If H.L. Mencken is not the greatest American writer, he is certainly its most cruel. With a few strokes of the pen, this one-man wrecking crew was able to annihilate ideas, beliefs and people. He had little love for misconceptions that paraded as truth. He was at his best when he was demolishing strongly held beliefs that wilt under the light of reason.
Mencken had a special place in his dark heart for mauling politicians who he believed to be demagogues. He seemed to particularly enjoy berating William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, the renowned Congressman, three time Presidential candidate and Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, was best known for his vehement attack on the teaching of evolution in public schools during the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial was an embarrassing end to Bryan’s career and he died soon after.
Upon Bryan’s death, Mencken wrote a truly intriguing column. It was one of the most vicious, malevolent pieces of writing ever published and it was an OBITUARY. Usually, death is something that would make even the most cynical of writers call off the dogs, but not Mencken. He proceeded to desecrate the corpse of Bryan with a stream of invective that is legendary for it’s sheer mercilessness.
Upon reading the piece, many readers are left with two feelings. The first is that Mencken’s writing is incredible. His epic prose shows the pure buffoonery exhibited by Bryan in a way that is both frightening and hysterical. The second is a feeling of disgust. Should Mencken really have been attacking a dead man in this way? Obituaries are often read by friends and family who are mourning the passing of someone dear to them. A reader could easily walk away with the feeling that the world is better without Bryan and that his passing is something to be reveled in. Mencken was stating what he believed to be true. He was being honest in a way that is almost brave. He is not only attacking Bryan, but also the social custom of allowing the recently dead to be exonerated for the way they lived their lives. However, his words could easily have led to untold suffering and misery.
The question of what sort of limit should be set on the amount of pernicious rage that a writer should exhibit is not an easy one to answer. Sometimes it feels like saying the worst possible thing is the correct action. Language can be a weapon that teaches ignorant people to keep their mouths shut. There is a certain beauty in that. There is also a liberating feeling in calling the thing what it is with no restraint. This sort of rage can also be a weapon that causes irreparable harm. We are all humans who, at times, can say and do highly unenlightened things. Should we be ruthlessly punished for each mistake we make? Should we be tormented for living ridiculous lives based on senseless beliefs? Will this sort of brutality teach us to be better people? I’m not sure, but I think the Mencken piece allows us to ask this question and for that reason it is a highly valuable thing. Plus, it’s really, really funny.
Originally published in The Baltimore Evening Sun July 25, 1925
William Jennings Bryan
It was plain to everyone, when Bryan came to Dayton, that his great days were behind him — that he was now definitely an old man, and headed at last for silence. There was a vague, unpleasant manginess about his appearance; he somehow seemed dirty, though a close glance showed him carefully shaved, and clad in immaculate linen. All the hair was gone from the dome of his head, and it had begun to fall out, too, behind his ears, like that of the late Samuel Gompers. The old resonance had departed from his voice: what was once a bugle blast had become reedy and quavering. Who knows that, like Demosthenes, he had a lisp? In his prime, under the magic of his eloquence, no one noticed it. But when he spoke at Dayton it was always audible.
When I first encountered him, on the sidewalk in front of the Hicks brothers law office, the trial was yet to begin, and so he was still expansive and amiable. I had printed in the Nation, a week or so before, an article arguing that the anti-evolution law, whatever its unwisdom, was at least constitutional — that policing school teachers was certainly not putting down free speech. The old boy professed to be delighted with the argument, and gave the gaping bystanders to understand that I was a talented publicist. In turn I admired the curious shirt he wore — sleeveless and with the neck cut very low. We parted in the manner of two Spanish ambassadors.
But that was the last touch of affability that I was destined to see in Bryan. The next day the battle joined and his face became hard. By the end of the first week he was simply a walking malignancy. Hour by hour he grew more bitter. What the Christian Scientists call malicious animal magnetism seemed to radiate from him like heat from a stove. From my place in the court-room, standing upon a table, I looked directly down upon him, sweating horribly and pumping his palm-leaf fan. His eyes fascinated me: I watched them all day long. They were blazing points of hatred. They glittered like occult and sinister gems. Now and then they wandered to me, and I got my share. It was like coming under fire.
II What was behind that consuming hatred? At first I thought that it was mere evangelical passion. Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Christianity of Christ was founded upon love. But even evangelical Christians occasionally loose their belts and belch amicably; I have known some who, off duty, were very benignant. In that very courtroom, indeed, were some of them — for example, old Ben McKenzie, Nestor of the Dayton bar, who sat beside Bryan. Ben was full of good humor. He made jokes with Darrow. But Bryan only glared.
One day it dawned on me that Bryan, after all, was an evangelical Christian only by sort of afterthought — that his career in this world, and the glories thereof, had actually come to an end before he ever began whooping for Genesis. So I came to this conclusion: that what really moved him was a lust for revenge. The men of the cities had destroyed him and made a mock of him; now he would lead the yokels against them. Various facts clicked into the theory, and I hold it still. The hatred in the old man’s burning eyes was not for the enemies of God; it was for the enemies of Bryan.
