| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Called by journalist Walter Lippman in the 1920s
“the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated
people,” H. L. Mencken reigned as national literary arbiter during that decade
as well as the most famous social and cultural commentator of his day. From the
early days of the twentieth century he led the attack on the genteel tradition
in American letters—the Anglo-American tradition that was associated in most
readers’ eyes with Henry James, William Dean Howells, and “polite letters.”
Mencken championed early literary naturalists and realists, particularly
Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis; and in the pages of theSmart Set and the
American Mercury, highly influential magazines that he edited for two decades,
he attacked provincialism, puritanism, and censorship. A bitter critic of the
American alliance with Great Britain in World War I—and, in fact, a critic of
all things British—he fought for an expansion of the literary franchise to
Americans of non-British descent. He had in mind German Americans (such as
Dreiser) and eastern Europeans, but—as editor of American Mercury—he also
published more African American writers than any other editor of his time.
came by his “prejudices” (as he termed them) honestly. The son of German
American parents whose families had settled in Baltimore in the mid-nineteenth
century, he grew up in a mid-Atlantic city dominated by Americans of British
(and, often, southern) descent. Scorning a university education (although, he
was quick to point out, the Menckens had been a learned family in Germany), he
took to journalism in his teens and rose quickly on a series of Baltimore
newspapers—all the while reading voraciously, trying his hand at poetry and
fiction, and publishing books on Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw in his
twenties. In his late twenties he became literary editor of the stylish Smart
Set, and by his mid-thirties he was editing the magazine. Silenced during World
War I for his unpopular pro-German views, he broke out in 1919 with both fury
and delight as he heaped abuse on nearly every aspect of American life: its
small-town provincialism, its religious fundamentalism, its tawdry politics,
its intellectual sterility. He was particularly rough on the American
hinterlands, the South and the Midwest. Holding up a European—and an
urban—ideal, and feeling the American East at least approached that ideal, he
delighted in attacking those regions that he felt had become the home of
American puritanism (by which he meant a sort of raw Calvinism in combination
with Victorian propriety) and the hotbed of prohibitionist sentiment. He lambasted
the provinces in his Baltimore Sun column, in nationally syndicated newspaper
pieces, in the pages of the Mercury, and in a series of books—appropriately
entitled Prejudices—that appeared throughout the 1920s.
his most famous essays are those he wrote during the Scopes evolution trial in
Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925 (and, just after the trial, his vicious obituary
essay on the life and career of the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan) and
his diatribe against southern culture, “The Sahara of the Bozart.” That essay
and others earned Mencken the reputation of the most hated man in the South
since Sherman—although his anti-South essays also stirred a number of young,
iconoclastic southern writers (including Thomas Wolfe, Frances Newman, W. J.
Cash, Paul Green, and Allen Tate—although Tate later repented of his
Menckenism) and played some part in the southern literary renaissance of the
1920s and 1930s. His truth-telling about the South also influenced the young
African American writer Richard Wright—who happened upon criticism of Mencken
in a Memphis newspaper, turned to Mencken’s own essays, and marveled at this
writer who, as Wright later stated, denounced “everything American,” laughed at
the national circus, and used “words as a weapon...as one would use a club.”
produced other books in the 1920s and 1930s—reflections on religion, politics,
and the national life—but his period of greatest influence declined with the
end of the 1920s. Although he regained readers and reputation in the 1940s with
a series of autobiographical volumes as well as his multi-volume work The
American Language (he vastly preferred American English to British English), he
never recaptured the boisterous spirit of the 1920s. During the Great
Depression and World War II, Mencken’s brand of satire no longer appeared so
funny. His pro-German sympathies kept him from attacking Hitler (whom he
characterized as a European version of a benighted southern demagogue), and
certain of his writings led to charges of anti-Semitism.
is with the 1920s, then, that the essential Mencken is to be identified. As an
American social critic and humorist he is sui generis—the boldest, most
outrageous critic of his time, writing in a language that seemed to sing and
dance. Scholars have found for him European equivalents—Voltaire and Samuel
Johnson are most often cited—but no American precedents. Mencken’s own favorite
American writer, Mark Twain, perhaps comes closest—with his own bold satire,
his truth-telling, his love of the American language, his delight in exposing
frauds and hypocrites of all kinds. At its best, Mencken’s joyous nay-saying
provides ample evidence for Walter Lippmann’s shrewd assessment: Mencken “calls
you a swine, and an imbecile, and...increases your will to live.”
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In the Heath Anthology
The Sahara of the Bozarts
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H.L. Mencken: Two of his Theories
Two summaries of Mencken's social criticism.
Quotes From H. L. Mencken
A lengthy list of famous Mencken quotations.
The H.L. Mencken Homepage
A biography, an introduction to major works, and links.
The H.L. Mencken Page
Comprehensive resource provides a biography, review of Mencken's work, and links galore.