The American Mercury
The American Mercury
The American Mercury was an influential journal of opinion and literature that debuted in January 1924 and gained a wide audience under the editorial control of its cofounders, George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken. Known for the caustic satire of its editorial essays, the monthly review created a sensation among intellectual circles during the 1920s, with its debunking of such cultural icons as Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman and its mixture of fiction, literary criticism, political analysis, and cultural comment. Counting such authors as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Boyd, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene O'Neill among its contributors, the American Mercury reached the height of its popularity in the mid to late 1920s, when its circulation numbered more than 75,000 per month.
Among the most sensational episodes connected with the American Mercury was the 1926 "Hatrack affair," in which Mencken and the American Mercury became the targets of an obscenity charge by the Massachusetts Watch and Ward Society. Taking offense to "Hatrack," a profile of a smalltown prostitute which appeared in the April 1926 issue, Watch and Ward secretary Jason Frank Chase led the campaign to ban sales of the magazine in Boston. On the advice of attorney Arthur Garfield Hays of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mencken traveled to Boston and before a throng on onlookers personally sold a single copy of the issue to Chase. Mencken was promptly arrested and appeared in court the following morning, where the charge of distributing immoral literature was summarily dismissed. All related legal proceedings were subsequently decided in favor of the American Mercury, and the chief result of the affair was to heighten the scandalous reputation of the magazine and to augment its circulation.
Following ongoing editorial disputes with Mencken, Nathan resigned his coeditorship in July 1925 but remained a contributing editor and oversaw the "Theater" section and the "Clinical Notes" department until 1930. Circulation of the American Mercury began to decline in the early 1930s as Mencken's iconoclastic style lost its appeal under the altered national mood of the Great Depression. He resigned his editorship of the magazine in 1933. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf sold the American Mercury in 1935 to Paul Palmer and Lawrence E. Spivak, who instituted a number of format and editorial changes throughout the 1930s and 1940s in an effort to achieve profitability. A succession of owners and editors continued to publish the American Mercury as a journal of conservative opinion for several decades, although the magazine never regained the prominence and influence it had known during the Mencken era.
Frank Luther Mott
SOURCE: "The American Mercury," in A History of American Magazines: Volume 5: Sketches of 21 Magazines, 1905-1930, Harvard University Press, 1968, pp. 3-26.
[In the following essay, Mott discusses the content and contributors of the American Mercury from the 1920s through the 1960s.]
By 1923 H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan were tired of their connection with the Smart Set and hopeful of something better. For some fifteen years they had written critical articles for that magazine, and during the last half of that term they had been in editorial charge. They had won a wide reputation and an enthusiastic following, especially among the young and skeptical; and Mencken, through his forthright and biting essays collected in a series entitled Prejudices, had become a prophet of modern apostasy. They were ready for a more impressive and dignified forum than that afforded by a magazine with the cheap name and rather sleazy tradition of the Smart Set.
Thus, when Alfred A. Knopf offered to set up a monthly review, giving them a one-third working interest in it as editors, they were quick to accept. Such titles as "The Blue Review," "The Twentieth Century," and "The Portfolio" were suggested; that of The American Mercury1 was adopted when Knopf Nathan outvoted Mencken.2
The first number was dated January 1924 and came out early in the preceding month. It made an impressive appearance as a whacking big octavo with 128 double-column Garamond-set pages bound in green covers. Elmer Adler was the designer. It was clearly planned for the more thoughtful reader of a free-thinking sort who had fifty cents to spend on a magazine in these inflationary years. For such a reader the contents of the new review were both intellectually exciting and to the last page entertaining.
