Damning Words

The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken

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D. G. Hart
Library of Religious Biography
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , October
     2016.
     272 pages.
     $26.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802873446.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It is no secret that the American journalist and critic H. L. Mencken (1880–1956) was skeptical of religion in general. His biographers seem compelled to allude to his lack of faith even in the titles of their books: Douglas C. Stenerson’s H. L. Mencken: Iconoclast from Baltimore (University of Chicago Press, 1971), Terry Teachout’s The Skeptic (HarperCollins, 2002), Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’s Mencken: The American Iconoclast (Oxford University Press, 2005)—to say nothing of the third volume of his own memoirs, Heathen Days (Knopf, 1943). But D. G. Hart’s Damning Words appears to be the first book focused on discussing Mencken’s relation to religion.

A historian currently at Hillsdale College, Hart is himself a member of a conservative Protestant denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Why would he find Mencken—whom he describes accurately as “a virulent and self-proclaimed anti-Calvinist” (xiii)—appealing? In part because of the brio and vibrancy of his writing, but also, as Hart relates, because he found Mencken to be surprisingly thoughtful and judicious on the topic of the theologian J. Gresham Machen, the founder of Hart’s denomination, and the subject of his book Defending the Faith (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

To be sure, Mencken was not always so thoughtful and judicious in writing on religion. But as Hart contends “religion was not merely a bystander in Mencken’s experience and career but a significant part of his output” (9). Accordingly, he suggests, two audiences especially stand to learn from examining Mencken’s relation to religion: those interested in Mencken in particular and in American literary life in the first half of the twentieth century in general, and those interested in the history—and the current place—of Christianity in the United States.

In the ten chapters that form the center of the book, Hart offers what is, for the most part, a chronological survey of Mencken’s life and writings, focusing, of course, on his attitude toward religion. There are no real surprises here, but there are insightful discussions, especially with regard to Puritanism, which Mencken famously defined as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Mencken’s antipathy to Puritanism in its religious, literary, and political manifestations is usefully discussed in the context of contemporary and subsequent scholarship.

Particularly worthwhile is chapter 6, which provides a detailed discussion of two episodes—the Scopes trial of 1925 in which a Tennessee law banning the teaching of evolution was tested, and the “Hatrack” controversy of 1926 in which a Massachusetts antiobscenity law was tested—in which Mencken’s attitude toward religion was particularly visible. It was also, as the chapter’s title, “The Mencken Show,” indicates, increasingly the topic of public attention itself: in the mid-1920s, Mencken “left his center-aisle seat and walked into the limelight” (130).

Throughout these chapters, Hart’s writing is fluid and engaging, although there are a few longueurs, such as a less-than-helpful comparison involving a notional dissertation on Jürgen Habermas by the journalist Dan Rather, and a few repetitions: Mencken’s views on sex education are described three times. The material is enlivened by abundant quotations from Mencken himself, although, in keeping with the format of the series—the Library of Religious Biography—detailed citations are not provided. (Notes on the sources are contained in a useful appendix, however.)

There are a few scattered errors of fact and emphasis. In his discussion of the Scopes trial, for example, Hart claims that Tennessee’s Butler Act was the fifth state law banning the teaching of evolution: it was the first. He complains about the odious endorsement of eugenics in the biology textbook used in Dayton, Tennessee, without acknowledging that eugenics was not at issue in the case, or that the most prominent of Scopes’s defense attorneys, Clarence Darrow, was also a famous opponent of eugenics. Meanwhile, he fails to mention the irony of Mencken’s departing Dayton before Darrow’s memorable demolition of the most prominent of Scopes’s prosecutors, William Jennings Bryan, on the witness stand.

In a final chapter, Hart turns to consider what Americans today might learn from reading Mencken. He suggests that the so-called New Atheists would benefit from doing so, although he discusses only Sam Harris, ignoring Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett—whose naturalistic critique of religion Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006) is in the same tradition as, if not noticeably indebted to, Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods (Knopf, 1930)—altogether, and wrongly dismissing Christopher Hitchens as not having engaged with Mencken. (Hitchens wrote a well-informed review of Fred Hobson’s 1994 biography, Mencken: A Life [Random House].)

What distinguishes Mencken from the New Atheists, according to Hart, are Mencken’s humor, his amiable if skeptical attitude toward religion, and his willingness to subject secular pieties to the same skeptical interrogation to which he subjected religious dogma. But humorlessness is not definitive of the New Atheists, Mencken was often vicious about religion, and Hart seems to presuppose that the New Atheists have endorsed “secular notions of salvation and progress” (239) without pausing for any skeptical interrogation à la Mencken—which may or may not be true, but is in any case unargued.

Similarly unconvincing is at least part of the rationale behind Hart’s suggestion that today’s Christians would benefit from reading Mencken. When he writes, “Christians interested in preserving the reasons for their hope might find in Mencken a surprising ally in diagnosing human existence this side of the new heavens and new earth” (244), Hart is presupposing a particular view of the nature of Christianity—a view to which he is entitled, certainly, and for which he is doubtless willing to argue in detail, but for which no case is provided here.

It is hardly in the Menckenian spirit to recommend reading him for uplift in any case. (Back in 1921, he offered, with the casual sexism of the day, his own epitaph: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”) But independently of the claims in its final chapter, Damning Words makes a strong case not only for the importance of considering religion when reading Mencken—and perhaps vice versa—but also for the delight of reading him in the first place.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

D. G. Hart is Professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author or editor of more than twenty books on American religion, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State and Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham.

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