Talk:H. L. Mencken

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What gives? Is this a Wikiquote record for imbalance between sourceds and attributeds? Are any of the attributeds properly attributed, or is Mencken a modern Quinapalus or Mrs Harris? —This unsigned comment is by 14:08, 16 April 2005 (talkcontribs)

I think the Puritan quote is sourced. It's a well known quote.
  • "Attributed" means that these quotes were added without sources being provided. If the sources had been included, they would have been placed with the quotes labelled "sourced." A "properly attributed" quote is therefore, in Wikiquote practice, a contradiction in terms. Having quotes referred to as attributed doesn't mean they're assumed to be false; it means that they exist, neither true nor false, until someone gets around to verifying them. As usually happens, some of them, perhaps even the majority, will be verified and placed under Sourced along with their sources. Some of these quotes will turn out to have been said by other people; and others will remain attributed because no proof could be found. One thing we're doing now is to replace the term "attributed" with "unsourced" so as to make the distinctions clearer.

    Like you, I recognize some of these attributed Mencken quotes as being real. If we had more people working on attributed quotes, we wouldn't have pages like this where the attributed quotes pile up. I've made it my business here to work on this sort of thing, and doubtless I'll get around in time to this page as well.

    But the main problem, as always, is that many Wikiquote contributors, perhaps the majority, don't source their contributions. Either they don't know the sources; or they can't be bothered to provide them even if they know them; or they don't even know if the quotes are real when they supply them. People like to add quotes, but they usually don't want to do the actual work of proofing them. It's a dilemma, because what's supposed to make Wikiquote different from the other collections of quotations, whether in online lists or in book form, is this very notion of providing sources. - InvisibleSun 17:37, 3 July 2006 (UTC)

I would add two things to InvisibleSun's excellent reply. First, in Wikimedia projects, there is a distinction between "sourcing" and "verifying". Sourcing means asserting a specific citation of a quote, either in an original work or in another publication that itself cites the quote, if the original is not readily available. (The closer to the original, the better.) However, such a source is merely an assertion, not a guarantee that the quote is legitimate. Verifying a quote is something that any wiki editor can do by checking the source to see if the quote is valid. Since there is no such thing as a Wikiquote editorial board, it is incumbent upon all editors to do this now and then to help keep inaccuracies, mere rumor, and prank-sourcing out of the collection. (Yes, we're very far from being able to do this regularly, but that's the general idea.)
My other comment is that, no, this is not a record for a low Sourced-to-Attributed/Unsourced ratio. Not by a long shot, unfortunately. ☺ ~ Jeff Q (talk) 18:43, 3 July 2006 (UTC)

Quote about Conscience[edit]

I can source Mencken's quote on conscience. I am writing a paper on ethics and purchased A. Cooke's (1990) "A Vintage Mencken" (originally published in 1955). The conscience quote as it reads on p. 231 is as follows:

"Conscience is the inner voice which (sic) warns us that someone may be looking."

I have no idea where Mencken originally wrote this....I am trusting A. Cooke's quotation. Cooke mentions that the aphorisms in this section were taken from Mencken's "Smart Set" in 1912 among other places.

It appears that Mencken used a "which" instead of a that.....but then there would have been 2 "thats" in close proximity, so it may have been intentional. Nevertheless, I think the (sic) should be put in there so the modern reader knows to avoid "which" unless it is surrounded in commas.


Scott Wowra, PhD

I have a copy of The Vintage Mencken, but I'm interpreting what it says on p. 231 a bit differently. For the sake of others who are reading this, it should be explained that the quote is part of a group entitled "Sententiae," with the following introduction:

"These maxims, epigrams and apothegms cover a long range in time. The earliest were first printed in The Smart Set in 1912; the latest come from notebooks never printed at all. In 1916 I published a collection under the title of A Little Book in C Major. Four years later it was taken, in part, into a revised edition of A Book of Burlesques, and there survived until that book went out of print in the late 30's."

These Sententiae are then grouped into sections according to theme, with the quote about conscience belonging to the first group, "The Mind of Man."

