Front Page Titles (by Subject) WILLIAM H. NOLTE, H. L. Mencken and The American Hydra - New Individualist Review
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WILLIAM H. NOLTE, H. L. Mencken and The American Hydra - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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H. L. Mencken and The American Hydra
H. L. MENCKEN’S major complaint with the nation at large may be reduced to one often repeated lament: America is without an intellectual aristocracy that would give it direction and order. This absence of an intellectual class free to inquire and interpret, to act on its own prerogatives, to function autonomously without regard for the opinions of the mass also explains, in large part anyway, Mencken’s disapproval of democracy. Like many another artist—Melville comes at once to mind—Mencken was unable to reconcile democracy with order. And it was order that prevented man from running amuck in chaos. Moreover, it was order, or form, that gave universality to art. The modern democratic state resembles nothing more than the drunken beggar on horseback, riding off in all directions. Though it is impossible, and not even wholly desirable, to prevent that beggar from doing as he jolly well wishes, Mencken did attempt rather successfully to slow him down and make him sit up in the saddle as if he were sober. This service was performed by attacking one of the most virulent outgrowths of democracy: Puritanism. (I should explain that I use the word democracy—which by now is perhaps without any specific meaning—as the antonym of aristocracy.)
Mencken performed, broadly speaking, two major services for the national letters: he led the attack on Puritanism, which had crippled the artist in America for generations; and he gave great aid to a large number of the best writers America has produced.
Down to the 1920’s in America, the “master” of the arts had things pretty much his way. He was powerful, he was confident, he was popular. He was the proud descendant of Puritanism in its narrowest sense. He still violently objected to anything that smacked of heresy; especially did he object to the modern-day Maypole dancers. He represented the “moral viewpoint,” the “closed vision,” the “narrow outlook”—call it what you will. This ogre haunting the dreams of honest writers had over the years taken many shapes in the daylight world of actuality. In the first two decades of this century, the Puritanical restrictions were upheld in art by a class of men—the academicians; and by a philosophy—the so-called New Humanism. Moreover, the stronghold of Puritanism in the social realm had moved from New England to the South. Mencken’s criticism of the professor, of the New Humanist, and of the South is of one cloth.
THE FOUNDING FATHERS of New England came to America to establish one particular type of freedom—the freedom to enforce their own narrow beliefs without any deviations.1 Indeed, one of the first things the college student learns in a course on early American literature or history is that the concept of the Pilgrims which he acquired from high school must be radically revised. It is really an example of unlearning, which is the most powerful of all antidotes to the conditioned mental reflex, to superstition, and to prejudice. In Europe the Puritans had been persecuted largely because they were public nuisances, malcontents unable or unwilling to live and let live, similar in many ways to the God-crazy Anabaptists who were wont to run through the streets naked and howling to the invisible powers and principalities of the air. Only in a land uninhabited by civilized man could the Puritan hope to set up his peculiar kingdom of God. In America he had to contend only with the Indian, who was an easy prey for the sharp-trading, vindictive Puritan. In his book article for December, 1921, of the Smart Set, Mencken took to task those historians who credited the Puritans with the invention of most of the liberal institutions and ideas, such as they were, in America. (Mencken, incidentally, was in the forefront of those who, in the 1920’s, called for new and realistic appraisals of the American past.) “There is not a single right,” Mencken wrote, “of the citizen of today, from free speech to equal suffrage and from religious freedom to trial by jury, that [the Puritans] did not oppose with all their ferocious might.” Actually, as Mencken pointed out then, and as we now know for certain, it was the non-Puritan immigrants to New England who were responsible for overthrowing the Puritan and setting up free institutions in the country.
