H.L. Mencken and the South

Mencken’s “Sahara of the Bozart” is one of the most famous essays of 20th century American let­ters. Since its appearance in 1919, the essay has become widely regarded as Mencken’s “slur on the South,” as his acid-laced repudiation of Southern culture (indeed his assertion that the South had no culture).

“The Sahara of the Bozart” is a bit more complex than that. It is not really a slur at all, at least not a malicious one, and Mencken does not limit his attention to the short­comings of the South. Indeed, his famous essay is more properly regarded as an endorsement of the Old South and an introduction to the high chivalric tradition in Southern letters. He spoke bitterly of the barreness of the New South because (as incredible as it may seem at first glance) Mencken was really a defender of the Faith, an apologist for the old order and a crusader for moonlight and magnolias.

Remember that Mencken was himself a Southern writer from Maryland, a Southern-leaning border state. As such he was influenced by the viewpoint of the post-bellum tradition in the South, especially the plantation romance, a form per­fected (if not invented) in John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn: Or a Sojourn in the Old Dominion. Missis­sippi’s Stark Young (So Red the Rose) and Tennessee’s Allen Tate (The Fathers) are in this tradition. Other writers can be listed: Thomas Nelson Page, Augusta Evan Wilson, George Cary Eggleston, Mary Johnston. The works of all these writers (like J. Evetts Haley’s “Plutarchian biogra­phies”) recall a lost way of life with nostalgia. But more than that, they offer a model they believe to be superior in most respects to the present. These writers, in other words, offer an implicit rebuke of contemporary reconstruction by offer­ing a “counter-reconstruction” mingling “moonlight and magnolias” with elegiac defiance. Mencken’s famous and misunderstood essay is rightly seen in that tradition.

The “Sahara of the Bozart” opens with lines that are easily among the most famous written about the South in this century:

“Alas, for the South! Her hooks have grown fewer— She never was much given to literature.”

In the lamented J. Gordon Coogler, author of these elegiac lines, there was the insight of a true poet. He was the last bard of Dixie, at least in the legitimate line. Down there a poet is now almost as rare as an oboe-player, a dry-point etcher or a metaphysician. It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity. One thinks of the interstellar spaces, of the colossal reaches of the now mythical ether. Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums: one could throw in France, Germany and Italy, and still have room for the British Isles. And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the “progress” it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellecturally, culturally, as the Sahara Desert…The picture gives one the creeps… In brief, an intellectual Gobi hapland… A self-respecting European, going there to live, would not only find intellectual stimulation utterly lacking; he would actually feel a certain insecurity, as if the scene were the Balkans or the China Coast….[It is] senile [and] crass, gross, vulgar and obnoxious…a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence.

On the other hand,

In the North, of course, there is also grossness, crossness, vulgarity. The North, in its way, is also stupid and obnoxious. But nowhere in the North is there such com­plete sterility, so depressing a lack of all civilized ges­ture and aspiration.

The rest of the article is much less well-known than the lines quoted above. Hence, the “impulse that deserves respect” in the North is often imperfectly understood as Mencken’s normative contrast to the Southern Sahara. In fact, this desolate picture, however accurate it may or may not have been, is much the same view as that of the post-bellum Southern plantation romancers. Using his own ir­reverent style, Mencken argues, in effect, that the 20th century South remains a frontier for Northern conquest and reconstruction. The South, until it is truly and finally con­quered and reconstructed, will always be the “New Fron­tier.” More surprising in this connection, perhaps, is the contrast Mencken goes on to present between the Northern and Southern people today. Indeed, his presentation does not portray Southerners as ignorant and coarse. In fact, his analysis of the Southern hierarchy parallels that of most post-bellum Southern apologists. Note Mencken’s explana­tion of the reasons for the South’s plight:

As for the cause of this unanimous torpor and doltish-ness, this curious and almost pathological estrangement from everything that makes a civilized culture, I have hinted at it already and now state it again. The South has simply been drained of all its best blood. The vast blood-letting of the Civil War half exterminated and wholly paralyzed the old aristocracy….The war not only cost a great many valuable lives; it also brought bankruptcy, demoralization and despair in its train.

This was, of course, the theme of much late 19th century and early 20th century Southern writing, and Mencken agrees with Page and others that Southern defeat on the field of battle was the preeminent cause of the region’s deteriora­tion into a “Sahara of the Bozart.” But he goes on to observe that the war actually did not take all of the Southern aristoc­racy. Many were left. Of these some went North after the war and added much to Yankee society, the only Northern gain from the war that he mentions at all:

They [the Southern gentry who came North] were fecund; their progeny is widely dispersed, to the great benefit of the North.

In fact, Mencken explains, “A Southerner of good blood almost always does well in the North,” because:

He finds, even in the big cities, surroundings fit for a man of condition. His peculiar qualities have a high social value, and are esteemed. He is welcomed by the codfish [viz. Yankee] aristocracy as one palpably superior.

