ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


Home  ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)


The black man, I suppose, has a fairly good working understanding of the white man



Books by H. L. Mencken

On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe  /  The American Language  / In Defense of Women  / Prejudices: A Selection  / Smart Set Criticism

Happy Days: Autobiography, 1880-1892  / Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir  /  Heathen Days: 1890-1936   / Letters of H.L. Mencken

*   *   *   *   *

The Sage in Harlem: H.L. Mencken and the Black Writers of the 1920s  (Charles Scruggs)

*   *   *   *   *

The Negro as Author

By H.L. Mencken


The Shadow, by Mary White Ovington, is a bad novel, but it is interesting as a first attempt by a colored writer to plunge into fiction in the grand manner. Hitherto black America has confined itself chiefly to polemics and lyrical verse. not forgetting, of course, its high achievement in the sister art of music. James W. Johnson's Biography of an Ex-Colored Man is not, at bottom, a novel at all, but a sort of mixture of actual biography and fantasy, with overtones of sociology.

Mrs. Ovington issues a clearer challenge. Her book shows the familiar structure of the conventional novel--and a good deal of the familiar banality. At the every start she burdens herself with a highly improbable and untypical story. Perhaps she will answer that it once happened in real life. If so, the answer is no answer.

I once knew a German saloon-keeper who drank sixty glasses of beer every day of his life, but a novel celebrating his life and eminent attainments would have been grossly false.

The serious novel does not deal with prodigies; it deals with normalities. Who would argue that it is a normal phenomenon for w white girl to grow up unrecognized in a negro family, for her to pass over into her own race at twenty, for her to conceive a loathing for the scoundrelism and stupidity of the whites, and for her to pass over into her own race at twenty, for her to prove it by going back to her black foster-relatives and resolving melodramatically to be "colored" herself thereafter?

The thing is so hard to believe, even as a prodigy, that the whole story goes to pieces. Struggling with its colossal difficulties--they would daunt a Conrad or even a Bennett--Mrs. Ovington ends by making all of her characters mere word-machines. They have no more reality than so many clothing-store dummies or moving-picture actors.

Nevertheless, the author shows skill, observation, a civilized point of view. Let her forget her race prejudices and her infantile fables long enough to get a true, an unemotional and a typical picture of her people on paper, and she will not only achieve a respectable work of art, but also serve the cause that seems to have her devotion. As she herself  points out, half of the difficulties between race and race are due to sheer ignorance.

The black man, I suppose, has a fairly good working understanding of the white man; he has many opportunities to observe and note down, and my experience of him convinces me that he is a shrewd observer--that few white men ever fool him. But the white man, even in the South, knows next to nothing of the inner life of the negro.

The more magnificently he generalizes, the more his ignorance is displayed. What the average Southerner believes about the negroes who surround him is chiefly nonsense. His view of them is moral and indignant, or, worse still, sentimental and idiotic. The great movements and aspirations that stir them are quite beyond his comprehension, in many cases he does not even hear of them.

The thing we need is a realistic picture of this inner life of the negro by one who sees the race from within--a self portrait as vivid and accurate as Dostoyevsky's portrait of the Russian or Thackeray's of the Englishman. The action should be kept within the normal range of negro experience. it should extend over a lone enough range of years to show some development in character and circumstance. It should be presented against a background made vivid by innumerable small details.

The negro author who makes such a book will dignify American literature and accomplish more for his race than a thousand propagandists and theorists.

He will force the understanding that now seems so hopeless. He will blow up nine-tenths of the current poppycock. But let him avoid the snares that fetched Mrs. Ovington. She went to Kathleen Norris and Gertrude Atherton for her model. the place to learn how to write novels is in the harsh but distinguished seminary kept by Prof. Dr. Dreiser.

Another somewhat defective contribution to negro literature, this time by a white author, is The Negro Faces America, by Herbert Seligman. The author's aim is, first, to rehearse the difficulties confronting the emerging negro of the United States, particularly in the South, and, secondly, to expose the shallowness and inaccurracy of some of the current notions regarding negro capacities and negro character.

Most of this balderdash, of course, originates in the South, where gross ignorance of the actual negro of today is combined with a great cocksureness. But all of the prevailing generalizations, even in the South, are not dubious, and Mr. Seligmann weakens his case when he hints that they are. For example, there is the generalization that the average negro is unreliable, that he has a rather lame sense of the sacredness of contract, that it is impossible to count upon him doing what he freely promises to do. This unreliability, it seems to me, is responsible for a great deal of the race feeling that smoulders in the South. The white man is forced to deal with negroes daily, and it irritates him constantly to find them so undependable.