To [the anti-Puritans] we owe everything of worth that has ever come out of New England. They converted the sour gathering of hell-crazy deacons into the town-meeting; they converted the old pens for torturing little children into public-schools; they set up free speech, free assemblage, a free press, trial by jury, equality before the law, religious freedom, and manhood suffrage; they separated church and state; they broke down the old theology and substituted the rationalism that was to come to flower in New England’s Golden Age. The Puritans were absolutely against all of these things. They no more gave them to the Republic than they gave it Franklin or Emerson. What they gave it was something quite different: the shivering dread of the free individual that is still the curse of American civilization. They gave it canned patriotism, comstockery, intolerance of political heresy, Prohibition. They gave it Wilsonism, Burlesonism, and the Ku Klux Klan.2
THE MAIN IDEAS of Mencken on Puritanism may be found in “Puritanism as a Literary Force,” one of the major documents of American criticism. Aside from its value as a penetrating analysis of the debilitating effects of Puritanism on art, “Puritanism as a Literary Force” served as a spark to ignite the most bitterly waged critical war of the century. At the time of its publication (in A Book of Prefaces, 1917; the other three essays in the volume are on Conrad, Dreiser and Huneker) Mencken was at the height of his powers as a literary critic. He was 37 years old and not yet disenchanted with the profession of book criticism (it should always be remembered that Mencken’s best literary criticism was done before the twenties, the decade over which he reigned as America’s leading man-of-letters). Moreover, A Book of Prefaces was his first important volume of criticism (not counting the book on Nietzsche, which was primarily exposition). And it stands today, along with various essays in the Prejudices volumes as the best writing he was ever to do in that particular area. Indeed, within ten years after it appeared, Mencken had given up criticism of belles lettres except for occasional pieces and comments that continued to see print until his death in 1956.
Inevitably, the reigning America-First critics fell on A Book of Prefaces like angels on the Antichrist. Never before in America had a writer directed such a blast against an American sacred cow. And to publish such an un-American essay just when the nation was making the world safe for democracy was more than any right-thinking man could stand. The reception of Prefaces—which had a small sale in 1917, but enjoyed a wide audience when reissued in 1924—is a good gauge of Mencken’s popularity. Only a few rebels could stomach him during the war (Sgt. Edmund Wilson, for example, read and re-read the book, which convinced him more than any other single work that literary criticism was a worth-while profession); after the return of the conquering armies, a whole generation accepted the Menckenian theses as gospel.
In the opening pages of “Puritanism as a Literary Force,” Mencken made it clear that Puritanism as a theological doctrine was pretty much exploded: “That primitive demonology still survives in the barbaric doctrines of the Methodists and Baptists, particularly in the South; but it has been ameliorated, even there, by a growing sense of the divine grace, and so the old God of Plymouth Rock, as practically conceived, is now scarcely worse than the average jail warden or Italian padrone.”3 But as an ethical concept, Puritanism lived on in all its fury. To Mencken, the American still described all value judgments, even those of aesthetics, in terms of right and wrong. It was only natural that such “moral obsession” should strongly color our literature. In the histories of all other nations there have been periods of what Mencken called “moral innocence—periods in which a naif joie de vivre has broken through all concepts of duty and responsibility, and the wonder and glory of the universe have been hymned with unashamed zest.” But in America no such breathing spells have lightened the almost intolerable burdens of man. For proof of this continued moralism, one need only to glance at the critical articles in the newspapers and literary weeklies—that is, at those of the period before and during World War I. “A novel or a play is judged among us, not by its dignity or conception, its artistic honesty, its perfection of workmanship, but almost entirely by its orthodoxy of doctrine, its platitudinousness, its usefulness as a moral tract. A digest of the reviews of a book of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler would make astounding reading for a Continental European.”4 Had not most of the critics of Dreiser’s The Titan indignantly denounced the morals of Frank Cowperwood, the novel’s central character?
That [Cowperwood] was superbly imagined and magnificently depicted, that he stood out from the book in all the flashing vigour of life, that his creation was an artistic achievement of a very high and difficult order—these facts seem to have made no impression upon the reviewers whatever. They were Puritans writing for Puritans, and all they could see in Cowperwood was an anti-Puritan, and in his creator another. It will remain for Europeans, I daresay, to discover the true stature of The Titan, as it remained for Europeans to discover the true stature of Sister Carrie.5
When one encounters an American humorist of high rank, Mencken said, he finds further evidence of the Puritan mind. Aside from Ambrose Bierce, actually a “wit” and not at all well known, there had been few scurvy fellows of the Fielding-Sterne-Smollett variety. Mencken believed that our great humorists “have had to take protective colouration, whether willingly or unwillingly, from the prevailing ethical foliage, and so one finds them levelling their darts, not at the stupidities of the Puritan majority, but at the evidences of lessening stupidity in the anti-Puritan minority.” Rather than do battle against, they have done battle for, Philistinism—and Philistinism is just another name for Puritanism. Mencken might easily have found an exception to his generalization here in the person of George Ade, whose “fables” could hardly be said to support Philistinism. But then Ade was a singular case; besides, he did not offer much as a witness for the prosecution—and Mencken was intent on prosecuting. Mencken saw his favorite American artist, Mark Twain, as a perfect example of the American whose nationality hung about his neck like a millstone.
