When on February 18 The Baltimore Sun published an apology for its history of racial prejudice, its editorial board took a swipe at H.L. Mencken, the most distinguished journalist in its 185 years of publication.
While allowing that Mencken had opposed lynchings in the 1930s, the board chose to focus on the "deep-seated racism and antisemtism" that came to light when his diary was published in 1989 and said that the posting of a quotation from Mencken in the lobby of the paper's Calvert Street offices revealed "a lack of self-awareness and sensitivity."
Perhaps the board was not aware of Mencken: The American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, which recounts Mencken's efforts with the NAACP over four years in the 1930s to oppose lynchings, including his testimony in 1935 before the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill. The last article he published before his stroke called for desegregation of the tennis courts in Druid Hill Park.
It seems also possible that the board was unaware of The Sage in Harlem by Charles Scruggs, which says that "more than any other critic in American letters, black or white, Mencken made it possible for the black writer to be treated as a fellow laborer in the vineyard," including the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson.
And despite dismissal of him as an anti-Semite, one of Mencken's closest friends was Alfred Knopf, his publisher, with whom he traveled to the Bach festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, another a rabbi from Oheb Shalom, and, still more, musicians with whom he played in his Saturday night group, according to a lecture by David S. Thayer delivered in 2015 at the Pratt Library's annual Mencken Day event.
People working as journalists might recall his fierce opposition to censorship, his ridicule of the Babbittry of the Harding-Coolidge years, or his support of John T. Scopes and Darwinian evolution during the Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.
But the diary entries are there in public view and cannot be whitewashed. You can say that his wife's death had darkened his view, as his political views as a Grover Cleveland Democrat had gone into eclipse during the New Deal. Understanding that does not wipe away or excuse the ugly stuff.
Mencken in his youth was much influenced by reading Nietzsche and as an adult he was a thoroughgoing libertarian. I realized this in reading his article on chiropractic, which amused me as a teenager as typical American exaggeration for humorous effect, and which I later came to think he meant seriously.
At one point in the essay he muses that medical quacks may perform a useful public service, because they "suck in the botched, and help them on to bliss eternal." If you are a Nietzschean believer that some individuals have the strength of mind to construct their own characters and that most people don't, you can befriend similarly exemplary figures while dismissing the groups they come from with contempt. And if you are a thoroughgoing libertarian, you can say complacently that all people make choices and that stupid people who make bad choices get what is coming to them.
I don't hold those views myself, but understanding them helps me to see why Mencken wrote what he did. That understanding makes it possible to see Mencken in a broader and more complex manner than simply resorting to the labels of "racist" and "anti-Semite" (applied to him by a paper that has been coasting on his reputation for decades).
Understanding can go beyond retroactive virtue. We need to see that there is something about America in the 1619 Project, and also in the Enlightenment perspective of the founding, that the Founders often owned slaves but also gave us a vision of a better functioning republic. We can see that Franklin Roosevelt is not defined by his signing of the order to intern Japanese Americans. We can see that Lyndon Johnson carried water for Southern segregationists for years before he became the great civil rights president. We can try to see people as a whole.
We can see Henry Mencken as a man capable of writing vile, bitter things that were not worthy of his best work, work which we can still honor.