True enough, it is easy to prove that this failing is not met with in negroes of the upper classes, and it may be even argued plausibly that it is not intrinsically a negro character--that the pure and undebauched African is a model of honor. But the fact remains that the Southern whites have to deal with the actual negroes before them, and not with a theoretical race of African kings.

These actual negroes show defects that are very real and very serious. The leaders of the race, engrossed by the almost unbearable injustices that it faces, are apt to forget them. here is a chance for its white friends to do it a genuine service.

What it needs most, of course, is a fair chance in the world, a square deal in its effort to rise, but what it needs after that is honest and relentless criticism. This criticism is absent from Mr. Seligmann's book. the negro he depicts is an innocent who never was on land or sea.

 (October 1920)


Source: H.L. Mencken's Smart Set Criticism. Selected and edited by William Ninolte. New York: Cornell University Press, 1968.

*   *   *   *   *

Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore on September 12, 1880. His father was a cigar manufacturer who dabbled in lodge affairs, particularly the Knights Templars, and owned a share of the Washington baseball club. He seldom played with his children--there were two more boys and a girl, Henry Louis being the oldest--but he occasionally like to tell them tall tales, and his basic philosophy of social living was that all decent people paid their bills and that there was a sharp gulf of responsibilities and social position between employers and employees.

Young Harry attended a German private school and also went to a Methodist Sunday school, but he was confirmed in the Lutheran Church. He was graduated from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a public high school, at the age of eighteen, and for a time thought of becoming a chemist.

This ambition he soon gave up, for he began to feel the call of daily journalism. But his father objected: he wanted his oldest son to study law or engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, or at least to join him in his cigar factory. The battle between father and son went on for a year, and four days after the father died in 1899, Harry got a job as a reporter on the Baltimore Herald.

The young man was lucky. He had found his lifework at the very beginning of his career. In rapid succession he became drama critic, Sunday editor, city editor, managing editor and then--at the age of only twenty-five--editor-in-chief. The following year, in 1906, the Herald expired, and Mencken joined the Baltimore Sunpapers as Sunday editor, drama critic, and editorial writer.

While he worked on the Herald, he published a book of poems entitled Ventures into Verse [1903], and he also wrote about three dozen short stories of the romantic and adventure type--and then he gave up poetry and fiction forever.

He loved newspaper work--and his heart was to remain in it for the rest of his days--but he had other ambitions, too: he wanted to be what he called "a book writer," he wanted to write on life and letters for the magazines. he read heavily in Shaw, Ibsen, Pinero, Nietzsche, Sudermann, Huxley, and Hauptmann. In 1904 he published George Bernard Shaw: His Plays 1905], and three years later he published The Philosophy of Frederick Nietzsche [1908]. Not long after the Nietzsche book appeared, Mencken conceived the idea for what later, in 1919, became The American Language. Occasionally, he published the results of some of philological researches in the Sunpapers, where he remained for the rest of his life, and he was pleased by their reception.

He read the "big-town" newspapers and magazines regularly and began to have articles published in them: literary criticism, dramatic criticism, philological pieces, "local color" pieces. he was very much taken with the writings of James Gibbons Huneker, Theodore Dreiser, Percival Pollard, and it was largely through the efforts of Dreiser that Mencken got the job of book critic for the Smart Set at about the same time that George Nathan was made dramatic critic for this magazine. For a while Mencken and Nathan worked under Willard Hungington Wright ("S.S. Van Dine") as editor, but in the fall of 1914 they became joint editors, replacing Wright, and they ran the Smart Set together for the next ten years, until the inauguration of the American Mercury.

For a brief period at the beginning of World War I, Mencken was a war correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and the New York World. However, since his sympathies were with the Central Powers, he stopped writing during the rest of the war for the Baltimore Sun, which supported the war effort. During that time, he wrote a great deal for the New York Evening Mail--on subjects unrelated to the war: on poetry, on prohibition, on philology, and it was in this paper that his celebrated hoax on the "history" of the bathtub appeared.