One ploughs through The Innocents Abroad and through parts of A Tramp Abroad with incredulous amazement. Is such coarse and ignorant clowning to be accepted as humour, as great humour, as the best humour that the most humourous of peoples has pro-produced? Is it really the mark of a smart fellow to lift a peasant’s cackle over Lohengrin? Is Titian’s chromo of Moses in the bullrushes seriously to be regarded as the noblest picture in Europe? Is there nothing in Latin Christianity, after all, save petty grafting, monastic scandals and the worship of the knuckles and shin-bones of dubious saints? May not a civilized man, disbelieving in it, still find himself profoundly moved by its dazzling history, the lingering remnants of its old magnificence, the charm of its gorgeous and melancholy loveliness? In the presence of all beauty of man’s creation—in brief, of what we roughly call art, whatever its form—the voice of Mark Twain was the voice of the Philistine.6
In tracing the development of Puritanism in America, Mencken found two main streams of influence. First, there was the force from without, that is, the influence of the original Puritans, who brought to the New World a philosophy of the utmost clarity, positiveness and inclusiveness. Actually, Mencken had no great objections to the original Puritans’ philosophy, or at least so he says in a letter to Gamaliel Bradford, dated October 24, 1924; what he objected to was that philosophy’s “perversion, by Methodists, Rotarians and other such vermin.”7 Although the original Puritan often possessed a good education (he was not infrequently a Cambridge or Oxford graduate) and even “a certain austere culture,” he was almost sure to be hostile to beauty in all its forms. Nature, it must be remembered, fell with Adam, and like Adam is at the mercy of wanton demons. To copy nature is to copy corruption. There is little, if any, of the dionysian spirit, the Ja-sager philosophy, in the preachments of Puritan divines.
The eighteenth century saw the passing of the Puritans as a powerful body of law makers. Deism undermined the old theology; epistemological studies replaced metaphysics. The proper study of mankind was thought to be man. Skepticism was all but universal among the learned of Europe, and Americans still imported their ideas wholesale from the mother countries. Both political and theological ideas were imported from France, where Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert and the other Encyclopedists were giving an entirely new direction to world philosophy. Mencken noted that even in New England, the last stronghold of the old Puritanism, this European influence was felt: “there was a gradual letting down of Calvinism to the softness of Unitarianism, and that change was presently to flower in the vague temporizing of Transcendentalism.” This decline of Puritanism proper was not, however, an unalloyed blessing. For as Puritanism “declined in virulence and took deceptive new forms, there was a compensating growth of its brother, Philistinism, and by the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the distrust of beauty, and of the joy that is its object, was as firmly established throughout the land as it had ever been in New England.” With the passing of the Adamses and the Jeffersons, Mencken remarked, the nation was quickly turned over to the tradesmen and the peasants. There was, he maintained, but one major difference between American peasants and those of other nations: the American peasant was listened to; he possessed power. (There is, of course no such thing as a peasant in America today—only social unfortunates.) With the election of Andrew Jackson, a man with whom Mencken violently disagreed and yet admired as a strong individual, Philistinism became the national philosophy. Jackson did what had not been done before: “he carried the mob’s distrust of good taste even into the field of conduct; he was the first to put the rewards of conformity above the dictates of common decency; he founded a whole hierarchy of Philistine messiahs, the roaring of which still belabours the ear.” The chief concern of Americans ever since the official triumph of mobocracy has been politics; what’s more, politics tended to absorb the rancorous certainty of the fading religious ideas; the game of politics had turned itself into a holy war.
