Christopher Hitchens on H.L. Mencken – Videos
Christopher Hitchens – H.L. Mencken
H. L. Mencken Interview
Mencken and Nock on Elitist Individualism
In Defence of Women by H.L Mencken (Part 1 Full) Video / AudioBook
In Defence of Women by H.L Mencken (Part 2 Full) Video / AudioBook
Conversations with History: Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens – The Best of the Hitchslap
Christopher Hitchens – In Depth
Christopher Hitchens: In Confidence (2011)
Christopher Hitchens on ABC1 Lateline – FULL (one of his last interviews)
|Born||Christopher Eric Hitchens
13 April 1949
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England
|Died||15 December 2011 (aged 62)
Houston, Texas, United States
Cause of death
|Pneumonia (brought on byesophageal cancer)|
British and American (2007–11)
|Alma mater||The Leys School
Balliol College, Oxford
He contributed to New Statesman, The Nation, The Atlantic, London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Slate and Vanity Fair. Hitchens was the author, co-author, editor and co-editor of over thirty books, including five collections of essays, on a range of subjects, including politics, literature and religion. A staple of talk shows and lecture circuits, his confrontational style of debate made him both a lauded and controversial figure. Known for his contrarian stance on a number of issues, Hitchens excoriated such public figures as Mother Teresa; Bill Clinton; Henry Kissinger; Diana, Princess of Wales; and Pope Benedict XVI. He was the elder brother of the conservative journalist and author Peter Hitchens.
Long describing himself as a socialist and a Marxist, Hitchens began his break from the established political left after what he called the “tepid reaction” of the Western left to the controversy over The Satanic Verses, followed by the left’s embrace of Bill Clinton, and the “anti-war” movement’s opposition to intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even though Hitchens did not leave his position writing for The Nation until post-9/11, stating that he felt the magazine had arrived at a position “that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” The September 11 attacks “exhilarated” him, bringing into focus “a battle between everything I love and everything I hate,” and strengthening his embrace of an interventionist foreign policy which challenged “fascism with an Islamic face“. His numerous editorials in support of the Iraq Warcaused some to label him a neoconservative, although Hitchens insisted he was not “a conservative of any kind”, and his friend Ian McEwan described him as representing the anti-totalitarian left. Hitchens recalls in his memoir having been “invited by Bernard-Henri Levy to write an essay on political reconsiderations for his magazine La Regle du Jeu. I gave it the partly ironic title: ‘Can One Be a Neoconservative?’ Impatient with this, some copy editor put it on the cover as ‘How I Became a Neoconservative.’ Perhaps this was an instance of the Cartesian principle as opposed to the English empiricist one: it was decided that I evidently was what I apparently only thought.” Indeed, in a 2010 BBC interview, he stated that he was “still a Marxist“.
A noted critic of religion and an antitheist, he said that a person “could be an atheist and wish that belief in god were correct”, but that “an antitheist, a term I’m trying to get into circulation, is someone who is relieved that there’s no evidence for such an assertion”. According to Hitchens, the concept of a god or a supreme being is atotalitarian belief that destroys individual freedom, and that free expression and scientific discovery should replace religion as a means of teaching ethics and defining human civilisation. His anti-religion polemic, New York Times Bestseller, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, sold over 500,000 copies.
Hitchens died on 15 December 2011 from complications arising from esophageal cancer, a disease that he acknowledged was more than likely due to his lifelong predilection for heavy smoking and drinking.
Life and caree
Early life and education
Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire. His parents, Eric Ernest Hitchens (1909–87) and Yvonne Jean Hitchens (née Hickman; 1921–73), met in Scotland when both were serving in the Royal Navyduring World War II. His mother was Jewish, and kept that fact a secret. It was not until late 1987 that Hitchens learned of his Jewish ancestry (though he became a lifelong atheist). He said, “My initial reaction, apart from pleasure and interest, was the faint but definite feeling that I had somehow known all along.” His mother was a “Wren” (a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service), and his father an officer aboard the cruiser HMS Jamaica, which helped sink Nazi Germany’s battleship Scharnhorst in the Battle of the North Cape. His father’s naval career required the family to move a number of times from base to base throughout Britain and its dependencies, including in Malta, where Christopher’s brother Peter was born in Sliema in 1951.
Hitchens’s mother, arguing “if there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it”, sent him to Mount House School in Tavistock in Devon at the age of eight, followed by the independent Leys School in Cambridge. Hitchens then went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was tutored by Steven Lukes and Anthony Kenny and read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Hitchens was “bowled over” in his adolescence by Richard Llewellyn‘s How Green Was My Valley, Arthur Koestler‘s Darkness at Noon, Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s Crime and Punishment, R. H. Tawney‘s critique on Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and the works of George Orwell. In 1968, he took part in the TV quiz show University Challenge.
In the 1960s, Hitchens joined the political left, drawn by his anger over the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, racism, and oligarchy, including that of “the unaccountable corporation”. He expressed affinity with the politically charged countercultural and protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He deplored the recreational drug use of the time, which he described as hedonistic.
Hitchens was bisexual during his younger days – until he claimed his looks “declined to the point where only women would go to bed with me.”  He claimed to have had sexual relations with two male students at Oxford who would later become Tory ministers during the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher, although he would not reveal their names publicly.
He joined the Labour Party in 1965, but along with the majority of the Labour students’ organisation was expelled in 1967, because of what Hitchens called “Prime Minister Harold Wilson‘s contemptible support for the war in Vietnam”. Under the influence of Peter Sedgwick, who translated the writings of Russian revolutionary and Soviet dissident Victor Serge, Hitchens forged an ideological interest in Trotskyist and anti-Stalinist socialism. Shortly after he joined “a small but growing post-Trotskyist Luxemburgist sect”.
Journalistic career (1970–81
Hitchens began working as a correspondent for the magazine International Socialism, published by the International Socialists, the forerunners of today’s British Socialist Workers Party. This group was broadly Trotskyist, but differed from more orthodox Trotskyist groups in its refusal to defend communist states as “workers’ states“. Their slogan was “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism“.
Hitchens left Oxford with a third class degree. In 1971 he went to work at the Times Higher Education Supplement where he served as a social science correspondent. Hitchens admitted that he hated the position, and was fired after six months in the job: he recalled, “I sometimes think if I’d been any good at that job, I might still be doing it.” Next he was a researcher for ITV‘s Weekend World. In 1973 he went to work for the New Statesman, where his colleagues included the authors Martin Amis, who he had briefly met at Oxford, Julian Barnes and James Fenton, with whom he had shared a house in Oxford. It was at this time that the legendary Friday lunches began, which were attended by writers including Clive James, Ian McEwan, Kingsley Amis, Terence Kilmartin, Robert Conquest, Al Alvarez, Peter Porter, Russell Davies andMark Boxer. At the New Statesman Hitchens acquired a reputation as a fierce left-winger, aggressively attacking targets such as Henry Kissinger, the Vietnam War, and the Roman Catholic Church.
