H. L. Mencken on
American LiteratureS. T. Joshi, Editor
(Ohio University)Part IFor those of us just emerging from our cucoons in the 1950s, discovering H. L. Mencken was like discovering beer, or sex, or how fun it was to be away from home. He had been published, prodigiously, during the first half of the 20th Century --- but by the time our generation came along, he had all but disappeared. It was the cognoscenti, at least in our circle, who kept the flame burning.
For those of us growing up outside the Northeast intellectual hothouse, there was a double rapture: what a pleasure it was to have someone who could sneer at preachers, Rotarians, and what he referred to as "Bible-searchers" and Homo boobiens:
Mr. Bell makes much of the difference between the civilized individual and a civilized society. The former may exist anywhere, and at any time. There may be men and women hidden in Oklahoma who would be worthy, if he were alive, to consort with Beethoven. It is not only possible; it is probable. But Oklahoma is still quite uncivilized, for such persons are extremely rare there, and give no color to the communal life. The typical Oklahoman is as barbarous as an Albanian or a man of Inner Mongolia. He is almost unaware of the ideas that engage the modern world; in so far as he has heard of them he is hostile to them. He lives and dies on a low plane, pursuing sordid and ridiculous objectives, and taking his reward in hoggish ways. His political behavior is that of a barbarian, and his religious notions are almost savage. Of urbanity he has no more than a traffic cop. His virtues are primitive and his vices are disgusting.
Here we had a literate man who enjoyed offending all, and doing it in such an elegant fashion. In a review of Death in the Afternoon Mencken opined that we should consider bringing bull-fighting to the United States:
I emerge [from Hemingway's book] cherishing a hope that bullfighting will be introduced at Harvard and Yale, or, if not at Harvard or Yale, then at least in the Lynching Belt of the South, where it would offer stiff and perhaps ruinous competition to the frying of poor blackamoors.
Once you land in the artful insult world of Mencken, you never want to leave, even when you realize that he is mocking everyone --- everyone, that is, except himself, and you.
One of the greatest joys of reading Mencken comes from the joy of his sour words on those tedious 19th Century American writers we had to struggle through in our English classes --- the likes of James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, John Greenleaf Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Cullen Bryant --- and the writer of "pious gurglings," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
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Mr. Joshi has pulled together almost eighty reviews --- some long, some brief --- drawn from Mencken's years at The Smart Set and The American Mercury. The reviews encompass most every worthy American writer from Poe and Emerson up through Edith Wharton, Ring Lardner, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, and T. S. Eliot. The writer he cares for, most of all, is Mark Twain:
I believe that Huckleberry Finn is one of the great masterpieces of the world, that it is the equal of Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe, that it is vastly better than Gil Blas, Tristram Shandy, Nicholas Nickleby or Tom Jones. I believe that it will be read by human beings of all ages, not as a solemn duty but for the honest love of it, and over and over again, long after every book written in American between the years 1800 and 1860, with perhaps three exceptions, has disappeared entirely save as a classroom fossil.
I believe that he ranks well above Whitman and certainly not below Poe. I believe that he was the true father of our national literature, the first genuinely American artist of the blood royal.
...the true father of our national literature, the first genuinely American artist of the blood royal. Not-so-
gentle hyperbole --- pure delicious Mencken. § § §
Mr. Joshi has provided an interesting introduction to Mencken, but the structure can be off-putting. For Henry James, we get three brief reviews --- Julia Bride, The Finer Grain, and The Outcry. For the now forgotten James Branch Cabell --- a Mencken favorite --- there are seven. Sherwood Anderson, another favorite, gets nine reviews --- but who in their right mind would spend time wading through Tar, or Dark Laughter, or Horses and Men? (Like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West, Anderson was a one-book man --- that being Winesburg, Ohio.) Thus, many of the volumes reviewed are those we shall never read --- and since the reviews are drawn from many different years --- 1909 - 1933 --- there is bound to be some repetition. Furthermore, after reading many of these, I wonder whether these eighty or so are Mencken at his best.
I have it on good authority that they are not.