The custom of connecting purely political doctrines with pietistic concepts of an inflammable nature, then firmly set up by skillful persuaders of the mob, has never quite died out in the United States. There has not been a presidential contest since Jackson’s day without its Armageddons, its marching of Christian soldiers, its crosses of gold, its crowns of thorns. The most successful American politicians, beginning with anti-slavery agitators, have been those most adept at twisting the ancient gauds and shibboleths of Puritanism to partisan uses. Every campaign that we have seen for eighty years has been, on each side, a pursuit of bugaboos, a denunciation of heresies, a snouting up of immoralities.8
THE PERVASIVENESS of Puritan ethics (not, remember, theology) in America placed all purely aesthetic concerns in limbo. Mencken stated that with the exception of Whitman there was hardly a major writer who used the materials of his own age for subject matter. He used Algernon Tassin’s The Magazine in America (1916) to support his thesis that the literature of the ante-bellum period was almost completely divorced from life as men were then living it. Only in such “crude politico-puritan tracts” as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was there any attempt made to interpret, or even to represent, the culture of the time. (The fact that Mrs. Stowe was chastised in her own day for her “realistic” novels only supports Mencken’s contention.) Later, the culture found historians, and in at least one work—Huckleberry Finn—it was depicted with the highest art, but Twain’s magnum opus was a rare exception. The nineteenth-century novelists did not even sentimentalize the here and now in the manner of Mencken’s contemporaries. The best minds of that period were engaged either in business or politics. The few competent men of the period who were artists almost without exception forsook the present for the non-political, non-social realms of Arcadia or El Dorado. It is evident that much of the material in “Puritanism as a Literary Force” was condensed in the later essay on “The National Letters” (in Prejudices: Second Series, 1920). For example:
Fenimore Cooper filled his romances, not with the people about him, but with the Indians beyond the sky-line, and made them half-fabulous to boot. Irving told fairy tales about the forgotten Knickerbockers; Hawthorne turned backward to the Puritans of Plymouth Rock; Longfellow to the Acadians and the prehistoric Indians; Emerson took flight from earth altogether; even Poe sought refuge in a land of fantasy. It was only the frank second-raters—e.g., Whittier and Lowell—who ventured to turn to the life around them, and the banality of the result is a sufficient indication of the crudeness of the current taste, and the mean position assigned to the art of letters. This was pre-eminently the era of the moral tale, the Sunday-school book.9
IN THE SEVENTIES and eighties, with the appearance of such men as Henry James, Howells, and Twain (Mencken also listed Bret Harte even though he never considered him a good second-rate artist), a better day seemed to be dawning. These writers gave promise of turning away from the past to the teeming and colorful life that lay about them. The promise, however, was not fulfilled.
Mark Twain, after The Gilded Age, slipped back into romanticism tempered by Philistinism, and was presently in the era before the Civil War, and finally in the Middle Ages, and even beyond. Harte, a brilliant technician, had displayed his whole stock when he had displayed his technique: his stories were not even superficially true to the life they presumed to depict; one searched them in vain for an interpretation of it; they were simply idle tales. As for Howells and James, both quickly showed timorousness and reticence which are the distinguishing marks of the Puritan even in his most intellectual incarnations. The American scene that they depicted with such meticulous care was chiefly peopled with marionettes.10
To return to “Puritanism as a Literary Force.” The force from within was, in essence, a force of “conditioning.” The American tended to view all the workings of God, fate, man and nature as exemplifications of a moral order or structure or pattern, just as his forebears had done. The rebel, that is, the writer who made an earnest attempt to depict his surroundings realistically rather than romantically or sentimentally, had had little influence on the main stream of American literature. Such writers as Hamlin Garland began as realists but soon saw a rosy light and devoted themselves to safer enterprises; Garland ended his days by composing books on spiritualism, or, as Mencken put it, by “chasing spooks.” (Garland, as well as Howells, refused to sign the Dreiser Protest, a petition objecting to the ban placed on The “Genius.” In the early days of the twentieth century, there had been a few realists—for example, Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, David Graham Phillips, Henry Fuller, Upton Sinclair—but their rebellion was apparently ineffectual.
