H. L. Mencken’s “The South Astir”
H. L. Mencken was among the most controversial literary voices of his time and retains his place today as one of the livelier figures in the American tradition. He gained notoriety reporting on the Scopes Trial (which he dubbed “The Monkey Trial”) for the Baltimore Sun; composed The American Language, a multi-volume study of the origins and permutations of spoken English in America; founded the legendary magazine the American Mercury; and wrote everything from journalism to fiction, poetry to criticism, linguistics to satire. Mencken was a matchless raconteur and provocateur, who made enemies both North and South and was often accused of carrying water for one side or the other, depending on who was outraged at the moment.
Not surprisingly, Mencken was among the first writers solicited by James Southall Wilson when VQR was founded in 1925, but Mencken declined, explaining, “Unluckily I am so hard worked that it will be quite impossible for me to write an article for you. The American Mercury keeps me very busy.” But in late 1933, when Mencken resigned his post as editor of the American Mercury, VQR’s new editor Lambert Davis seized the opportunity to again invite the “Sage of Baltimore” to contribute an essay, and this time Mencken agreed. Davis suggested a number of possible topics—reflections on the literary South, a broader survey of the Southern character, a reverie on the decade of the 1920s. Ultimately, Mencken settled on a topic of his own choosing: the difficulties facing the modern South, the problems raised by the Southern Agrarian movement, and the “stranglehold” of the evangelical clergy on “free inquiry” among Southerners. His one and only publication in the Virginia Quarterly Review, “The South Astir,” appeared in the January 1935 issue.
In the essay, Mencken accuses intellectuals of ignoring the problems of the South—political, social, and economic—for almost sixty years. This was not a controversial statement at the time, as Southerners in the latter half of the nineteenth century were more interested in preserving the last bits of their cultural integrity following the devastation of the Civil War than in addressing their fundamental flaws—suppression of civil and political rights for African Americans and the rural poor, the inefficiencies of their economic model, and a general reverence for “the way things used to be.” According to Mencken, the decades of the Teens and Twenties brought the first “realistic studies of Southern problems,” so that, by 1935, he could confidently pronounce: “There is now in the South a minority of opinion that is quite as enlightened as that to be discovered in any other part of the country.”
While Mencken is encouraged that the South is “[grappling] resolutely with its own problems, and [trying] to solve them in accord with its own best interests,” he spends the bulk of his essay casting stones at the Agrarians of Tennessee, a group of Southern writers and intellectuals—John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, to name a few—who opposed the proliferation of industrialism in the South because they believed it robbed the region of its agrarian identity and compromised the individualism of its people “The [Agrarians] conjure up a beautiful Utopia,” Mencken writes, “prove that life in it would be pleasant, and then propose that everyone begin to move in tomorrow. Carried away by their ardor, they overlook the massive detail that it really doesn’t exist.” Mencken agrees that too much industrialism is a bad thing, but the idea of refusing all kinds of industrialism is impractical nonsense: “In spite of occasional Depressions, the industrial system tends to increase the general wealth, to set up salutary impediments to demagogy, and to offer new hope to an already disinherited peasantry.”
Mencken eventually admits that “these Utopians are by no means representative of the New South.” He believes the Southern Agrarians raise some good questions for the general population to consider, but ultimately, they are not at the heart of what ails the South. Instead, Mencken settles upon a single fundamental Southern problem: “the curious Southern tolerance of theological buncombe and pretension.” Getting rid of the influence of the evangelical clergy in the South, Mencken argues, “is the first task of every enlightened Southerner today. It stands in the way of every free functioning of the mind, and is an impediment to all genuine progress, on whatever plane.”
Lambert Davis was pleased with “The South Astir.” He wrote to tell Mencken that it was “a delightfully written piece of work, and blows like a clean breeze through a good deal of our swampy thinking,” although he had some reservation about lumping all Southerners together as “believers in God.” Mencken, for his part, believed that the topic merited more space than a magazine essay allowed to get at all of the issues raised: “The article, on a re-reading, certainly does not thrill me . . . It needs a whole book, or at all events, a pamphlet.” Neither Davis nor Mencken mentioned Robert Penn Warren’s essay on the poetry of John Crowe Ransom, which appeared in the very same issue of the VQR (January 1935) and touched on a few of the Southern principles Mencken discussed. Davis mentioned only that he considered Mencken’s essay “rather a necessary addition to the issue which is otherwise sleepy, though of fairly high quality.”