H.L. Mencken


By H.L. Mencken

[Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from Volume 117, No. 3048 of THE NATION (Dec. 5, 1923, pp. 647-648). In it, Mencken examines his penchant for liberty and its relationship to his work as a literary critic.]

I often marvel that the gentlemen who concern themselves with my own books, often very indignantly, do not penetrate more competently to my essence. Even for a critic I am excessively garrulous and confidential; nevertheless, it is rare for me to encounter a criticism that hits me where I live and have my being. A great deal of ink is wasted trying to discover and denounce my motive in being a critic at all. I am, by one theory, a German spy told off to flay, terrorize, and stampede the Anglo-Saxon. By another I am a secret radical, while professing to admire Coolidge, Judge Gary, and Genghis Khan. By a third, I am a, fanatical American chauvinist, bent upon defaming and ruining the motherland. All these notions are nonsense; only the first has even the slightest plausibility. The plain truth is — and how could it be plainer? — that I practice criticism for precisely the same reason that every other critic practices it: because I am a vain fellow, and have a great many ideas on all sorts of subjects, and like to put them into words and harass the, human race with them. If I could confine this flow of ideas to one subject I’d be a professor and get some respect. If I could reduce it, say, to one idea a year, I’d be a novelist, a dramatist, or a newspaper editorial writer. But being unable to staunch the flux, and having, as I say, a vast and exigent vanity, I am a critic of books, and through books of Homo sapiens, and through Homo sapiens of God.

So much for the motive. What, now, of the substance? What is the fundamental faith beneath all the spurting and coruscating of ideas that I have just mentioned? What do I primarily and immovably believe in, as a Puritan believes in hell? I believe in liberty. And when I say liberty, I mean the thing in its widest imaginable sense — liberty up to the extreme limits of the feasible and tolerable. I am against forbidding anybody to do anything, or say anything, or think anything so long as it is at all possible to imagine a habitable world in which he would be free to do, say, and think it. The burden of proof, as I see it, is always upon the policeman, which is to say, upon the lawmaker, the theologian, the right-thinker. He must prove his case doubly, triply, quadruply, and then he must start all over and prove it again. The eye through which I view him is watery and jaundiced. I do not pretend to be “just” to him — any more than a Christian pretends to be just to the devil. He is the enemy of everything I admire and respect in this world — of everything that makes it various and amusing and charming. He impedes every honest search for the truth. He stands against every sort of good-will and common decency. His ideal is that of an animal trainer, an archbishop, a major general in the army. I am against him until the last galoot’s ashore.

This simple and childlike faith in the freedom and dignity of man — here, perhaps, stated with undue rhetoric — should be obvious, I should think, to every critic above the mental backwardness of a Federal judge. Nevertheless, very few of them, anatomizing my books, have ever showed any sign of detecting it. But all the same even the dullest of them has, in his fashion, sensed it; it colors unconsciously all the diatribes about myself that I have ever read. It is responsible for the fact that in England and Germany (and, to the extent that I have ever been heard of at all, in France and Italy) I am regarded as a highly typical American — in truth, as almost the archetype of the American. And it is responsible equally for the fact that here at home I am often denounced as the worst American unhung. The paradox is only apparent. The explanation of it lies in this: that to most Europeans the United States is still regarded naively as the land of liberty par excellence, whereas to most Americans the thing itself has long ceased to have any significance, and to large numbers of them, indeed, it has of late taken on an extreme obnoxiousness. I know of no civilized country, indeed, in which liberty is less esteemed than it is in the United States today; certainly there is none in which more persistent efforts are made to limit it and put it down. I am thus, to Americans, a bad American, but to Europeans, still unaware of the practical effects of the Wilson idealism and the Roosevelt saloon-bouncer ethic, I seem to be an eloquent spokesman of the true American tradition. It is a joke, but the joke is not on me.

Liberty, of course, is not for slaves: I do not advocate inflicting it on men against their conscience. On the contrary, I am strongly in favor of letting them crawl and grovel all they please-before the Supreme Court of the United States, Gompers, J. P. Morgan, Henry Cabot Lodge, the Anti-Saloon League, or whatever other fraud or combination of frauds they choose to venerate. I am thus unable to make the grade as a Liberal, for Liberalism always involves freeing human beings against their will-often, indeed, to their obvious damage, as in the cases of the majority of Negroes and women. But all human beings are not congenital slaves, even in America. Here and there one finds a man or a woman with a great natural passion for liberty-and a hard job getting it. It is, to me at least, a vast pleasure to go to the rescue of such a victim of the herd, to give him some aid and comfort in his struggle against the forces that seek to regiment and throttle him. It is a double pleasure to succor him when the sort of liberty he strives for is apparently unintelligible and valueless- for example, liberty to address conventions of the I.W.W., to read the books of such bad authors as D. H. Lawrence and Petronius Arbiter, to work twelve hours a day, to rush the can, to carry red flags in parades, to patronize osteopaths and Christian Science healers, to belong to the best clubs. Such nonsensical varieties of liberty are especially sweet to me. I have wrecked my health and dissipated a fortune defending them — never, so far as I know, successfully. Why, then, go on? Ask yourself why a grasshopper goes on jumping.

But what has liberty to do with the art of literary criticism, my principal business in this vale? Nothing — or everything. It seems to me that it is perfectly possible to write profound and valuable literary criticism without entering upon the question of freedom at all, either directly or indirectly. Aesthetic judgments may be isolated from all other kinds of judgments, and yet remain interesting and important. But this isolation must be performed by other hands: to me it is as sheer a psychological impossibility as believing that God condemned forty-two little children to death for poking fun at Elisha’s bald head. When I encounter a new idea, whether aesthetic, political, theological, or epistemological, I ask myself, instantly and automatically, what would happen to its proponent if he should state its exact antithesis. If nothing would happen to him, then I am willing and eager to listen to him. But if he would lose anything valuable by a volte face — if stating his idea is profitable to him, if the act secures his roof, butters his parsnips, gets him a tip — then I hear him with one ear only. He is not a free man. Ergo, he is not a man. For liberty, when one ascends to the levels where ideas swish by and men pursue Truth to grab her by the tail, is the first thing and the last thing. So long as it prevails the show is thrilling and stupendous ; the moment it fails the show is a dull and dirty farce.

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