And so it caught on. The original print order was for ten thousand copies; and two reprints were called for, bringing the total to 15,500. By the time the second number was in press, Vol. I, No. 1 was selling to collectors for ten dollars.3 By the end of its first year, the Mercury was printing 55,000 copies, which was pretty good for a magazine whose projectors had counted on a circulation of 20,000.4 Of this total, more than two-thirds were newsstand sales. Average net paid circulation went on climbing until it reached, in the magazine's second year, about 75,000.5
That first ten-dollar number is worth examining, since it set the pace that the magazine followed rather consistently for more than five years. It opens with a "debunking" article by Isaac R. Pennypacker on "The Lincoln Legend," which emphasizes the prominence of the family from which he sprang on the one hand, and his shortcomings as a military leader on the other. A later article in the number, by Harry Elmer Barnes, "The Drool Method in History," attacks the historians for their capitulation to school boards and legislatures that forbid any disrespect to established idols and mores. A good little chapter on Stephen Crane by Carl Van Doren, a collection of personal letters to various friends from the late James Huneker, and a literary colloquium between George Moore and Samuel C. Chew (more notable for its novel form and its badinage than for any new ideas) constitute the literary criticism of this initial number. "Santayana at Cambridge," by the daughter of Hugo Münsterberg, is more a character sketch than a philosophical dissertation; and Woodbridge Riley's "The New Thought" is a rather muddled, satirical account of that school and its connection with Christian Science, which is called "Eddyism." "Aesthete: Model 1924," by Ernest Boyd, is a satire on editors of the "little magazines." The two political articles are a satirical sketch of Hiram Johnson by John W. Owens and a factual analysis of "The Communist Hoax" in the United States by James Oneal. Two pieces dealing with military matters are anonymous—one a sober and statistical review of actual disarmament since the adoption of the Anglo-Japanese-American Treaty of 1922; and the other a short essay, "On a Second-Rate War," in which "the struggle of 1914-1918" is discussed in a summary studded with words like "jumble," "childish," "unpreparedness," and "strategic error."
The only poems in the number are an undistinguished group by Theodore Dreiser. There are three short stories—Ruth Suckow's fine genre piece from Iowa entitled "Four Generations," Leonard Cline's funny and fanciful satire on "cops" called "Sweeny's Grail," and John McClure's sketch of Cairo street-life, "The Weaver's Tale."
Of departments there are six scattered through the book. The first is a four-page "Editorial." "The Editors," writes Mencken, "are committed to nothing save this: to keep to common sense as fast as they can, to belabor sham as agreeably as possible, to give a civilized entertainment." He provides a little advance list of his bêtes noires in this passage:
The ideal realm imagined by an A. Mitchell Palmer, a King-Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan or a Grand Inquisitor of the Anti-Saloon League, with all human curiosity and enterprise brought down to a simple passion for the goose-step, is as idiotically Utopian as the ideal of an Alcott, a Marx, or a Bryan.… It will be an agreeable duty to track down some of the worst nonsense prevailing and to do execution upon it—not indignantly, of course, but nevertheless with a sufficient play of malice to give the business a Christian and philanthropic air.6
Ah, that is the authentic Mencken! Turn on twenty pages and you come to the second department—one which became, as the months passed, perhaps the most popular feature of the magazine—"Americana." Herein are gathered bits of this "worst nonsense," geographically classified. This first batch begins as so many later ones did, with Alabama, wherein it is noted that Birmingham's Commissioner of Safety W. C. Bloe had ordered the city's "exclusive clubs" to cease and desist allowing the playing of Sunday golf, billiards, and dominoes; and it ends with the state of Washington, in which Bellingham's Garden Street Methodist Church had come up with a report, printed in a national publishers' journal, that "$100 worth of advertising had brought in more than $1,700 in silver plate collections."
The department called "Clinical Notes" is edited in this number by Mencken and Nathan jointly; later Nathan carried it on alone. Here are short expressions of "prejudices," opinions, comment on social and artistic matters, mostly heterodox, sometimes calculated to shock, occasionally sophomoric, often commonsense without conventional camouflage. "The more the theologian seeks to prove the acumen and omnipotence of God by His works, the more he is dashed by evidences of divine incompetence and irresolution." Mencken is displeased by "such dreadful botches as the tonsils, the gall-bladder, the uterus, and the prostate gland."7
"The Arts and Sciences" is one of the best of the magazine's departments. In this first number, it dips into "Architecture" with a short piece by C. Grant La Farge about the new city skylines, into "Medicine" with a sensible little article about glands and rejuvenation by L. M. Hussey, and into "Philology" with an admirable essay by George Philip Krapp about acceptability of language usages. Later nearly all categories of human knowledge were tapped in the short pieces in this department—the various sciences, law, theology, economics, pedagogy, the fine arts, poetry, radio, and so on. The other two departments are Nathan's "The Theater," with his always incisive and informed commentary on current plays and the affairs and personalities of the playhouse; and "The Library," with reviews of new books by Mencken and others. In this initial issue, the "others" were James Branch Cabell, Ernest Boyd, and Isaac Goldberg; later Mencken did them all himself, and there was also a "Check List of New Books" including brief notices. Most of these departments were carried over from the old Smart Set, where they had made much of the success of that magazine—"Americana," Mencken's reviews and Nathan's theatrical criticism, and the "Clinical Notes." These last fortunately lost, in the transition, their former heading "Répétition Générale."
