The last word (for now) on the Mencken diaries

September 30, 1990|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Theo Lippman Jr., an editorial writer for The Sun, edited "A Gang of Pecksniffs," a collection of Mencken's writing about newspapers.

September is H. L. Mencken month, and before it closes I'd like to pass on to you what I consider to be the last word on the great man. I fact, I'll pass on two last words on the great man.

I say it's Mencken month because every year in connection with the anniversary of his birth in 1880, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which is a literary executor of his estate and the repository of his unpublished work plus the raw material of much of his published work, hosts a lecture on some aspect of his career.

This year, by a combination of good luck and foresight, the guest speaker was an African-American scholar. He was chosen by Neil Jordahl, the head of the humanities department at the Pratt, before the publication of Mencken's diary in January. The appearance of that book touched off a national -- international -- furor about Mencken's personal views on race and ethnicity. He was called a racist and an anti-Semite, on the basis of several remarks scattered through the diary.

The lecturer was Dr. Arnold Rampersad. He is director of the American studies program at Princeton and Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature there and a biographer of the black writer Langston Hughes.

Dr. Rampersad made it clear that he thought the diary proved Mencken held some views that were racist. But he put this in two perspectives that you don't often get.

The first is that the diary showed Mencken to be a kind, fair and respectful employer of two black women. A white suggesting that this proves something risks sounding patronizing. Dr. Rampersad showed how revealing this relationship can be, however, without risking that. He said, "If no man is a hero to his butler, as the saying goes, I think you can judge many a man by his treatment of his butler, or his maid, and especially so when the man is white, the maid is black, and the country is the United States."

In his view, the racial remarks in the diary did not support the accusation that Mencken was guilty of racism. Racism to him is )) systematic and thought-out, a coherent theorizing. What Mencken says in his diary is not that, but rather "casual, reflections of impulse and annoyance, pieces of petty malice and petty spite."

That the diary is casual and not meant to be "consequential," Dr. Rampersad went on, does not mean Mencken never had a theory of race. He was bound to have, growing up as he did at a time when philosophers, historians, geneticists, politicians, movie makers and other opinion leaders in the United States and northern Europe were in remarkable agreement that northern European genes were superior to those of all other people, especially blacks. This came to a head in the second decade of the century.

Mencken, "well poised as a conspicuous Aryan," in Dr. Rampersad's phrase, would have been expected to champion white supremacy. He did not. Instead he wrote a newspaper article in which he laid out a coherent "scientific" theory of race in which he "proved" racial inequality by comparing white American Southerners to other groups. He found white Southerners inferior to their Northern counterparts and to those of mixed white and black ancestry -- not because of their culture or social environment but because they were for the most part of Celtic, French, Spanish and German descent, thus inheritors of what Mencken labeled "the worst blood of the western European genetic pool."in Mencken's view.

Dr. Rampersad concluded by noting that in America today, "racist" as an epithet is "tossed around so much that we must all be racist, and so racist is a relative term. On a relative scale, Mencken is not much of a racist -- if he is one at all."

That's one of the last words on Mencken.

The other came at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society, held at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel last weekend. This is a society of right-wing intellectuals founded back in the Barry Goldwater days, when conservatives had a hard time keeping in touch.

The American Spectator magazine, a rightist journal of the British sort, whose editor-in-chief writes with Menckenesque gusto, sponsored a dinner and panel discussion of Mencken and his diary. The menu was right out of Mencken's Saturday Night Club days -- oxtail soup, German potato salad, sausage, Liederkranz, goulash, potato pancakes, pumpernickel and and lots and lots of beer.

The panel was composed of Joseph Mysak of the Daily Bond Buyer, William H. Nolte of the University of South Carolina, Terry Teachout of the New York Daily News and me. There was unanimity that Mencken was neither a racist nor an anti-Semite in the sense those words are usually used. There was near unanimity that a Mencken would be allowed to write on a major newspaper today. This was wrong, I explained. He would not be hired today because he was only a high school graduate. The hiring editor would send him off to journalism school, and that would be the end of that.

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