Gary Neill illustration for HL MenckenIt is difficult to think of many contemporary journalistic voices that will echo down the ages with the clarity of that of Henry Louis Mencken. The Sage of Baltimore, as he is fondly remembered, died back in 1956, but the best of his writings remain as vigorous and pertinent as if he had rattled them up yesterday (it is impossible, reading Mencken’s exuberant jeremiads, to imagine him typing at any speed but quickly – a fellow journalist once recalled seeing Mencken through the window of his hotel room, pounding his typewriter and chewing his cigar, pausing both activities only to read back his own words and roar with laughter).

Mencken’s great talent was to negotiate with exquisite grace the thin line that divides the charming curmudgeon from the bellicose crackpot. Instead of whining about human foolishness, Mencken chose to revel in it. In a backhanded love-letter to his homeland, “On Being an American” – from the third of his six Prejudices collections, just recently republished in two beautiful Library of America volumes – he described the United States as “an Eden of clowns”, and his compatriots as “the most timorous, snivelling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages”. He also cheerfully admitted, “I never get tired of the show. It is worth every cent it costs.” (He was especially acute on the perniciousness of religion: “The curse of man,” he once wrote, “and the cause of nearly all his woes, is his stupendous capacity for believing the incredible.”)

Mencken realised early on that his front-row ticket to the existential pantomime would come in the shape of a press card. He talked himself aboard the Baltimore Herald at 19, and ascended swiftly. By the time Mencken was 30, he had been editor of two newspapers – Baltimore’s Sunday Sun and Evening Sun. In addition, he had laid the foundations of a vast and influential canon of journalism, churning out thousands of words a week for various titles, and publishing several books, including a volume of poetry and studies of Shaw and Nietzsche. He plain loved being a writer and a reporter, and had a rare knack for broadcasting that joy in his prose. Writing in 1941, in the preface to his twinkling journalistic memoir Newspaper Days, Mencken declared that the job was “the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth”.

Mencken’s peak as a newsman was his coverage of what has become known as the “Monkey Trial”. In 1925, Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes was arrested after deliberately violating a new state law – the Butler Act – which forbade schools from teaching evolution. There was no chance that Mencken was going to miss such a circus, which offered a spectacular parade of his particular bêtes noires. Mencken detested religious panjandrums and poobahs of all stripes (“What one mainly notices about these ambassadors of Christ, observing them in the mass, is their colossal ignorance.”) He had already made himself wilfully infamous in the South, with an essay entitled “The Sahara of the Bozart”, in which he dismissed the realm beneath the Mason-Dixon Line as “a gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate”. And of all the politicians Mencken loathed – which was all of them – he held few in more gleeful contempt than he did the prosecuting attorney, William Jennings Bryan, a former Secretary of State and three-time Democratic Party nominee for President. (Bryan died of diabetes five days after the trial’s conclusion, prompting a typically unsentimental obituary by Mencken, in which he breezily dismissed the barely cold legislator as “A vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted”.)

Mencken’s dispatches from Dayton are most usefully collected in A Religious Orgy In Tennessee. It’s an entertaining book and – imagine Mencken’s incredulous delight ­– it remains thoroughly topical. American courts are still plagued by implacable yahoos who embody Mencken’s unimprovable assertion that “If we assume that man actually does resemble God, then we are forced into the impossible theory that God is a coward, an idiot and a bounder.”

Mencken was an unrepentant snob, an unabashed elitist and a rampant misanthrope. “My guess,” he once wrote, “is that well over 80 per cent of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought.” (It is hard not to feel that were Mencken to undertake a brief survey of the politics and popular culture of today, he would revise that estimate upwards.) He did, at times, experience difficulty knowing when to rein in these elitist tendencies, and certainly the otherwise sympathetic 21st-century reader might well wish that he had pulled up before unburdening himself of some of his thoughts on race.

He made remarks about black and Jewish people, in print and in private, which would be career-ending today. While it would be naive to dismiss these as aberrations – with Mencken as with few others, you can be sure that you’re reading what he actually thought – it should be remembered that he was a white, middle-class American man of the late 19th and early 20th century. In that context, though he was less enlightened than one might have preferred from someone who believed himself above the backward follies of the herd, his aggressively libertarian instincts were generally progressive.

Mencken clearly believed that people were individuals, and should be judged as such regardless of colour, and he made regular sport of the (then powerful) Ku Klux Klan (“All it indicates is that the remoter and more forlorn yokels have risen against their betters ­ and that their uprising is as hopeless as it is idiotic.”) He also berated, in 1938, the government of Franklin D Roosevelt, for refusing to admit Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany (Mencken was always glad of an excuse to berate Roosevelt ­ who, he wrote in his diary, had “every quality that morons esteem in their heroes”). The cleanest dissection of these contradictions was carved by the pen of Mencken’s most obvious spiritual heir, Christopher Hitchens. “He was,” writes Hitchens in Unacknowledged Legislation, “scrupulously mannerly in his dealings with individual Jews and African Americans, while apparently harbouring crass suspicions of them in the mass, so to speak. Among some hypocrites of today, the paradox is more commonly met with the other way about.”

A writer of Mencken’s range, beliefs and unbound style would, a half-century and some change after his death, find himself unemployable on any of today’s newspapers or magazines. He dominated newspapers at a time – the last time – that newspapers dominated discourse, when a lack of meaningful challenge from other media spared them the necessity of pandering to the sensitivities of advertisers or the baser concerns of their dimmer readers.

His railings against the fatuity of America’s attempts to ban alcohol in the 1920s and 1930s are no less applicable to the exponentially more expensive and damaging war on drugs (“What lies under it, and under all the crazy enactments of its category, is no more and no less than the yokel’s congenital and incurable hatred of the city man – his simian rage against everyone who, as he sees it, is having a better time than he is”). His vituperations against the stifling, official and unofficial, of dissent during wartime barely require updating (“I believe,” he thundered, “in complete freedom of thought and speech, alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in an organised society”).

Jacket of Prejudices by HL MenckenAnd as for the bafflingly persistent effect upon public life of assorted religious manias, it would be gauche to deny Mencken the last word: “Even a superstitious man,” he wrote at the conclusion of the Monkey Trial, “has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbour and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them on other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected from the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.”

Prejudices: The Complete Series by HL Mencken is published as a box set by Library of America