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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Mencken’
Question of the Day
H.L. MENCKEN: PREJUDICES: THE COMPLETE SERIES
By H.L. Mencken
Edited by Marion Rodgers
Library of America, $70 1,408 pages
Critic, scholar, memoirist, satirist and all-purpose public intellectual, H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) was known, sometimes less
than admiringly, as the Sage of Baltimore. But the word might with equal justice have been “Scourge,” as Mencken spent a rumbustious half-century mocking what he mercilessly perceived to be the deadly sins of cultural myopia, provincialism and ignorance.
Mencken first honed his ax as a newspaper reporter for the long-lived Baltimore Sun, to which he would continue to contribute periodically (so to speak) for decades. Moving on, he created and edited (in partnership with his peer George Jean Nathan) the successive journals of the arts and politics, the Smart Set, which set high standards for intelligent commentary during the years from 1914 to 1923, and subsequently the American Mercury, which ran for another colorful decade.
There would follow his authoritative study, “The American Language,” published in 1919 then spawning several valuable supplements; the vivid trilogy that details his path to journalistic maturity (“Happy Days,” “Newspaper Days” and “Heathen Days”); and the six series of miscellaneous criticism, commentary and fulminating titled “Prejudices,” now presented in their entirety in the Library of America’s attractive two-volume edition.
Though there’s considerable overlapping, the six series break down thus: the First emphasizes literature; the Second, American culture in all its chaotic variety; the Third and Fourth, government and politics; the Fifth and Sixth, a dizzying cornucopia of everything that outraged or delighted their author.
Series the First starts out at a gallop, with the feisty “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism,” that eloquently lambastes “all the fatuous pigeon-holing that passes for criticism in the more solemn literary periodicals.” Thus forewarned, I gird my loins, and continue.
In free-swinging confrontational prose that mixes rhetorical showmanship with plain speech (a style doubtless influenced by Mark Twain), Mencken taunts the philistinism of patriotic self-glorification - most memorably in his famous essay “The Sahara of the Bozart” that slyly praises the literary culture of Virginia, which he deems marginally less vile than that of any other Southern state. Thumbing his nose at religiosity, Mencken proudly declares “There is no man in Christendom who is less a Christian than I am.”
And whenever he cools the jets and gives credit where it’s due, this suave provocateur speaks with gemlike lucidity (“A great literature is … chiefly the product of doubting and inquiring minds in revolt against the immovable certainties of the nation.”
It’s fun to watch Mencken eviscerate the reputation of “The Late Mr. [H.G.] Wells,” energetically reviling a formerly wonderful writer become “a tin-pot reformer and professional wise man”; or analyze the vainglorious hypocrisy of career populist and serial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (whom Mencken, then a young reporter, observed at Bryan’s most gaseous when he was called as a witness for the prosecution at the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925).
But the great aggravator had a pronounced dark side, nowhere more evident than in his stentorian glorification of (his native) German culture (not excluding the adventuring of Adolf Hitler) and imperious disparagement of any who disagreed with him. One can make a case that Mencken could, on occasions, be the cruelest of all American writers (Ezra Pound would place a distant second).
His worship of independence frequently betrays him into pseudo-Shavian bluster (“All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man”). His disdain for the Volstead (Prohibition) Act, while really rather logical, descends embarrassingly into redundancy and shrillness. So, alas, do his several endorsements of the lasting worth of Theodore Dreiser’s shapeless and tone-deaf, yet indisputably powerful fiction.
And yet, and yet … almost everything interests him: for example, “The Genealogy of Etiquette”; the role of inspiration in artistic creation (“The Divine Afflatus”); the not dissimilar follies of chiropractic, Christian Science and eugenics (“Dives into Quackery”); and funerals (a subject that provokes him to argue the need for “a suitable burial service for the admittedly damned”).
It was, arguably, not a good idea to offer the “Prejudices” whole, as there is much of little enduring interest in these frequently quite brilliant pages. There are far too many fulsome tributes to understandably forgotten writers (obscure Tennessee poet Madison Cawein, formerly popular historical novelist Joseph Hergesheimer and annoyingly versatile man of letters James Gibbons Huneker stand out).
On the other hand, many of Mencken’s enthusiasms have stood the test of time admirably: Ulysses S. Grant’s superb “Memoirs”; the fiction of Ring Lardner, Ambrose Bierce and Joseph Conrad; the flamboyant poetry of modernist master Guillaume Apollinaire; and the sui generis versatility of Edgar Allan Poe.
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