In November 1973, Hitchens’s mother committed suicide in Athens in a suicide pact with her lover, a defrocked clergyman named Timothy Bryan. The pair overdosed on sleeping pills in adjoining hotel rooms, and Bryan slashed his wrists in the bathtub. Hitchens flew alone to Athens to recover his mother’s body, initially under the impression that his mother had been murdered. Both her children were then independent adults. While in Greece, Hitchens reported on the constitutional crisis of the military junta. It became his first leading article for the New Statesman.
American career (1981–2011)
Hitchens went to the United States in 1981, as part of an editor exchange program between The New Statesman and The Nation. After joining The Nation, he penned vociferous critiques of Ronald Reagan,George H. W. Bush and American foreign policy in South and Central America. He became a contributing editor of Vanity Fair in 1992, writing ten columns a year. He left The Nation in 2002 after profoundly disagreeing with other contributors over the Iraq War. There is speculation that Hitchens was the inspiration for Tom Wolfe‘s character Peter Fallow in the 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities,but others—including Hitchens (or he indicated as such while alive)—believe it to be Spy Magazine ’s “Ironman Nightlife Decathlete” Anthony Haden-Guest. In 1987, his father died from cancer of the esophagus; the same disease that would later claim his own life. In April 2007, Hitchens became a U.S. citizen. He became a media fellow at the Hoover Institution in September 2008.
Hitchens spent part of his early career in journalism as a foreign correspondent in Cyprus. Through his work there he met his first wife Eleni Meleagrou, a Greek Cypriot, with whom he had two children, Alexander and Sophia. His son, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, born in 1984, has worked as a policy researcher in London. Hitchens continued writing essay-style correspondence pieces from a variety of locales, includingChad, Uganda and the Darfur region of Sudan. His work took him to over 60 countries. In 1991 he received a Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction.
Hitchens met Carol Blue for the first time at the Los Angeles airport in 1989, and would marry her in 1991. Hitchens called it love at first sight. In 1999, as harsh critics of Clinton, Hitchens and Carol Blue submitted an affidavit to the trial managers of the Republican Party in the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Therein they swore that their then-friend, Sidney Blumenthal, had described Monica Lewinsky as a stalker. This allegation contradicted Blumenthal’s own sworn deposition in the trial, and it resulted in a hostile exchange of opinion in the public sphere between Hitchens and Blumenthal. Following the publication of Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars, Hitchens wrote several pieces in which he accused Blumenthal of manipulating the facts. The incident ended their friendship and sparked a “personal crisis” for Hitchens who was stridently criticised by friends for a cynical and ultimately politically futile act.
Before Hitchens’s political shift, the American author and polemicist Gore Vidal was apt to speak of Hitchens as his “Dauphin” or “heir”. In 2010, Hitchens attacked Vidal in a Vanity Fair piece headlined “Vidal Loco”, calling him a “crackpot” for his adoption of 9/11 conspiracy theories. On the back of Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22, among the praise from notable figures, Vidal’s endorsement of Hitchens as his successor is crossed out in red and annotated “NO, C.H.” His strong advocacy of the war in Iraq had gained Hitchens a wider readership, and in September 2005 he was named one of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” byForeign Policy and Prospect magazines. An online poll ranked the 100 intellectuals, but the magazines noted that the rankings of Hitchens (5), Noam Chomsky (1), and Abdolkarim Soroush (15) were partly due to supporters publicising the vote.
In 2007 Hitchens’s work for Vanity Fair won him the National Magazine Award in the category “Columns and Commentary”. He was a finalist once more in the same category in 2008 for some of his columns inSlate but lost out to Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. He won the National Magazine Award for Columns about Cancer in 2011. Hitchens also served on the Advisory Board of Secular Coalition for America and offered advice to Coalition on the acceptance and inclusion of nontheism in American life. In December 2011, prior to his death, Asteroid 57901 Hitchens was named after him.
Hitchens wrote a monthly essay on books in The Atlantic and contributed occasionally to other literary journals. One of his books, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, is a collection of such works, and Love, Poverty and War contains a section devoted to literary essays. In Why Orwell Matters, he defends Orwell’s writings against modern critics as relevant today and progressive for his time. In the 2008 book Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left, many literary critiques are included of essays and other books of writers, such as David Horowitz and Edward Said.
During a three-hour In Depth interview on Book TV, he named authors who have had influence on his views, including Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse and Conor Cruise O’Brien.
|My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my arse.|
|– Christopher Hitchens|
The San Francisco Chronicle referred to Hitchens as a “gadfly with gusto”. In 2009, Hitchens was listed by Forbes magazine as one of the “25 most influential liberals in the U.S. media”. The same article noted that he would “likely be aghast to find himself on this list”, since it reduces his self-styled radicalism to mere liberalism. Hitchens’s political perspective appears in his wide ranging writings, which include many of the political dialogues he published.
In 2010, Theodore Dalrymple wrote, “Christopher made an early commitment to Trotskyism, but it is difficult to take him very seriously as a revolutionary because he always has been too much of a hedonist. Indeed, he appears to me to have had roughly the same relationship to proletarians as Marie Antoinette had to sheep: They have walk-on parts in his personal drama. There is not much evidence of his having thought deeply, or even at all, about the fate, under a social system he vociferously advocated, of the pleasures he so clearly values, the liking for which I don’t in the least blame him; nor is there evidence of any real reflection on what the world would have been like had his demands been met. Not permanent revolution but permanent adolescence has been his goal, and I think he has achieved it.”
Hitchens became a socialist “largely [as] the outcome of a study of history, taking sides … in the battles over industrialism and war and empire.” In 2001, he told Rhys Southan of Reason magazine that he could no longer say “I am a socialist”. Socialists, he claimed, had ceased to offer a positive alternative to the capitalist system. Capitalism had become the more revolutionary economic system, and he welcomed globalisationas “innovative and internationalist“, but added, “I don’t think that the contradictions, as we used to say, of the system, are by any means all resolved.” He stated that he had a renewed interest in the freedom of the individual from the state, but that he still considered libertarianism “ahistorical” both on the world stage and in the work of creating a stable and functional society, adding that libertarians are “more worried about the over-mighty state than the unaccountable corporation” whereas “the present state of affairs … combines the worst of bureaucracy with the worst of the insurance companies.”
In 2006, in a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania debating the Jewish Tradition with Martin Amis, Hitchens commented on his political philosophy by stating, “I am no longer a socialist, but I still am a Marxist“. In a June 2010 interview with The New York Times, he stated that “I still think like a Marxist in many ways. I think the materialist conception of history is valid. I consider myself a very conservative Marxist”. In 2009, in an article for The Atlantic entitled “The Revenge of Karl Marx”, Hitchens frames the late-2000s recession in terms of Marx’s economic analysis and notes how much Marx admired the capitalist system that he called for the end of, but says that Marx ultimately failed to grasp how revolutionary capitalist innovation was. Hitchens was an admirer of Che Guevara, yet in an essay written in 1997, he distanced himself from Che, and referred to the mythos surrounding him as a “cult”. In 2004 he resumed his positive view of Che, commenting that “[Che’s] death meant a lot to me and countless like me at the time. He was a role model, albeit an impossible one for us bourgeois romantics insofar as he went and did what revolutionaries were meant to do—fought and died for his beliefs.”
