by H.L. Mencken
From Prejudices: FIRST SERIES, 1919, pp. 59-83. An expansion of Prof. Veblen and the Cow, which appeared in the Smart Set for May, 1919, pp. 138-44, and made a considerable pother. The events dealt with in this essay seem far away today, and perhaps a bit incredible, but they deserve to be recalled, for another and even more preposterous Veblen may be on us tomorrow. On the advent of the New Deal in 1933 some of the wizards at Washington tried to revive him, but this time he did not take and was soon forgotten again. I never met him, but years after 1919 I heard from some of his friends that my onslaught had greatly upset him, and, in fact, made him despair of the Republic. He died in 1929
BACK in the year 1909, being engaged in a bombastic discussion with what was then known as an intellectual Socialist (like the rest of the intelligentsia, he succumbed to the first fife-corps of World War I, pulled down the red flag, damned Marx as a German spy, and began whooping for Woodrow Wilson and Otto Kahn), I was greatly belabored and incommoded by his long quotations from a certain Prof. Thorstein Veblen, then quite unknown to me. My antagonist manifestly attached a great deal of importance to these borrowed sagacities, for he often heaved them at me in lengths of a column or two, and urged me to read every word of them. I tried hard enough, but found it impossible going. The more I read them, in fact, the less I could make of them, and so in the end, growing impatient and impolite, I denounced this Prof. Veblen as a geyser of pishposh, refused to waste any more time upon his incomprehensible syllogisms, and applied myself to the other Socialist witnesses in the case, seeking to set fire to their shirts.
That old debate, which took place by mail (for the Socialist lived in levantine luxury on his country estate and I was a wage-slave attached to a city newspaper), was afterward embalmed in a dull book, and got the mild notice of a day. The book, by name, “Men vs. the Man,”1 is now as completely forgotten as Baxter’s “Saint’s Rest” or the Constitution of the United States. I myself am perhaps the only man who remembers it at all, and the only thing I can recall of my opponent’s argument (beyond the fact that it not only failed to convert me to Marxism, but left me a bitter and incurable scoffer at democracy in all its forms) is his curious respect for the aforesaid Veblen, and his delight in the learned gentleman’s long, tortuous and (to me, at least) intolerably flapdoodlish phrases.
There was, indeed, a time when I forgot even thisâ€”when my mind was empty of the professor’s very name. That was, say, from 1909 or thereabout to the middle of 1917. During those years, having lost all my former interest in Socialism, even as a species of insanity, I ceased to read its literature, and thus lost track of its Great Thinkers. The periodicals that I then gave an eye to, setting aside newspapers, were chiefly the familiar American imitations of the English weeklies of opinion, and in these the dominant Great Thinker was, first, the late Dr. William James, and, after his decease in 1910, Dr. John Dewey. The reign of James, as the illuminated will recall, was long and glorious. For three or four years running he was mentioned in every one of those American Spectators and Saturday Reviews at least once a week, and often a dozen times. Among the less somber gazettes of the republic, to be sure, there were other heroes: Maeterlinck, Rabindranath Tagore, Judge Ben B. Lindsey, and so on, and still further down the literary and intellectual scale there were yet others Hall Caine, Brieux and Jack Johnson among them, with paper-bag cookery and the twilight sleep to dispute their popularity. But on the majestic level of the pre-Villard Nation, among the white and lavender peaks of professorial ratiocination, there was scarcely a serious rival to James. Now and then, perhaps, Jane Addams had a month of vogue, and during one Winter there was a rage for Bergson, but taking one day with another James held his own against the field.