Matt Forney
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Men Versus the Man by H.L. Mencken and Robert Rives La Monte

men-versus-the-manNOTE: This review of Mencken’s most neglected book was originally published at In Mala Fide on January 27, 2012.

Most of you will recognize the name H.L. Mencken, if not from his cutting, witty books and various snide observations on American culture and democracy, then from his role covering the infamous Scopes monkey trial. But who the hell is Robert Rives La Monte?

La Monte is one of those justly forgotten figures of history, a Baltimore News writer and editor for the International Socialist Review. He’s dust, compost, worm food, only remembered in relation to his interactions with people more famous than he. The only reason his name isn’t completely lost to time is because in 1910, he wrote a letter to Mencken, at the time still a relatively obscure Baltimore Sun columnist, urging him to repent his wicked, selfish ways and join him in spreading the glorious gospel of socialism. That’s right: this pipsqueak thought he could convince H.L. Mencken, consummate Nietzschean, atheist and savage critic of “Boobus Americanus,” that socialism was the way forward.

La Monte was eager for a reply from Mencken, and he got it good and hard. But he wasn’t satisfied and wrote Mencken back; the two ended up exchanging a dozen letters in total, which were collected into Men Versus the Man, published in 1911 and one of Mencken’s first books. Despite Mencken’s later popularity, Men Versus the Man went out of print relatively quickly and was lost to time, forgotten even by Mencken himself. Fortunately for us, this early classic has been brought back into print by Kevin Slaughter’s Underworld Amusements, featuring a forward by none other than John Derbyshire, who sums up the book with these two paragraphs:

The argument of Men versus the Man is one we are still having today. The content of the argument is the relative desirability of two approaches to our social life. On the one hand is proposed a society of men: a society in which none is allowed to rise too high above another, a society that subtracts great resources from the more able in an effort to raise up the less able. On the other hand is a society of the man: a society in which individuals are left to do what they can with their inherited capabilities, in conditions of maximum personal freedom and minimal state control.

The argument has been going on in one form or another for a couple of millennia. It is reasonable to hope that we might soon—in less than another century, I’d hope—attain sufficient understanding of our species to know beyond doubt which kind of society is more stable and enduring, which less likely to foster cruelty and injustice.

Men Versus the Man is a pretty interesting read for both its content and its value as one of Mencken’s first published efforts, showing that he was as witty and incisive then as when he became famous a decade later. La Monte’s letters are a slog to get through because he can’t write; as is typical of sophists, he overwrites and pads out his letters to disguise his slipshod arguments. Mencken’s replies are blistering, shredding La Monte’s points with the grace and skill of a master debater, starting out polite but eventually devolving into the pre-Internet version of a flame war as Mencken loses patience:

But this I do know: that the plan of Socialism to lift up the “producer” class to sovereignty by an act of human volition is as absurd as the old ecclesiastical plan to solve the riddles of the universe by revelation and anathema. If the thing ever comes to pass at all, it must come by slow stages and as a symptom of changes in the needs and desires of the human race. At present the race seems to stand most in need of improvements in the art of life. To the man who offers it a secret password to heaven, it gives little, for it is little interested in heaven, but for him who offers it some new scheme to attain ease and comfort—some improvement in marketing petroleum, some device for making travel safer, some new food, some new plan of investing savings—it has rewards as large as those that once went to popes and emperors. And in this favored class of services, it esteems most the unique service. To the man who makes shoes which, whatever their excellence, are no more comfortable than the shoes made at the next bench, it gives a comparatively small reward. And so, too, it has no prize for the man who raises wheat in the old, old way, and stores it in his bin. But to the man who, by inventing new machinery or by better organizing the work, improves the comfort of shoes, and to the man who buys the wheat of the farmers and hauls it craftily to where it is most needed—to these men it gives extraordinary rewards.

Like all good writers, Mencken is difficult to shoehorn: he lampooned both socialism and Christianity, exalting elitism and individualism against the mediocre majority, whether they worshipped Jesus or Marx. Reading his evisceration of La Monte is like watching an MMA fighter bash a retarded kid in the face; the kid is so hopelessly out of his league that you almost feel sorry for him. While not as biting as his later works, Men Versus the Man is still an enjoyable read and a must-have for Mencken fans. Hell, buy an extra copy and give it to your liberal and/or Christian friends for a laugh.

Click here to buy Men Versus the Man.

Read Next: No Man’s Land by Jack Donovan