He continued to regard Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin as great men, and the October Revolution as a necessary event in the modernisation of Russia. In 2005, Hitchens praised Lenin’s creation of “secular Russia” and his discrediting of the Russian Orthodox Church, describing the church’s power as “absolute warren of backwardness and evil and superstition”.
Iraq War and the war on terror
In the years after the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie in response to his novel The Satanic Verses, Hitchens became increasingly critical of what he called “excuse making” on the left. At the same time, he was attracted to the foreign policy ideas of some on the Republican-right that promoted pro-liberalism intervention, especially the neoconservative group that included Paul Wolfowitz. Around this time, he befriended the Iraqi dissident and businessman Ahmed Chalabi. In 2004, Hitchens stated that neoconservative support for US intervention in Iraq convinced him that he was “on the same side as the neo-conservatives” when it came to contemporary foreign policy issues. Hitchens had also been known to refer to his association with “temporary neocon allies”.
Following 11 September attacks, Hitchens and Noam Chomsky debated the nature of radical Islam and the proper response to it. In October 2001, Hitchens wrote criticisms of Chomsky in The Nation. Chomsky responded and Hitchens issued a rebuttal to Chomsky to which Chomsky again responded. Approximately a year after 11 September attacks and his exchanges with Chomsky, Hitchens left The Nation, claiming that its editors, readers and contributors considered John Ashcroft a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden, and that they were making excuses on behalf of Islamist terrorism; in the following months he wrote articles increasingly at odds with his colleagues.
Christopher Hitchens argued the case for the Iraq War in a 2003 collection of essays entitled A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, and participated in public debates on the topic with George Galloway, Scott Ritter, and his brother Peter Hitchens.
Criticism of George W. Bush
Prior to 11 September 2001, and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Hitchens was critical of President George W. Bush‘s “non-interventionist” foreign policy. He also criticised Bush’s support of intelligent designand capital punishment.
Although Hitchens defended Bush’s post-11 September foreign policy, he criticised the actions of US troops in Abu Ghraib and Haditha, and the US government’s use of waterboarding, which he unhesitatingly deemed as torture after he was invited by Vanity Fair to voluntarily undergo it. In January 2006, Hitchens joined with four other individuals and four organisations, including the American Civil Liberties Unionand Greenpeace, as plaintiffs in a lawsuit, ACLU v. NSA, challenging Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program; the lawsuit was filed by the ACLU.
Hitchens would elaborate on his political views and ideological shift in a discussion with Eric Alterman on Bloggingheads.tv. In this discussion Hitchens revealed himself to be a supporter of Ralph Nader in the 2000 US presidential election, who was disenchanted with the candidacy of both George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Hitchens made a brief return to The Nation just before the 2004 US presidential election and wrote that he was “slightly” for Bush; shortly afterwards, Slate polled its staff on their positions on the candidates and mistakenly printed Hitchens’s vote as pro-John Kerry. Hitchens shifted his opinion to “neutral”, saying: “It’s absurd for liberals to talk as ifKristallnacht is impending with Bush, and it’s unwise and indecent for Republicans to equate Kerry with capitulation. There’s no one to whom he can surrender, is there? I think that the nature of the jihadist enemy will decide things in the end”.
In the 2008 presidential election, Hitchens in an article for Slate stated, “I used to call myself a single-issue voter on the essential question of defending civilisation against its terrorist enemies and their totalitarian protectors, and on that ‘issue’ I hope I can continue to expose and oppose any ambiguity.” He was critical of both main party candidates,Barack Obama and John McCain, but wrote that Obama would be the better choice. Hitchens went on to call McCain “senile”, and his choice of running mate Sarah Palin“absurd”, calling Palin a “pathological liar” and a “national disgrace”. Hitchens also wrote that “Obama is greatly overrated” and that the Obama-Biden ticket “show[s] some signs of being able and willing to profit from experience”.
A review of his autobiography Hitch-22 in The Jewish Daily Forward refers to Hitchens “at the time [that he had learned that his grandparents were Jews, he had been] a prominent anti-Zionist” and says that he viewed Zionism “as an injustice against the Palestinians”. Others have commented on his anti-Zionism as well. At other times for example speaking at 2nd annual Memorial for Daniel Pearl, and in print in an article for The Atlantic he had made comments against the terrorism against Jews in the Middle East. Hitchens stated “But the Jews of the Arab lands were expelled again in revenge for the defeat of Palestinian nationalistic aspirations, in 1947–48, and now the absolute most evil and discredited fabrication of Jew-baiting Christian Europe—The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—is eagerly promulgated in the Hamas charter and on the group’s Web site and recycled through a whole nexus of outlets that includes schools as well as state-run television stations”.
In Slate magazine, Hitchens pondered the notion that, instead of curing antisemitism through the creation of a Jewish state, “Zionism has only replaced and repositioned” it, saying: “there are three groups of 6 million Jews. The first 6 million live in what the Zionist movement used to call Palestine. The second 6 million live in the United States. The third 6 million are distributed mainly among Russia, France, Britain, and Argentina. Only the first group lives daily in range of missiles that can be (and are) launched by people who hate Jews.” Hitchens argued that instead of supporting Zionism, Jews should help “secularise and reform their own societies”, believing that unless one is religious, “what the hell are you doing in the greater Jerusalem area in the first place?” Indeed, Hitchens goes so far as to claim that the only justification for Zionism given by Jews is a religious one.
In his 2006 debate with Martin Amis, Hitchens stated that “one must not insult or degrade or humiliate people” and that he “would be opposed to this maltreatment of the Palestinians if it took place on a remote island with no geopolitical implications”. Hitchens described Zionism as “an ethno-nationalist quasi-religious ideology” and stated his desire that if possible, he would “re-wind the tape [to] stop Herzl from telling the initial demagogic lie (actually two lies) that a land without a people needs a people without a land“.
He continued to say that Zionism “… nonetheless has founded a sort of democratic state which isn’t any worse in its practice than many others with equally dubious origins.” He stated that settlement in order to achieve security for Israel is “doomed to fail in the worst possible way”, and the cessation of this “appallingly racist and messianic delusion” would “confront the internal clerical and chauvinist forces which want to instate a theocracy for Jews”. Hitchens contended that the “solution of withdrawal would not satisfy the jihadists” and wondered “What did they imagine would be the response of the followers of the Prophet[Muhammad]?” Hitchens bemoaned the transference into religious terrorism of Arab secularism as a means of democratisation: “the most depressing and wretched spectacle of the past decade, for all those who care about democracy and secularism, has been the degeneration of Palestinian Arab nationalism into the theocratic and thanatocratic hell of Hamas and Islamic Jihad”. He maintained that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a “trivial squabble” that has become “so dangerous to all of us” because of “the faith-based element.”
Hitchens collaborated on this issue with prominent Palestinian advocate Edward Said, in 1988 publishing Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question.
Hitchens actively supported drug policy reform and called for the abolition of the “War on Drugs” which he described as an “authoritarian war” during a debate with William F. Buckley. He supported the legalisation of cannabis for both medical and recreational purposes, citing it as a cure for glaucoma and as treatment for numerous side-effects induced by chemotherapy, including severe nausea, describing the prohibition of the drug as “sadistic”.
