During the 1920’s, few literary events were so eagerly awaited in the United States as the appearance of a new volume of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices. A wide range of people enjoyed the spectacle of the Sage of Baltimore, as he was called, pulling yet another popular idol down from its pedestal. Mencken’s iconoclasm was accomplished with so much gusto and with such vigorous and picturesque language as to enchant a whole generation grown weary of the solemnity of much American writing. Indeed, the decade badly needed an iconoclast, for what later became almost exclusively thought of as the Jazz Age was also the era of the Ku Klux Klan and the Anti-Saloon League, of Babbittry and boosterism.
Mencken’s essays in these volumes can be divided into two categories: literary criticism and criticism of the contemporary American scene. Literary criticism Mencken defines as a “catalytic process” in which the critic serves as the catalyst. As a critic, however, Mencken derived mainly from James Huneker, whom he admired enormously and had known personally. Huneker had been familiar with Continental writers, then not too well known in the United States, and his criticism was essentially impressionistic, often couched in breezy, epigrammatic language. Mencken carried certain of these characteristics much further; indeed, his verbal acrobatics became his hallmark. His was a racy, pungent style very effective for the “debunking” then so popular and deliberately calculated to drive conservative readers into frenzies.
Mencken’s chief target, of which he never tired, was the Puritan tradition in American literature with its consequent timidity, stuffiness, and narrow-mindedness. As he saw it, the Puritan was afraid of aesthetic emotion and thus could neither create nor enjoy art. This fear had inhibited American literature, he claimed, and had made American criticism timid and conventional. Further, criticism had fallen into the hands of the professors, and there was nothing—not even a prohibition agent—that Mencken detested so much as the average American university professor. Hence, he heaped scorn on such men as Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Stuart P. Sherman, and William Lyon Phelps for years.
It is ironic that the critical writings of some of these academics have withstood the passage of time more successfully than have those of...
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