Mencken on Mencken

Monday Book Review

March 29, 1993|By John F. Kelly

MY LIFE AS AUTHOR AND EDITOR. By H. L. Mencken. Edited by Jonathan Yardley. Knopf. 450 pages. $30.

WELL, well, well. What have we here? Another racist, antisemitic broadside on the order of Henry Louis Mencken's explosive 1989 diary? Or perhaps a carefully edited (and excised) account of Mencken's reign as editor (with George Jean Nathan) of the zTC Smart Set (1914-1923) and later as founder and editor (again with Nathan) of the American Mercury (1924-1933)?

A lot of both, as it turns out, although, happily, the editing by Jonathan Yardley, a columnist and book reviewer for the Washington Post, is well-done. Indeed, Mr. Yardley's work is all the more impressive considering that the complete manuscript (which, under the terms of Mencken's will, had been locked away at the Enoch Pratt Free Library since 1956) contains more than 1,742 pages, representing some 300,000 to 400,000 words.

Ironically, however, "My Life as Author and Editor" covers little more than two-fifths of Mencken's professional life. It ends in 1923, 11 years before Mencken gave up editing the American Mercury. It ends there because Mencken, while working on the book in 1948, had a severe stroke that left him unable to write for the rest of his life.

At first glance, it seems an awful gap. It leaves untouched, for example, his departure, with Nathan, from Smart Set; his inauguration, with Nathan and publisher Alfred A. Knopf, of the influential American Mercury; his breaks with Nathan and Theodore Dreiser; his resignation from American Mercury; and, most grievously, the entire period of the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, when Mencken was a towering literary and journalistic figure in America.

Fortunately, however, it doesn't matter all that much. As Mr. Yardley points out in his editor's introduction, "in the first third of his career Mencken met virtually all the people who were important to it; in writing his memoir he set down his impressions of these people as each appeared on the scene, and thus we have almost all of them substantially whole."

Their numbers include Dreiser, Nathan, Knopf, Sinclair Lewis, Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald (and his wife, Zelda, "herself a bold patron of the jugs"). There is also a cast of lesser lights. Some -- James Huneker, James Branch Cabell, Willard H. Wright (a.k.a. S.S. Van Dine, the mystery writer), Zoe Akins and Dorothy Thompson -- have been long neglected, and others -- Ruth Suckow, Thyra Samter Winslow and John Adams Thayer -- are long forgotten.

Stars and bit players alike, however, come screamingly alive under Mencken's penetrating gaze, which reveals, for the most part, not so much malice as objectivity, not so much prejudice as insensitivity. Mencken had strong opinions and expressed them freely. He depicted his contemporaries "precisely as I saw them, and without any vain effort to distinguish sharply between what was significant about them and what was merely amusing, which is to say, essentially human."

He also was a product of his times. Mr. Yardley, in acquitting Mencken of bigotry, is careful to make a distinction between the standards of Mencken's day and the standards of ours. Judged in the harsh light of the '90s, he was a bigot; judged by the standards of his day, he wasn't.

But everyone must make choices. If insensitive remarks about women, gays and the handicapped repel you, if references to "prehensile kikes" and "nigger[s] in the woodpile" offend, then stay away. If, however, well-drawn portraits of a period and its people intrigue you, there is much in "My Life" to keep you engrossed.

Mencken, for example, was considerably fond of Dreiser. Yet he considered him "essentially a German peasant, oafish, dour and distrustful of all mankind." Nathan was "a dramatic reviewer and nothing else." Mencken doubted he had "ever entered a theater with a woman taller, or as tall," as he.

Dorothy Thompson (Red Lewis' second wife and later a prominent newspaper columnist) was "a tinpot messiah with an inflamed egoism that was wholly unameliorated by humor." And the members of the famous Algonquin Round Table "were all literati of the third, fourth and fifth rate."

There's much more in the same vein. Regrettably, there isn't much new or unexpected. Mencken is Mencken, which is to say at once amusing, acerbic, abrasive, irreverent, impossibly smug and self-confident.

For most of us, that's enough.

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.

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