The normal, the typical American book of today is as fully a remouthing of old husks as the normal book of Griswold’s day. The whole atmosphere of our literature, in William James’ phrase, is “mawkish and dishwatery.” Books are still judged among us, not by their form and organization as works of art, their accuracy and vividness as representations of life, their validity and perspicacity as interpretations of it, but by their conformity to the national prejudices, their accordance with set standards of niceness and propriety. The thing irrevocably demanded is a “sane” book; the ideal is a “clean,” an “inspiring,” a “glad” book.11
In addition to the impulse from within, or the internal resistance, there was a pervasive Puritan influence from without. No examination of the history and present condition of American letters, Mencken believed, could have any value at all unless it took into account the influence and operation of this external Puritan force. Supported by the almost incredibly large body of American laws, this power resided in the inherited traits of Puritanism, which were evident in the “conviction of the pervasiveness of sin, of the supreme importance of moral correctness, of the need of savage and inquisitorial laws.” The history of the nation, Mencken wrote, might be outlined by the awakenings and re-awakenings of moral earnestness. The spiritual eagerness that was the basis for the original Puritan’s moral obsession had not always retained its white heat, but the fires of moral endeavor had never gone out in America. Mencken remarked that the theocracy of the New England colonies had scarcely been replaced by the libertarianism of a godless Crown when there came the Great Awakening of 1734, “with its orgies of homiletics and its restoration of talmudism to the first place among polite sciences.” The book-bumping of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” stands as a testament to that holy resurrection of Almighty Sin.
During the Revolution, politics superceded theology as the national pastime, and there was a brief period of relative quiet. But no sooner had the Republic emerged from the throes of adolescence than “a missionary army took to the field again, and before long the Asbury revival was paling that of Whitefield, Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, not only in its hortatory violence but also in the length of its lists of slain.” From Bishop Asbury down to the present day, that is, to World War I, the country was rocked periodically by furious attacks on the devil. On the one hand, the holy Putsch
took a purely theological form with a hundred new and fantastic creeds as its fruits; on the other hand, it crystallized into the hysterical temperance movement of the 30’s and 40’s, which penetrated to the very floor of Congress and put “dry” laws upon the statute-books of ten States; and on the third hand, as it were, it established a prudery in speech and thought from which we are yet but half delivered. Such ancient and innocent words as “bitch” and “bastard” disappeared from the American language; Bartlett tells us, indeed, in his “Dictionary of Americanisms,” that even “bull” was softened to “male cow.” This was the Golden Age of euphemism, as it was of euphuism; the worst inventions of the English mid-Victorians were adopted and improved. The word “woman” became a term of opprobrium, verging close upon downright libel; legs became the inimitable “limbs”; the stomach began to run from the “bosom” to the pelvic arch; pantaloons faded into “unmentionables”; the newspapers spun their parts of speech into such gossamer webs as “a statutory offense,” “a house of questionable repute” and “an interesting condition.” And meanwhile the Good Templars and Sons of Temperance swarmed in the land like a plague of celestial locusts. There was not a hamlet without its uniformed phalanx, its affecting exhibit of reformed drunkards.12
Mencken argued that the Civil War itself was primarily a result of the agitations of anti-slavery preachers. He admitted that to many historians the anti-slavery feeling had economic origins, but he insisted, probably correctly, that the war was largely the result of ecstatically moral pleas. In “The Calamity at Appomattox” (in the American Mercury for September, 1930), Mencken attributed the Negro’s bondage in the South today to the fact that the war was won by the North. Before the surrender at Appomattox, there was little hatred of the Negro in the South. More importantly, the Negro would most certainly have been made a freedman before the end of the nineteenth century anyway, and without the resulting hostility between the races. The Union victory, as Mencken stated, simply deprived the best southerners of any say in national and regional affairs, and placed the lower orders—the scalawags, carpet-baggers, freed slaves, and poor white trash—in the saddle. The Negro, of course, was soon disfranchised again, but the power remained in the hands of incompetent whites.
The Puritan of the days between the Revolution and the Civil War was, according to Mencken, different from the Un-Puritan and neo-Puritan of the post-bellum period. The distinguishing mark of the Puritanism of this middle period, at least after it had attained to the stature of a national philosophy, was its appeal to the individual conscience, its exclusive concern with the elect, its strong flavor of self-accusing. Certainly the Abolitionists were less concerned with punishing slave-owners than they were with ridding themselves of “their sneaking sense of responsibility, the fear that they themselves were flouting the fire by letting slavery go on.” The Abolitionist was willing, in most cases, to compensate the slave-owner for his property. The difference between the new Puritanism with its astoundingly ferocious and uncompromising vice crusading and the Puritanism of the 1840’s was of great degree, if not of kind: “In brief, a difference between renunciation and denunciation, asceticism and Mohammedanism, the hair shirt and the flaming sword.” After going through a number of stages and fads, neo-Puritanism found its apex in comstockery. And in comstockery there was a frank harking back to the primitive spirit.
