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Friday, December 12, 2008

Notes on Democracy

Notes on Democracy
by H.L. Mencken
206 pages
originally published in 1926

When I volunteered to read and review Notes on Democracy I had never read anything by Mencken nor did I know much about him (other than the fact that the literary community in Baltimore, the city of his birth, just celebrated his birthday in September). I assumed that the book would be a brief overview of the democratic system in America along with his own thoughts on it. I wasn't wrong exactly, but I wasn't right either.

Notes on Democracy IS an overview of the American democratic system and it DOES contain Mencken's thoughts on that system but it is not a supportive book. It is satirical in many ways, with cutting commentary and inflammatory statements throughout. [RebeccaReads did an excellent overview of satire near the bottom of this post; it certainly helped me in my understanding of this book.]

Mencken wrote this book in the early 1920s. The US was recovering from The Great War and there was much political upheaval at the time. In his job as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, Mencken covered many important issues of the day including the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. He references many of these topics in this book, and this could be confusing the reader. However the book contains over 40 pages of end notes* explaining all the various references in the book; it's an excellent resource.

As for his opinions, Mencken is highly critical of democracy as a valid form of government. He explains in his own unique way how the mob mentality is at the core of democracy and how that necessarily means it is corrupt. He is extremely anti-religion as well.

However, despite his very inflammatory prose he makes some very valid - and currently relevant - points about the democratic system. I think this is an excellent book to read if you are interested in American politics today. Regardless of your party affiliation this book will give you lots of things to consider.

I came across an excellent quote at this site, and I'm adding it here because I think it will give you a good idea of what this book is really like:

There is more truth in these pages than most Americans are willing to face. Nor will there ever come a time when they will face them. For what Mencken delivers here is probably the most scathing attack on the idea of mass rule that has ever been written. Mencken is known as the chief heretic of the American civic religion, and this book shows why.

A big thank you to Lisa Roe at Online Publicist for sending me this book!

Has anyone else read this book? Do you plan to? I'd love to have your reviews to list here as well.

* The end notes and the excellent introduction to this edition of Notes on Democracy were written by Mencken scholar Marion Elizabeth Brooks. Just reading the end notes would give you a great mini-education in American political history from the founding of the nation up to the early 1920s.


dawn said...

Lisa Roe has been so patient with me, and I'm embarrassed that I haven't yet been able to finish (or even get a toe hold in) this book. I thought I would enjoy it (love satire), but it's not grabbing me. After the rush of the holidays I have to buckle down and get thru it. Thanks for your review.

Rebecca Reid said...

I think I read an essay or two by Mencken in college but I don't recall "getting it." Thanks for the overview. Since I am very interested in political history, I guess I should revisit Mencken someday.

I'm glad the definition of satire on my post on Swift helped you out. I'm finding that reading and blogging is twice as much work as just reading because I have to make sure I understand what I just read myself!

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