H. L. Mencken on American Literature, edited by S. T. Joshi. Ohio University Press. 233 pages. $44.95.
Early in the 20th century, when America was giving birth to its own literature, H.L. Mencken was the midwife. As the nation's preeminent book critic, he railed against empty-headed and hidebound novels while championing writing that was gritty and authentic.
His reviews, the fierce and the fawning, helped American literature find a distinctive voice by proclaiming that it was Mark Twain who showed the way and rallying behind writers who carried his torch forward -- from Theodore Dreiser to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Given the scores of books by and about Mencken, who made his fame as a caustic columnist for Baltimore's Evening Sun, it is curious that so few of his literary reviews have found their way into print.
S. T. Joshi remedies that with this fascinating collection of criticism Mencken wrote between 1908 and 1933 primarily for the Smart Set and American Mercury, then among the nation's most highly regarded magazines.
In essence, Joshi's collection shows us a brilliant mind at work in real time, as Mencken decides what to make of an explosion of creativity perhaps unmatched in the history of American letters. It is must reading for any serious student of the nation's literature.
Mencken's work begins with his assessment of Twain, undertaken in reviewing a major biography of the writer released in 1912 -- more than a quarter century after the publication of the author's epochal Huckleberry Finn.
In an era when writers in the United States remained under the spell of their English forefathers, Mencken denounced the timid response to Twain's authentically American novel. He boldly declared it "one of the great masterpieces of the world" and anointed Twain as "the true father of our national literature, the first genuinely American artist of the blood royal."
Over the next two decades, Mencken would see it as his mission to "clear the ground of mouldering rubbish" -- by which he meant freeing American literature from restrictions on form and ridding it of the Puritan morality that had dominated since the birth of the republic.
Joshi breaks the work down sensibly, dividing Mencken's reviews into three key categories -- those whose work Mencken viewed as establishing the American canon, those of "worthy second-raters" and those he dismissed as "trade goods."
History suggests Mencken was right more often than he was wrong. The work of most authors he placed in the canon has withstood the test of time -- among them Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
Those he demoted to second-rate status seem, in retrospect, to belong there -- among them Ambrose Bierce (excepting, of course, The Devil's Dictionary) and the once highly esteemed William Dean Howells.
But, as was true in his political columns, Mencken was often spectacularly wrong -- as he himself admitted in reflecting on his work. What he remembered were "not my occasional sound judgments, but my far more frequent imbecilities -- some of them, seen in retrospect, quite astounding."
Such as missing the point of Fitzgerald's one masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, and dismissing it as inferior to This Side of Paradise. Such as celebrating only the literary criticism of Edgar Allan Poe and declaring his stories "tedious" and his poetry "hollow jingling." Such as falling in love with Southern novelist James Branch Cabell, whose work has long since faded from view.
The only sin Mencken never commits is being boring.
His work is uproariously funny and enormously insightful, offering not only pointed literary analysis but also incisive social criticism. Both hold up remarkably well even though the better part of a century has passed since these reviews were written.
This collection would be delectable enough if it included only his book reviews, but Joshi ices the cake by adding an introductory section featuring pieces Mencken wrote about the art of literary criticism. No book critic who takes his work seriously can miss reading these essays, not only for the sheer joy of Mencken's wit and writing, but also for his penetrating insight into the craft.
General readers may find the reviews of long-forgotten authors too obscure to be worth their time, but there is more than enough in the rest of the book to compensate -- as evidenced by the rollicking sample of Mencken moments accompanying this review.
Stephen R. Proctor, The Sun's deputy managing editor for sports and features, began his enthusiasm for the works of Mencken when he was a teen-ager. He studied literature on a yearlong John S. Knight fellowship at Stanford University three years ago.
From the book: