Hark! Is It the Voices of Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken We Are Beginning to Hear Again After Years of 1920s-Like Self-Delusion?

As I read The New York Times each morning, I sometimes feel like we have returned to a more (much more) complex version of the 1920s.

Wal-Mart is plotting to force older employees to quit because they’ll use more health care. Gillette is alleged to be allowing its packaging contractors to treat temporary workers like Nike and other have been alleged to treat workers in Southeast Asia. The earning power of the middle class and below is steadily eroding, and almost no one who might effectively intervene seems to be paying attention. From city hall to the highest halls of government, politicians seem never to have been more dissembling and inept, more self-serving and incompetent.

But why the 1920s? Probably because one of the streaks I shelter in my heart of hearts is a romantic streak.

I’m hungry for a 21st Century Sinclair Lewis or a Henry Louis Mencken to take today’s stage. But if they did, what would they do, what would they say, where would they say it?

We may have clues in what they did do and what they did say, back then. Robert Morss Lovett offered this assessment in an essay in The Dial, in June, 1925:

“A leading trait of the American people is a youthful self-consciousness amounting to an inferiority complex, which makes us impatient of criticism. Everything which we have done is right because we did it. All our wars were just; all our statesmen are pure; all our business is honest. Ours is the land of liberty, of tolerance, of opportunity, of righteousness.

“Our favorite prophets are the sayers of smooth things in Zion, those who speak comfortably to Jerusalem of her ideals and performances—Wilson, Harding, Coolidge. And yet by some sort of saving grace, in the midst of this complacency appear Mr. Lewis and Mr. Mencken, to tear the hoods and sheets off our moral and civic Ku Klux Klan, to show the cringing forms and the false, cowardly, cruel faces beneath the mask—and Mr. Mencken and Mr. Lewis as critic and novelist are, in this day and generation, the most read and considered interpreters of American life.

“They are constantly telling truths about their country for which less fortunate devils are being hounded out of pulpits and college chairs, losing business and social standing, and occasionally suffering physical punishments at the hands of court or clan, and yet they flourish like two green bay trees.”*

It may be that we have our Lewises and Menckens at work even yet, but they come with different kinds of voices, to be heard in different kinds of mediums. Some of the truths are now beginning to be learned about how America went to war without thinking, how our hallowed ideals have been trampled in vacuums of moral authority, how vast is the waste of our health care system (and how unfair its rules and regulations of access are), how low our standing as a nation has fallen in the world community of nations and so forth.

Probably the narrative themes of Babbitt and Arrowsmith and of the newspaper articles, books reviews and political commentaries of the son of the owner of Baltimore’s Mencken Cigar Company are even yet making their way semi-sub rosa through the utter glut of cable news reports and commentary, blogs (like this one), mass-copied e-mails and all the other contemporary channels over which and through which Lewis and Mencken were never conveyed.

The romantic in me was in both of these gents, too—especially Mencken. He once summed up America this way:

“We live in a land of abounding quackeries, and if we do not learn how to laugh we succumb to the melancholy disease which afflicts the race of viewers-with-alarm… In no other country known to me is life as safe and agreeable, taking one day with another, as it is in These States. Even in a great Depression few if any starve, and even in a great war the number who suffer by it is vastly surpassed by the number who fatten on it and enjoy it. Thus my view of my country is predominantly tolerant and amiable. I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.”*

My own amusement at the oh-so-public-events-of-the-day these days has its limits, and probably they are closer in than HLM’s. But I still believe that this country harbors an amazing self-correcting resiliency in his political systems and collective self-will. I think some of Tuesday’s election results indicated that this always-caught-slumbering force is stirring again, about to awaken from its hibernation, like green bay trees.


The Lovett quote comes from Twentieth Century Interpretations of Arrowsmith (Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 103. The Mencken quote is found here: Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)

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