Here's what I would make of this:

1) It means, first of all, that the "I" of the introductory remarks is Mencken himself, not Cooke. Although Cooke was the editor of The Vintage Mencken, he was not born until 1908 and so could not have been the one who said "In 1916 I published," etc. As it turns out, Mencken himself made a selection from his own works, which was eventually published in 1949 as A Mencken Chrestomathy. These Sententiae were a part of that collection. Cooke, re-publishing these sayings in The Vintage Mencken, was including Mencken's introduction along with them.

2) Since these Sententiae are grouped by theme, with no mention in what work each saying can be found, I wouldn't take this necessarily to mean that the first group of sayings, "The Mind of Man," represents the earliest ones printed in The Smart Set. Rather, each of these thematically grouped sayings could have originated in any of the sources named by Mencken. There's no telling, therefore, when or where the quote about conscience was first published. More research would be needed to determine this.

As for the which/that issue, I would agree that the quote is correctedly printed with "which" as in The Vintage Mencken. I wouldn't use a sic because Wikiquote, in collecting quotations and printing them verbatim, is not editing for grammar or making comments on the same. The reader, in short, will have to learn grammar elsewhere: whatever is quoted on these pages should never be assumed as a model for the reader. (For an example of a writer's highly idiosyncratic grammar and punctuation, presented without need for comment, see the Letters section under Samuel Taylor Coleridge). In any case, the debate on when to use "which" and "that" is one, I think, in which good writers may disagree. Kenneth Tynan, for instance, in a 1963 essay "Mencken on Language," was a bit taken aback by the strictures of The New Yorker, "on whose staff I was carefully instructed that 'which is appropriate to non-defining and that to defining clauses.' " - InvisibleSun 21:11, 15 August 2006 (UTC)

        • Would you mind sourcing the "conscience" quote, InvisibleSun? The aphorism dissapeared; this certainly was not my doing.**** Wowra (8/22; 8:22 am)

" He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches" is George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists (Man and Superman) 1903, not Mencken.

'Jackals and Jackasses'[edit]

I think I can source the 'Democracy is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses' quote from the last section of the Mencken's 'Chrestomathy'. I'll add page numbers soon.

'Hoist the Black Flag'[edit]

This one is from Prejudices, First Series, Chapter 6. I don't have a copy to track down the exact page, but here's a secondary cite [1]. --Jddunn 15:27, 7 January 2009 (UTC)| [2]page 91

Mencken's Creed[edit]

Here is the full version from here

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty and the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech—alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I — But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant. says, "There is no better way of concluding than to turn to Mencken's noble and moving Credo, written for a "What I Believe" series in a leading magazine." According to the references, the leading magazine is "The Forum (September, 1930), p. 139."

-- 04:02, 21 January 2009 (UTC)


These should be provided with sources before being moved back into the article.
  • Government is actually the worst failure of civilized man. There has never been a really good one, and even those that are most tolerable are arbitrary, cruel, grasping and unintelligent.
  • A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.
  • A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.
  • A professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas.
  • Mencken's [very widely attributed, as yet unsourced] pat response to all angry letters:
Dear Sir (or Madame),
You may be right.
Sincerely yours, HL Mencken
  • A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.
  • A sandwich made up of two thick and tasteless chunks of Kriegsbrot with a couple of excellent sardines between.
  • After all, all he did was string together a lot of old, well-known quotations.
  • Capitalism undoubtedly has certain boils and blotches upon it, but has it as many as government? Has it as many as marriage? Has it as many as religion? I doubt it. It is the only basic institution of modern man that shows any genuine health and vigor.
  • Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.
  • Democracy is the pathetic belief in the wisdom of collective ignorance.
  • Firmness in decision is often merely a form of stupidity. It indicates an inability to think the same thing out twice.
  • Hanging one scoundrel, it appears, does not deter the next. Well, what of it? The first one is at least disposed of.
  • I detest converts almost as much as I do missionaries.
  • If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.
  • Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable.
  • It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.
  • It is inaccurate to say I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
  • It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good, but even if this were true it would not be a proof that religion is true. That would be an extension of pragmatism beyond endurance. Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that the fact proves his existence. The defense of religion is full of such logical imbecilities.
  • It is the fundamental theory of all the more recent American law...that the average citizen is half-witted, and hence not to be trusted to either his own devices or his own thoughts.
  • Liberals have many tails and chase them all.
  • Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband's clothes. There are always more Hardings hatching. I advocate hanging on as long as possible.
  • Life without sex might be safer but it would be unbearably dull.
  • Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.
  • Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
  • Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution.
  • Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.
  • No government, of its own motion, will increase its own weakness, for that would mean to acquiesce in its own destruction ... governments, whatever their pretensions otherwise, try to preserve themselves by holding the individual down ... Government itself, indeed, may be reasonably defined as a conspiracy against him. Its one permanent aim, whatever its form, is to hobble him sufficiently to maintain itself.
  • No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
  • No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

