My editor made me do this.
Tonight I’ll be delivering a book talk on Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken. The event starts at 7:30 and takes place in the Dow Center at Hillsdale College. Hillsdale County has an airport. If you plan to fly in for the event, call (517) 797-4833.
Here is how the book begins:
H. L. Mencken remains a man who needs no introduction to any American familiar with literary and social criticism during the first half of the twentieth century. A reporter for the Baltimore Sun, who covered most of the national political conventions for four decades, along with the Scopes Trial, and prize boxing matches to boot, Mencken became a literary critic for The Smart Set, eventually took over that magazine, and then went on to found another literary publication, The American Mercury. As editor, Mencken published the early work of Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Eugene O’Neill, and Ezra Pound. Many of those same authors revered Mencken. Even Ernest Hemingway, a novelist for whom Mencken had little regard, paid deference to The American Mercury’s editor in The Sun Also Rises. To explain Robert Cohn’s inability to enjoy Hemingway blamed Mencken, who “hates Paris, I believe. So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken.”
The author of more than fifty books – the first to write in English on George Bernard Shaw and on Friedrich Nietzsche – his topics ranged as wide as women and European night life. Mencken was also an amateur philologist whose American Language cataloged sometimes brilliantly the differences between British and American English. That overview hardly does justice to Mencken’s output and influence. According to the literary critic, Alfred Kazin, “If Mencken had never lived, it would have taken a whole army of assorted philosophers, monologists, editors, and patrons of the new writing to make up for him.” According to Edmund Wilson, long-time critic for The New Yorker and the New Republic, Mencken was “without question, since Poe, our greatest practicing literary journalist.” According to Terry Teachout, another critic and one of Mencken’s biographers, Wilson’s acknowledgment was “[i]f anything an understatement.”
Aside from the sheer volume of his writing, Mencken was remarkable for a prose style rarely executed before or since. In a review of one of his books, Walter Lippmann acknowledged that Mencken’s reputation for calling average people “cockroaches and lice” lapsed into “unjust tirades.” Even so, Mencken had attracted a large readership because “this Holy Terror from Baltimore is splendidly and exultantly and contagiously alive. He calls you a swine, and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live.” Joseph Wood Krutch, a writer for The Nation, wrote soon after Mencken’s death that the Baltimorean was the best prose writer in twentieth-century America, a man whose gift “was inimitable” and who used “as a genuine instrument of expression a vocabulary and a rhythm which in other hands stubbornly refused to yield anything but vulgarity.” More recently, Joseph Epstein wrote that much of Mencken’s appeal owed to his comedy and uplift. “Some writers . . . do lift one out of the gloom, and away from the valley of small and large woes,” Epstein explained. Mencken was one of them and one of the ways he did that, Epstein added, was by having “an appreciation for the reality of things.” “His animus against the [idealists] of the world is that, with their concepts and notions, they flattened out reality – and, in the act of doing so, not only got things wrong but made them less interesting than they are.” The collision of Mencken’s candor and Americans’ idealism was always riveting. To capture some of that amusement this book violates rules against learned in graduate school. This book includes many block quotations, the crutch of the young historian. The hope is that readers unfamiliar with Mencken will appreciate the appeal of his prose. Another reason for violating historical protocol is to stave off the boredom that afflicts authors when reading and proofing manuscripts. At least Mencken will keep this reader awake.