The original Puritan of the bleak New England coast was not content to flay his own wayward carcass: full satisfaction did not sit upon him until he had jailed a Quaker. That is to say, the sinner who excited his highest zeal and passion was not so much himself as his neighbor; to borrow a term from psychopathology, he was less the masochist than the sadist. And it is that very peculiarity which sets off his descendant of today from the ameliorated Puritan of the era between the Revolution and the Civil War. The new Puritanism is not ascetic, but militant. Its aim is not to lift up saints but to knock down sinners. Its supreme manifestation is the vice crusade, an armed pursuit of helpless outcasts by the whole military and naval forces of the Republic. Its supreme hero is Comstock Himself, with his pious boast that the sinners he jailed during his astounding career, if gathered into one penitential party, would have filled a train of sixty-one coaches, allowing sixty to the coach.13
In accounting for the wholesale ethical transvaluation that came after the Civil War, Mencken pointed to the Golden Calf; in short, Puritanism became bellicose and tyrannical when it became rich. History shows that a wealthy people are never prone to soul-searching. The solvent citizen is less likely to find fault with himself than with those about him; what’s more, he has more time and energy to devote to the enterprise of examining the happy rascal across the street. The Puritan of America was, generally speaking, spiritually humble down to the Civil War because he was poor; he subscribed to a Sklavenmoral. But after the Civil War prosperity replaced poverty; and from prosperity came a new morality, to wit, the Herrenmoral. Great fortunes were made during the conflict, and even greater wealth followed during the years of the robber barons. Nor was this new prosperity limited to a few capitalists only; the common laborer and the farmer were better off than ever before.
The first effect of prosperity was, as always, a universal cockiness, a delight in all things American, the giddy feeling that success has no limits. “The American became a sort of braggart playboy of the western world, enormously sure of himself and ludicrously contemptuous of all other men.” Mencken observed that religion, which is always dependent upon its popularity for survival, naturally began to lose its inward direction and take on the qualities of a business enterprise. The revivals of the 1870’s were similar to those of a half century before except that the converts at the later date were more interested in serving than in repenting. The American Puritan was less interested in saving his own soul than in passing salvation on to others, especially to those reluctant individuals who hung back and resisted the power of divine grace. It became apparent to the more forward-looking ecclesiastics that the rescue of the unsaved could be converted into a big business. All that was needed was organization. Out of this unabashed industrialization of religion came a new force, one that still exerts great influence on American society. “Piety was cunningly disguised as basketball, billiards and squash; the sinner was lured to grace with Turkish baths, lectures on foreign travel, and free instructions in stenography, rhetoric and double-entry bookkeeping.” Religion lost its old contemplative nature and became an enterprise for the public relations man, the bookkeeper and the extrovert. In short, religion was “modernized.” What was true at the time Mencken wrote this essay is, as a pragmatist would say, even more true in the 1960’s.
After giving the necessary background material, Mencken then devoted a lengthy section of his essay to the workings and accomplishments of Anthony Comstock and his associates. The various laws, state and national, which Comstock got passed offer the contemporary reader a sorry spectacle of the vice crusader’s power. As a public figure, Old Anthony was as well known as P. T. Barnum or John L. Sullivan. He had disciples in every large city who were just as eager for blood as he was. Since there were few American writers brash enough to challenge the inquisitors, Comstock and company were forced to turn to foreign works. Rabelais and the Decameron were naturally banned (they are still being banned in various American cities today); Zola, Balzac and Daudet were driven under the counters; Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware were also among the victims. These are but leading examples of the purge. In fact, Comstock got 2,682 convictions out of 3,646 prosecutions and is credited by his official biographer with having destroyed 50 tons of books, 28,682 pounds of stereotype plates, 16,900 photographic negatives, and 3,984,063 photographs. That such a Herod’s record could have been compiled was largely a result of the postal laws, which, of course, Comstock was responsible for in the first place. The very vagueness of the law was of great convenience to the prosecutors. That a novel like George du Maurier’s Trilby, which I read in search of damning evidence, could have been widely condemned as “lewd,” “obscene,” and “lascivious” is next to incredible. It merely provides further proof that Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a good deal closer to reality than it is to fantasy.