Readers of this first number of the American Mercury found that all of its articles were short, most of them running from four to seven pages. They also noted that the review was preoccupied with American topics; if they did not, they were reminded in the "Editorial": "In general The American Mercury will live up to the adjective in its name. It will lay chief stress at all times upon American ideas, American problems, and American personalities because it assumes that nine-tenths of its readers will be Americans and that they will be more interested in their own country than in any other."8
Further, readers must have been impressed with the prominence of satire in the magazine—a satire that often ran into iconoclasm and "debunking," as the term went in those days. Said the New Republic, a severe critic from the first: "'Iconoclastic' is a word which one fears will be frequently applied to our Mercury. A better word will have to be invented to describe someone who loves to hear the crash of empty bottles quite as much as that of ikons, who often can't tell the difference between them, and who always uses the same crowbar on both. The resulting noise is so loud as almost to sound like a philosophical system, and many people have been fooled accordingly."9
This leaves unanswered the question as to whether the New Republic considered Hiram Johnson, for example, an ikon or an empty bottle; but indisputable ikons in the Mercury's range were Lincoln and Whitman. The Lincoln article, noted above, presented views which have since had wide acceptance; the one on Whitman, by Ernest Boyd, expressed opinions even then out of date and destined with passing years to seem more and more unperceptive. Boyd saw Whitman as "the first of the literary exhibitionists whose cacophonous incongruities and general echolalia are the distinguishing marks of what is regarded as poetry in aesthetic circles today.… With the lapse of time, his false position has reached the last degree of unreality."10 According to Assistant Editor Angoff, this article was "the subject of heated controversy in the office," and "Mencken himself eventually admitted that the author was overstating his case."11 A number of other pieces in early numbers of the Mercury, it must be added, treated Whitman and his work more tenderly.
But, ikons or empty bottles, there is no doubt that Mencken had great fun smashing what he considered to be "frauds," and most of his readers enjoyed the game no less. In the magazine's fifth anniversary number, he wrote a paragraph that is worth quoting for its catalogue of the objects of Mercurial attack:
In this benign work [of exposing frauds] it has covered a considerable range, and tried to proceed with a reasonable impartiality. The chiropractors and the Socialists, the Holy Rollers and the homeopaths, the pacifists and the spiritualists have all taken their turns upon its operating table. It has exhibited, mainly in their own words, the dreams and imbecilities of the prophets of high-powered salesmanship, vocational guidance, osteopathy, comstockery, and pedagogy. It has brought to notice, in the chaste, dispassionate manner of the clinic, the hallucinations of Rotary, the Gideons, the D. A. R., the American Legion, the League of American Penwomen, the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals, and a multitude of other such klans and sodalities, many of them highly influential and all of them amusing.12
But in the same editorial, Mencken points out mat his review has done much more than expose "frauds": "It has given a great deal more space to something quite different, namely, to introducing one kind of American to another." And he mentions such articles as those of the lumberjack James Stevens, later famous for his "Paul Bunyan" stories; the convict Ernest Booth, whose series about bank-robbing and such were cut short by prison authorities; and the musician Daniel Gregory Mason, who, in his stories of the Chautauqua, poked fun at the yokels whose favor he had once courted on the platform. There were also Jim Tully, who wrote of "hobo" life; George Milburn, with his Oklahoma sketches; Mary Austin, who told Indian tales, and so on.
Other favorite topics in Mencken's Mercury were the American newspaper, often treated with understanding, sometimes with severity; advertising and press-agentry, usually assailed; folk literature, superstitions, and anthropology; the American Negro, his progress and his problems; philology, with emphasis on American usages; American history, particularly unswept corners and picturesque personalities and events; and literary figures such as Poe, Whitman, and Melville.
