As I note about H. L. Mencken in an essay-review piece in the Nov/Dec issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, his influence as a critic was at its zenith during the 1920s, when he was churning out the popular volumes that make up the Prejudices series, books that have been out of print for decades.
By Bill Marx.
In fact, it could be argued that this is the first and only time in American culture a critic ruled the cultural roost, supplying the kind of “news” that Ezra Pound expected from literature. And Mencken’s iconoclasm resonates today: he is is still quoted, written about, and provides a valuable reminder, during a time consumed with marketing the arts, of the indispensable benefits of “negative” criticism.
Thus the good fortune that the Library of America (LOA) has decided to make the Prejudices, a mother load of uproarious, unruly, acidic reviews and commentaries on all things American—books, music, democracy, religion, education, food, women, mores—available. I sent some questions about Mencken and his Prejudices to the volumes’ editor, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, who has also written a fine biography of the writer and compiled anthologies of his reporting and letters.
Arts Fuse: Over the decades, material from H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices volumes has been anthologized or excerpted by Mencken himself and others. What is the value of having the complete volumes back in print?
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers: The mission of the Library of America is to “preserve the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing its most significant literature” that is hard to find or out of print. Adding Mencken to its prestigious roster of American masters was long overdue. Prejudices was one of Mencken’s most celebrated series of works. With its publication Mencken established himself as one of the major forces in literary and social criticism. This is the first time all six volumes have been released together since the plates were melted down in 1933.
Modern readers may have heard of Mencken’s name without knowing the reason he still continues to be quoted, cited, published, and translated in the United States and abroad. Now they can experience the impact of Prejudices in its complete form—“in one blast,” as Mencken put it—just as audiences experienced it during his peak during the 1920s. The fact that his writing continues to challenge readers and stimulate discussions has made Mencken timeless. In keeping with its mission, the LOA has produced a handsome boxed set with typeface, paper, binding, and illustration of the highest quality. These are books to be cherished.
AF: What pieces in the Library of America volumes are you particularly happy to see available and why?
MER: The range of topics and the sheer force of Mencken’s prose make this collection worth reading. They include such favorites as “The Sahara of the Bozart,” “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism,” Mencken’s scathing portrait “In Memoriam: W. J. B.” of William Jennings Bryan, and “The Hills of Zion” describing a Holy Roller meeting during the Scopes Trial.
But there are other essays that are not as familiar but I like very much. There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of “The Libido for the Ugly.” This is no exaggeration! It occurs whenever I am walking my dog in my Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) neighborhood and notice the ruin of historic estates by modern-day carpetbaggers who have more money than taste; whenever I channel-surf and come across those atrocious garden makeovers on HGTV. As we near the November midterm elections, I am reminded of another: “On Being an American,” where Mencken states: “The chief business of the nation . . . is the setting up of heroes, mainly bogus.” I love the anger that leaps off the page in his satire, “Star-Spangled Men.”
Edmund Wilson’s favorite was “Suite Americaine,” in Prejudice’s Third Series. We don’t usually think of Mencken as a poet, but Wilson compared his writing to poetry in this 1922 essay, observing “the pitiful dreariness of the American scene is fused into art.” Reading Mencken’s word-pictures reminds you of the art by Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood. For sheer grace, turn to the essay describing his mentor James Huneker or his views “On Living in Baltimore.” Mencken is a master in describing eating and food; whenever I am in a blue mood, “Victualry as a Fine Art” makes me laugh aloud. His advice in “The Fringes of Lovely Letters,” especially the sections on style and criticism, should be mandatory reading for all budding authors. And do not overlook Mencken the musician, evident throughout his commentary on opera, music, and composers.
AF: Do the Prejudices volumes, published between 1919 and 1927, shed any light on Mencken? Either in terms of the development of his thought or literary style?
MER: Mencken is generally unwavering in his thought; not so in his literary style. You can see the development when you compare some of the essays from Prejudices One to those from Prejudices Six. In the first, there is a sense that Mencken is deliberately trying to shock or show off, as in “Among the Avatars.” By the last page, there is a genuine command of language and ease of style, beautifully demonstrated in “Valentino.”
AF: Many of Mencken’s critics point out that he didn’t like or write much about popular culture, such as movies and jazz. Neither did he opine much (or sympathetically) about the experimental music or visual art of the time. Why do you think that is? And does this taint of conservatism undercut the claim that Mencken “transformed American culture.”