Other issues on which Hitchens wrote included his support for the reunification of Ireland, abolition of the British monarchy, the establishment of a self-governing state for the Kurds and his condemnation of the war crimes of Slobodan Milošević in the Yugoslav Wars, and criticised Franjo Tuđman for colluding with Milošević on a partition of Bosnia and empowering Croatian war criminals.
Criticism of Mormonism
Critiques of specific individual
Hitchens was known for his scathing critiques of public figures. Three figures—Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa—were the targets of three separate full length texts, No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Hitchens also wrote book-length biographical essays about Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson: Author of America), George Orwell (Why Orwell Matters), and Thomas Paine (Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”: A Biography).
The majority of Hitchens’s critiques took the form of short opinion pieces, including critiques of: Jerry Falwell, George Galloway, Mel Gibson, the 14th Dalai Lama, Michael Moore, Daniel Pipes, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, and Cindy Sheehan. When comedian Bob Hope died in 2003, Hitchens wrote an attack piece on him, calling Hope “a fool and nearly a clown, but he was never even remotely a comedian” and “Quick, then—what is your favorite Bob Hope gag? It wouldn’t take you long if I challenged you on Milton Berle, or Woody Allen, or John Cleese, or even Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl. By this time tomorrow, I bet you haven’t come up with a real joke for which Hope could take credit.” Critics argued that Hitchens focused solely on Hope’s declining years and ignored his heyday in the 1940s.
Views on religion
Hitchens often spoke against the Abrahamic religions, what he called “the three great monotheisms” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). When asked by readers of The Independent (London) what he considered to be the “axis of evil”, Hitchens replied “Christianity, Judaism, Islam – the three leading monotheisms.” In God Is Not Great, Hitchens expanded his criticism to include all religions, including those rarely criticised by Western secularists, such as Buddhism and neo-paganism; the book received mixed responses, from praise in The New York Times for his “logical flourishes and conundrums” to accusations of “intellectual and moral shabbiness” in the Financial Times. God Is Not Great was nominated for a National Book Award on 10 October 2007.
Hitchens said that organized religion is “the main source of hatred in the world”, “[v]iolent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children”, and that accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience”. He often spoke about his efforts to champion the word ‘antitheist’ as he expressed his position that it was a relief that there is no evidence for a ‘celestial North Korea’. Atheism was a word not strong enough to encompass his feelings about the immoral conundrum that the existence of a deity would necessarily imply. In God Is Not Great, Hitchens said that:
[A]bove all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man and woman [alluding to Alexander Pope]. This Enlightenment will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people. It is within the compass of the average person. The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by electronic means, will revolutionise our concepts of research and development. Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse. And all this and more is, for the first time in our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.
God Is Not Great rendered Hitchens a major advocate of the “New Atheism” movement, and he also was made an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society.Hitchens said he would accept an invitation from any religious leader who wished to debate with him. He also served on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group for atheists and humanists in Washington, DC. In 2007, Hitchens began a series of written debates on the question “Is Christianity Good for the World?” with Christian theologian and pastor, Douglas Wilson, published in Christianity Today magazine. This exchange eventually became a book by the same title in 2008. During their book tour to promote the book, film producer Darren Doane sent a film crew to accompany them. Doane produced the film Collision: Is Christianity GOOD for the World?, which was released on 27 October 2009. On 4 April 2009 Hitchens debated William Lane Craig on the existence of God at Biola University.
On 26 November 2010, Hitchens appeared in Toronto, Ontario at the Munk Debates, where he debated religion with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a convert toRoman Catholicism. Blair argued religion is a force for good, while Hitchens was against it. Preliminary results on the Munk website said 56 per cent of the votes backed the proposition (Hitchens’s position) before hearing the debate, with 22 per cent against (Blair’s position), and 21 per cent undecided, with the undecided voters leaning toward Hitchens, giving him a 68 per cent to 32 per cent victory over Blair, after the debate.
Hitchens was accused by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties of being particularly anti-Catholic. Hitchens responded “when religion is attacked in this country … the Catholic Church comes in for a little more than its fair share”. Hitchens had also been accused of anti-Catholic bigotry by others, including Brent Bozell, Tom Piatak in The American Conservative, and UCLA Law ProfessorStephen Bainbridge. In an interview with Radar in 2007, Hitchens said that if the Christian right‘s agenda were implemented in the United States “It wouldn’t last very long and would, I hope, lead to civil war, which they will lose, but for which it would be a great pleasure to take part.” When Joe Scarborough on 12 March 2004 asked Hitchens whether he was “consumed with hatred for conservative Catholics”, Hitchens responded that he was not and that he just thinks that “all religious belief is sinister and infantile”. Piatak claimed that “A straightforward description of all Hitchens’s anti-Catholic outbursts would fill every page in this magazine”, noting particularly Hitchens’s assertion that US Supreme Court Justice John Roberts should not be confirmed because of his faith.
Hitchens was raised nominally Christian, and went to Christian boarding schools but from an early age declined to participate in communal prayers. Later in life, Hitchens discovered that he was of Jewish descent on his mother’s side. According to Hitchens, when his brother Peter took his fiancée to meet their maternal grandmother, who was then in her 90s, she said of his fiancée, “She’s Jewish, isn’t she?” and then announced: “Well, I’ve got something to tell you. So are you.” Hitchens found out that his maternal grandmother, Dorothy née Levin, was Jewish (Dorothy’s father and maternal grandfather were Jewish, and Dorothy’s maternal grandmother—Hitchens’s matrilineal great-great-grandmother—was a convert to Judaism). Hitchens’s maternal grandfather converted to Judaism before marrying Dorothy Levin. Hitchens’s Jewish-born ancestors were immigrants from Eastern Europe (including Poland). In an article in The Guardian on 14 April 2002, Hitchens stated that he could be considered Jewish because Jewish descent is traditionally traced matrilineally. In a 2010 interview at New York Public Library, Hitchens stated that he was against infant circumcision, a Jewish ritual, and that he believed “if anyone wants to saw off bits of their genitalia they should do it when they’re grown up and have made the decision for themselves”.[dead link]
The following dictum is widely attributed to Hitchens and has become known as Hitchens’ Dictum:
What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Marriages and childre
Hitchens was married twice, first to Eleni Meleagrou, a Greek Cypriot, in a Greek Orthodox church in 1981; the couple had a son, Alexander, and a daughter, Sophia. They divorced in 1989. From February 1990, Hitchens’s girlfriend was reported as being Carol Blue, a Californian screenwriter. In 1991 Hitchens married Blue in a ceremony held at the apartment of Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation. They had a daughter, Antonia.
