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Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

H. L. Mencken: The Libido for the Ugly

[ H.L. Mencken was one of the all time great misanthropes and polemicists. I've no doubt that Kunstler has spent many an hour studying the master. Mencken's is some of the most biting and humorous writing ever in America. He rarely had much good to say about anybody or anything, though of course much of his writing is satiric. For those who aren't familiar with the master himself, I'm presenting an on topic sample for your enjoyment. Though his views are not necessarily mine, I thought this would help illustrate that the critique of America's built environment as ugly, complete with class dimension, far predates modern sprawl. Reading this recalls to mind W.E.B. Du Bois somewhat earlier observation that "Little of beauty has America given the world, save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty." I should also add that while I've never been to Westmoreland, Pittsburgh is actually a delightful city - Aaron. ]

On a Winter day some years ago, coming out of Pittsburgh on one of the expresses of the Pennsylvania Railroad, I rolled eastward for an hour through the coal and steel towns of Westmoreland county. It was familiar ground; boy and man, I had been through it often before. But somehow I had never quite sensed its appalling desolation. Here was the very heart of industrial America, the center of its most lucrative and characteristic activity, the boast and pride of the richest and grandest nation ever seen on earth-and here was a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a macabre and depressing joke. Here was wealth beyond computation, almost beyond imagination-and here were human habitations so abominable that they would have disgraced a race of alley cats.

I am not speaking of mere filth. One expects steel towns to be dirty. What I allude to is the unbroken and agonizing ugliness, the sheer revolting monstrousness, of every house in sight. From East Liberty to Greensburg, a distance of twenty-five miles, there was not one in sight from the train that did not insult and lacerate the eye. Some were so bad, and they were among the most pretentious—churches, stores, warehouses, and the like–that they were downright startling; one blinked before them as one blinks before a man with his face shot away. A few linger in memory, horrible even there: a crazy little church just west of Jeannette, set like a dormer-window on the side of a bare, leprous hill; the headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at another forlorn town, a steel stadium like a huge rat-trap somewhere further down the line. But most of all I recall the general effect–of hideousness without a break. There was not a single decent house within eyerange from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the Greensburg yards. There was not one that was not misshapen, and there was not one that was not shabby.

The country itself is not uncomely, despite the grime of the endless mills. It is, in form, a narrow river valley, with deep gullies running up into the hills. It is thickly settled, but not noticeably overcrowded. There is still plenty of room for building, even in the larger towns, and there are very few solid blocks. Nearly every house, big and little, has space on all four sides. Obviously, if there were architects of any professional sense or dignity in the region, they would have perfected a chalet to hug the hillsides–a chalet with a high-pitched root to throw off the heavy Winter snows, but still essentially a low and clinging building, wider than it was tall. But what have they done? They have taken as their model a brick set on end. This they have converted into a thing of dingy clapboards, with a narrow, low-pitched roof. And the whole they have set upon thin, preposterous brick piers. By the hundreds and thousands these abominable houses cover the bare hillsides, like gravestones in some gigantic and decaying cemetery on their deep sides they are three, four and even five stories high; on their low sides they bury themselves swinishly in the mud. Not a fifth of them are perpendicular. They lean this way and that, hanging on to their bases precariously. And one and all they are streaked in grime, with dead and eczematous patches of paint peeping through the streaks.

Now and then there is a house of brick. But what brick! When it is new it is the color of a fried egg. When it has taken on the patina of the mills it is the color of an egg long past all hope or caring. Was it necessary to adopt that shocking color? No more than it was necessary to set all of the houses on end. Red brick, even in a steel town, ages with some dignity. Let it become downright black, and it is still sightly, especially if its trimmings are of white stone, with soot in the depths and the high spots washed by the rain. But in Westmoreland they prefer that uremic yellow, and so they have the most loathsome towns and villages ever seen by mortal eye.

I award this championship only after laborious research and incessant prayer. I have seen, I believe, all of the most unlovely towns of the world; they are all to be found in the United States. I have seen the mill towns of decomposing New England and the desert towns of Utah, Arizona and Texas. I am familiar with the back streets of Newark, Brooklyn and Chicago, and have made scientific explorations to Camden, N.J. and Newport News, Va. Safe in a Pullman, I have whirled through the gloomy, God-forsaken villages of Iowa and Kansas, and the malarious tide-water hamlets of Georgia. I have been to Bridgeport, Conn., and to Los Angeles. But nowhere on this earth, at home or abroad, have I seen anything to compare to the villages that huddle along the line of the Pennsylvania from the Pittsburgh yards to Greensburg. They are incomparable in color, and they are incomparable in design. It is as if some titanic and aberrant genius, uncompromisingly inimical to man, had devoted all the ingenuity of Hell to the making of them. They show grotesqueries of ugliness that, in retrospect, become almost diabolical. One cannot imagine mere human beings concocting such dreadful things, and one can scarcely imagine human beings bearing life in them.

