John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Mencken

jyb_musingsA form of intellectual creative destruction. Or the iconoclasts role in developing authenticity.

As a college student in 1985, after much research and questioning, I found this recording and ordered it from the back of a magazine.

It’s the only known recording of American essayist and celebrated cynic, Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken.

I read Mencken voraciously as a young college student and think I am the better because of it. Much of what Mencken says in this interview comes from his writings.

Mencken, in my view, is a purely American concoction of ill-tempered irreverence, agitated playfulness, omnivorous erudition and literary elegance. He is perhaps our nation’s greatest iconoclast.

As a college student I used to think a course in Mencken should be required of all college freshmen. Why? Because Mencken served the role of the great destroyer of convention and institutions –of all things status quo. Do I think that is a good thing? By itself, of course not. But as part of a learning process where young people are forced to let go of old assumptions to eventually, on their own terms and for their own personal reasons, come to their own beliefs about the world we live in, I think the iconoclast plays a most integral role.

Mencken, for me, was a catalyst for me releasing the second-hand ideas I adopted as a child and cleared the way for me to come to my own conclusions. Most interestingly, many of my “own conclusions” turned out to be consistent with the “second hand ideas” took on in my youth. But now they were mine and I understood them at my core….not just repeated them from rote memory and pretended they were my beliefs.

In that sense, the HL Menckens of the world serve as intermediaries to our most sacred beliefs.

Of course, Mencken wold probably chafe at such a compliment and dismiss it with hilarious and savage sarcasm. And force me to rethink the proclamation and make a more subtle, accurate, and personally compelling description of Mencken’s impact. Just as he forced me to do with so many other of my beliefs.

I’m thankful I had the “Mencken threshold” as part of my mental and moral development—that opinions and viewpoints I was developing had to overcome before I would settle on them.

I wish the same for any college freshman or curious person who is not afraid of stripping down completely intellectually and seeing where the truth leads them.


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