Thus even in Mencken’s famous desert, the Southern gentleman remains superior to any class in the North, by which Mencken means any class in the country. And furthermore, this superiority at the top is ever-so faintly re­flected in the conduct of the lesser multitudes in their man­ners, their “civility.” And in their worst aspects the ignorant masses of the South are seen as suffering corruption from an alien influence:

The tone of public opinion is set by an upstart class but lately emerged from industrial slavery into commercial enterprise—the class of “hustling” business men, of “live wires,” of commercial club luminaries, of “drive” managers, of forward-lookers and right-thinkers—in brief of third-rate Southerners inoculated with all the worst traits of the Yankee sharper. One observes the curious effects of an old tradition of truculence upon a population now merely pushful and impudent, of an old tradition of chivalry upon a population now quite without imagination. The old repose is gone. The old romanticism is gone. The philistinism of the new type of town-boomer Southerner is not only indifferent to the ideals of the Old South; it is positively antagonistic to them…It is inconceivably hollow and obnoxious. What remains of the ancient tradition is simply a cer­tain charming civility in private intercourse—often broken down, alas, by the hot rages of intolerance, but still generally visible.

Yet even with this preparation, the concluding sentences of the “Sahara of the Bozart” come as something of a shock to readers who know the essay only by reputation:

The Southerner, at his worst, is never quite the surly cad that the Yankee is.

This means that Mencken’s “Sahara of the Bozart” ex­tends far beyond the boundaries of the South. Indeed, for Mencken, the only oasis to be found in the Sahara is where remnants of the Southern gentry still reside. As for the non-genteel Southerner, person-for-person, he is still the best part of the rest of the population:

His sensitiveness may betray him into occasional bad manners, but in the main he is a pleasant fellow—hospitable, polite, good-humored, even jovial…But a bit absurd— A bit pathetic.

The lament in the closing paragraph of Mencken’s famous article is the same as that found either explicitly or implicitly throughout the post-bellum school of Lost Cause romance. In 1922, Professor Jay B. Hubbell, then at Southern Meth­odist University in Dallas, attempted to account for this school by saying that their typical attitudes were colored more by Reconstruction than by defeat in battle. After the War, says Professor Hubbell, “The worst had not yet come.” The South:

was not prepared for Reconstruction, which seemed to him an attempt to “Yankee-ize” him in mind and soul. Reconstruction appeared to him an attempt to force him to give up not only his ancient mode of living but even his whole view of life.

The resolve to resist or ignore this attempt at “Yankee-fying,” according to Dr. Hubbell, remained mostly un­shaken until “about 1900,” at which time “we note the beginnings of a gradual change in the trend of Southern fiction so marked as to be described as revolutionary.” In short, says Hubbell, “since 1900 Southern’ literature has for the first time become genuinely American, i.e., recon­structed.”

H.L. Mencken’s target in the “Sahara” article is precisely this “New South,” which, he says, has “borrowed the worst commercial bounderism of the Yankee and superimposed it on a culture that, at bottom, is little removed from savagery.” It is, in Mencken’s almost Weberian phrase “the most noisy and vapid sort of chamber of commerce, incon­ceivably hollow and obnoxious.” Indeed Mencken attacks his target with weapons from the old southwestern humor­ists, but he focuses not upon the humorous but upon what he calls at the end of his piece the “absurd.” The Southern “plain folk” are, he says, “a bit absurd,” “a bit pathetic,” not because they are still polite and hospitable and friendly, but because they can’t compete in the dog-eat-dog economic world and because what he calls their “sensitiveness” does not lead to an easy political “internationalism.”

Mencken’s attempt to characterize this new Northern regime as a whole constitutes the neglected heart of his “Sahara of the Bozart.” This barbarous desert lacks “all civilized gesture and aspiration” because it consists precisely in the drying-up of civilization:

It would [Mencken says] be impossible in all history to match so complete a drying-up of civilization. I say a civilization because that is what, in the old days, the South had… More, it was a civilization of manifold excellences—perhaps the best that the Western Hemi­sphere has ever seen—undoubtedly the best that these States have ever seen.

The Southern literary renaissance is often said to have been in part stimulated by Mencken’s “The Sahara of the Bozart” but, as we have seen, the essay is part of the renais­sance itself, a journalistic protest to a new and alien vision of society which Mencken, as well as the agrarians, saw as origi­nating in New England. As Mencken put it:

The New England shopkeepers and theologians never really developed a civilization; all they ever developed was a government. They were, at their best, tawdry and tacky fellows, oafish in manner and devoid of imagina­tion; one searches the books in vain for mention of a salient Yankee gentleman….

He concludes by saying that, in contrast to New England,

In the South there were men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct, and aristocratic manner—in brief, superior men—in brief, gentry. To politics, their chief diversion, they brought active and original minds. It was there that nearly all the political theories we still cherish and suffer under came to birth. It was there that the crude dogmatism of New England was refined and human­ized. It was there, above all, that some attention was given to the art of living—that life got beyond and above the state of a mere infliction and became an ex­hilarating experience. A certain noble spaciousness was in the ancient Southern scheme of things. The Ur-Confederate had leisure. He liked to toy with ideas. He was hospitable and tolerant. He had the vague thing that we call culture.

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