MER: To answer your question one has to place Mencken in the context of the times in which he lived. As a former theater critic who promoted the (then) controversial plays of Ibsen and Shaw, new Yiddish plays such as The Melting Pot, or the work of such actresses as Sarah Bernhardt and Minnie Fiske, Mencken simply viewed silent films as a popular craze that threatened to ruin a noble art. He tried watching Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms but had to walk out after 15 minutes. Charlie Chaplin amused him, but again he quit watching one movie long before it was over. He thought talent was wasted when one could only see an actor “as one sees a row of telegraph poles, riding in a train.”
At the end of his life, during the 1950s, when a stroke prevented him from being able to read or write, he got a great kick out of Betty Gable in The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend or spectacular Technicolor musicals starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. For Mencken, movies had become an escape from the horrid boredom of his existence.
For someone with such a deep appreciation for music, that Mencken was not a fan of jazz is rather amazing. For him, George Gershwin was only “a competent Broadway composer.” When Aaron Copeland showed Mencken the score of a piano concerto, it seemed “rather obvious stuff.” Mencken’s passion for music was rigidly old-fashioned, confined to Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms. That being said, he delighted in the compositions of Jerome Kern, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the rhythms of the old Negro spirituals, during a time when not many considered them worthy of appreciation. When it came to visual art, he liked the work of Thomas Hart Benton—but not Cezanne.
Why is this so? Mencken came of age during the 1890s, when a generation of critics was revolting against Victorian pedantry and sentimentality. Even so, when it came to music and art, there was a side to Mencken that embraced a former age. Later, during the 1930s, he was immune to the work of William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and T. S. Eliot.
This in no way should undercut the claim that Mencken transformed American culture. I agree with scholar Charles Fecher when he notes that no other critic, before or since, “has ever yielded anything like Mencken’s enormous power and influence. He quite literally changed the course of American literature, bringing one period of it to an end and inaugurating another.”
When you think of the period when Mencken was writing, from the 1900s onward, his accomplishments are many. He was one of the earliest American critics to examine the works of George Bernard Shaw, Freidrich Nietzsche, Henrik Ibsen, and Mark Twain, to recognize the talent of James Joyce, Stephen Crane, and Joseph Conrad, to highlight the literary criticism of Edgar Allan Poe and Hugh Walpole. With his magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury, he introduced writers that are now so much a part of our heritage that the list has since become a cliché—Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill, Aldous Huxley, George Schuyler.
Behind the scenes he encouraged others and has been given credit for helping instigate both the Southern and Harlem literary renaissances. The American Mercury, was the first magazine published by a white editor to use articles written by African-American contributors. The Mercury transformed magazine journalism by regularly examining distinctly American subjects: race, the immigrant press, music, radio, medicine, religion, architecture, folk stories, language. The American Language helped liberate American writers from a Genteel Tradition. In his newspaper articles for the Baltimore Sunpapers, Mencken regularly tackled controversial issues. As one critic put it, his was one of the voices that made the Roaring Twenties roar.
AF: In the volumes, Mencken embodies the critic-as-bludgeon. In what ways is this approach still relevant (or liberating) in an age of rhetorical exhibitionists on TV and radio? Is Mencken’s the kind of iconoclasm that lasts?
MER: I have often been asked if Mencken would have fit into today’s media world. Would he have his own TV talk show, a Bill O’Reilly with a better command of the American language, a Jon Stewart without the jokes? Doubtful. Then how about radio, a la Rush Limbaugh? Hardly! The Internet? Just try to picture him among a herd of bloggers, sipping Diet Cokes or lattes instead of booze. Seeking any similarity to today’s modern pundits goes nowhere.
Mencken’s shrewd, sensible ideas not only made his readers laugh; he made them question—and think. I do think Mencken’s iconoclasm is necessary. Even in a democracy, Mencken knew that the media—not a term used in his day—could fail to do their job. He knew opinion could be manipulated, and that the media could distort the news or fail to report it. Few Americans, Mencken thought, say what they believe, freely or frankly; they always try to find out first what will be well received. Many newspaper editors, Mencken said, “try not to offend any considerable faction. This may be prudent, but it is bad journalism.” Would Mencken have had a role in today’s media world? The answer, regretfully, is not likely.
AF: What is your response to those who find some of Mencken’s demeaning generalizations in his Prejudices volumes—about women, ethnic groups, etc.—objectionable, especially in light of the controversial material in his Diary?
