Tuesday, February 10, 2009

REVIEW: Notes on Democracy, by H.L. Mencken

Notes on Democracy, by H.L. Mencken. Originally published 1926. This edition published 2008 by Dissident Books. Essays.

H.L. Mencken's Notes on Democracy is a book of essays on the faults of democracy as a form of government, and it read to me like an extended rant that rings as true today as in 1926, when it was first published. Mencken himself was a newspaperman and editorialist who was famous for his quick wit and sharp tongue, a complicated and contradictory man who, among other things, deplored allowing women to vote, but married a suffragette.

I had heard to Mencken before but had never read any of his writings, so I was intrigued when offered the opportunity to read a book by an important thinker and social critic of the early 20th century. It's hard for me to sum up how I felt about it.

On one hand, I enjoyed Mencken's writing immensely; he's a skilled prose stylist who knows how to make a snappy, convincing point. On the other, I was often offended by his attitudes- his condescension, his casual racism, sexism and social snobbery. He mocks the political structure, elections and social institutions; he believes that democracy is founded on the belief that the common man is wise and to be trusted, and that that belief is false. His basic argument is that democracy is a farce, that "common people" are lazy, selfish and routinely hoodwinked by people even stupider and more selfish than they. He spends a good deal of time criticizing elected officials, judges, and conservative religious movements of every stripe. He deplores religious conservatism for its sanctimony and attempts to force its values on others- he feels that the religious proponets of Prohibition, for example, as well as other "morality" campaigns, are joyless tyrants who want to ensure that other people are as joyless as they.

In general his arguments and perspective feel fresh and current to me- change the references from William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft to George Bush or Bill Clinton, or exchange Prohibition for gay marriage and he could just as easily be talking about contemporary American life. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, right? He was much tougher than I expected on many topics. There were also times when his writing was repetitive and the references dated and stale, but I enjoyed having the chance to read the book, and I'm going to keep my eye on the publisher, New York City-based Dissident Books, to see what they come up with in the future. Right now it looks like Notes on Democracy is their only title. To quote from their website:
Dissident Books offers independent visions and accounts to those who have grown tired of adult lullabies. Our books are for readers who have both the stomach and the desire for the undiluted, no matter how strange, ugly, or sad it might be.

Who can say no to that? Notes on Democracy is a valuable historical document with much to teach us about America even today and even though Mencken might not be everyone's cup of tea, it's a worthwhile read and a sparkling piece of writing.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review courtesy of Online Publicist Lisa Roe.


Anonymous said...

It's clear he missed out by not having a talk radio show!

Gigi Ann said...

An interesting review. Thank you for stopping by for a short visit yesterday. Thank you for your encouraging comment.

Candy Schultz said...

I have to say I agree with Mencken wholeheartedly.

Marie Cloutier said...

Candy- what happened to your blog?

Candy Schultz said...

Long story. I had some anonymous creep from my past coming on there and it was really starting to scare me so I just deleted it. I thought it would be safer. I was getting kind of bored with it all anyway.

Dave said...

If Mencken were alive today, he'd make a great Libertarian Party candidate. Because of his connection to The Baltimore Sun, I was intrigued by the book. Like you, I was awed by his writing skill, and his sense of humor -- both were timeless. But his prejudices come through, too, and seem very dated. In a similar vein, I recently watched Breakfast at Tiffanys for th first time, and was shocked at the racist portrayal of an Asian-American, by Mickey Rooeny, no less. How times have changed.

Marie Cloutier said...

Dave, yes, and of course you're right about Breakfast at Tiffany's as well. I guess to me it just seems so over the top that I can't even take it seriously. But if I were a better person I'd be outraged.