H. L. Mencken’s Fight for the ‘Great Truth’

By Gustav Jönsson

Henry Louis Mencken once wrote, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

How right he was. It is hard to find a pithier summation of the difficulty defending free speech. How easy it would be to stand up for freedom if it only meant supporting people of Salman Rushdie’s ilk. Often, you will find yourself supporting unlikable scoundrels, but you must, nevertheless, fight against the abridgement of their civil liberties. For Mencken, this led him to defend Henry Ford’s right to print antisemitic nonsense.

If Ford was prohibited from airing his prejudices, Mencken declared, it would be made more difficult to taunt and ridicule him. Mencken also remarked that though he was neither an antisemite nor a reader of Ford’s paper, he suspected that Ford “must have mingled some truth with his libels, else the yells would have been less raucous.” For “no sane man objects to palpable lies about him; what he objects to is damaging facts.”

Mencken was not just a stout proponent of freedom of speech, he was also an exerciser of it. He was once charged with allowing “filth and degrading descriptions” to be printed in his magazine. An article had been submitted to Mencken’s The American Mercury about a Missouri woman who faced social shunning after the local congregation found out that she was a prostitute. Neither Mencken nor his co-editor George Jean Nathan had been impressed by the text, but Mencken hated to miss a chance to make small-town churchgoers look bad, and so the article made print.

This was where matters stood when the Mercury was banned in Boston in 1926. (In the 1920s a puritanical morality police had seized control over Boston’s cultural life.) This group was called The New England Watch and Ward Society. Under the slogan of “banned in Boston” they made sure that anything even vaguely risqué was outlawed. Prohibition was at zenith; music, drama, and the arts were at nadir. The boundaries of life’s pleasures were not set by the practitioners of the arts, but rather by teetotallers and wowsers. Literature was no exception: it was censored and often outright forbidden.

Leading the cohort of puritans was Rev. Frank Chase. Chase had previously received the Mencken treatment (“a Methodist vice-hunter of long practice and great native talent”) and had been looking for a way to retaliate. Therefore, when he saw a chance he took it. That the offending article contained no worse word than “damned” made no difference.

At first Mencken had not planned on fighting the issue. He knew that the Mercury had limited circulation in Boston. Furthermore, in those days, fighting censorship was often a long and costly struggle that led to nothing except financial ruin. Yet the longer Mencken thought on the matter, the more incensed he got. If Chase could take down the Mercury, what lengths might he go to next? And as Mencken himself said, if oppression is to be stopped at all it must be stopped at the beginning.

Set on not letting the censors win, Mencken took the train to Boston with the aim of selling his magazine, publicly daring Chase to arrest him. Eager for publicity, Mencken had tipped off the press about his plans. When Mencken arrived at Boston Common a crowd numbering several thousand had gathered. Journalists, cameramen and students all flocked to see the Sage of Baltimore do battle for freedom.

Rev. Chase, along with policemen from the Boston Vice Squad, made their way towards Mencken. Chase offered to buy an issue, and as soon as the exchange was completed the policemen seized Mencken. The following day a judge ruled that there were no grounds for Mencken’s arrest or the ban of the Mercury. After triumphantly exiting the courtroom Mencken visited the Harvard Union for a boozy celebration; and although the “banned in Boston” campaign continued, it did so with decreasing tenacity.

But even Mencken failed to stand up against censorship on every occasion. With Woodrow Wilson’s entry into the First World War, one of the more shameful chapters of America’s history began. Germans were roughed up on streets and in bars. University courses on German literature were struck. Listening to Beethoven was thought seditious. Thousands of Germans were transported to internment camps. Anything Teutonic was distrusted and harassed. Confronted with a full-on assault of his beloved German kultur, Mencken failed to muster any extraordinary courage. He meekly stopped writing political texts.

The erasure of German culture in America relied upon journalistic and intellectual spinelessness. Thus, 1917 was a time when Mencken’s German friends needed his public outcry the most. No outcry came.

Mencken knew that the government was tracking him, that the FBI kept a file on him, and that censors read his letters. Perhaps this kept him silent. He would never knowingly risk internment, nor would he ever martyr himself in defence of a ‘Great Truth’. “I would not even miss a meal for it,” he wrote.

Despite his occasional capitulations, Mencken remains a figure well worth remembering. In a time when the curtailment of liberty was commonplace – before it was fashionable to take the side of freedom – Menken guarded the First Amendment from those who would see it degraded. And he did so with more wit and vigour than the all puritans south of the Mason-Dixon line could ever hope to muster.

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