HL Mencken was utterly reprobate, but it would be hard to find a finer stylist. While his Chrestomathy isn’t strictly history, of course, it is a “feel” for how life was in the 20s and 30s. While Mencken was a wordsmith of the highest skill, he was a 3rd rate philosopher–and that’s putting it nicely. Still, even his incompetence in metaphysics serves a purpose: he shows some of the arguments used against the supernatural today.
Mencken’s materialism comes through in stark colors: life is a “long series of inexplicable accidents, not only quite unavoidable, but even quite unintelligible” (Mencken 83). I suppose the obvious question is “Is that statement unintelligible?”
Mencken is a Libertarian, believing the ideal government is one that lets you alone (146).
“When a private citizen is robbed a worthy man is deprived of the fruits of his industry and thrift; when the govt is robbed the worst that happens is that certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than before. The notion that they have earned that money is never entertained” (149).
“The New England shopkeepers never really developed a civilization; all they ever developed was a government” (185).
“As for the Greek genius for politics, it revealed its true measure in the fact that no Greek government ever lasted for more than a century, and that most of them ended in scandal and disaster” (215).
General Grant: He was completely innocent. He was too stupid to be anything else (224). “Now and then, by a flash of what must be called, I suppose, insight, he struck out in his Berserker way for common decency” (225).
On William Jennings Bryan
“The simian gabble of [the common man] was not gabble to him, but wisdom of an occult and superior sort” (244).
Mencken: “It is one of the mysteries of American life that the Rotary Club has never discovered Emerson. His so-called philosophy….seems to be made precisely for the lunch-table idealists” (477).
“….swindled the government in some patriotic enterprise” (293).
“We owe to capital the fact that the medical profession, for example, is now really useful to mankind” (294).
“I have been careful to take evidence from unimpeachable source. If it had come from Congressional record I’d have been suspicious of it, for both Houses, as we have heard from [FDR] himself, are full of liars” (426).
“Here is the perfect pattern of the professional world-saver. His whole life has been devoted to the art and science of spending other people’s money. He has saved millions of the downtrodden from starvation, pestilence, cannibalism, and worse–always at someone else’s expense, and usually at the tax-payers” (427).
“Whenever you hear a man speak of love for his country it is a sign he expects to be paid for it” (616).
“Historian–an unsuccessful novelist” (619).
“Adultery is the application of democracy to love” (621).