Odd Wisconsin Archive
H.L. Mencken & the Goblet of Beer
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth film based on J.K. Rowling's fabulously popular books, has swept the nation this weekend, taking in $100 million in its first three days. A large part of the excitement stems from the movie's dark twist, which appears to mark the end of the series' childish innocence.
No one was better at puncturing undeserved innocence and exposing society's dark side than the dean of American cultural critics, H.L. Mencken (1880-1956). He never encountered a goblet of fire, but he started many days with a goblet of beer. This photo was taken at the height of Prohibition, about the time he wrote that, "Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished."*
Wisconsin residents shared his appreciation for beer and his distaste for Prohibition. Federal officials found it almost useless to try to enforce the law here. Ten years after it passed, one of them reported that "Wisconsin...is commonly regarded as a Gibraltar of the wets--sort of a Utopia where everyone drinks their fill and John Barleycorn still holds forth in splendor."
No one would have applauded our response to Prohibition more loudly than Mencken, who viewed it as a hopeless and hypocritical attempt to change human nature by legislating morality. Here's how he described his creed:
"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...
"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...
"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."
At the moment, we have no Pottermania to share with you at wisconsinhistory.org (though we do administer one of the nation's largest motion picture archives). We can't show you here the latest pop fantasy film or celebrity gossip to distract you from the challenges of the real world. Instead, we offer compelling stories, historical images, and informative background to help you make sense of the present. We are not the first generation to face difficult political and social problems, and we won't be the last. Accurate historical context and plain-spoken common sense, such as Mencken's, will always be welcome in the public discourse of a democracy.
*The quotes from Mencken given here are taken from the excellent site on him maintained by the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.
:: Posted in Odd Lives on November 20, 2005