Hitchens’s father, Eric Hitchens, was a commander in the British Royal Navy. Hitchens often referred to his father as simply the ‘Commander’. Hitchens’s father was deployed on the HMS Jamaica which took part in the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst in the Battle of the North Cape on 26 December 1943. Christopher Hitchens would refer to his father’s contribution to the war: ‘Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom is a better day’s work than any I have ever done.’ He also stated that ‘the remark that most summed him [his father] up was the flat statement that the war of 1939 to 1945 had been “the only time when I really felt I knew what I was doing.”‘
Hitchens’s mother, Yvonne, died in Athens in 1973 when, despite first reports in The Times that she had been murdered, it was later concluded that her death had been the result of an apparent suicide pact with her boyfriend, Reverend Timothy Bryan. Hitchens travelled to Athens to identify his mother’s body. On the subject Hitchens later said: ‘She probably thought things were getting sordid—he [Bryan] wasn’t able to hold a job down, she couldn’t go back, she was probably about the age I am now and perhaps there was that—she’d been very pretty—and things were never going to get any better, so why go through with it? She might not have been that hard to persuade, but I know that she did try to save herself because I have the photographs still. So that was sort of the end of family life really.’
In reference to writing about his mother in his memoir, Hitch-22, he said, ‘It was painful to write about my mother, but not very because long ago I internally managed all that. ‘I even went back to Greece and I went to the graveyard while I was writing the book and decided not to write about it. I thought that would be sentimental.’
Relationship with his younger brother
Hitchens’s younger brother by two-and-a-half years, Peter Hitchens, is a Christian and socially conservative journalist, although, like his brother, he had been a Trotskyist in the 1970s. The brothers had a protracted falling-out after Peter wrote that Christopher had once joked that he “didn’t care if the Red Army watered its horses at Hendon” (a suburb of London). Christopher denied having said this and broke off contact with his brother. He then referred to his brother as “an idiot” in a letter to Commentary, and the dispute spilled into other publications as well. Christopher eventually expressed a willingness to reconcile and to meet his new nephew (born in 1999); shortly thereafter the brothers gave several interviews together in which they said that their personal disagreements had been resolved. They appeared together on edition of 21 June 2007 of the BBC current affairs discussion show Question Time. The pair engaged in a formal televised debate for the first time on 3 April 2008, at Grand Valley State University, and at the Pew Forum on 12 October 2010.
Christopher Hitchens described him as “A very brilliant guy, very thoughtful, very good writer, with political views polar opposite of mine.”
Smoking and drinking
The Sunday Times described Hitchens as “Usually armed with a glass of Scotch and an untipped Rothmans cigarette.” In late 2007 he briefly gave up smoking, although resumed during the writing of his memoir and continued until his cancer diagnosis. Hitchens admitted to drinking heavily; in 2003 he wrote that his daily intake of alcohol was enough “to kill or stun the average mule”, arguing that many great writers “did some of their finest work when blotto, smashed, polluted, shitfaced, squiffy, whiffled, and three sheets to the wind.”
George Galloway notably accused Hitchens of being a “drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay“, to which Hitchens replied, “only some of which is true.” Hitchens later elaborated: “He says that I am an ex-Trotskyist (true), a ‘popinjay’ (true enough, since the word’s original Webster’s definition is a target for arrows and shots), and that I cannot hold a drink (here I must protest).” Hitchens’s wife Carol Blue described him as “obviously an alcoholic, he functions at a really high level and he doesn’t act like a drunk, so the only reason it’s a bad thing is it’s taking out his liver, presumably. It would be a drag for Henry Kissinger to live to a hundred and Christopher to keel over next year.” His profile in The New Yorker described him as drinking “like a Hemingway character: continually and to no apparent effect.”
Oliver Burkeman writes, “Since the parting of ways on Iraq … Hitchens claims to have detected a new, personalised nastiness in the attacks on him, especially over his fabled consumption of alcohol. He welcomes being attacked as a drinker ‘because I always think it’s a sign of victory when they move on to the ad hominem.’ He drank, he said, ‘because it makes other people less boring. I have a great terror of being bored. But I can work with or without it. It takes quite a lot to get me to slur.'”
In his 2010 memoir Hitch-22, Hitchens wrote: “There was a time when I could reckon to outperform all but the most hardened imbibers, but I now drink relatively carefully.” He described his then-current drinking routine on working-days as follows: “At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No ‘after dinner drinks’—most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. ‘Nightcaps’ depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”
Reflecting on the lifestyle that supported his career as a writer he said:
I always knew there was a risk in the bohemian lifestyle … I decided to take it because it helped my concentration, it stopped me being bored—it stopped other people being boring. It would make me want to prolong the conversation and enhance the moment. If you ask: would I do it again? I would probably say yes. But I would have quit earlier hoping to get away with the whole thing. I decided all of life is a wager and I’m going to wager on this bit … In a strange way I don’t regret it. It’s just impossible for me to picture life without wine, and other things, fueling the company, keeping me reading, energising me. It worked for me. It really did.
Final illness and death
In June 2010, Hitchens was on tour in New York promoting his memoirs Hitch-22 when he was taken into emergency care suffering from a severe pericardial effusion and then announced he was postponing his tour to undergo treatment for esophageal cancer. He announced that he was undergoing treatment in a Vanity Fair piece entitled “Topic of Cancer”. Hitchens said that he recognised the long-term prognosis was far from positive, and that he would be a “very lucky person to live another five years”.
During his illness, Hitchens was under the care of Francis Collins and was the subject of Collins’s new cancer treatment, which maps out the human genome and selectively targets damaged DNA.
In April 2011, Hitchens was forced to cancel an appearance at the American Atheist Convention, and instead sent a letter that stated, “Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death.” He closed with “And don’t keep the faith.” The letter also dismissed the notion of a possible deathbed conversion, in which he claimed that “redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before.”
In accordance with his wishes, his body was donated to medical research.
Reactions to Hitchens’s death
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “Christopher Hitchens was a complete one-off, an amazing mixture of writer, journalist, polemicist, and unique character. He was fearless in the pursuit of truth and any cause in which he believed. And there was no belief he held that he did not advocate with passion, commitment, and brilliance. He was an extraordinary, compelling and colourful human being whom it was a privilege to know.”
Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford and a friend of Hitchens, said, “I think he was one of the greatest orators of all time. He was a polymath, a wit, immensely knowledgeable, and a valiant fighter against all tyrants, including imaginary supernatural ones.”
American theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, also a friend of Hitchens, said, “Christopher was a beacon of knowledge and light in a world that constantly threatens to extinguish both. He had the courage to accept the world for just what it is and not what he wanted it to be. That’s the highest praise, I believe, one can give to any intellect. He understood that the universe doesn’t care about our existence or welfare and he epitomized the realization that our lives have meaning only to the extent that we give them meaning.”
American stand-up comedian and television host Bill Maher paid tribute to Hitchens on his show Real Time with Bill Maher, saying, “We lost a hero of mine, a friend, and one of the great talk show guests of all time.”
