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Mencken’s Axe

The first great contrarian of American Letters was quite a book reviewer, a new collection reminds us.

9.20.02

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H.L. Mencken on American Literature
Edited by S. T. Joshi
Ohio University Press / 284 pages / $44.95

The life of a book reviewer circa 1910, must have been a dismal existence indeed. Faced with the grim prospect of plunging into a morass of best-selling moralistic melodramas by the likes of Gertrude Atherton, Will Levington Comfort, and Marjorie Benton Cooke, it is small wonder the post was doled out to "the virgins," elderly female Victorians of Puritan virtue. Few bright, enterprising young men or women cared to subject themselves to such pains.

It was into this bleak literary scene that H.L. Mencken, wunderkind of the Baltimore Sunpapers, stormed like a bull into a craft shop. In 1908, HLM accepted an invitation to review books for the monthly Smart Set magazine, and later reprised the role for his own magazine The American Mercury.

Mencken's views on literature, like his views in general, were shaped largely by his now familiar prejudices: a disdain for puritans, Comstocks, uplifters, the bourgeoisie, and democracy. He was the first great contrarian of American Letters, and for this he willingly paid the price, steep though it may have been. Book reviewing gave Mencken something to do during the Great War, which, because of his German sympathies, left him virtually muzzled on the political scene. Under the guise of literary criticism, he continued the Holy War against what he saw as representative of the evils of his day. "My method has been to tackle them with an axe," he wrote.

The mission of the reviewer as he saw it was to "clear the ground of moldering rubbish, to chase away old ghosts, to help set the artist free." It was no less his duty to "give praise where it is due and (call) names when they are deserved." Ever on the look out for an American literary savior to champion, Mencken found one in 1910, in the form of the novelist Theodore Dreiser. Here at last was a man of sense, who not only echoed Mencken's sentiments, but who drew men and women as they really were, not as the Sunday School teachers would have them be. "Fully nine-tenths of the notices of The Titan, without question the best American novel of the year, were devoted chiefly to denunciations of the morals of Frank Cowperwood, its principal personage…All they could see in Cowperwood was an anti-Puritan." By far the greatest portion of the H.L. Mencken on American Literature (40 pages) is dedicated to Dreiser's works; many of these same ideas would be developed more fully in Mencken's only book of literary criticism published in his lifetime, A Book of Prefaces (1917).

Had he lived, he no doubt he would have panned the late John Gardner's defense of moral fiction, for Mencken's concept of a writer remained one who refrained from vacuous moralizing, who resisted loading his books with Freudianisms and other bogus Greenwich Village imbecilities. Instead he urged writers to see beauty as "distinct from and above all mere morality." Life should be depicted as it is, i.e., meaningless, with much emphasis on "the eternal helplessness and donkeyishness of man."

During his tenure as book reviewer (1908-1933), American Belles Lettres aged and matured -- and for this Mencken again credits Dreiser (and to a lesser extent Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson) as well as those who followed their lead, particularly Sinclair Lewis. Lewis, in fact, seemed in a sense Mencken's alter-ego. No writer earned the valuable praise of HLM as did Lewis during the heady days of Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry. Here were Mencken's ideas of fiction as fiction ought to be done, five-star novel-writing which would eventually carry Lewis to Stockholm for the Nobel Prize. "For the third time Lewis knocks one clear over the fence," begins Mencken's 1927 review of Elmer Gantry.

Like all good reviewers, HLM could be his own best (or worst) critic. He was first to admit that he dropped the ball on more than one occasion, and he could be maddeningly wrong, as in his review of The Great Gatsby, which is "certainly not to be put on the same shelf, with, say, This Side of Paradise." For these irregular lapses he readily apologized: "The things I remember chiefly, are not my occasional sound judgments, but my far more frequent imbecilities -- some of them, seen in retrospect, quite astounding. I have often misunderstood grossly, and I have misrepresented them when I understood them, sacrificing sense to make a phrase."

Or make us laugh. It is the Mencken humor, present throughout, that makes a book of reviews of century-old novels still a joy to read. Here is HLM on Dreiser's 300,000-word literary behemoth, The Genius: "Here is a novel so huge that a whole shift of critics is needed to read it. Did I myself do it all alone? By no means. I read only the first and last paragraphs of each chapter, the rest I farmed out to my wife and children, to my cousin Ferd, and to my pastor and my beer man."

Reading these reviews and essays now, we get a surprising sense of how little book publishing has changed since 1908. The New York Times bestsellers, then as now, were mostly escapist dreck: The Sheik, Fate Knocks at the Door, Bambi. Nor has readership drastically changed. "Nine-tenths of our readers of books are women and nine-tenths of our women get their literary standards from the Ladies Home Journal." Insert Oprah for the Ladies Home Journal and the sentence would stand today.

Only the most puritanical women's-libber or backwoods Methodist clergyman would see anything objectionable in these reviews. To find similar prose that is as honest, straightforward and unblemished by the stain of political correctness, one would have to go back quite a ways, to Mencken's Prejudices in fact. Mencken put great store on the role of the critic in society to protect the public against frauds and quackery. Sadly today that duty has been largely abandoned, which perhaps explains the proliferation of fraudulent ideas popular in contemporary society. And those reviews that do appear in the incredible-shrinking book review sections often resemble something more akin to PR copy than honest critique. Fortunately for us, Mencken was never in the least squeamish or regretful of his attacks. "The quacks and dolts who have been mauled in these pages all deserved it; more, they all deserved far worse than they got."

Almost a hundred years later, Mencken's reviews remain accessible and eminently readable. Time has not yellowed his prose, mellowed his criticism or, thank Allah, dulled his axe.

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