Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Review: Notes on Democracy

Dissident Books has issued a new edition of Notes on Democracy by H.L. Mencken.

The book was originally published in 1926 when the caustic Mencken was perhaps at his most influential point as a journalist and social commentator. These essays reflect both his love of liberty and his wariness of the "mob-man" who extol democracy while supporting tyrants: "What is worth knowing he doesn't know and doesn't want to know; what he knows is not true. The cardinal articles of his credo are the inventions of mountebanks; his heroes are mainly scoundrels."

Mencken was hard to categorize and it will be the rare reader who finishes any section in Notes on Democracy without wincing, often because of suspicion that Mencken may have struck a nerve. ("The average American doesn't want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.") At the same time, he can be enormously entertaining:

"I have alluded somewhat vaguely to the merits of democracy. One of them is quite obvious: it is, perhaps, the most charming form of government ever devised by man. The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true - and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true. Truth has a harshness that alarms them, and an air of finality that collides with their incurable romanticism."

Both the American Right and the Left claim Mencken as one of their own. Anthony Lewis writes the afterword to this volume and Mencken has long been the patron saint of The American Spectator. Dissident Books has done us all a favor by bringing this long-absent volume to light. Mencken said he knew of no man who believed in liberty as much as he did. For all of his faults, the old curmudgeon may have been right.


Cultural Offering said...

Damn, damn, damn. The latest book to ship in generated a dirty look from my wife who claims I have too many unread books backed up. How to sneak this gem in?

Michael Wade said...

I have the same problem. Tell her that some men take to strong drink while others spend the grocery money on books.

Eclecticity said...

There goes Wade again, spreading nihilism far and wide.

I heard / read! HLM described that way recently.

As to book buying, we didn't cause it, we can't control it, and we sure as hell can't cure it. There are more heinous crimes don't you think?

Read on gents! E.