Sunday read: An elitist takes aim

henry-louis-mencken
Image from Great Minds on Race.

In recent weeks, the chattering classes have been trying to come to grips with Donald Trump’s election win. Who are these people who voted for him? How could anyone who can walk and chew gum at the same time even consider casting a ballot for “Cheeto Jesus”?

But this is a story that’s as old as America. It’s a story of classes — the educated versus the uneducated, elite versus common man, cosmopolitan versus country bumpkin. In general, the former has laid into the latter.

In a famous essay by H.L. Mencken, the latter was the South.

In “The Sahara of the Bozart” — which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, and which is my Sunday read for today — Mencken spared no sneer in characterizing culture in the old Confederacy.

(W)hen you come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like, you will have to give it up, for there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mudflats and the Gulf. Nor a historian. Nor a philosopher. Nor a theologian. Nor a scientist. In all these fields the South is an awe-inspiring blank — a brother to Portugal, Serbia and Albania.

He slams Virginia for its “poor white trash” political class, among other things, and then notes that the state is probably the best of the South. Georgia, on the other hand, is “a state with more than half the area of Italy and more population than either Denmark or Norway, and yet in thirty years it has not produced a single idea.”

(I can only imagine what he thought of Alabama and Mississippi, which are the traditional whipping boys for those of us who live in the Peach State.)

It’s fascinating to read “Bozart” today. Mencken practically defines “elitist,” in both the best and worst ways. For all of his devotion to civilization, he had a particular kind of narrow world in mind: His writings were full of insults aimed at blacks and Jews, and to modern eyes he comes across as part misanthrope, part crank — not quite the wisecracking E.K. Hornbeck of “Inherit the Wind,” who was based on Mencken.

That attitude is in “Bozart” as well. He praises the antebellum South as “a civilization of manifold excellences — perhaps the best that the Western Hemisphere had ever seen.” (Well, except for that slavery thing, right, Henry?) And he belittles the “older stocks” for their bloodlines: “It is highly probable that some of the worst blood of western Europe flows in the veins of the Southern poor whites, now poor no longer.”

All this is to wonder what the Sage of Baltimore would make of the American divide circa 2016. Would he castigate Trump — of German heritage, like Mencken — and scoff at the religiosity of the GOP? Would he criticize the multi-culti left? Would he find common cause with anybody?

He was certainly an iconoclast. Which, after 100 years, still makes “Bozart” an interesting, if uncomfortable, read. You can check it out here.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s