Dec 7, 2013
Mencken, a Curmudgeon for the Ages
Posted on Dec 10, 2010
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
H. L. Mencken (1880–1956) is often smilingly referred to as the Sage of Baltimore (especially in Baltimore), but during the first third of the twentieth century he was the most outspoken, irrepressibly contrarian literary and political journalist in the United States. As the scourge of the “booboisie” – his coinage – Mencken produced exuberant, gorgeous prose of such gusto that carnival barkers and fundamentalist preachers might have learnt from him. He could be loud and snide or silkily ironic – but never dull. When Mencken attacked, he left no survivors; when he praised, it felt like Christmas morning.
There can’t be many newspapermen whose work bears rereading after more than eighty years, let alone enshrinement in the Library of America, but Mencken is one. The six volumes of his collected Prejudices – essentially his best essays about American literature, culture and politics – are cocksure about everything, but whether they are right or boneheaded, one hardly cares. Mencken knew that writing had to be fun if you wanted it to be read. Today we turn to his best work as we turn to S. J. Perelman or P. G. Wodehouse – for the pleasure provided by one marvellous sentence after another.
Henry Louis Mencken regarded the monkeyshines and idiocies of Americans with both wonder and gratitude:
“Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly – the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances – is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.”
Throughout his Prejudices Mencken mingles literary appreciation with political broadside and occasional persiflage, but, in general, the early volumes tend to emphasize the man of letters. As a critic, Mencken preferred down-and-dirty social realism in his fiction. He championed Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and James T. Farrell, and he never failed to lambast the least sign of preachiness, “uplift” or didacticism. In the essay entitled “The Late Mr. Wells”, Mencken, an admirer of “the sheer radiance of ‘Tono-Bungay’”, lamented Wells’s decision to forgo art for civic-minded tendentiousness:
“Call the roll of his books, and you will discern a progressive and unmistakable falling off. Into “The Passionate Friends” there crept the first downright dullness. By this time his readers had become familiar with his machinery and his materials – his elbowing suffragettes, his tea-swilling London uplifters, his smattering of quasi-science, his intellectualized adulteries, his Thackerayan asides, his text-book paragraphs, his journalist raciness – and all these things had begun to lose the blush of their first charm.”
As that paragraph demonstrates, Mencken obviously relishes his own bel canto fireworks. Having warmed up, he immediately goes on to mock Wells’s latest novel, Joan and Peter:
“I was at the job of reading it for days and days, endlessly daunted and halted by its laborious dullness, its flatulent fatuity, its almost fabulous inconsequentiality. … The book is a botch from end to end, and in that botch there is not even the palliation of an arduous enterprise gallantly attempted. No inherent difficulty is visible. The story is anything but complex, and surely anything but subtle. Its badness lies wholly in the fact that the author made a mess of the writing. …”
Why has Wells failed so dramatically? Because, says Mencken, he has fallen victim to the “messianic delusion”: “What has slowly crippled him and perhaps disposed of him is his gradual acceptance of the theory, corrupting to the artist and scarcely less so to the man, that he is one of the Great Thinkers of his era, charged with a pregnant Message to the Younger Generation – that his ideas, rammed into enough skulls, will Save the Empire, not only from the satanic Nietzscheism of the Hindenburgs and post-Hindenburgs, but also from all those inner Weaknesses that taint and flabbergast its vitals, as the tapeworm with nineteen heads devoured Atharippus of Macedon”. (So far as I can determine, Mencken made up the unfortunate Atharippus.) While his formal education stopped after high school, Mencken was surprisingly cultivated and widely read. He played the piano every week as part of a local chamber orchestra. He taught himself German well enough to translate Nietzsche (The Anti-Christ). His home library contained 6,000 books, and he claimed to have read 4,000 novels during his tenure as co-editor of The Smart Set (the self-appointed “Magazine of Cleverness”). His own second book – after a volume of verses – was the first critical work about Bernard Shaw, whom Mencken somewhat resembles as a master of vigorous polemical prose.
As a student of his native literature, Mencken favours writers with the authentic American yawp – Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, the humorists George Ade and Ring Lardner. Huckleberry Finn is the novel he loves most (followed, somewhat surprisingly, by Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim). He judges Emerson to be overrated – “an importer of stale German elixirs, sometimes direct and sometimes through the Carlylean branch house”. He can’t bear the circumlocutions of Henry James and the gentility of William Dean Howells. Edgar Allan Poe he discerns – rare for the time – as “the bravest and most original, if perhaps also the least orderly and judicious, of all the critics that we have produced”.
1 2 3 NEXT PAGE >>>
Previous item: Florida Finally Gets Over Morrison’s Jimmy
Next item: The Fascinating Gen. Petraeus
New and Improved Comments