The Sahara of the Bozart

H.L. Mencken

New York Evening Mail/November 13, 1917

Alas! for the South—her books have grown fewer.

She never was much given to literature.

In the lamented J. Gordon Coogler, author of these memorable lines, there was the intuition of a true poet. He was the last bard of Dixie. Down there a poet is now rare as a philosopher or an oboe-player. That vast region south of the Potomac is as large as Europe. You could lose France, Germany and Italy in it, with the British Isles for good measure. And yet it is as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. It would be difficult in all history to match so amazing a drying-up of civilization.

I say a civilization because that is what, in the old days, the South had, and it was a civilization of manifold excellences, and lavish fruits. Down to the middle of the last century and even beyond, the main hatchery of ideas in America, despite the pretensions of the Yankees, was below the Potomac. It was there that all the political theories we still cherish were born; it was there that statesmen were bred; it was there, above all, that the gentler adornments of life were cultivated. A certain noble spaciousness was in the Southern scheme of things. It made for reflection, for tolerance, for the vague thing we ineptly call culture.

But I leave it to any fair observer to find anything approaching culture in the South today. It is as if the civil war stamped out all the bearers of the torch and left only a mob of peasants on the field. In all that gargantuan empire there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, nor a single orchestra capable of playing a Beethoven symphony, nor a single opera house, nor a single monument or building (less than fifty years old) worth looking at, nor a single factory devoted to the making of beautiful things. Once you have counted Robert Loveman (an Ohioan by birth) you will not find a single Southern poet above the rank of a neighborhood rhymester. Once you have counted James Branch Cabell you will not find a single southern novelist whose work shows any originality or vitality. And once you have—but when you come to composers, historians, critics, scientists, painters, sculptors and architects you have to give it up, for there is not one between Alexandria and the Gulf.

Even in politics, the old specialty of the South, there is an astounding collapse. In the early days Virginia led the nation; today Virginia is content to tag along after the brummagem uplifters of the middle West, bawling for prohibition, populism, all the claptrap of Bryanism. On the theoretical side the politics of the State is imitative, childish, almost idiotic. On the practical side it is cheap, ignorant, dishonest—a mere matter of rival gangs of job­seekers struggling for the salary teat. Both sides make indecent bargains with Anti-Saloon League rabble rousers. Neither side can show a man capable of leadership.

These characters, of course, are common to the politics of many other states, north and south. No sane man would look for intelligible political ideas, for example, in Delaware, or in Arkansas, or in Georgia. But in Virginia they are especially noticeable and significant because of what has gone before—because of the state’s old preeminence, not only as the home of political leaders, but also as the home of political philosophers. The ancient Virginians were not mere boob-bumpers and job-chasers; they were men of thought, of originality and of honor. They lifted politics to the level of a science and an art. But in the Virginia of today it is merely a trade, and a very sordid one at that. It has borrowed the orgiastic numskullery of the middle West without borrowing its honest passion. It is as ignoble a business as running a peanut stand, and it attracts as empty and disgusting a class of men.

But it is not on the political side that the decay of Southern culture is most visible, for here the whole country has gone downhill, and the bray of the Chautauquan sounds throughout the land. What is most salient and depressing to an observer is the almost entire absence of that cultural striving on the gentler side which so plainly marks the West and the North. There is scarcely a second-rate city between the Ohio and the Pacific which isn’t struggling to establish an orchestra, or setting up a little theatre, or going in for an art gallery, or giving some other sign that it is lifting its thoughts above the cause of the dollar. These efforts often fail, and sometimes they succeed rather absurdly, but under them there is at least an impulse that deserves respect, and that is the impulse to seek beauty and to experiment with ideas, and so to give the life of everyday a certain dignity and purpose.