George S. Schuyler was a leading writer on the racial problem, and his article "A Negro Looks Ahead" created a sensation not only in the South but throughout the country. It concluded: "The Aframerican, shrewd, calculating, diplomatic, patient and a master of Nordic psychology, steadily saps the foundation of white supremacy. Time, he knows, is with him.… By 2000 A.D. a full-blooded American Negro may be rare enough to get a job in a museum, and a century from now our American social leaders may be as tanned naturally as they are now striving to become artificially."13
All regions came in for occasional lashings in the pages of the Mercury—the Midwest's "Bible Belt," puritanical New England, the culturally arid West—but the South perhaps caught it hardest. Wrote W. J. Cash in "The Mind of the South": "There is a new South, to be sure. It is a chicken-pox of factories on the Watch-Us-Grow maps; it is a kaleidoscopic chromo of stacks and chimneys on the club-car window as the train rolls southward from Washington to New Orleans. But I question that it is much more. For the mind of that heroic region, I opine, is still basically and essentially the mind of the Old South."14
Political articles of a serious nature were rare in the Mercury. Most of those about contemporary political figures and most of Mencken's editorials in this field were designed to puncture the balloons of popular reputations. The most famous of such pieces was the mercilessly contumelious editorial about Bryan, published in the October 1925 number, shortly after that statesman's death. It is still amusing reading, the real, distilled Mencken. There was really not much politics in it; it was a postscript to what Mencken had written (chiefly for the Baltimore Sun) about the Scopes trial. One astute critic of Mencken's total work has written: " … It was significant that one of the cruelest things he ever wrote, his essay on Bryan, was probably the most brilliant."15
Though contemporary literature was often treated in the Mercury's articles, it was in Mencken's own book reviews that the heart of the magazine's comment on the writing of the day appeared. These reviews were, indeed, one of the most interesting features of the Mercury. In them Mencken expressed, in striking and exuberant style, his devotion to basic actualities and his contempt of gentility and sentimentality, his stout support of writers who defied conventionality and popular inhibitions, and his scorn for the idols of mass culture. Carefully discriminated and qualified book reviews are often dull; Mencken's never were, partly at least because he usually condemned or praised, and no nonsense about it. Let us take two examples more or less at random. In the second number of the Mercury, a review of The Great Game of Politics, by Frank R. Kent, a colleague of the reviewer on the Baltimore Sun, began:
Astonishingly enough, this is the first book ever written in America which describes realistically and in detail the way in which the mountebanks and scoundrels who govern 110,000,000 free and brave people obtain and hold their power.16
And a year or more later appeared the following succinct review of Ernest Hemingway's second book, In Our Time:
The sort of brave, bold stuff that all atheistic young newspaper reporters write. Jesus Christ in lower case. A hanging, a carnal love, and disembowellings. Here it is, set forth solemnly on Rives handmade paper, in an edition limited to 170 copies, and with the imprimatur of Ezra Pound.17
Like a good journalist, Mencken did give his readers much information about the new books; but many read his reviews more for the Mencken in them than for anything else. They were always readable, sometimes amusing. Mencken was "at least half Puck," observed a later critic, and added. "He loved to hear the rumble of his own hyperboles."18
"Menckenism" became a common word to describe a compound of prejudices, hyberbole, and a kind of free-wheeling diction just this side of rant. Certain words were overused: imbecile, mountebank, oaf, nincompoop, rascal, wowser, swine, pusillanimous, perfidious, fraudulent. To this "Menckenese" must be added two invented terms which have gained a considerable acceptance in the language: booboisie and Homo Boobus, the latter corrected by the more learned Boyd, we are told, to Homo Boobiens.19 Contributors had to submit their copy to editing which, if it did not include "a proper salting of Menckenese," at least brought it into harmony with the tone of the magazine.20
"Mencken was always eager to print authors for the first time," according to his assistant editor, "and to that end he carried on a huge correspondence with young men and women in all parts of the country."21 This was a practice he had brought from the Smart Set; in the two magazines, he introduced to a larger public many writers virtually unknown before. Such a list would include Ruth Suckow, James Stevens, Jim Tully, and many others.
But the Mercury's table of contents was loaded with plenty of names well known to the reading public. In addition to those mentioned in other places in this chapter, we may list here a few representative frequent contributors: Gerald W. Johnson. Chester T. Crowell, Robert L. Duffus, Fred Lewis Pattee. Henry F. Pringle, C. Hartley Grattan, Louis Adamic, Duncan Aikman, Marquis W. Childs, Margaret Mead, Nelson Antrim Crawford ("A Man of Learning," August 1925), Benjamin deCasseres, Lewis Mumford, Louis Untermeyer, and William E. Dodd.
The Mercury printed many short stories of considerable distinction. Some of them had regional settings, like those of Ruth Suckow, Winifred Sanford, James Stevens, George Sterling, Idwal Jones, and William Faulkner. It is said that Mencken did not like Faulkner, and accepted "That Evening Sun Go Down" (March 1931) under protest.22 Sinclair Lewis provided both non-fiction and fiction ("The Man Who Knew Coolidge," January 1928) from his busy typewriter.
Mencken looked upon his own early book of verse as a youthful indiscretion, and had little respect for contemporary poetry.23 In his Mercury salutatory, he promised "some verse (but not much)."24 This meant, apparently, a poem or two in each number. Some of them were very good, indeed. Favorites were the Midwesterners Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg; the Negroes Countee Cullen and James Weldon Johnson ("Go Down, Death!" April 1927); and the Westerner George Sterling; as well as Joseph Auslander, Grace Stone Coates, and Gwendolen Haste.