Film and television appearances
|Year||Film, DVD, or TV Episode|
|1984||Opinions: “Greece to their Rome”|
|1993||Everything You Need to Know|
|1994||Tracking Down Maggie: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Thatcher|
|1996||Where’s Elvis This Week?|
|1996–2010||Charlie Rose (talk show) (13 episodes)|
|1998||Princess Diana: The Mourning After|
|1999–2001||Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher|
|1999–2002||Dennis Miller Live (TV show; 4 episodes)|
|2002||The Trials of Henry Kissinger|
|2003||Hidden in Plain Sight|
|2003–09||Real Time with Bill Maher (TV show; 6 episodes)|
|2004||Mel Gibson: God’s Lethal Weapon|
|2004–06||Newsnight (TV show; 3 episodes)|
|2004–10||The Daily Show (TV show; 4 episodes)|
|2005||Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (TV show; 1 episode, s03e05)|
|The Al Franken Show (Radio show; 1 episode)|
|Confronting Iraq: Conflict and Hope|
|Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism|
|2005–08||Hardball with Chris Matthews (TV show; 3 episodes)|
|Question Time (TV series) (1 episode)|
|Your Mommy Kills Animals|
|In Pot We Trust|
|2008||Can Atheism Save Europe? (DVD; 9 August 2008 debate with John Lennox at the Edinburgh International Festival)|
|Discussions with Richard Dawkins: Episode 1: “The Four Horsemen” (DVD; 30 September 2007)|
|Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed|
|2009||Holy Hell (Chap. 5 in 6 Part Web Film on iTunes)|
|God on Trial (DVD; September 2008 debate with Dinesh D’Souza)|
|President: A Political Road Trip|
|Collision: “Is Christianity GOOD for the World?” (DVD; Fall 2008 debates with Douglas Wilson)|
|Does God Exist? (DVD; 4 April 2009 debate with William Lane Craig)|
|2010||Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune|
|The God Debates, Part I: A Spirited Discussion (DVD; debate with Shmuley Boteach; Host: Mark Derry; Commentary: Miles Redfield)|
|2011||Is God Great? (DVD; 3 March 2009 debate with John Lennox at Samford University)|
|92Y: Christopher Hitchens (DVD; 8 June 2010 dialogue with Salman Rushdie at 92nd Street Y)|
|ABC Lateline (TV show, 2 episodes)|
- 1984 Cyprus. Quartet. Revised editions as Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger, 1989 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and 1997 (Verso)
- 1988 Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question(contributor; co-editor with Edward Said) Verso, ISBN 0-86091-887-4 Reissued, 2001
- 1988 Prepared for the Worst: Selected Essays and Minority Reports Hill and Wang, ISBN 0809078678
- 1990 The Monarchy, Chatto & Windus Ltd
- 1990 Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies, Farrar Straus & Giroux (T)(June 1990)
- 1993 “For The Sake Of Argument” Verso
- 1995 The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Verso
- 1997 The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification, Verso
- 1999 No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family, Verso
- 2000 Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, Verso
- 2001 The Trial of Henry Kissinger. Verso.
- 2001 Letters to a Young Contrarian, Basic Books
- 2002 Why Orwell Matters also Orwell’s Victory, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-03050-5
- 2004 Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, Thunder’s Mouth, Nation Books,ISBN 1-56025-580-3
H. L. Mencken
|H. L. Mencken|
|Born||Henry Louis Mencken
September 12, 1880
Baltimore, Maryland,United States
|Died||January 29, 1956(aged 75)
|Occupation||Journalist, satirist, critic|
|Notable credit(s)||The Baltimore Sun|
|Relatives||August Mencken, Jr.
|Family||August Mencken, Sr.
Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956) was an American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English. Known as the “Sage of Baltimore”, he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. As a scholar Mencken is known for The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States. His satirical reporting on the Scopes trial, which he dubbed the “Monkey Trial”, also earned him notoriety. He commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements.
As an admirer of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he was a detractor of religion, populism and representative democracy, which he believed was a system in which inferior men dominated their superiors. Mencken was a supporter of scientific progress, skeptical of economic theories and critical of osteopathic/chiropracticmedicine.
During and after World War I, he was sympathetic to the Germans, and was very distrustful of British propaganda. Though he deemed Adolf Hitler and his followers “ignorant thugs”, he had strong reservations about American participation in World War II. Mencken, through his wide criticism of actions taken by government, had a strong impact on the American left and the American libertarian movement.
Mencken’s longtime home in the Union Square neighborhood of West Baltimore has been turned into a city museum, the H. L. Mencken House. His papers were distributed among various city and university libraries, with the largest collection held in the Mencken Room at the central branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 12, 1880. He was the son of August Mencken, Sr., a cigar factory owner of German ancestry. When Henry was three, his family moved into a new home at 1524 Hollins Street facing Union Square park in the Union Square neighborhood of old West Baltimore. Apart from five years of married life, Mencken was to live in that house for the rest of his life.
When he was nine years old, he read Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn, which he later described as “the most stupendous event in my life”. He became determined to become a writer himself, and read voraciously. In one winter while in high school he read Thackeray and then “proceeded backward to Addison, Steele, Pope, Swift, Johnson and the other magnificos of the Eighteenth century”. He read the entire canon of Shakespeare, and became an ardent fan of Kipling and Thomas Huxley. As a boy, Mencken also had practical interests, photography and chemistry in particular, and eventually had a home chemistry laboratory which he used to perform experiments of his own devising, some of them inadvertently dangerous.
He began his primary education in the mid-1880s at Professor Knapp’s School located on the east side of Holliday Street between East Lexington and Fayette Streets, next to the Holliday Street Theatre and across from the newly constructed Baltimore City Hall. The site today is the War Memorial and City Hall Plaza laid out in 1926 in memory of World War I dead. At fifteen, in June 1896, he graduated as valedictorian from theBaltimore Polytechnic Institute. BPI was a mathematics, technical and science-oriented public high school, founded in 1883, which was then located on old Courtland Street just north of East Saratoga Street. This location is today the east side of St. Paul Street in St. Paul Place and east of Preston Gardens.
He worked for three years in his father’s cigar factory. He disliked the work, especially the sales aspect of it, and resolved to leave, with or without his father’s blessing. In early 1898 he took a class in writing at one of the country’s first correspondence schools (the Cosmopolitan University). This was to be the entirety of Mencken’s formal education in journalism, or indeed in any other subject. On his father’s death a few days after Christmas in the same year, the business reverted to his uncle and Mencken was free to pursue his career in journalism. He applied in February 1899 to the Morning Herald newspaper (which became theBaltimore Morning Herald in 1900), and was hired as a part-timer there, but still kept his position at the factory for a few months. In June he was hired on as a full-time reporter.
Mencken served as a reporter for six years at the Herald. The paper was purchased in June 1906 by Charles H. Grasty, owner/editor of The News since 1892, and competing owner/publisher Gen. Felix Agnus, of the town’s oldest (since 1773) and largest daily The Baltimore American, who proceeded to divide up the staff, assets and resources of The Herald between them, less than two and a half years after the Great Baltimore Fire. Mencken then moved to The Baltimore Sun, where he worked for Charles H. Grasty. He continued to contribute to The Sun, The Evening Sun (founded 1910) and The Sunday Sun full-time until 1948, when he ceased to write there following a stroke.
Mencken began writing the editorials and opinion pieces that made his name. On the side, he wrote short stories, a novel, and even poetry–which he later revealed. In 1908, he became a literary critic for the magazine The Smart Set, and in 1924, he and George Jean Nathan founded and edited The American Mercury, published by Alfred A. Knopf. It soon developed a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America. In 1933, Mencken resigned as editor.