Thus he fought his last fight, eager only for blood. It quickly became frenzied and preposterous, and after that pathetic. All sense departed from him. He bit right and left, like a dog with rabies. He descended to demagogy so dreadful that his very associates blushed. His one yearning was to keep his yokels heated up — to lead his forlorn mob against the foe. That foe, alas, refused to be alarmed. It insisted upon seeing the battle as a comedy. Even Darrow, who knew better, occasionally yielded to the prevailing spirit. Finally, he lured poor Bryan into a folly almost incredible.
I allude to his astounding argument against the notion that man is a mammal. I am glad I heard it, for otherwise I’d never believe it. There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic — and once, I believe, elected — there he stood in the glare of the world, uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at! The artful Darrow led him on: he repeated it, ranted for it, bellowed it in his cracked voice. A tragedy, indeed! He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. Now he was passing out a pathetic fool.
III Worse, I believe that he somehow sensed the fact — that he realized his personal failure, whatever the success of the grotesque cause he spoke for. I had left Dayton before Darrow’s cross-examination brought him to his final absurdity, but I heard his long speech against the admission of expert testimony, and I saw how it fell flat and how Bryan himself was conscious of the fact. When he sat down he was done for, and he knew it. The old magic had failed to work; there was applause but there was no exultant shouts. When, half an hour later, Dudley Field Malone delivered his terrific philippic, the very yokels gave him five times the clapper-clawing that they had given to Bryan.
This combat was the old leader’s last, and it symbolized in more than one way his passing. Two women sat through it, the one old and crippled, the other young and in the full flush of beauty. The first was Mrs. Bryan; the second was Mrs. Malone. When Malone finished his speech the crowd stormed his wife with felicitations, and she glowed as only a woman can who has seen her man fight a hard fight and win gloriously. But no one congratulated Mrs. Bryan. She sat hunched in her chair near the judge, apparently very uneasy. I thought then that she was ill — she has been making the round of sanitariums for years, and was lately in the hands of a faith-healer — but now I think that some appalling prescience was upon her, and that she saw in Bryan’s eyes a hint of the collapse that was so near.
He sank into his seat a wreck, and was presently forgotten in the blast of Malone’s titanic rhetoric. His speech had been maundering feeble and often downright idiotic. Presumably, he was speaking to a point of law, but it was quickly apparent that he knew no more law than the bailiff at the door. So he launched into mere violet garrulity. He dragged in snatches of ancient chautauqua addresses; he wandered up hill and down dale. Finally, Darrow lured him into that fabulous imbecility about man as a mammal. He sat down one of the most tragic asses in American history.
IV It is the national custom to sentimentalize the dead, as it is to sentimentalize men about to be hanged. Perhaps I fall into that weakness here. The Bryan I shall remember is the Bryan of his last weeks on earth — broken, furious, and infinitely pathetic. It was impossible to meet his hatred with hatred to match it. He was winning a battle that would make him forever infamous wherever enlightened men remembered it and him. Even his old enemy, Darrow, was gentle with him at the end. That cross-examination might have been ten times as devastating. It was plain to everyone that the old Berseker Bryan was gone — that all that remained of him was a pair of glaring and horrible eyes.
But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment’s notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.
The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails, they will devour it.
Words are powerful and elusive things. We are given words as a method of conveying experience to other humans. They are not perfect tools. They give some insight to the human experience, but they often fail to capture the vivid, richness of emotion and feeling that encapsulates one’s humanity. TS Eliot perfectly captures this idea in Sweeney Agonistes when his protagonist exclaims in frustration “I’ve got to use words when I talk to you!” We tend to believe that we have shared definitions of words so that when we make a statement the listener can have some idea as to what we are experiencing. However, there are words in our language that I believe have such a different definition from person to person that it is nearly impossible to discern what on earth they mean. One word that would fall into this category would be the word cruelty. I can honestly say that after years of trying to understand it, I still have no clue what this word means. This is troubling because the word cruelty has a remarkable power in our culture. It is a word that can define whether another human or animal is worthy of the ability to continue to live. The word can save one creature from inhuman punishment while sentencing another to horrific torment. But what does it really mean?
When trying to understand the moral dimensions of a word the law can be a good guide. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution includes this word when it says that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The Supreme Court has interpreted the part about “cruel and unusual punishment” in countless ways. For our purposes, we are not going to discuss the “unusual” part of the phrase because that simply means it is uncommon or rare. If any cruel punishment happens often, it is no longer unusual. If every murderer were punished by being covered in honey and attacked by bees it could still be outlawed by the court as being a cruel punishment even though it was happening all the time. The key to understanding the Amendment is the word cruel. The Court seems to be trying to distinguish cruelty from non-cruelty in its rulings in this matter.