[That Mencken quote originally appeared in an article entitled "Notes On Journalism" printed in the September 19, 1926 issue of "The Chicago Tribune". It can be found also on page 121 of "A Gang of Pecksniffs".]

  • Of all the classes of men, I dislike most those who make their livings by talking — actors, clergymen, politicians, pedagogues, and so on. All of them participate in the shallow false pretenses of the actor who is their archetype. It is almost impossible to imagine a talker who sticks to the facts. Carried away by the sound of his own voice and the applause of the groundlings, he makes inevitably the jump from logic to mere rhetoric.
  • One seldom discovers a true believer that is worth knowing.
  • Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all other philosophers are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.
  • Religion deserves no more respect than a pile of garbage.
  • Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.
  • Sunday School: A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents.
  • Suppose two-thirds of the members of the national House of Representatives were dumped into the Washington garbage incinerator tomorrow, what would we lose to offset our gain of their salaries and the salaries of their parasites?
  • That Americans, in the mass, have anything properly described as keen wits is surely far from self-evident. On the contrary, it seems likely that, if anything, they lie below the civilised norm.
  • The argument that capital punishment degrades the state is moonshine, for if that were true then it would degrade the state to send men to war... The state, in truth, is degraded in its very nature: a few butcheries cannot do it any further damage.
  • The believing mind is externally impervious to evidence. The most that can be accomplished with it is to induce it to substitute one delusion for another. It rejects all overt evidence as wicked...
  • The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.
  • The essence of science is that it is always willing to abandon a given idea for a better one; the essence of theology is that it holds its truths to be eternal and immutable. To be sure, theology is always yielding a little to the progress of knowledge, and only a Holy Roller in the mountains of Tennessee would dare to preach today what the popes preached in the thirteenth century.
  • The essential dilemma of education is to be found in the fact that the sort of man (or woman) who knows a given subject sufficiently well to teach it is usually unwilling to do so.
  • The extortions and oppressions of government will go on so long as such bare fraudulence deceives and disarms the victims – so long as they are ready to swallow the immemorial official theory that protesting against the stealings of the archbishop's secretary's nephew's mistress' illegitimate son is a sin against the Holy Ghost.
  • The fact that I have no remedy for all the sorrows of the world is no reason for my accepting yours. It simply supports the strong probability that yours is a fake.
  • The more a man dreams, the less he believes.
  • The trouble with Communism is the Communists, just as the trouble with Christianity is the Christians.
  • The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
  • The verdict of a jury is the a priori opinion of that juror who smokes the worst cigars.
  • The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of the truth — that error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it has been cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.
  • 'Tis more blessed to give than to receive; for example, wedding presents.
  • Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right... The United States has never developed an aristocracy really disinterested or an intelligentsia really intelligent. Its history is simply a record of vacillations between two gangs of frauds.
  • When the government is robbed, the worst that happens is that certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than they had before.
  • As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.
    • Attributed to the 1953 Baltimore Sun
    • Appears on the wall of the Baltimore Sun

The Chiropractic cite[edit]

"The morons who pour in ...": in my edition of The Vintage Mencken, "morons" reads "mormons" (with the lower-case "em"). 11:44, 1 November 2013 (UTC)