There followed a period of intense writing. he worked very hard on A Book of Prefaces, a collection of essays about such writers as Dreiser, Huneker, and Thorstein Veblen. Alfred A. Knopf published the book in 1917, and it established Mencken as a literary critic. Not long afterward, Philip Goodman published In Defense of Women, which fixed Mencken's reputation as a satirical writer. With the publication of The American Language the following year, Mencken was regarded as a scholar to be reckoned with.

It was, however, with the launching of the American Mercury in January, 1924, that Mencken began to spread his ideas among the public at large, especially among the young college students and newspaper reporters and editors. By the end of the very first year, Mencken and Nathan saw that they could not go on together; Mencken wanted to turn the magazine into a political organ, while Nathan wanted to make it even more literary than the Smart Set. . . . The period of the Mercury's glory was thus of relatively brief duration, from 1924 to about the end of 1929--less than six years.

In those years Mencken was at the peak of his popularity. His newspaper clippings were tremendous in number and length, and he was much admired by college students and many newspapermen. Strangely enough, however, Mencken's books--he wrote all his Prejudices [1919-1927] then--did not sell too well. He led the college boy intellectuals and the speakeasy girls in their revolt against Prohibition, and when he coveted the Scopes "monkey trial" in Tennessee, he was almost as much a celebrity as Clarence Darrow, chief counsel for the defense, and William Jennings Bryan, chief counsel for the prosecution.

When he went to Boston to defend the mercury against the charge of obscenity that had been leveled against it by the New England Watch and Ward society because of the article "Hatrack" by Herbert Asbury, in the April, 1926, issue--an article dealing with the life of a small-town prostitute--he was a national figure.

While Mencken sang the praises of the bachelor life for many years, he finally married, on August 27, 1930, Sara Haardt, who came from Birmingham, Alabama, and was a writer of short stories and novels. They were married for only five years, for Sara died, on may 31, 1935, the victim of a combination of grave diseases.

For the next five years, Mencken was in the background. then he began to write autobiographical pieces for the New Yorker. When, in 1941, these were published in a  volume entitled Newspaper Days, he was once more discussed with warmth and admiration. Another book of autobiography, Heathen Days, appeared two years later, and with this work he was again a public figure of some eminence. He still wrote for the Baltimore Sunpapers--although his connection with these papers during the war years 1941-1945 was tenuous, for, as in World War I, Mencken maintained that the United States had no business getting involved in "foreign battles among scoundrel nations," and he publicly blamed President Roosevelt personally for our participation in World War II.

In July, 1948, Mencken covered the two major national conventions in Philadelphia--and also the nominating convention of the Progressive Party in the same city--for the Baltimore Sun. not long afterward, he began his final work on A Mencken Chrestomathy, a collection of his own writings, most of them out of print. He was not quite finished with his work when, on November 24, 1948, he was stricken with a cerebral thrombosis. From that day on, he grew progressively worse, unable to read or write for any appreciable length of time. he died on Sunday, January 29, 1956.

*   *   *   *   *

Video: "South Side Story"  / “American Girl" ( Ta Nehesi Coates)

*   *   *   *   *

Allah, Liberty, and Love

The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom

By Irshad Manji

In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times. What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation? What scares non-Muslims about openly supporting liberal voices within Islam?

*   *   *   *   *

The Great Divergence

America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It

By Timothy Noah

For the past three decades, America has steadily become a nation of haves and have-nots. Our incomes are increasingly drastically unequal: the top 1% of Americans collect almost 20% of the nation’s income—more than double their share in 1973. We have less equality of income than Venezuela, Kenya, or Yemen. What economics Nobelist Paul Krugman terms "the Great Divergence" has until now been treated as little more than a talking point, a club to be wielded in ideological battles. But it may be the most important change in this country during our lifetimes—a sharp, fundamental shift in the character of American society, and not at all for the better. The income gap has been blamed on everything from computers to immigration, but its causes and consequences call for a patient, non-partisan exploration.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *

*   *   *   *   *

ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)


update 11 May 2012




Home  Mau Mau Aesthetics  Baltimore Page

Related files:   Letters of H. L. Mencken  H L  Mencken on Negro Authors  George Schuyler to Christian   George Schuyler to Christian2   George Schuyler to Christian3 

 H. L. Mencken Collection   Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist     End of African-American Literature?   Negro Artist and Modern Art   About Romare Bearden  

Letters of H. L. Mencken Lumumba: A Biography  Black Girl in Her Search for God  

The Responsibility of the Artist     Responsibility of Blacks in Cyberspace   The Responsibility of a PanAfrican Socialist