The Court dispensed with several “cruel” punishments back in 1878 in Wilkerson vs. Utah when Justice Nathan Clifford wrote in his majority opinion that beheading, disemboweling, dissection, burning someone to death and other barbaric methods of torture were not acceptable. It would be hard to find many people who would make the case that those things were not cruel. However, Clifford’s holding was that being executed by firing squad for a crime was not cruel and unusual and, therefore, was Constitutionally permitted. This holding is extremely confusing. Being ripped apart by bullets is not cruel, but being beheaded is cruel. It is quite possible to be shot and to not die immediately, but to linger in pain for hours before perishing. What is the distinction?
In 1951, the Court has begun to move away from other types of punishments. In the Trop vs. Dulles case, a non-death penalty case focusing on the government’s ability to take away a person’s citizenship for deserting while in the army, the ruled that taking someone’s citizenship away was, in fact, cruel and unusual punishment. This is a monumentally significant ruling that called into question many punishments that were being used throughout the country. Justice Earl Warren wrote in his majority opinion that the Eighth Amendment “must draw it’s meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” This phrase is particularly important because Warren seems to be making the point that as our society evolves it is becoming less cruel and the Court should reflect that. These words have pushed the law away from certain punishments that were once accepted. Death by firing squad, once a relatively common punishment, has been eliminated. The Court ruled in Coker v. Georgia (1977) that the death penalty was not acceptable for rape. The Court has stated that executing someone with an extremely low IQ is not permissible (Atkins v. Virginia 2002). The Court has also mandated that those under the age of 18 cannot be murdered for committing a capital crime (Roper v. Simmons, 2005). All of these punishments are considered cruel.
The fascinating part about Trop v. Dulles is that while it holds that taking away someone’s citizenship is cruel and unusual, executing someone is not. This is inconsistency is nothing short of bizarre. Justice Felix Frankfurter pointed out the absurdity of this idea in his dissent when he asked whether the words of the Constitution were “so empty of reason that it can be seriously urged that the loss of citizenship is a fate worse than death?”
Unfortunately, this absurd inconsistency does not only reside in the halls of the Supreme Court. It is everywhere you look. In the early days of the War on Terror, we were regularly subjected to surreal debates over why beating someone was cruel while water boarding someone was not. Is it cruel only if the punishment leaves lasting physical scars? Do our standards of cruelty change based on where someone was born?
The American news media brought horrific pictures of the tortures taking place at the Abu Ghraib Prison but has paid scant attention to the thousands of Iraqis (civilian and military) who have been killed during the war. Being threatened by dogs and placed in stress positions is cruel but being killed by an advancing army trying to take control of a city is not?
During the trial of Michael Vick, many stunned Americans stood aghast that a man would injure and punish animals in such a cruel way. Yet our culture is so committed to the idea of murdering animals for food that we have holidays based around consumption of animals. According to a USDA study from 2000, the average American consumes nearly 200 pounds of meat per year. Killing animals for food is so widely excepted in our culture that one is not astonished to see pictures or statues of smiling, dancing pigs on the wall of a barbeque restaurant. Americans often seem completely blind to the pain and suffering inflicted on animals, until a football player decides to torment dogs for fun. Is it cruelty because the intent was solely to harm animals? Had he eaten his dogs after killing them would it have not been cruel?
Watching news reports about the horrendous cruelty of dog fighting followed by a Wendy’s commercial for a hamburger that features enough bacon on it to clog the arteries of the Mississippi River is enough to confuse anyone who is paying attention. How could one person’s massacre become another person’s feast?
I don’t propose to know how to make the world any less cruel. Human behavior has always mystified me and I certainly have no clue how to change it. However, the poorly defined nature of the word cruel allows people to stand on a moral high ground that is not deserved. We are a society that has laws against forms of cruelty while tacitly accepting other forms as normal behavior. How can we distinguish what is and isn’t cruelty? I believe that the first step is coming up with a definition for the word that is clear so we can honestly distinguish it. Granted, definitions are never perfect, but when one is defined in a way that is so completely unclear it can warp the sensibilities of a culture to the point of absurdity.
A simple but effective definition of cruelty would be any act that causes harm or suffering to any living creature. This removes the artificial boundaries that have been created and allow us to call things what they are. When the word is defined this way we are not able to make abstract distinctions between who is worthy of cruelty and how much pain they should be allowed to endure. It simply is what it is and we must then cope with it for what it is. This definition no longer allows us to display cruelty while hiding from behind a moral facade. If we choose to claim we don’t know any better we are not exonerated because in the eyes of the person or animal that is suffering that distinction is meaningless. Cruelty need not be a willful act, it must only be something that causes suffering or harms another. I am not naive enough to believe a revised definition of a word can end human cruelty, but there should be a price for the pain that we inflict or allow on other living things and that cost should be the truth of what we have participated in.