Emmett Tyrrell

Despite access to some of the finest minds of his time (he died in 1956 at age 75), he missed practically every important historic current swirling around him. Though he claimed great interest in science, there is little evidence that he recognized the wonders on the horizon. He also missed the rise and fall of dictatorship and dismissed democracy's challenge to the dictators as demagoguery. Hitler struck him as "a shabby ass" and an Austrian William Jennings Bryan. As he saw it, World War II was "a wholly dishonorable and ignominious business," and he believed that would "be history's verdict upon it." On large matters, he was almost always wrong.

Despite access to some of the finest minds of his time (he died in 1956 at age 75), he missed practically every important historic current swirling around him. Though he claimed great interest in science, there is little evidence that he recognized the wonders on the horizon. He also missed the rise and fall of dictatorship and dismissed democracy's challenge to the dictators as demagoguery. Hitler struck him as "a shabby ass" and an Austrian William Jennings Bryan. As he saw it, World War II was "a wholly dishonorable and ignominious business," and he believed that would "be history's verdict upon it." On large matters, he was almost always wrong.

He was a very funny writer until his anti-democratic and anti-religious jokes overwhelmed his other jokes and caused him to lose the capacity to make readers laugh. That would be in the 1930s and 1940s. In those days, he was largely out of the public eye. He attended to his great study of the "American" language and to notes and memoirs that did not come out until after his death, in some cases not until the 1980s or 1990s. The writings reveal an angry, often-confused bigot and crank. He did publish three merry volumes of autobiography, but they were so marbled with fictions as to suggest escapism. As was true through much of Mencken's life, the popular press misperceived him. Time magazine described him in 1943 as "the nation's comical, warm-spirited, outstanding village atheist." The following year, the "warm-spirited" Sage publicly observed to interviewer Bob Considine that World War II was "a better state than peace" and that American troops enjoyed the war. President Roosevelt, he said, "will keep this war running at least until the end of his fourth term. He knows that if the war stops, he loses his war powers and his jobs." Time magazine's Mencken expert still may be writing for it today.

As I say, on large matters Yardley's Sage was almost always wrong. I think the best explanation for the cruelty of Mencken's private thoughts, his bewilderment late in life, and his frequent misperceptions of his times is provided by Terry Teachout, the author of a 2002 biography, "The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken." Mencken was incapable of perceiving the evil that stalks the world. The Sage, writes Teachout, "had no feeling for the darkness in the heart of man. He looked at evil and saw ignorance. To him Hitler was Babbitt run amok."

I agree with Yardley; I am no Mencken.


Emmett Tyrrell

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator and co-author of Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House.
 
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