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Thread: H. L. Mencken on Anglo-Saxons

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    H. L. Mencken on Anglo-Saxons

    Via Bodewinthesilent

    H. L. Mencken - The Anglo-Saxon


    I’ll post this excerpt from the H. L. Mencken essay the Anglo-Saxon here, for Anglophiles to revise.

    H. L. Mencken - The Anglo-Saxon qua American temperament when war looms on the horizon:

    So far as I can make out there is no record in history of any Anglo-Saxon nation entering upon any great war without allies. The French have done it, the Dutch have done it, the Germans have done it, the Japs have done it, and even such inferior nations as the Danes, the Spaniards, the Boers and the Greeks have done it, but never the English or Americans. Can you imagine the United States resolutely facing a war in which the odds against it were as huge as they were against Spain in 1898? The facts of history are wholly against any such fancy. The Anglo-Saxon always tries to take a gang with him when he goes into battle, and even when he has it behind him he is very uneasy, and prone to fall into panic at the first threat of genuine danger. Here I put an unimpeachably Anglo-Saxon witness on the stand, to wit, the late Charles W. Eliot. I find him saying, in an article quoted with approbation by the Congressional Record, that during the Revolutionary War the colonists now hymned so eloquently in the school-books "fell into a condition of despondency from which nothing but the steadfastness of Washington and the Continental army and the aid from France saved them," and that "when the War of 1812 brought grave losses a considerable portion of the population experienced a moral collapse, from which they were rescued only by the exertions of a few thoroughly patriotic statesmen and the exploits of three or four American frigates on the seas"--to say nothing of an enterprising Corsican gentleman, Bonaparte by name.
    In both these wars the Americans had enormous and obvious advantages, in terrain, in allies and in men; nevertheless, they fought, in the main, very badly, and from the first shot to the last a majority of them stood in favor of making peace on almost any terms. The Mexican and Spanish Wars I pass over as perhaps too obscenely ungallant to be discussed at all; of the former, U. S. Grant, who fought in it, said that it was "the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." Who remembers that, during the Spanish War, the whole Atlantic Coast trembled in fear of the Spaniards' feeble fleet--that all New England had hysterics every time a strange coal-barge was sighted on the sky-line, that the safe-deposit boxes of Boston were emptied and their contents transferred to Worcester, and that the Navy had to organize a patrol to save the coast towns from depopulation? Perhaps those Reds, atheists and pro-Germans remember it who also remember that during World War I the entire country went wild with fear of an enemy who, without the aid of divine intervention, obviously could not strike it a blow at all--and that the great moral victory was gained at last with the assistance of twenty-one allies and at odds of eight to one.
    But the American Civil War remains? Does it, indeed? The almost unanimous opinion of the North, in 1861, was that it would be over after a few small battles; the first soldiers were actually enlisted for but three months. When, later on, it turned unexpectedly into a severe struggle, recruits had to be driven to the front by force, and the only Northerners remaining in favor of going on were Abraham Lincoln, a few ambitious generals and the profiteers. I turn to Dr. Eliot again. "In the closing year of the war," he says, "large portions of the Democratic party in the North and of the Republican party, advocated surrender to the Confederacy, so downhearted were they." Downhearted at odds of three to one! The South was plainly more gallant, but even the gallantry of the South was largely illusory. The Confederate leaders, when the war began, adopted at once the traditional Anglo-Saxon device of seeking allies. They tried and expected to get the aid of England, and they actually came very near succeeding. When hopes in that direction began to fade (i.e., when England concluded that tackling the North would be dangerous), the common people of the Confederacy threw up the sponge, and so the catastrophe, when it came at last, was mainly internal. The South failed to bring the quaking North to a standstill because, to borrow a phrase that Dr. Eliot uses in another connection, it "experienced a moral collapse of unprecedented depth and duration." The folks at home failed to support the troops in the field, and the troops in the field began to desert. Even so early as Shiloh, indeed, many Confederate regiments were already refusing to fight.
    This reluctance for desperate chances and hard odds, so obvious in the military record of the English-speaking nations, is also conspicuous in times of peace. What a man of another and superior stock almost always notices, living among so-called Anglo-Saxons, is (a) their incapacity for prevailing in fair rivalry, either in trade, in the fine arts or in what is called learning--in brief, their general incompetence, and (b) their invariable effort to make up for this incapacity by putting some inequitable burden upon their rivals, usually by force. The Frenchman, I believe, is the worst of chauvinists, but once he admits a foreigner to his country he at least treats that foreigner fairly, and does not try to penalize him absurdly for his mere foreignness. The Anglo-Saxon American is always trying to do it; his history is a history of recurrent outbreaks of blind rage against people who have begun to worst him. Such movements would be inconceivable in an efficient and genuinely self-confident people, wholly assured of their superiority, and they would be equally inconceivable in a truly gallant and courageous people, disdaining unfair advantages and overwhelming odds. Theoretically launched against some imaginary inferiority in the non-Anglo-Saxon man, either as patriot, as democrat or as Christian, they are actually launched at his general superiority, his greater fitness to survive in the national environment. The effort is always to penalize him for winning in fair fight, to handicap him in such a manner that he will sink to the general level of the Anglo-Saxon population, and, if possible, even below it. Such devices, of course, never have the countenance of the Anglo-Saxon minority that is authentically superior, and hence self-confident and tolerant. But that minority is pathetically small, and it tends steadily to grow smaller and feebler. The communal laws and the communal mores are made by the folk, and they offer all the proof that is necessary, not only of its general inferiority, but also of its alarmed awareness of that inferiority. The normal American of the "pure-blooded" majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed, and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen.