It is held in the leading cases that anything is obscene which may excite “impure thoughts” in “the minds . . . of persons that are susceptible to impure thoughts,”14 or which “tends to deprave the minds” of any who, because they are “young and inexperienced,” are “open to such influences”15 —in brief, that anything is obscene that is not fit to be handed to a child just learning to read, or that may imaginably stimulate to lubricity of the most foul-minded. It is held further that words that are perfectly innocent in themselves—“words, abstractly considered, [that] may be free from vulgarism”—may yet be assumed, by a friendly jury, to be likely to “arouse a libidinous passion . . . in the mind of a modest woman.” (I quote exactly! The court failed to define “modest woman.”)16 Yet further, it is held that any book is obscene “which is unbecoming, immodest. . . .”17 Obviously, this last decision throws open the door to endless imbecilities, for its definition merely begs the question, and so makes a reasonable solution ten times harder. It is in such mazes that the Comstocks safely lurk. Almost any printed allusion to sex may be argued against as unbecoming in a moral republic, and once it is unbecoming it is also obscene.18
Mencken then cited numerous cases to show that the defendant was helpless in proving his innocence against any of a whole host of charges of immorality. Besides, Dr. Johnson was obviously right when he stated that no man would want to go on trial, even if possessed of absolute proof of his innocence. Obviously, neither author nor publisher ever knew what might pass the watchful eyes of the self-appointed smut-hounds and defenders of decency. Competent work invariably was banned while the frankly prurient and vulgar went unmolested. Mencken was never in favor of denying anything or anyone the freedom of speech, but he was indignantly amazed that the serious work of an Auguste Forel or a Havelock Ellis should be barred from the mails while the countless volumes of “sex hygiene” by filthy-minded clergymen and “smutty old maids” were circulated by the million and without challenge.
Frank Harris is deprived of a publisher for his Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confession” by threats of immediate prosecution; the newspapers meanwhile dedicate thousands of columns to the filthy amusements of Harry Thaw. George Moore’s Memoirs of My Dead Life are bowdlerized, James Lane Allen’s A Summer in Arcady is barred from the libraries, and a book by D. H. Lawrence is forbidden publication altogether; at the same time half a dozen cheap magazines devoted to sensational sex stories attain to hundreds of thousands of circulation. A serious book by David Graham Phillips, published serially in a popular monthly, is raided the moment it appears between covers; a trashy piece of nastiness by Elinor Glyn goes unmolested. Worse, books are sold for months and even years without protest, and then suddenly attacked: Dreiser’s The “Genius,” Kreymborg’s Edna and Forel’s The Sexual Questtion are examples. Still worse, what is held to be unobjectionable in one state is forbidden in another as contra bonos mores.19 Altogether, there is madness, and no method in it. The livelihoods and good names of hard-striving and decent men are at the mercy of the whims of a horde of fanatics and mountebanks, and they have no way of securing themselves against attack, and no redress for their loss when it comes.20
It was no wonder, Mencken wrote, that American literature down to World War I was primarily remarkable for its artificiality. He compared our fiction to eighteenth-century poetry; it was just as conventional and artificial, just as far removed from reality. In America, and probably only here, could an obvious piece of reporting like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle create a sensation, or Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt evoke such astonishment and rage. As an editor of the Smart Set Mencken was fully aware of the dangers lying in the path of any publisher who attempted to give his readers quality writing. Since his magazine was frankly addressed to a sophisticated minority, sold for a relatively high price, and contained no pictures or other baits for the childish, Mencken assumed that “its readers are not sex-curious and itching adolescents, just as my colleague of the Atlantic Monthly may assume reasonably that his readers are not Italian immigrants.” Nevertheless, he was constantly forced to keep the comstocks in mind while reading a manuscript sent him by an author. He warned his contributors, though he never admitted this publicly, to be sure to keep clothes on their female characters at all times. Mencken was a man marked by the Puritan elements in the country, and he knew it. But he certainly possessed nothing resembling a martyr complex. As he wrote Dreiser in 1921, the joy of living in America “does not lie in playing chopping-block for the sanctified, but in outraging them and getting away with it. To this enterprise I address myself. Some day they may fetch me, but it will be a hard sweat.”