The Mercury also published some works in dramatic form, notably Eugene O'Neill's "All God's Chillun Got Wings" (February 1924), and several short pieces in dialogue by James M. Cain. Incidentally, Mencken was "violently" opposed to publishing the O'Neill play, but Nathan is said to have "threatened to resign" if it was rejected.25
The most dramatic episode of the magazine's early history was the result of the publication in the issue for April 1926 of a sketch by Herbert Asbury entitled "Hatrack." This was one of a series presenting the author's recollections of the religious life of a small town, later published as Up From Methodism; and since evangelists sometimes preached realistically against sexual misdemeanors, Asbury found an opportunity here to bring in a little character sketch of a village prostitute. It was all in the best tone of stag-party hilarity. That it exaggerated and gibed a phase of the religious and social life of the small town, and that it offended tastes more refined than those of Asbury and Mencken there can be no doubt; but surely there were few readers of the Mercury who considered it obscene or corrupting to morals. Harlotry doubtless has its humorous phases, and "Hatrack" followed a not unfamiliar literary tradition.
That was not the attitude of Boston's Watch and Ward Society. It seems clear that Mencken courted some overt action by this unofficial organization; his biographer says that he had anticipated it.26 He had baited the society in September of the preceding year by publishing an article entitled "Keeping the Puritans Pure," by A. L. S. Wood of the Springfield Union, in which Jason Frank Chase, then secretary of the society, was ridiculed. So when the "Hatrack" number appeared, Chase notified the dealers' trade agency in Boston that it was "objectionable"; and the dealers, accustomed to unquestioned yielding to the threat of prosecution implied in a Chase edict, stopped the sale of the April Mercury. Thereupon Mencken and Knopf enlisted Arthur Garfield Hays, famous attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union, in behalf of the Mercury; and Hays suggested that Mencken make a clean-cut case of it by himself selling a copy of the banned periodical to Chief Watcher and Warder Chase within the pure precincts of Boston. Mencken agreed, Chase agreed. Wrote Hays in his recollections: "On April 5, 1926, a milling, enthusiastic, and hilarious mob of thousands gathered at the corner of Park and Tremont streets in Boston, the crowd running over onto the Boston Common. Word had leaked out that at two o'clock in the afternoon the April number of The American Mercury was to be sold. There was a huge demand for the magazine at almost any price. People were wildly waving one, five, and ten dollar bills."27
But only one copy was sold, and that to Chase by Mencken at fifty cents. The clowning Mencken tested the coin with his teeth. Immediately after the transaction Mencken was arrested and taken to the police station, where he furnished bail. The next morning there was a judicial hearing on the charge of selling "obscene, indecent, and impure literature … manifestly tending to corrupt the morals of youth." Somewhat to the surprise of the defendant,28 the charge was dismissed. "I cannot imagine," said the judge, "anyone reading the article and finding himself or herself attracted toward vice."29
There were sequels to this hearing. The April Mercury was suppressed in many cities and towns throughout the country. A Cambridge dealer who had sold it to Harvard "youths" was actually fined a hundred dollars, which the Mercury paid. A week later an injunction was obtained to prevent further interference with the sale of the moot number of the magazine. But most embarrassing was the action of the United States Post Office Department in refusing to accept the April Mercury for mailing. Eventually Hays had to get a federal injunction to force acceptance; and then the case was carried to the Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided that the question was "academic," the April number being by that time far out of date.30
The case cost the Mercury some ten thousand dollars, which nearly exhausted its reverse.31 Newspapers generally disapproved the ribaldry of "Hatrack" and were inclined to sympathize with the censors. A leading editorial in the New York Herald Tribune began: "The incurable vulgarity of Mr. H. L. Mencken is mixed with a considerable amount of business acumen. In his latest escapade he has been alert to capitalize to the utmost the egregious bad taste of an article to which the Boston authorities took exception. The case is flagrant enough to urge a stocktaking of current standards of decency in print." The writer goes on to admit that "Hatrack" was "neither obscene nor suggestive," though vulgar and indecent; and after this exercise in semantics, he adds that Mencken "is scarcely worth his space in a good jail."32
According to Angoff, Mencken later regretted having printed "Hatrack."33 Commercially, as the Herald Tribune suggested, it was probably good business. The Mercury's average net circulation for 1926 rose to about seventy thousand, and the next year it added some five thousand more. The years 1926-1928 brought the magazine's greatest prosperity.34 Issues occasionally ran to 140 pages, of which 11 might be advertising. Book "ads" led; but clothing, foods, cosmetics, cigarettes, travel aids, and investment opportunities took much space. An amusing feature of the advertising section in these years was the series of full pages taken by manufacturers (such as the Lambert Pharmacal Company, distributors of Listerine) to criticize the Mercury itself and satirize its famous editor.