Are they so frightful because the valley is full of foreigners–dull, insensate brutes, with no love of beauty in them? Then why didn’t these foreigners set up similar abominations in the countries that they came from? You will, in fact, find nothing of the sort in Europe save perhaps in the more putrid parts of England. There is scarcely an ugly village on the whole Continent. The peasants, however poor, somehow manage to make themselves graceful and charming habitations, even in Spain. But in the American village and small town the pull is always toward ugliness, and in that Westmoreland valley it has been yielded to with an eagerness bordering upon passion. It is incredible that mere ignorance should have achieved such masterpieces of horror.

On certain levels of the American race, indeed, there seems to be a positive libido for the ugly, as on other and less Christian levels there is a libido for the beautiful. It is impossible to put down the wallpaper that defaces the average American home of the lower middle class to mere inadvertence, or to the obscene humor of the manufacturers. Such ghastly designs, it must be obvious, give a genuine delight to a certain type of mind. They meet, in some unfathomable way, its obscure and unintelligible demands. They caress it as “The Palms” caresses it, or the art of the movie, or jazz. The taste for them is as enigmatical and yet as common as the taste for dogmatic theology and the poetry of Edgar A. Guest.

Thus I suspect (though confessedly without knowing) that the vast majority of the honest folk of Westmoreland county, and especially the 100% Americans among them, actually admire the houses they live in, and are proud of them. For the same money they could get vastly better ones, but they prefer what they have got. Certainly there was no pressure upon the Veterans of Foreign Wars to choose the dreadful edifice that bears their banner, for there are plenty of vacant buildings along the track-side, and some of them are appreciably better. They might, indeed, have built a better one their own. But they chose that clapboarded horror with their eyes open, and having chosen it, they let it mellow into its present shocking depravity. They like it as it is: beside it, the Parthenon would no doubt offend them. In precisely the same way the authors of the rattrap stadium that I have mentioned made a deliberate choice. After painfully designing and erecting it, they made it perfect in their own sight by putting a completely impossible pent-house, painted a staring yellow, on top of it. The effect is that of a fat woman with a black eye. It is that of a Presbyterian grinning. But they like it.

Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. The etiology of this madness deserves a great deal more study than it has got. There must be causes behind it; it arises and flourishes in obedience to biological laws, and not as a mere act of God. What, precisely, are the terms of those laws? And why do they run stronger in America than else where? Let some honest Privat Dozent in pathological sociology apply himself to the problem.

This essay originally appeared in Prejudices: Sixth Series, 1927. In the public domain.

16 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Urban Culture
Cities: Pittsburgh

16 Responses to “H. L. Mencken: The Libido for the Ugly”

  1. George Mattei says:

    ?

    A bit harsh, don’t you think?

    No doubt many of these homes would now be considered historic and charming.

  2. Monongahela Goner says:

    Funny, that’s some of the most pleasant country east of the Mississippi now, with rolling green hills and valleys in every direction (though the main corridor has its share of auto-centric sprawl, like anywhere else).
    All it took was the death of the (dirty, polluting) American steel industry and the loss of an entire generation of millworkers to make it happen. Kind of a rough trade-off, really.
    The shabby little millworker shacks Mencken mentions are mostly gone, though you can still find plenty if you know where to look (like Jeannette).

  3. Mike says:

    While reading, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this photo thread on the skyscraperpage:

    http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?t=165470

    compliments of Evergrey. Certainly not the best representation of Pittsburgh but it certainly matches Mencken’s description of Westmoreland County.

    Hard to say Americans have a predisposition towards ugly. We certainly but our cities in a hurry however, and it shows.

  4. Mike says:

    Forgot the i and l in built. We certainly built out cities in a hurry however, and it shows. That’s better.

  5. cph says:

    Why am I reminded of Henry Miller’s “Staff of Life” (http://parisiana.com/node/62) for some reason?

  6. Patricia Tice says:

    Seasonality matters…He probably visited in muddy march when all is drab and nothing has bloomed yet.

    The pictures on skyscraperpage are a good match. I remember these places and the abominable stench from the pots by the riverbank along with the periodic glow as new pots were brought out. I remember my mother in law telling me she washed the walls weekly and thinking that she must have the worst kind of OCD–until I saw what she lived with. I remember months of depressing cold greyness. I remember everyone smoking out of self defense.

    I also remember areas on tops of the hills or in the back woods that were rife with surprise and beauty–the crunch of leaves and the sound of shotguns the week of Thanksgiving; daffodils and tulips in spring. I hear my mother-in-law telling of how everything was within a bicycle ride’s reach for both her and her children, despite the drastic elevation changes. Those vertical houses and tiny lots are what most new urbanists dream of, right?

