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Henry Louis Mencken, 1880-1956
Prejudices: First Series
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, c1919.

Summary

Henry Louis Mencken was born September 12, 1880 in Baltimore, Maryland, where he remained all his life. His parents, August Mencken, a cigar manufacturer, and Anna Abhau, were German emigrants who arrived in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. A voracious reader and an extraordinary student, Henry Mencken first attended a private German school and later completed his formal education at the Baltimore Polytechnic School. Following his graduation at the age of fifteen, he accepted employment at his father's cigar factory. Despite his eagerness to pursue work as a newspaperman, Mencken was reluctant to oppose his father's wishes, and he continued at August Mencken & Bro. for an unhappy two years. After his father's premature death in January 1899, Mencken applied for a position at the Baltimore Herald. Mencken experienced a spectacular rise in the newspaper world, from a lowly cub reporter to editor-in-chief of the Herald at the remarkable age of twenty-five. When the Herald stopped publishing in 1906, he became Sunday editor of the Baltimore Sun.

As a kind of cultural icon, Henry Louis Mencken's celebrity status among his contemporaries cannot be overestimated. He first achieved national recognition while writing for the New York monthly, Smart Set, where he started in 1908 as a literary editor and worked as book reviewer and co-editor with George Jean Nathan. Mencken's influence steadily increased during the 1920s, primarily through the American Mercury, a magazine he co-founded with Nathan in 1923. The national syndication of his summer 1925 coverage of the Scopes evolution trial, along with his reporting on national political conventions for Sunpapers (1920-1948), kept Mencken in the public eye. However, he did experience periods of public disfavor, particularly during the years surrounding both world wars. He had ardently supported the German cause during World War I, and his later scholarly works, among them Treatise on the Gods (1930) and Treatise on Right and Wrong (1934), unveiled his radically antidemocratic and agnostic sympathies. Despite a somewhat tarnished reputation during the early 1930s, Mencken's spirits remained high largely due to his 1930 marriage to Alabama writer Sara Haardt. Yet their blissful relationship ended abruptly with Sara's death in 1935, and for the remainder of his life, Mencken buried himself in his work. With the 1936 publication of The American Language's fourth edition, Mencken was thrust back into critical favor. Continually adding to and revising this book on philology investigating the divergence between American and British English, Mencken published supplemental volumes in 1945 and 1948. In November 1948 Mencken suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to read and write. He died January 29, 1956.

Prejudices: First Series (1919), the first of six volumes (published 1919-1927) collecting his short essays, includes Mencken's characteristically scathing yet humorous assessments of various literary and artistic figures as well as more general ruminations on American culture. He opens with "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism," a piece deriding contemporary criticism's tendency to lapse into what Mencken terms "pious piffle," whereby an artist is judged by the "rightness" of his orthodoxy rather than his artistic or technical merits. Mencken assaults literary and cultural critics for demanding that artists become "Great Teachers" rather than dutiful reporters on human nature. Furthermore, a "genuine critic of the arts" must act as a catalyst, triggering the spectator's reaction upon encountering the work of art.

Mencken's satire targets specific literary figures, and he shamelessly attacks H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, William Dean Howells, Thorstein Veblen, Hamlin Garland, and others unfortunate enough to attract his ire. In "The Late Mr. Wells," for example, Mencken engages in a devastating deconstruction of Wells's recent artistic efforts, chiefly disparaging Joan and Peter, which he labels "a botch from end to end." Mencken's critique of Arnold Bennett rests in the writer's lack of emotional investment in his characters, which appear impersonally constructed and overwhelmed by their backgrounds. Nevertheless, Mencken does applaud Bennett's craftsmanship even while undercutting his overall artistry. And William Dean Howells, he argues, while a legend in American letters, writes empty and insipid volumes. Not even George Bernard Shaw, who Mencken earlier praised in his well-received critical text, George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905), remains unscathed. In "The Ulster Polonius," Mencken concludes that Shaw is decidedly unoriginal and formulaic. Moreover, just as his current style relies principally on uninspiring platitudes, so his celebrated impudence reveals only extremely poor taste. While few escape the slashing blows of Mencken's severest criticism, Hermann Sudermann's short stories, specifically "The Purpose," do receive measured praise.

Certain traits inform the majority of Mencken's works, namely his mockery of American religious, educational, and political customs. Mencken is highly disdainful of religion, especially the lingering effects of Puritanism, for impeding the course of civilization. In "The Butte Bashkirtseff," for instance, religious beliefs clearly inhibit human beings' natural impulses, which become over-controlled by irrational taboos. Mencken seems equally dubious of the newly rising science of psychology, considering it "chiefly guesswork, empiricism, hocus-pocus, poppycock." While lambasting notions of American etiquette, the four subchapters of "The Blushful Mystery" lament the disappearance of romantic intrigue. As Mencken suggests, the proliferation of books on sex hygiene has scientifically explained away its alluring mystery. He remains forever skeptical of democracy, which promotes group conformity in place of individual thinking. Vociferously attacking American New Thought with its sweeping judgments, Mencken bemoans the loss of Emersonian thought and practices of dissent. But in a move that seems uniquely Menckenian, Prejudices: First Series closes on a surprisingly affirmative note. Mencken's witty musings in "Three American Mortals" honor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman. Indeed, even while condemning the worst aspects of American culture and society, Mencken highlights their most commendable achievements, where he locates his hope for the future.

See also the entry for Henry Louis Mencken from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Jay, Gregory S., ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: Modern American Critics, 1920-1955, vol. 63, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978; Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Humorists, 1800-1950 Part 2: M-Z, vol. 11, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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