In July 1925, Nathan retired from his co-editorship to the position of contributing editor in charge of the departments "Clinical Notes" and "The Theater." He felt that the magazine was losing the esthetic and cultural tone that he valued most, and in 1930 he severed his connection with it entirely and sold his stock to Knopf.35 Charles Angoff, a young Harvard graduate with a brief experience on Boston newspapers, joined the Mercury in 1925 as assistant editor, and eventually outstayed his chief on the staff.
The early thirties marked the end of an era of American life, and they also marked the end of the Mencken Mercury. The magazine's circulation dropped from 62,000 in 1930 to a little more than half of that in 1933. Relations between editor and assistant editor were and often strained.36 Samuel Knopf, the publisher's father and a heavy stockholder, died in 1932. In the probation of his will, the value of the magazine was placed at zero;37 and this was supported by a comptroller's affidavit which declared that the Mercury was "a one-man magazine catering to a very selective class of readers who are followers of its editor," and that it must be reorganized to survive.38
The fact was that the beginning of the depression had coincided with a marked recession in the popularity of H. L. Mencken. In 1926 Walter Lippmann had called Mencken "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people," though he had added the observation that "the man is bigger than his ideas," which are "sub-rational"—that is, he appeals to "those vital preferences which lie deeper than coherent thinking."39 But the "vital preferences" of the twenties were not those of the thirties. Wrote Angoff many years later: "The world was leaving him behind. Even the college boys had begun to sneer at him.… The clippings from the [college] newspapers were becoming more and more unfavorable, and one literary editor on the West Coast referred to him as 'The Late Mr. Mencken.'"40
The sober counsel of the more "coherent" thinkers was beginning to prevail under the stresses of the thirties. The Mercury formula was no longer so acceptable, even to the young intellectuals. Norman Cousins, trying to account for the failure of the review under Mencken, once wrote:
There was something wrong with its basic diagnosis. America was not the home of the fools and the land of the boobs they [the editors of the Mercury] thought it was. There was plenty of surface stuff that made us look silly, but there was also solid stuff far more significant that had to be recognized. The items that appeared in the Mercury's Americana were part of the froth and not of the essence.… The pulsebeat of historical America failed to come through in the Mercury.… To be totally without respect for the mechanism of hope in man as were the editors of the Mercury was to live in the wrong century.41
Doubtless the decline of Mencken's popularity had something to do with his growing wish to retire from the editorship of the Mercury, but there were other reasons. Because of the magazine's financial straits, he was drawing no salary.42 He was tired and unwell. When he visited Upton Sinclair in California in the late twenties, that worthy, always a severe critic of the review "with the arsenical green covers," remarked upon his tiredness. Sinclair argued with Mencken over the Mercury's emphasis on "the absurdities of democracy," and later said: "If you ask Mencken what is the remedy for these horrors, he will tell you they are the natural and inevitable manifestations of the boobus Americanus. If you ask him why then labor so monstrously, he will say that it is for his own enjoyment, he is so constituted that he finds his recreation in laughing at his fellow boobs. But watch him a while, and you will see the light of hilarity die out of his eyes, and you will note lines of tiredness in his face, and lines of not quite perfect health, and you will realize that he is lying to himself and to you; he is a new-style crusader, a Christian Anti-Christ, a propagandist of no-propaganda."43
Mencken retired as editor of the American Mercury at the end of 1933. He was succeeded by Henry Hazlitt, who had been literary editor of the Nation, but who had spent most of his professional life as a financial writer for newspapers. The retiring editor wrote of his successor: "He is the only competent critic that I have ever heard of who was at the same time a competent economist … one of the few economists in human history who could really write." He would continue the review's established policy, playing "a bright light over the national scene, revealing whatever is amusing and instructive."44 But Hazlitt's ideas, it soon developed, did not fit with the Mercury pattern, and after a few months he resigned the editorship to Angoff.45
Changes in editorship, however, did not restore prosperity. The magazine continued to decline both in the zestful and uninhibited spirit that had once been its fundamental elixir and, more alarmingly, in circulation. And so, in 1935, Knopf sold the Mercury46 to Paul Palmer and Lawrence E. Spivak, the former coming from the newspaper field, and the latter from magazine work. Palmer took over the editorship and Spivak the publisher's chair. A new policy was proclaimed: the review would renounce its left-wing tendencies and become a kind of combination Forum-New Yorker-Collier's. Lombard C. Jones was managing editor briefly; he was succeeded by Gordon Carroll. Angoff, offered an associate editorship, declared that he "would rather go out and shovel manure … than associate myself with the publication they have in mind."47
Whatever Angoff preferred to shovel, the Mercury handled much excellent and well-written material under the new management. Laurence Stallings wrote the book reviews in "The Library." "The Clinic" had some resemblance to the old "Arts and Sciences" department; it contained short articles on social, scientific, and economic matters. Among contributors were Katharine Fullerton Gerould, William Henry Chamberlin (on Russia), Ralph Adams Cram, Ford Madox Ford, and Anthony M. Turano. Mencken contributed two articles attacking Roosevelt in 1936.