    This is a place of work, of struggle and of making. You always make a mess when you’re really making something. I find many people from the Ohio River Valley here in Orlando and they are genuine, relaxed and open: more concerned about insides than appearances. So it’s not beautiful. Not everything that exudes true beauty shows it on the outside.

  7. Paul says:

    Caustic yes, but Mencken’s thoughts brought to me sense of nostalgia. My father grew up in a town probably not too unlike those Mencken passed through, though its industry was steam locomotive repair rather than steel and it wasn’t in Westmoreland County. As a small child in the 1960’s we would visit my grandparents there and yes, the town was ugly while the surroundings were surreal in their beauty. Somehow the town grew on me for all that. These communities were a step up for the families that grew up in them over what earlier generations had known in Europe.

    Thinking back on that town though, and the layout that was forced on it by the surrounding topography, it wasn’t without advantages. For one, everything you needed in town was within walking distance.

    Also, transportation for (some of) these communities during the rail era was excellent. For my grandparents (with my grandfather’s precious railroad worker pass) a trip to Chicago or New York, or out to Indiana to visit my parents and older siblings, was almost as simple as rolling out of bed onto the train. After WW II my father left town the same way, by rail, for Pittsburgh where he finished college.

    In the end it was how Mencken was traveling that caught my eye, and what I suspect that mode of travel meant for the vitality both of urban areas and small towns.

  8. Monongahela Goner says:

    For another opinion on Pittsburgh…
    Brendan Gill (1914-1997), architecture writer for The New Yorker, wrote, “The three most beautiful cities in the world are Paris; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Pittsburgh. If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it.”
    Here’s one perspective: http://pittsburghskyline.com/
    Jim Russell of Burgh Diaspora thinks the image of Pittsburgh as a smoky industrial hellhole that stubbornly sticks in the public mind is a good example of a “mesofact” — a slowly-changing fact that hasn’t caught up with reality.
    Curiously, the place Mencken left (East Liberty) is a crossroads where several beautiful neighborhoods (Friendship, Highland Park, Shadyside) full of stunning Victorian houses and robber-baron mansions meet.

  9. …even in Spain.

    ???

  10. AmericanDirt says:

    Ah, Mencken–we might call him the original East Coast snob, except he made no effort to befriend his regional peers either. I’ll admit that I’ve read little more than some of his quips and quotables, but as cunning as he may have been, there’s a clear reason he hasn’t penetrated the collective American heart the way Mark Twain has, or Kurt Vonnegut, for that matter (whose posthumous success remains to be seen).

    I wonder what Mencken would say now if he took a trip through his hometown of Baltimore?

    Aaron, have you read Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons”?

  11. Wad says:

    I think the closest thing to H.L. Mencken we have today is fictional doctor Gregory House.

  12. C Betley says:

    Mencken, for all his snobbishness, was the biggest enemy of hypocrisy. You can sense that his disdain is for the haute-bourgeois as much as the lower class in this citation, where he laments that the wealth of America had not been put to better use in improving the esthetics of rich and poor alike.

    I grew up in Eastern PA, where coal rather than steel was the source of wealth but the housing stock for the working class was much the same. Anytime anyone cites nostalgia for how things were put together better in by-gone times I cite the house I grew up in, and those of my friends, assembled with mismatched parts and low attention to detail, because building things cheap and quick led to lousy quality 100 years ago just as much as it does today.

    I’ve also spent time in Baltimore, where cheap and quick (because its good enough for workers after all) found plenty of application as well, outside the (now-closed) shipyards and steel mills.

  13. Jim Russell says:

    I think the essay is a beautiful homage to Rust Belt Chic.

  14. John Morris says:

    “The shabby little millworker shacks Mencken mentions are mostly gone, though you can still find plenty if you know where to look (like Jeannette).”

    That’s mostly true, especially in the city itself. What’s left of Pittsburgh relly old housing stock tilts heavily towards the upper middle to very high end.

    In some ways, we can never see the world exactly as he saw it.

    By the way, the speed at which many Mon Valley towns started clearing out, a process that started long before the mills closed tells one just how loved much of this housing stock was.

    The real story of the Mon Valley and places like it was not that lots of bad, cheap and ugly things were built. These were heavy industrial flood plains! The story is how much love and care clearly went in anyway, into business districts, social halls and churches.

  15. John Morris says:

    Not that most of Menken’s trip is in the Mon Valley. He was passing the back end of Braddock and then going through Turtle Creek and past the massive Westinghouse factories. Even so, the combination of tough geography, with heavy industry and or mining is pretty typical.

    It would be interesting to know exactly what he saw. Anyway, I liked the Mencken I’ve read and am surprised by the lack of interest he shows in any context at all here.

    I guess, another issue is that he was traveling by train which often takes one through the butt end (business end) of towns. Philly for instance still looks absolutely horific by train except for the few moments in and near the downtown.

  16. John, thanks for sharing those insights into the region today.

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