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Angry With His Own Time
Mencken's anger at America was his trademark. But it was also – more than once – his undoing. An excerpt from An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken

By Hal Crowther

The great Austrian novelist Robert Musil, born like Mencken in 1880, placed these prophetic words in the mouth of his protagonist Ulrich, in The Man without Qualities: “One can’t be angry with one’s own time without damage to oneself.” It’s a warning H. L. Mencken may never have read, or have held up to him as a caution by a friend or an enemy, but it suits his case as well as anything he wrote or had written about him. He was a cultural and political malcontent who hurled anathemas left and right and aligned himself with no one. His favorite boast was that resistance to the status quo was in his bloodstream. “How did I get my slant on life?” he replied in an interview in 1926. “My ancestors for 300 years back were all bad citizens... They were always against what the rest were for… I was prejudiced when I came into the world.” 

It can be argued that this instinct for opposition was the making of Mencken, that it resonated with a restless minority of closet rebels who embraced him as their prophet and warlord. It’s certain, looking back on his career’s trajectory, that he asserted it at a terrible cost to himself. Professionally he committed suicide twice, first when he sided with the kaiser in World War I, and second — beyond resurrection this time — when he failed to convince most Americans that he was sufficiently outraged by Hitler’s Third Reich. He alienated another generation of potential readers with his pathological loathing of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mencken never equivocated or apologized, of course. But he was conspicuously out of fashion by the age of 60, a fact that must have wounded him more than any of the verbal slings and arrows that failed to penetrate his armor-thick skin. His courage cannot be questioned. Every biographer, reviewing Mencken’s attacks on God and country in times of feverish piety and patriotism, marvels that he was never lynched, or even physically assaulted.




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