In 1930, Mencken married Sara Haardt, a German American professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore and an author, eighteen years his junior. Haardt had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment. The two met in 1923, after Mencken delivered a lecture at Goucher; a seven-year courtship ensued. The marriage made national headlines, and many were surprised that Mencken, who once called marriage “the end of hope” and who was well known for mocking relations between the sexes, had gone to the altar. “The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me,” Mencken said. “Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one.” Even more startling, he was marrying an Alabama native, despite his having written scathing essays about the American South. Haardt was in poor health from tuberculosis throughout their marriage and died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. He had always championed her writing, and after her death had a collection of her short stories published under the title Southern Album.
Great Depression, War & after
During the Great Depression, Mencken did not support the New Deal. This cost him popularity, as did his strong reservations regarding US participation in World War II, and his overt contempt for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He ceased writing for the Baltimore Sun for several years, focusing on his memoirs and other projects as editor, while serving as an advisor for the paper that had been his home for nearly his entire career. In 1948, he briefly returned to the political scene, covering the presidential election in which President Harry S. Truman faced Republican Thomas Dewey and Henry A. Wallace of the Progressive Party. His later work consisted of humorous, anecdotal, and nostalgic essays, first published in The New Yorker, then collected in the books Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days.
On November 23, 1948, Mencken suffered a stroke that left him aware and fully conscious but nearly unable to read or write, and able to speak only with some difficulty. After his stroke, Mencken enjoyed listening to European classical music and, after some recovery of his ability to speak, talking with friends, but he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense, as if already dead. During the last year of his life, his friend and biographer William Manchester read to him daily.
Preoccupied as Mencken was with his legacy, he organized his papers, letters, newspaper clippings and columns, even grade school report cards. After his death, these materials were made available to scholars in stages in 1971, 1981, and 1991, and include hundreds of thousands of letters sent and received; the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from women.
Though it does not appear on his tombstone, during his Smart Set days Mencken wrote a joking epitaph for himself:
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.
The man of ideas
In his capacity as editor and man of ideas, Mencken became close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, including Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Hergesheimer, Anita Loos, Ben Hecht,Sinclair Lewis, James Branch Cabell, and Alfred Knopf, as well as a mentor to several young reporters, including Alistair Cooke. He also championed artists whose works he considered worthy. For example, he asserted that books such as Caught Short! A Saga of Wailing Wall Street (1929), by Eddie Cantor (ghost-written by David Freedman) did more to pull America out of the Great Depression than all government measures combined. He also mentored John Fante. Thomas Hart Benton illustrated an edition of Mencken’s book Europe After 8:15.
Mencken also published many works under various pseudonyms, including Owen Hatteras, John H Brownell, William Drayham, WLD Bell, and Charles Angoff. As a ghost-writer for the physician Leonard K Hirshberg, he wrote a series of articles and (in 1910) most of a book about the care of babies.
Mencken admired German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—he was the first writer to provide a scholarly analysis in English of Nietzsche’s views and writings—and Joseph Conrad. His humor and satire owe much toAmbrose Bierce and Mark Twain. He did much to defend Dreiser, despite freely admitting his faults, including stating forthrightly that Dreiser often wrote badly and was a gullible man. Mencken also expressed his appreciation for William Graham Sumner in a 1941 collection of Sumner’s essays, and regretted never having known Sumner personally. In contrast, Mencken was scathing in his criticism of the German philosopherHans Vaihinger whom he described as “an extremely dull author” and whose famous book Philosophy of ‘As If’ he dismissed as an unimportant “foot-note to all existing systems”.
Mencken recommended for publication libertarian philosopher and author Ayn Rand‘s first novel, We the Living, calling it “a really excellent piece of work”. Shortly after, Rand addressed him in correspondence as “the greatest representative of a philosophy” to which she wanted to dedicate her life, “individualism”, and, later, listed him as her favorite columnist.
For Mencken, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the finest work of American literature. Much of that book relates how gullible and ignorant country “boobs” (as Mencken referred to them) are swindled by con men like the (deliberately) pathetic “Duke” and “Dauphin” roustabouts with whom Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi River. These scam-artists swindle by posing as enlightened speakers on temperance (to obtain the funds to get roaring drunk), as pious “saved” men seeking funds for far off evangelistic missions (to pirates on the high seas, no less), and as learned doctors of phrenology (who can barely spell). Mencken read the novel as a story of America’s hilarious dark side, a place where democracy, as defined by Mencken, is “the worship of jackals by jackasses”.
Such turns of phrase evoked the erudite cynicism and rapier sharpness of language displayed by Bierce in his darkly satiric Devil’s Dictionary. A noted curmudgeon,democratic in subjects attacked, Mencken savaged politics, hypocrisy, and social convention. Master of English, he was given to bombast, once disdaining the lowly hot dog bun’s descent into “the soggy rolls prevailing today, of ground acorns, plaster of paris, flecks of bath sponge and atmospheric air all compact.”
As a nationally syndicated columnist and book author, he commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements such as the temperance movement. Mencken was a keen cheerleader of scientific progress, but very skeptical of economic theories and critical of osteopathic/chiropractic medicine.
As a frank admirer of Nietzsche, Mencken was a detractor of populism and representative democracy, which he believed was a system in which inferior men dominated their superiors. As did Nietzsche, he also spoke out against religious belief (and as a fervent nonbeliever, against the very notion of a deity), particularly Christian fundamentalism,Christian Science and creationism, and against the “Booboisie”, his word for the ignorant middle classes. In the summer of 1925, he attended the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and wrote scathing columns for the Baltimore Sun (widely syndicated) and American Mercury mocking the anti-evolution Fundamentalists (especially William Jennings Bryan). The play “Inherit the Wind” is a fictionalized version of the trial, and the cynical reporter EK Hornbeck is based on Mencken. In 1926, he deliberately had himself arrested for selling an issue of The American Mercury that was banned in Boston under the Comstock laws. Mencken heaped scorn not only on the public officials he disliked, but also on the contemporary state of American elective politics itself.
In the summer of 1926, Mencken followed with great interest the Los Angeles grand jury inquiry into the famous Canadian-American evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She was accused of faking her reported kidnapping and the case attracted national attention. There was every expectation Mencken would continue his previous pattern of anti-fundamentalist articles, this time with a searing critique of McPherson. Unexpectedly, he came to her defense, identifying various local religious and civic groups which were using the case as an opportunity to pursue their respective ideological agendas against the embattled Pentecostal minister. He spent several weeks in Hollywood, California, and wrote many scathing and satirical columns on the movie industry and the southern California culture. After all charges had been dropped against McPherson, Mencken revisited the case in 1930 with a sarcastically biting and observant article. He wrote that since many of that town’s residents acquired their ideas “of the true, the good and the beautiful” from the movies and newspapers, “Los Angeles will remember the testimony against her long after it forgets the testimony that cleared her.”
In the mid 1930s Mencken feared Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal liberalism as a powerful force. Mencken, says Charles A Fecher, was, “deeply conservative, resentful of change, looking back upon the ‘happy days’ of a bygone time, wanted no part of the world that the New Deal promised to bring in.”