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    Thank you for posting this Friedrich. I intended to but didn’t get round to doing it. I’m going to order my own copy of Mencken’s essays soon enough. I’ll post other Anglo-Saxon relevant excerpts here.

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    I like Mencken a great deal.

    I used to read him when I was in university whenever I wanted to relax and unwind. He's great fun.

    Get, if you can, his Notes on Democracy, Treatise on the Gods, Treatise on Right and Wrong, and his book on Nietzsche.

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    Quote Originally Posted by friedrich braun
    I like Mencken a great deal.

    I used to read him when I was in university whenever I wanted to relax and unwind. He's great fun.

    Get, if you can, he's Notes on Democracy, Treatise on the Gods, Treatise on Right and Wrong, and his book on Nietzsche.
    Yes, Mencken was a sage of scathing wit.

    Have you read any works by Thomas Carlyle?

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    No.

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    such inferior nations as the Danes, the Spaniards, the Boers
    I don't agree with this part. The Danes and Boers, not even the Spanish are "inferior".
    As to the rest of the article, I realy enkioyed it.
    I wonder what Huckelberry would say to it? :biggrin:

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    Off topic, briefly.

    About Carlyle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Carlyle

    Thomas Carlyle (December 4, 1795 - February 5, 1881) was a Scottish essayist and historian, whose work was hugely influential during the Victorian era. He was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfries and Galloway, and was educated at Annan Academy. Coming from a strictly Calvinist family, Carlyle was expected by his father to become a preacher. However, while at Edinburgh University he lost his Christian faith. Nevertheless Calvinist values remained with him throughout his life. This combination of a religious temperament with loss of faith in orthodox Christianity made Carlyle's work appealing to many Victorians who were grappling with scientific and political changes that threatened the traditional social order.
    Carlyle's thinking was heavily influenced by German Transcendentalism, in particular the work of Fichte. He established himself as an expert on German literature in a series of essays for Frazer's Magazine, and by translating German writers, notably Goethe. His first major work, Sartor Resartus, purported to be a commentary in the thought of a German philosopher called Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (which translates as 'god-born devil-shit'), author of a tome entitled "Clothes: their Origin and Influence". Teufelsdröckh's Transcendentalist musings are mulled over by a skeptical English editor who also provides fragmentary biographical material on the philosopher.
    Sartor Resartus was intended to be a new kind of book: simultaneously factual and fictional, serious and satirical, speculative and historical. It ironically commented on its own formal structure, while forcing the reader to confront the problem of where 'truth' is to be found. The imaginary 'Philosophy of Clothes' holds that meaning is to be derived from phenomena, continually shifting over history, as cultures reconstruct themselves in changing fashions, power-structures, and faith-systems. The book contains a very Fichtean conception of religious conversion: based not on the acceptance of God but on the absolute freedom of the will to reject evil, and to construct meaning. This had led some writers to see Sartor Resartus as an early Existentialist text.
    Sartor Resartus was initially considered bizarre and incomprehensible, but had a limited success in America, where it was admired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, influencing the development of New England Transcendentalism. However, within Britain Carlyle's success was assured by the publication of his two volume history of The French Revolution, A History in 1837. After the completed manuscript of the book was accidentally burned by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, Carlyle had to begin again from scratch. The resulting second version was filled with a passionate intensity, hitherto unknown in historical writing. In a politically charged Europe, filled with fears and hopes of revolution, Carlyle's account of the motivations and urges that inspired the events in France seemed powerfully relevant. Carlyle's style of writing emphasised this, continually stressing the immediacy of the action – often using the present tense. For Carlyle, chaotic events demanded what he called 'heroes' to take control over the competing forces erupting within society. While not denying the importance of economic and practical explanations for events, he saw these forces as essentially 'spiritual' in character – the hopes and aspirations of people that took the form of ideas, and were often ossified into ideologies ('formulas' or 'Isms', as he called them). In Carlyle's view only dynamic individuals could master events and direct these spiritual energies effectively. As soon as ideological 'formulas' replaced heroic human action society became dehumanised.
    This dehumanisation of society was a theme pursued in later books, such as Past and Present, in which Carlyle contrasted life in a Medieval monastery with modern society. For Carlyle the monastic community was unified by human and spiritual values, while modern culture deified impersonal economic forces and abstract theories of human 'rights' and natural 'laws'. Communal values were collapsing into isolated individualism and ruthless laissez faire Capitalism.

