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Gangelin, Paul; Hanson, Earl; Gregory, Horace (ed.) / The Wisconsin literary magazine
Volume XXI, Number 4 (January 1922)

Galpin, Alfred, Jr.
Impressions of H. L. Mencken,   pp. 100-101


Page 100

WISCONSIN LITERARY MAGAZINE
January, 1922
Impressions of H. L. Mencken
BY ALFRED GALPIN, JR.
Before Mr. Mencken has died and become history,
some one should obtain from him an authentic account
of his early reading and friendships. For to know
the influences that have touched him is to know most
that is valuable in him. It is easy to find among them
those modem writers who have been notable for simi-
lar eccentricities. Nietzsche in the front rank, but
more closely the group of Americans of whom George
Jean Nathan and Frank H!arris are still alive.
Others whom he freqeuntly mentions are Pollard,
Huneker, and Mark Twain, all apparently idols of
his youth.
Nietzsche, being incomparably the genius of the
group, has affected him most profoundly. Some-
where in the "Repetition Generale" may be found a
very droll and astounding criticism of Mr. Mencken's
on that subject, in which he says that Nietzsche, in
distinction from other philosophers, always came out
with what he had to say, and never beat about the
bush. This, to me, is peculiarly significant, since both
the German philosopher and his American disciple
have the same habit of snorting all about a subject,
something in the manner of a cat who, lost in playing
with a mouse, doubtless is often led to believe that he
is really devouring it. In Nietzsche this indicated a
form of exuberance which probably grew out of his
unsought and self-centered isolation. With Mr.
Mencken, it merely smells of bad manners, and is use-
ful in concealing his frequent lack of genuine scholar-
ship or logical thought. For instance, when Mr.
Mencken is about to launch one of his thunderbolts,
inculcating the principles of aesthetics in his barbarous
listeners, he always refers to Schnitzler, Y. M. C. A.
secretaries, the American Legion, and the Congres-
sional record, thus gradually drifting into a lyric on
the American Old Maid. All he really meant to say
in the first place was the platitude that only a Sherman
or a Babbitt could miss, to the effect that individuality
and beauty are the chief facts of art. Bombast, in
brief, is his means of emphasis.
Then there is his egotism. For myself, I find it
one of his redeeming features; he certainly carries it
off better than Mr. Harris, for which latter it is very
nearly the ruination of a much finer talent. Mr.
Mencken is so extremely confiding, and his faults pro-
trude so obviously from every corner of the page, that
I find a certain completeness of revelation in it, akin
to autobiography. It is almost charming to find, after
he has commnitted himself with Nietzschian complete-
ness to some view, that he knows as well as the next
man how wrong he may possibly be. But he may
have borrowed that from Anatole France * M m
Certainly much of his buffoonery can be traced,
whether correctly or not, to George Bernard Shaw,
especially to that inimitable preface in which he pro-
claims "The cart and the trumpet for me." Consid-
ering this, and the natural kinship between the two
men as popular "philosophers" and spreaders of
heretical ideas to a boobery they profess to despise-
in the light of this it is disconcerting to find that all of
Mr. Mencken's essay on Shaw may be found in much
better form in Huneker's "Iconoclasts."
His scholarship he probably learned to spread thin
from the manner of his colleague Mr. Nathan, who
really possesses an astounding knowledge of his own
field, the theater. But is not Mr. Mencken's erudition
that of a dillettante purely? From that grows much
of his value-for I should be the last person to want
him silent-as a contemporary critic. Whatever be
his shortcomings, they have not had an opportunity to
hide under the cloak of having read Homer and
Dante in the original. He is strictly a contemporary,
and still more strictly an American, and in this rela-
tion he is intensely well-read; but I hesitate to accept
the opinion of a man whose interests in English litera-
ture have apparently never gone back further than
Carlyle.
But after all, who would consider him seriously as
a literary critic?  Like Shaw, he is interesting be-
cause he is neither artist, nor thinker, nor technician,
nor scholar, but brazenly himself. American from
his style to his third-rate "Smart Set" snobbery, he
has been of vital importance to his native heath. I
suppose we should agree with Mr. Mencken, and wel-
come an American if he has as much ability as a fifth-
rate Englishman-for the time being at least, in view
of the terrible muck of aesthetic ideas out of which he
himself has done so much to drag us. Adopting his
own valuation of the national product in art, he stands
somewhere near Mark Twain. His resemblances to
the latter are genuinely temperamental, not imitated,
as we can guess from his devotion to "Huckleberry
Finn" and "The Mysterious Stranger." Both of
them are in a certain way geniuses at humor-humor
as we Americans have been used to seeing it-and
they possess that rough sort of pessimism that we asso-
ciate with buffoons. For instance, the following pas-
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