The striking thing about Mencken’s mind is its ruthlessness and rigidity . . . Though one of the fairest of critics, he is the least pliant . . . . [I]n spite of his skepticism, and his frequent exhortations to hold his opinion lightly, he himself has been conspicuous for seizing upon simple dogmas and sticking to them with fierce tenacity . . . true skeptics . . . see both truth and weakness in every case.— Literary critic Edmund Wilson (1921)
Racism and elitism
In addition to his identification of races with castes, Mencken had views about the superior individual within communities. He believed that every community produced a few people of clear superiority. He considered groupings on a par with hierarchies, which led to a kind of natural elitism and natural aristocracy. “Superior” individuals, in Mencken’s view, were those wrongly oppressed and disdained by their own communities, but nevertheless distinguished by their will and personal achievement—not by race or birth.
In 1989, per his instructions, Alfred A. Knopf published Mencken’s “secret diary” as The Diary of H. L. Mencken. According to an item in the South Bay (California) Daily Breeze on December 5, 1989, entitled “Mencken’s Secret Diary Shows Racist Leanings”, Mencken’s views shocked even the “sympathetic scholar who edited it”, Charles A. Fecher of Baltimore. There is a club in Baltimore called the Maryland Club which had one Jewish member, and that member died. Mencken said, “There is no other Jew in Baltimore who seems suitable”, according to the article. And the diary quoted him as saying of blacks, in September 1943, “…it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman. They are all essentially child-like, and even hard experience does not teach them anything.” However, Mencken opposed lynching. For example, he had this to say about a Maryland incident:
Not a single bigwig came forward in the emergency, though the whole town knew what was afoot. Any one of a score of such bigwigs might have halted the crime, if only by threatening to denounce its perpetrators, but none spoke. So Williams was duly hanged, burned and mutilated.
Mencken also wrote: “I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.”
Rather than dismissing democratic governance as a popular fallacy or treating it with open contempt, Mencken’s response to it was a publicized sense of amusement. His feelings on this subject (like his casual feelings on many other such subjects) are sprinkled throughout his writings over the years, very occasionally taking center-stage with the full force of Mencken’s prose:
Democracy gives [the beatification of mediocrity] a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world — that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power — which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters — which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.
This sentiment is fairly consistent with Mencken’s distaste for common notions and the philosophical outlook he unabashedly set down throughout his life as a writer (drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, among others).
Mencken wrote as follows about the difficulties of good men reaching national office when such campaigns must necessarily be conducted remotely:
The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
Mencken countered the arguments for Anglo-Saxon superiority prevalent in his time in a 1923 essay entitled “The Anglo-Saxon”, which argued that if there was such a thing as a pure “Anglo-Saxon” race, it was defined by its inferiority and cowardice. “The normal American of the ‘pure-blooded’ majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen.”
In the 1930 edition of Treatise on the Gods Mencken wrote:
The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.
This passage was removed from subsequent editions at his express direction.
Author Gore Vidal later defended Mencken:
Far from being an anti-Semite, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent. On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), “It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them.” He then reviews the various schemes to “rescue” the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution.
As Germany gradually conquered Europe, Mencken attacked President Franklin D. Roosevelt for refusing to admit Jewish refugees into the United States and called for their wholesale admission:
There is only one way to help the fugitives, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn’t the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?
Mencken’s home at 1524 Hollins Street in Baltimore’s Union Square neighborhood, where he lived for sixty-seven years before his death in 1956, was bequeathed to the University of Maryland, Baltimore on the death of his younger brother, August, in 1967. The City of Baltimore acquired the property in 1983, and the H. L. Mencken House became part of the City Life Museums. It has been closed to general admission since 1997, but is opened for special events and group visits by arrangement.
Shortly after World War II, Mencken expressed his intention of bequeathing his books and papers to Baltimore‘s Enoch Pratt Free Library. At the time of his death in 1956 the Library was in possession of most of the present large collection. As a result, his papers as well as much of his personal library, which includes many books inscribed by major authors, are held in the Library’s Central Branch on Cathedral Street in Baltimore. The original third floor H. L. Mencken Room and Collection housing this collection was dedicated on April 17, 1956. The new Mencken Room, on the first floor of the Library’s Annex, was opened in November 2003.
The collection contains Mencken’s typescripts, newspaper and magazine contributions, published books, family documents and memorabilia, clipping books, large collection of presentation volumes, file of correspondence with prominent Marylanders, and the extensive material he collected while preparing The American Language.
Other Mencken related collections of note are at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, and Yale University. The Sara Haardt Mencken collection at Goucher College includes letters exchanged between Haardt and Mencken and condolences written after her death. Some of Mencken’s vast literary correspondence is held at the New York Public Library.
- George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905)
- The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1907)
- The Gist of Nietzsche (1910)
- What You Ought to Know about your Baby (Ghostwriter for Leonard K. Hirshberg) (1910)
- Men versus the Man: a Correspondence between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist and H. L. Mencken, Individualist (1910)
- Europe After 8:15 (1914)
- A Book of Burlesques (1916)
- A Little Book in C Major (1916)
- A Book of Prefaces (1917)
- In Defense of Women (1918)
- Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918)
- The American Language (1919)
- Prejudices (1919–27)
- First Series (1919)
- Second Series (1920)
- Third Series (1922)
- Fourth Series (1924)
- Fifth Series (1926)
- Sixth Series (1927)
- Selected Prejudices (1927)
- Heliogabalus (A Buffoonery in Three Acts) (1920)
- The American Credo (1920)
- Notes on Democracy (1926)
- Menckeneana: A Schimpflexikon (1928) – Editor
- Treatise on the Gods (1930)
- Making a President (1932)
- Treatise on Right and Wrong (1934)
- Happy Days, 1880–1892 (1940)
- Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941)
- A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources (1942)
- Heathen Days, 1890–1936 (1943)
- Christmas Story (1944)
- The American Language, Supplement I (1945)
- The American Language, Supplement II (1948)
- A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)
- Minority Report (1956)
- On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (1956)
- Cairns, Huntington, ed. (1965), The American Scene.
- The Bathtub Hoax and Blasts & Bravos from the Chicago Tribune (1958)
- Lippman, Theo jr, ed. (1975), A Gang of Pecksniffs: And Other Comments on Newspaper Publishers, Editors and Reporters.
- Rodgers, Marion Elizabeth, ed. (1991), The Impossible HL Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories.
- Yardley, Jonathan, ed. (1992), My Life As Author and Editor.
- A Second Mencken Chrestomathy (1994)
- Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work (1996)
- A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Melville House Publishing, 2006.
Chapbooks, pamphlets, and notable essays
- Ventures into Verse (1903)
- The Artist: A Drama Without Words (1912)
- The Creed of a Novelist (1916)
- Pistols for Two (1917)
- The Sahara of the Bozart (1920)
- Gamalielese (1921)
- “The Hills of Zion” (1925)
- The Libido for the Ugly (1927)
- Bathtub hoax
- Elmer Gantry, a 1927 satirical novel dedicated to Mencken by Sinclair Lewis.
- History of the Germans in Baltimore, Maryland