William.” Clearly Mencken likes his Jews pure, visibly distinct, and unassimilated. And his aversion to non-biblical first names for Jews, which is really an aversion to the idea of assimilation, makes the democrat in me cringe. But when, in the same piece, he produces the phrase “Yiddo-Americans,” long before hyphenation became a conventional part of the American language, I’m less sure of his intentions. While the phrase seems a close cousin to “Jewish-American Princess,” Mencken may just be playing around with compound adjectives, in his typical mock-formal manner. Or he may be, in his own sarcastic way, describing the slightly awkward process of attempting to be Jewish and American at the very same time.

Ultimately my ambivalence toward "The Caves" made me see that a brief visit to the ghetto of discomfort was an inevitable part of reading Mencken. The man’s shtick was, after all, that of an equal-opportunity iconoclast. We shouldn’t expect him to boost our Judaic self-esteem, and we certainly shouldn’t be surprised that he wasn’t a cheerleader for the Chosen People. Besides, since when was comfort the end-goal of literature? Kafka, that decidedly non-Menckenian writer, is instructive here: “I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?” Perhaps a little anti-Semitism in our reading lives won’t kill us. Who knows: It might even make us stronger.