ALTHOUGH OUR LITERATURE was policed and picketed by a small band of comstocks, the fact remains that the American people offered little resistance; they were perfectly willing to be led by their noses like so many cattle. The American was “school-mastered out of gusto, out of joy, out of innocence.” He could in no way understand William Blake’s belief that “the lust of the goat is also to the glory of God.” When the comstocks examined The “Genius” to determine its harmful effect on immature female readers, they tacitly admitted, Mencken wrote, that “to be curious is to be lewd; to know is to yield to fornication.” The medieval doctrine that woman is depraved was, and, for that matter, still is widely accepted in our own century. The right-thinking man must do all he can to save her from her innate depravity. “The ‘locks of chastity’ rust in the Cluny Museum: in place of them we have comstockery. . . .” Though censorship is nothing like so powerful today as it was forty years ago, and we must credit Mencken with having done much to deprive the censors of their power, there are still numerous evidences of the puritanical perversion. The most cursory look at television, for example, will provide the spectator with enough sadism to last a lifetime, but it is still impossible to portray a normal sex relationship in any way even resembling a realistic manner. It is also ironic that Roman Catholic censors, particularly the Legion of Decency, have taken up where the more nearly pure descendants of New England Puritanism left off. Once the object of Puritan prejudice, the Catholic Church now wields the whip in many areas of the country. Boston, now a Catholic stronghold, remains the laughing-stock of the nation. What hungry young novelist doesn’t nightly pray that his latest book will receive the free advertising that goes with being banned in Boston?
[* ] William H. Nolte, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Oregon, has contributed articles to the Southwest Review and Texas Quarterly, and has a forthcoming study of H. L. Mencken.
[1 ] See the excellent preface to The Puritans (New York: Harper & Sons, 1938), edited by Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson.
[2 ] H. L. M., “Variations upon a Familiar Theme,” The Smart Set, Dec., 1921, p. 139.
[3 ] H. L. M., A Book of Prefaces (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1917), pp. 197-198.
[4 ]Ibid., p. 200.
[5 ]Ibid., p. 201.
[6 ]Ibid., pp. 203-204.
[7 ] Guy J. Forgue, ed., Letters of H. L. Mencken (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1961), p. 271.
[8 ]A Book of Prefaces, pp. 212-213. It should be unnecessary to remind the reader that today many high government officials are waging, by their own frequent admissions, a “moral” war against the infidelity of Communism. Of course, the Communists are themselves fully aware of the effectiveness of moral judgments against the enemy. In his long introduction to Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson composed a devastating indictment of all those who employ morality as a justification of or cloak for acts which are clearly motivated by self-interest. Although he does not exempt other nations from this disease, Wilson concentrated on the American’s extraordinary ability in this particular form of causistry.
[9 ]A Book of Prefaces, pp. 214-215.
[10 ]Ibid., pp. 217-218.
[11 ]A Book of Prefaces, pp. 224-225.
[12 ]Ibid, pp. 227-229.
[13 ]Ibid, pp. 231-232.
[14 ] U.S. vs. Bennett, 16 Blatchford, 368-9 (1877).
[15 ]Idem, 362; People vs. Muller, 96 N. Y., 411; U.S. vs. Clark, 38 Fed. Rep. 734.
[16 ] U.S. vs. Moore, 129 Fed., 160-1 (1904).
[17 ] U.S. vs. Heywood, judges charge, Boston, 1877. Quoted in U.S. vs. Bennett, 16 Blatchford.
[18 ]A Book of Prefaces, pp. 263-265.
[19 ] The chief sufferers from this conflict are the authors of moving pictures. What they face at the hands of imbecile State boards of censorship is described at length by Channing Pollock in an article entitled. “Swinging the Censor,” in the Bulletin of the Author’s League of America for March, 1917.
[20 ]A Book of Prefaces, pp. 273-274.