The Men the American People Admire Most Extravagantly Are the Most Daring Liars

H. L. Mencken? George Jean Nathan? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous curmudgeon H. L. Mencken asserted that the most daring liars were rewarded with public admiration. I do not recall the precise phrasing Mencken employed. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1922 “The Smart Set” magazine published a piece under the byline of H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan containing the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth. A Galileo could no more be elected President of the United States than he could be elected Pope of Rome.

The proper ascription to Mencken was clarified when the quotation appeared in his collections titled “Prejudices Fourth Series” and “A Mencken Chrestomathy”. The details are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

To illustrate the thesis of the 1922 article, Mencken included the description of a person he believed was a widely praised dissimulator: 2

The late King Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, attained to great popularity throughout Christendom by venturing into downright perjury. Summoned into a court of law to give expert testimony regarding some act of adultery, he “lied like a gentleman,” as the phrase goes, to protect a woman. The lie, to be sure, was intrinsically useless; no one believed that the lady was innocent.

Mencken also attempted to explain why he thought dishonesty was commonplace:

What it shows is simply this: that the truth is something too harsh and devastating for the majority of men to bear. In their secret hearts they know themselves, and they can suffer the thought of themselves only by idealizing the facts. The more trivial, loathsome and degraded the reality, the more powerful and relentless must be the idealization.

In 1924 H. L. Mencken published “Prejudices Fourth Series” which included a reprint of the essay containing the passages above. Thus, the quotation achieved further distribution. 3

In 1949 H. L. Mencken published “A Mencken Chrestomathy” which also included a reprint of the essay containing the quotation. 4 Interestingly, the note accompanying the piece stated that it first appeared in the “New York Evening Mail” on July 5, 1918. QI has not yet verified this citation.

In 1967 “The Great Quotations” compiled by George Seldes included the following entry with a supporting citation pointing to a 1955 collection: 5

The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.

[H. L. Mencken: The Vintage Mencken,
[ edited by Alistair Cooke, Knopf, p. 73.

In 1997 the quotation was included in the “American Heritage Dictionary of American Quotations” selected and annotated by Margaret Miner and Hugh Rawson. 6

In conclusion, H. L. Mencken deserves credit for the quotation under examination. It definitely appeared in “The Smart Set” in 1922 and probably appeared in the “New York Evening Mail” in July 1918.

(Great thanks to the anonymous Mencken enthusiast whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1922 August, The Smart Set: The Aristocrat Among Magazines, Volume 68, Number 4, Répétition Générale by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, Start Page 45, Quote Page 49, Column 2, Smart Set Company Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1922 August, The Smart Set: The Aristocrat Among Magazines, Volume 68, Number 4, Répétition Générale by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, Start Page 45, Quote Page 49 and 50, Column 2, Smart Set Company Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1977 (Copyright 1924), Prejudices Fourth Series by H. L. Mencken, Essay: The Art Eternal, Start Page 269, Quote Page 273 and 275, Octagon Books: A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1949 (Reprinted 1967), A Mencken Chrestomathy, Edited and Annotated by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Chapter 18: Psychology, Section: The Art Eternal, Start Page 325, Quote Page 328, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  5. 1967, The Great Quotations, Compiled by George Seldes, Topic: Lie Lying, Quote Page 607, Pocket Books. New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1997, American Heritage Dictionary of American Quotations, Selected and Annotated by Margaret Miner and Hugh Rawson, Topic: America & Americans, Quote Page 22, Penguin Reference, New York.(Verified with scans)