MER: William Manchester once told me that any woman who doesn’t like Mencken’s In Defense of Women or his essays on the female sex was a woman without a sense of humor. That being said, I recognize Mencken was a product of his times (as was Manchester!) and that Mencken’s commentary in Prejudices or “In Defense of Women” (not the Diary) can sound demeaning to women my age, who were brought up with the feminist manifesto.
Yet in his time, Mencken encouraged the careers of women he knew; he was for the suffragettes (as long, as he said, they didn’t lose their sense of femininity). When it comes to Prejudices, how many women of sound common sense will not suddenly laugh aloud with recognition when they read the sagacious advice Mencken gives in his essay “Venus at the Domestic Hearth”? Or smile at the wise observations in “The Balance Sheet” or “Yearning”? Take a look for yourself and see if you don’t agree.
As for minority groups, I think one should remember that racial and ethnic slurs were common in Mencken’s day, when the Diary was written. So was identifying people by their ethnic origins. Mencken’s stands on behalf of African and Jewish Americans, when juxtaposed in the entries of the Diary and other material, serve as contradictions in Mencken’s personality that make writing about him such a conundrum. His stand against lynching is one instance; publishing and promoting the work of black authors was another. Both “The Sahara of the Bozart” and “The National Letters” in Prejudices: Second Series were important clarion calls to black intellectuals such as James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. DuBois, who were quoting Mencken in the pages of The Crisis, The Messenger, New York Age, and elsewhere.
“The Sahara of the Bozart” inspired Walter White to write “Fire in the Flint.” Indeed, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” which had originally appeared in The New York Evening Mail in 1917, was vastly improved by Mencken’s talks with James Weldon Johnson, who regularly visited Mencken in his offices of The Smart Set. This improved revision is in Prejudices.
Modern critics who label Mencken a “Nazi” seem to dismiss the fact that, in 1938 when the prevailing opinion of the United States (as identified in a Roper Poll) was anti-Semitic, Mencken proposed that Franklin Roosevelt open the gate for fleeing Jewish refugees. Behind the scenes, Mencken did what many others declined to do: help Jewish refugees emigrate to the United States and agree to sponsor others. As Mencken told Manchester, “It doesn’t matter what they think of me.” His reputation, he answered, would rest on “what I’ve done.” I believe actions speak louder than words.
AF: One of the surprises for me in Prejudices was Mencken’s enthusiasm for writers that you would think he would flatten: for example, his affection for transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. What other connections does he have with New England?
MER: In the last section of Prejudices: First Series, Mencken identifies “Three American Immortals.” One of these is Ralph Waldo Emerson. The other is the Baltimorean Edgar Allen Poe, who had to be “discovered” by the French before Americans recognized his talent. The last is Walt Whitman, “the greatest poet America has ever produced.” Mencken included Nathaniel Hawthorne to his list of great American artists from New England, whose work embodied the voice of the nation, who had been misunderstood or neglected by the moralists who called themselves critics. Although Mencken did not like the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper, he was an admirer of his 1838 study The American Democrat. To Mencken, of course, the greatest artist of them all was Mark Twain. In 1909, long before academics ever wrote about Huckleberry Finn, Mencken was praising Twain as “the most noble figure America has ever given to English literature.”
If, at times, Mencken sometimes seemed unduly harsh against New England, one has to keep in mind that when he was writing his criticism, attitudes of a Victorian-Puritan past were still stifling American literature. To Mencken, we were “a nation of evangelists” living in a narrow-minded, puritanical culture that censored such masterpieces as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Boston, long considered the most cultured city in the country, was one of the leaders of social and moral reform. Anthony Comstock, one of New England’s vice crusaders, was the instigator of an anti-pornography campaign that swept everything in its path. In 1878 Congress passed the Comstock Law, making it illegal to mail, transport, or deliver “obscene, lewd and/or lascivious information.” Items that were censored included Boccaccio’s Decameron, Sterne’s Tristham Shandy, and lyrics by John Dryden. Hundreds of books and magazines were shelved and vendors arrested; authors never had the opportunity to be heard in court. No one, including the press, dared to criticize the censor.
All of that changed in 1926, when Mencken challenged the Watch and Ward Society (formerly the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice) by selling a copy of the banned April issue of his American Mercury magazine directly to its secretary, the Reverend J. Franklin Chase, before a huge crowd in the Boston Common. Mencken was arrested, thereby forcing the issue to an open court. It was one of the most colorful episodes in Mencken’s career, which I described in great length in my biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast (Oxford University Press, 2005, 2007). It was also the most significant effort against censorship throughout the nation, dealing the Comstocks such a major blow they never fully recovered.
