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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

H.L. Mencken

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.

Mencken 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.

Among 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 one would use a club.”

Mencken 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.

It 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.”

Fred Hobson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
The Sahara of the Bozarts (1940)

Other Works

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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.

Secondary Sources