You will find no such impulse in the South. There are no committees down there cadging subscriptions for an orchestra; if a string quartet is ever heard there, the news of it has never come out; an opera troupe, when it roves the land, is a nine days’ wonder. The little theatre movement has swept the whole country, enormously augmenting the public interest in sound plays, giving new dramatists their chance, forcing reforms upon the commercial theatre. Everywhere else the wave rolls high—but along the line of the Potomac it breaks upon a rock-bound shore. There is no little theatre beyond. There is no gallery of pictures. No artist ever gives exhibitions. No one talks of such things. No one seems to be interested in such things.

Part of my job in the world is the reading of manuscripts, chiefly by new authors. I go through hundreds every week. This business has taught me some curious things, and among them the fact that the literary passion is segregated geographically, and with it the literary talent. Boston produces better writing than the far West; it is suaver, more careful, finer in detail. Los Angeles leads the whole country in quantity; its weekly output of manuscripts even surpasses that of Greenwich Village. Kansas and Oklahoma are producing capital poets; they tremble on the verge of literature. Chicago leads them all in ideas, originality, vigor; it is the great hatching place of American letters. But the South? The South is an almost complete blank. I don’t see one printable manuscript from down there a week. And in my more than three years of steady reading the two Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Tennessee have not offered six taken together.

As for the causes of this practically unanimous sterility I do not profess to be privy to them, but a theory forms and forces itself, and so I pass it on. It is to the following effect: That the civil war actually finished off nearly all the civilized folk in the South and thus left the country to the poor white trash, whose descendants now run it. The war, of course, was not a complete massacre; it didn’t kill them all. But those first-rate Southerners who actually survived were bankrupt, broken in spirit and unable to get along under the new dispensation, and so they came North. A few of them still live and their progeny are numerous. A Southerner of good blood does well in the North. But in the South he tends to throw up his hands and give it up.

This explains the tragic degeneration of politics in Virginia, and the general cultural decay of such states as Georgia and South Carolina. One looks in vain for the old names. They are as extinct as the name of Percy. In place of their bearers one finds a new hierarchy of southern notables—a hierarchy made up of pushful gentlemen from below, sharp in business, loud in pretensions, vulgar in soul and as empty of the old urbanity and politesse, as devoid of any comprehension of civilized culture as so many Sicilian immigrants. They make the public opinion of the South and represent it before the nation. They control its newspapers (it has no other printing), fashion its laws and establish its point of view. That point of view, once so spacious and gentle, is now that of fourth-rate commercial bounders—the point of view, in brief, of Leeds or Manchester, of Providence (RI.), Youngstown (Ohio) or Omaha (Neb.).

In such an atmosphere, it must be obvious, the arts cannot flourish. The philistinism of the emancipated poor white is not only indifferent to them; it is positively antagonistic to them. That philistinism regards human life, not as an agreeable adventure, but as a mere trial of rectitude. It is distinctively and overwhelmingly moral. Its judgments are all based upon moral certainties; it is unable to rise to that innocence which is the essence of aesthetic understanding and endeavor; to the gross utilitarianism of the earth it adds a sort of celestial utilitarianism, whereby the acts of man are estimated chiefly by their capacity for saving him from hell.

Here, perhaps, we have an explanation of the astounding orgy of puritanism that goes on in the South-an orgy of repressive legislation not often to be matched in the whole history of Christendom. Down there is the true home of prohibition, with its endless spyings and denunciations, its pursuits and house-searchings, its general turmoil and dirtiness. In the middle West the thing has a certain austere dignity; there is a touch of asceticism in it; one feels somehow that those oafs on their lonely prairies really believe in it. But in the South, as in Maine, it is a mere malicious badgering of the other fellow, a struggle to force rectitude upon him, a conspiracy against his effort to let some joy into his life.

Does he recreate himself after work when he might be working more? Then let him go to the rockpile! Does he reach out for an easier, looser habit, disdaining the sordid fears and aspirations of the upstart? Then let him be jailed. Is he, perhaps, a poet? Then let him keep to hymns—or take his turn.

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.