BALTIMORE IS NOW celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of H. L. Mencken, a home town boy, who, to his everlasting credit, stayed in the wonderful city where he was born. He is remembered now as a sage, a wit, a curmudgeon, a reporter, a great journalist, a lexicographer and maybe some other things as well. He was also, alas and alack, a bigot.
Just how much of a bigot he was is open to dispute. It is beyond dispute, though, that Mencken was a bundle of prejudices. He held in contempt just about every group you could name, including, would you believe, Methodists. He also did not like politicians, bankers, fundamentalists, the KKK and -- last but not least -- blacks and Jews. Of them all he had something nasty to say.
Jews he considered pushy, but blacks were something else again. For them he once used the term "prehensile minorities," an erudite reference to monkeys, and while he was in no sense a hater, neither was he able to shake off the racial prejudices of his time and place.
Whether Mencken himself really believed what he wrote is hard to tell. Some of his friends were Jews -- Ben Hecht, for example -- and late in his career he took the side of the angels in a fight over the integration of some tennis courts, although one look at Mencken and it's clear he could not have cared much for tennis anyway. He did care -- passionately, in fact -- about lynching, which he fought, but the fact remains that he never did see blacks as the equal of whites and he opposed, for instance, integration of the public schools.
Throughout much of the time that Mencken was writing, racism was more or less accepted. But Mencken never changed with the times. As late as 1948, the Maryland delegation to the Progressive Party convention denounced him for the "Hitlerite references to the people of this convention." The resolution claimed he "red-baits, Jew-baits and Negro-baits." But that time, thought, Mencken's earlier hosannas to the fascist regimes of the 1930s had already made him an anathema to much of the Left.
At any rate, it's clear that Mencken had what might be called a problem, but it's also clear that this problem was neither a major theme in his work nor so pronounced that it bothered the vast majority of his readers -- not to mention his present-day buffs. The question, then, is what to make of it? Does it detract from his reputation as a great journalist? Does it mean that he was not merely entertaining, brilliant, unconventional and, very often, just plain right? Other men, after all, have had flaws in their characters and their reputations have not suffered.
It's a fact, for instance, that Johannes Brahms, composer of note, was also an around-the-bend anti-Semite. Does this mean that people throughout the world (anti-Semites excluded, of course) should throw out his records and solemnly swear never again to listen to his music? Should we rid our shelves of Shakespeare for some lines in the Merchant of Venice, and what about Martin Luther, who would have liked to nail Jews to the same cathedral door that received his thoughts on theology?
The answer with Brahms is pretty simple.His views in no way affect his music. It might make him less of a man, but certainly not less of a composer. The same is true for the literature of Shakespeare and the theology of Luther. These were all men who reflected the thinking of their times.
Things are not so simple with Mencken. His times are very nearly our own, and he is being honored not for his flowers or his music but for his journalism -- his ideas. In expressing the commonly held view of blacks, in thinking, for instance, that public school segregation made sense, in failing to see the horrors of fascism and for blithely assuming, as he did, that the New Deal was rife with Reds and that, therefore, the awful post-war Red Scare was justified, Mencken sullied his own reputation. To say that Mencken had contempt for all kinds of groups, including blacks, does not change the fact that blacks, unlike say, Methodists, were an oppressed minority. Methodists were not being lynched in the South.
What you make of all this depends, I suppose, on who you are -- whether, for instance, you are black or white. Whites could shrug off Mencken's racial views and concentrate instead on other things. For blacks, it might not be so simple. You could not blame them if they dwelled on that and thought his other accomplishments not worth mentioning, and wondered also why we honor a man who was right on many things, but wrong on some fundamental moral issues.