H. L. Mencken
cynic, n. A well
H. L. (Henry Louis) Mencken was a newspaperman wordsmith with prose as accurate and deadly as sniper fire.
Reading Mencken today shows that politicians, wars and
religion never really change, and receive all the
respect they deserve (none).
Mencken was the voice of Baltimore during the overtly
wicked times of the early 20th century. He was a gifted writer
and reporter, who survived his entire life in Baltimore
– if you can call that surviving –
working for both the Baltimore Herald and Sun. This
proves that journalists have as little loyalty as the
politicians they discover in no-tell motels.
His work at the
Herald city desk cemented his cynical foundation. Baltimore was widely
considered a corrupt city, unlike today where it is
known to be a corrupt city. In Mencken's day, local politicians
were little more than talented pick-pockets and from
external appearances, their descendants are keeping the
family business alive.
Mencken's cynicism may have reached its apex during
the infamous Scopes Money Trial. The Sun sent Mencken to
cover an event that was equal parts religious fervor,
grandstanding politics and open air circus, a vein of
literary ore that made Mencken's mind melt. The court case,
where a school teacher was being prosecuted for teaching
Darwinian evolution, and
local religious fundamentalism caused Mencken to call Tennessee a
"sort of Holy Land for imbeciles." This might
have been the most polite reference Mencken made during
the entire trial (For the cinema buffs,
the Scopes Monkey trial was made into Spencer Tracy's Inherit the Wind, where Mencken was portrayed by
Gene Kelly and his character was called "E. K. Hornbeck").
Mencken was, if nothing else, evenhanded
– he derided
everyone including himself, as witnessed from this
excerpt from his essay "In Defense of Women":
"As a professional critic of life
and letters, my principal business in the world is that
of manufacturing platitudes for tomorrow, which is to
say, ideas so novel that they will be instantly rejected
as insane and outrageous by all right thinking men, and
so apposite and sound that they will eventually conquer
that instinctive opposition, and force themselves into
the traditional wisdom of the race. I hope I need not
confess that a large part of my stock in trade consists
of platitudes rescued from the cobwebbed shelves of
yesterday, with new labels stuck rakishly upon them."
It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.
Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States.
In Europe, aristocracy is founded upon land. In the United States, it is founded upon real estate.
The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.
Bachelors know more about women than married men; if they didn't they'd be married too.
The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.
I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.
Once a woman passes a certain point in intelligence it is almost impossible to get a husband: she simply cannot go on listening [to men] without snickering.
The penalty for laughing in a courtroom is six months in jail; if it were not for this penalty, the jury would never hear the evidence.