But circulation continued on the downward curve. A strike of the office staff called by the Office Workers' Union in June 1935, which triggered picketing for fourteen weeks, did not help matters.48 Advertising had fallen off dangerously and circulation had dropped below thirty thousand when, in the fall of 1936, radical changes in format, price, and editorial policy saved the magazine. The pocket, or "digest," size was adopted, with 128 double-column pages. The old fifty-cent price was cut in half. The magazine took a strong conservative stand—anti-New Deal, pro-capitalism. "President Roosevelt," declared an editorial in 1938, "no longer desires recovery under the present Capitalist system."49 A strong drive against Stalinism and against Soviet infiltration in America was initiated; Eugene Lyons was the chief contributor in this field. Topics related to sex were common in the magazine for a few years. Havelock Ellis wrote on "Studies in Sex: A History" (January 1936) and Mencken on "Utopia by Sterilization" (August 1937); but the articles that provoked the most scathing replies in the "Open Forum" were two by anonymous women—"I Believe in the Double Standard," by "A Wife" (April 1937) and "Chastity on the Campus," by "A Co-Ed" (June 1938). A rather plaintive reply to the latter by a Brooklyn girl declares her intention to remain chaste in spite of everything.50
Departments were reshuffled. "Americana" was retained, of course, though shrunken to two or three of the smaller pages. John W. Thomason, Jr., reviewed books in "The Library"; and "The Check List," repository of brief reviews, was eventually taken out of the advertising section to appear in the body of the book. "Open Forum," a revival of "The Soap Box," which had appeared toward the end of the Mencken regime, invited short letters from irate or pleased readers; it occasionally ran to nearly twenty pages. "Book Preview," giving extracts from forthcoming books, and "The Other Side," in which prominent liberals were given their say, were short-lived departments. A little nature essay by Alan Devoe appeared each month under the heading "Down to Earth." "Poetry" was a departmental heading for a few years; later the poems were again distributed through the magazine. Perhaps the best of the new departments was one in which Albert J. Nock for a few years discussed public affairs, speaking for the editorial board. And, finally, Nathan came back in 1938 to do a theater department for the ensuing twelve years.
Among leading contributors during the Palmer editorship were Harold Lord Varney, Benjamin Stolberg, and Stewart H. Holbrook. An article by Varney in the number for December 1936 accusing the American Civil Liberties Union of undue sympathies for Russia brought on a libel suit. When Mencken entered the picture by protesting that the suit was a threat to the freedom of the press, for which the A. C. L. U. had always stood, Director Arthur Garfield Hays of the Union suggested that Mencken act as arbitrator. The idea of Mencken the extremist judicially weighing the matters in dispute was ludicrous, but he did just that. The printing of his report in the Mercury was supposed to settle the whole matter; but inasmuch as he found against both contestants, there was an aftermath of replies. "I am substantially right," Mencken concluded, "and decline to change a word."51
The new Mercury, in the smaller size and at the smaller price, more than doubled its circulation in a short time, but it lost advertising. American Mercury Books—reprints of popular books in soft covers at twenty-five cents—proved to be a money-maker, however. It began in 1937, with James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," advertised as "a classic of the tough school of American fiction"; and the series developed into the extensive business of Mercury Publications, Inc., publishers of mystery and science fiction magazines and books.52 This was the first successful modern paperbound series in America. It was a Spivak idea, and it furnished the profits to keep the Mercury going during the Spivak administration.