    These ideas were influential on the development of Socialism, but aspects of Carlyle's thinking in his later years also helped to form Fascism. Carlyle moved towards his later thinking during the 1840s, leading to a break with many old friends and allies such as Mill and, to a lesser extent, Emerson. His belief in the importance of heroic leadership found form in his book "Heroes and Hero Worship", in which he compared different types of hero. For Carlyle the hero was somewhat similar to Aristotle's "Magnanimous" man – a person who flourished in the fullest sense. However, for Carlyle, unlike Aristotle, the world was filled with contradictions with which the hero had to deal. All heroes will be flawed. Their heroism lay in their creative energy in the face of these difficulties, not in their moral perfection. To sneer at such a person for their failings is the philosophy of those who seek comfort in the conventional. Carlyle called this 'valetism', from the expression 'no man is a hero to his valet'.All these books were influential in their day, especially on writers such as Charles Dickens and John Ruskin. However, after the revolutions of 1848, and political agitations in Britain Carlyle published a collection of essays entitled "Latter Day Pamphlets" in which he attacked democracy as an absurd social ideal, while equally condemning hereditary aristocratic leadership. The latter was deadening, the former nonsensical: as though truth could be discovered by totting up votes. Government should come from the ablest. But how we were to recognise the ablest, and to follow their lead, was something Carlyle could not clearly say.In later writings Carlyle sought to examine instances of heroic leadership in history. The "Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell" (1845) he presented a positive image of Cromwell: someone who attempted to weld order from the conflicting forces of reform in his own day. Carlyle sought to make Cromwell's words live in their own terms by quoting him directly, and then commenting on the significance of these words in the troubled context of the time. Again this was intended to make the 'past' 'present' to his readers.
    His last major work was the epic life of Frederick the Great. In this Carlyle tried to show how an heroic leader can forge a state, and help create a new moral culture for a nation. For Carlyle, Frederick epitomised the transition from the liberal Enlightenment ideals of the eighteenth century to a new modern culture of spiritual dynamism: embodied by Germany, its thought and its polity. The book is most famous for its vivid portrayal of Frederick's battles, in which Carlyle communicated his vision of almost overwhelming chaos mastered by leadership of genius. However, the effort involved in the writing of the book took its toll on Carlyle, who became increasingly depressed, and subject to various probably psychosomatic ailments. Its mixed reception also contributed to Carlyle's decreased literary output.
    Later writings were generally short essays, often indicating the hardening of Carlyle's political position. His notoriously racist essay "An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question" suggested that slavery should never have been abolished. It had kept order, and forced work from people who would otherwise have been lazy and feckless. This – and Carlyle's support for the repressive measures of Governor Eyre in Jamaica – further alienated him from his old liberal allies. Eyre had been accused of brutal lynchings while suppressing a rebellion. Carlyle set up a committee to defend Eyre, while Mill organised for his prosecution.Carlyle's private life was also experiencing difficulties. He had increasingly become alienated from his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle. Indeed it seems probable that their marriage was never consummated. Her sudden death plunged him into further despair, during which he wrote his highly self-critical "Reminiscences of Jane Welsh Carlyle". This was published after his death by his biographer James Anthony Froude, who also made public his belief that the marriage was unconsummated. This frankness was unheard of in the usually respectful biographies of the period. However, it was consistent with Carlyle's own belief that the flaws of heroes should be openly discussed, without diminishing their achievements.
    Upon Carlyle's death on February 5, 1881 in London, it was made possible for his remains to be interred in Westminster Abbey but his wish to be buried beside his parents in Ecclefechan was respected.
    The reputation of Carlyle's early work remained high during the nineteenth century, but declined in the twentieth, especially after his dire prediction that democracy would bring chaos proved untrue. His reputation in Germany was always high, because of his promotion of German thought and his biography of Frederick the Great. Friedrich Nietzsche , whose ideas are comparable to Carlyle's in some respects, was dismissive of his moralism, regarding him as a thinker who failed to free himself from the very petty-mindedness he professed to condemn. Carlyle's distaste for democracy and his belief in charismatic leadership was unsurprisingly appealing to Adolf Hitler, who was reading Carlyle's biography of Frederick during his last days in 1945.
    This association with fascism did Carlyle's reputation no good in the post-war years, but "Sartor Resartus" has recently been recognised once more as a unique masterpiece, anticipating many major philosophical and cultural developments, from Existentialism to Postmodernism. It has also been argued that his critique of ideological formulas in "The French Revolution" provides a good account of the ways in which revolutionary cultures turn into repressive dogmatisms. Essentially a Romantic thinker, Carlyle attempted to reconcile Romantic affirmations of feeling and freedom with respect for historical and political fact. Nevertheless, he was always more attracted to the idea of heroic struggle itself, than to any specific goal for which the struggle was being made.

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    Yes, I'm indirectly familiar with Carlyle through authors who've been influenced by him and who have cited him in their works. He was mainly a biographer, I believe.

    The last book that I've read and that addressed Carlyle was AN Wilson's God's Funeral. It's a book that deals with the demise of Christianity in England among the upper classes in the 19th Century.

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