'Prejudices: The Complete Series,' H.L. Mencken
In this rare collection of essays, H.L. Mencken has much to say about American mediocrity.
Illustration by Jonathan Twingley. (Jonathan Twingley / For The Times / December 15, 2010)
The Complete Series
2 volume, boxed set
Library of America, $70
There are writers whose books are stacked on my nightstand: G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Babington Macaulay — writers whom I spend half an hour with before nodding off. They are master prose stylists whose command and fluency of English are the pleasure of reading them, even if the subjects, people and times they write about are unfamiliar and distant to our contemporary minds.
Now I can add to that nightstand stack the recently published boxed set of the Library of America edition of H.L. Mencken's "Prejudices" series, which comprise the six volumes published between 1919 and 1927. Reading one or two of Menken's reviews and essays is the kind of thing that you want to take, like a restorative, before bedtime, to counter the ill writing and easy thinking that daily passes before our eyes.
The "Prejudices" series is a compilation of reworked reviews and essays that Mencken originally wrote for literary journals and newspapers that contain his unexpurgated opinions about American writers, culture and society. Each volume contains between 30 and 40 essays and reviewsranging over literature, art, politics, philosophy, religion, science. He was a newspaper columnist in the fullest sense: no topic or subject was out of reach (and perhaps some should have been. Mencken considered himself the foremost authority on Nietzsche outside of Germany; suffice it to say there are not many Nietzsche scholars urging their students to consult Mencken).
Mencken's opinions of his literary brethren and America were largely, as we say today, "negative." This is the writer, after all, who used a bull horn to rail against the insularity and smug primitiveness of American culture, the writer who gave us the term "Bible Belt" to label the religious South, and the now-forgotten gem "boobosisie," to describe the always-upwardly striving middle-class "Babbitts" that were emerging in the early 20th century as an economic market and political force.
Indeed, when it comes to cutting down just about any saint of American literature with his type keys, be it Robert Frost or Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mencken is the father of the modern literary exercise known as the "hatchet job."
Consider: In an essay on American poets, he rhetorically asks, "Frost?" And then chops, "A standard New England poet, with a few changes in phraseology, and the substitution of sour resignationism for sweet resignationism. Whittier without the whiskers." A few chapters later, in a dismissal of Emerson, Mencken derides his enthusiasts as a "cult … [that] has been an affectation from the start. Not many of the chautauqua orator, vassarized old maids and other such bogus intelligentsia who drive themselves to it have any intelligible understanding of the Transcendentalism at the heart of it."
Henry Louis Mencken, who died in 1956, is one of those writers more remembered than read — in part because, with the exception of his continually revised masterwork of lexography, "The American Language," most of his books have been long out of print. It took me nearly a dozen years of rummaging through used bookstores in numerous states to find all six of the original "Prejudices" volumes. Now the Library of America edition brings these works back to life.
It's only baffling that it took 31 years and 207 volumes for the Library of America to publishi Mencken. No doubt Mencken himself would have something to say about that, especially since Frost and Emerson have long been under the Library's imprimatur.