AF: There are many today who would argue that Mencken’s attacks on big government and politicians, praise of the free market, and hatred of censorship would make him a libertarian. Would you agree?
MER: Yes, Mencken could be considered more of a libertarian than anything else, hence his popularity among many libertarian bloggers today. Conservatives once claimed him as their own, especially in light of Mencken’s support of the death penalty, his criticism of taxes, big government, the New Deal, Social Security. For Mencken, the “forgotten American” was not the impoverished man dependent on FDR’s social programs; it was the self-reliant, resourceful individual who saved his money and paid his bills.
On the other hand, Mencken considered himself a “lifelong Democrat.” He supported free speech, championed the civil rights of immigrants and minority groups, defended the rights of Socialists Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs, lambasted Big Business—all causes historically embraced by liberals. It is a mistake to pigeonhole Mencken. As he once said, “I belong to no party. I am my own party.” I can only admire his refreshing independence. I should add that in recent years, it seems as if Mencken has been abandoned by some conservatives, who react to Mencken’s anti-democratic views, and by liberals, who dismiss him entirely for his comments in the Diary. Both have lost sight of how Mencken fought for major values that each side holds dear.
AF: As if Mencken wasn’t amusing enough, there is much additional entertainment provided by your notes for the volumes, which range from translations of Mencken’s German phrases to useful background about his targets and references, from the dated (censor Anthony Comstock) to the obscure (the 1920s Lolita Peaches Browning). My favorites are those that identify forgotten products and elixirs. For example, there’s the Baptist wives “who were full of Peruna and as fecund as the shad.” (“Peruna—Patient medicine marketed as a panacea by the Ohio physician Samuel Brubaker Hartman.”) What was it like to compile the notes for the Prejudices volumes and what is their value?
MER: I am glad you liked the Notes! I am most proud of the Chronology, which is the most detailed biographical overview of Mencken’s life that has ever been compiled. The timeline quickly gives readers a sense of the age Mencken lived in, his work, interests, how they evolved; you sense the gripping influence World War I had upon his life.
The Notes were equally challenging to put together. Not many people know what on earth Peruna is or have ever heard of “Ma” Ferguson or Peaches Browning or can identify such obscure figures as Johnny Hemphill or the author whose byline was “The Duchess.” Young people think everything can be found on Google. Not so! The Notes required an immense amount of digging into various sources that included books, letters, and contemporary accounts. But it was worth it. When Mencken discusses “The Nature of Liberty” and the release of labor leader Thomas Mooney or identifies journalists from The Advancing South, the Notes put into brilliant focus for a younger generation what would otherwise be a blurry anecdote.
The Notes also make one appreciate the wide range of Mencken’s reading and his tremendous curiosity. You are able to grasp how new and exciting his criticism must have seemed to Americans of the 1920s, desperately trying to break from an Anglophile, puritanical tradition, many of whom were struggling to find their own distinctive, independent voice. But I cannot claim complete credit for the Notes. The LOA staff provided immense help. During our solitary labor, I think all of us could have identified with Mencken’s comments, when he was laboring on his own highly detailed entries to The American Language, that he was “tempted more than once to curse God and die.” Now that it is over, I am grateful that so many people seem to like this edition of Prejudices.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author and editor of several books on H. L. Mencken, one of the wittiest newspapermen of the last century. Mencken: The American Iconoclast (Oxford, 2005, 2007, Blackstone Audio Books 2009) was praised for its vivid storytelling and scholarship. It was the finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Biography and named to the Chicago Tribune’s “Best of 2005” Nonfiction list.
Ms. Rodgers’ first book, Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters (McGraw-Hill, 1987; Doubleday/Anchor, 1992) was called “an American classic” by Alistair Cooke. News of her discovery of the love letters between Mencken and Southern writer Sara Haardt received national attention via Associated Press. The Impossible H. L. Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories (Doubleday/Anchor 1991, Foreword by Gore Vidal) was praised by The New York Times Book Review and by John Updike in The New Yorker and was recently named by the San Francisco Chronicle as “the best compilation of Mencken’s newspaper work.”
Ms. Rodgers is the recipient of two fellowships from The National Endowment for the Humanities. Her other awards include the Goldsmith Research Award from the Shorenstein Barone Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.