H. L. Mencken: Sage of Baltimore

Former president Hoover with Stanford University president, Ray Lyman Wilbur, enjoying the Yale vs. Penn football game at Franklin Field. 10/13/1935

Sometimes history—and this blog post—take shape through coincidence.  For instance, I was in Baltimore last week for a family event.  I took advantage of the situation to do some literary sight-seeing, visiting the homes of Edgar Allan Poe and H. L. Mencken, two of my favorite American writers.  While Poe’s macabre short stories and eerie poetry haunt my dreams, it is Mencken’s aphorisms that inform my waking hours.

Mencken, the curmudgeonly Sage of Baltimore, turned phrases that I sometimes quote today.  ‘No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.’  ‘American democracy consists of jackals worshiped by jackasses.’  ‘For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.’  ‘Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.’  As you can see, still utile.

Upon returning to work, pondering weak and weary over quaint and curious folders of yore, I chanced upon a Mencken letter in the Hoover post-Presidential papers.  Mencken, in a July 29, 1938 letter to Stanford University President Ray Lyman Wilbur, writes:

‘Thanks very much for your letter of June 11th, which reaches me on my return from Europe. I needn’t say that I agree with you thoroughly that the most valuable political invention of the past few centuries is the idea of the limitation of government.  Unfortunately, it seems to be going downhill throughout the world.  Here in the United States it is caught in the wreck of the rest of democracy.  The government is reaching out for more and more powers every day, and some of its pretensions are really almost unbelievable.’

I was thrilled to see that Mencken’s private letters reflected the same sharp wit and wisdom shown by his aphorisms.  I wish that we had Wilbur’s June 11th letter on hand to see what prompted this reply.  We are also left to wonder why Wilbur forwarded this letter to his friend Herbert Hoover.  It is easy to surmise that Wilbur sent the letter knowing that Hoover would nod in agreement with its libertarian sentiments.  But this in only surmise, as nothing in the folder sheds further light on the issue.

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