Lawrence E. Spivak, son of a New York dress manufacturer, was a Harvard graduate and had been assistant publisher of Hunting and Fishing before he came to the Mercury as business manager in 1933. When he purchased complete control of the magazine in 1939, he installed Eugene Lyons as editor. Russian-born Lyons had been brought to New York as a child and there, after some work at City College, he had become very interested in Communism. He edited Soviet Russia Pictorial 1922-1923, and became an assistant director of Tass, the Russian news and propaganda agency; but he never joined the Communist Party. A term of six years as United Press correspondent in Russia brought him into close touch with events and situations and broke the spell that the Soviet ideology had held over him; and after his recall in 1934 at the demand of the U.S.S.R. authorities, he became one of the most prominent anti-Soviet writers in America. Under Lyons' editorship and Spivak's management, the Mercury became a leader in the attack on Stalin and in exposing Communist "penetration" in the United States. In this crusade he was assisted by John Roy Carlson, whose Under Cover was a sensational and controversial best-seller in 1943; Jan Valtin, whose Out of the Night scored a similar success in 1941; and others.
Another cause strongly and repeatedly presented in the Mercury in these years was that of the importance of the air force in our military system. Major Alexander P. de Seversky wrote many articles about the superiority of air attack and defense in the early forties. These were supported by several contributions of Colonel Hugh J. Knerr in 1942.
Articles were usually short, as they had been since the change to the smaller size, and content was varied. An outstanding article of Lyons' editorship was Thomas Wolfe's "The Anatomy of Loneliness" (October 1941). Mary M. Colum had charge of "The Library" for a year or two; thereafter the reviewing was shared by several hands. Associate editors for short terms were Allen Churchill, William Doerflinger and John Tebbel; in 1943 Angoff dropped his shovel and came back to the Mercury to serve first as literary editor and then as managing editor as long as Spivak remained as publisher.
With the number for July 1944, Lyons retired from the editorship to take charge of the new magazine Pageant; and Spivak became both editor and publisher. He and Angoff filled the Mercury with stimulating articles on lively questions. Kingsbury Smith's series about the workings of the State Department was outstanding. The magazine, on the whole, took a more liberal position than it had once occupied. Norman Angeli and Russell Davenport were contributors, along with many writers comparatively unknown. Nathan and Devoe continued their departments, and in 1948 Bergen Evans started a new one on popular superstitions headed "Skeptic's Corner." More attractive covers than the magazine had ever known were supplied by Al Hirschfield; they carried colored caricature-portraits of public figures.
In the years 1943-1945, the Mercury gradually increased its circulation, reaching an average of eighty thousand per issue, the highest of its history; then it began to slide down again. In a day of mass circulations, the Mercury was a midget. Spivak was losing about $100,000 a year on the magazine, making up its deficits out of the profits of Mercury Publications, Inc.53 In 1949 the price per copy was raised to thirty-five cents, and circulation declined to forty thousand. The absorption of Common Sense, an anti-Communist monthly, did not help much. In the fall of 1950 Spivak sold the magazine to Clendenin J. Ryan for about $50,000,54 and thereafter devoted himself to "Meet the Press," which had started on radio in October 1945 and moved to television in November 1947. Four years later Spivak sold Mercury Publications, Inc., to Joseph W. Ferman, who had been associated with him for several years on the magazine and in the publishing concern.
Ryan, the new owner, was the son of Thomas Fortune Ryan, and a man of wealth who could afford to experiment with a magazine of famous name and lively spirit. He had once been an assistant to Mayor La Guardia of New York City, and was interested in political reform. He now associated himself with William Bradford Huie, lecturer, author, and air-power devotee, who was given "complete autonomy of policy and action" in the conduct of the magazine. Huie at once declared his intention to "re-create the magazine in the Mencken tradition," but with a difference: "The boobs," he said, "have become bureaucrats; the censors have become commissars; the yahoos have been marshaled into pressure groups." But he added, "We are more interested in manners, morals, and the arts than in politics."55 Angoff was succeeded as managing editor by Susie Berg. The price was again placed at twenty-five cents.
Manners and morals did indeed occupy much space in what was for a short time called The New American Mercury. The editor found time, between lecture engagements and television broadcasts, to write much for the magazine himself, including a fiction serial of 1951 entitled "The Revolt of Mamie Stover," which was announced as "a serious book about a whore."56 Alfred Towne's "Homosexuality in American Culture" ran in the fall of 1951. And so on. Lee Mortimer, author of Washington Confidential and such classics, was a steady contributor.
But the magazine was not all sex. Huie hated Truman, and in an open letter to General Eisenhower advised him to break with the President and announce himself openly as a candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency.57 The magazine was now throughly conservative in politics. Too much of its literary criticism was on the level of one writer's dismissal of Irving Howe's analysis of Sherwood Anderson: "The silliest damn statement I've heard in years."58 But the Mercury retained as contributors such writers from the Spivak regime as Nathan, Holbrook, Devoe, Tebbel, Stolberg, and Evans.
Two years of paying deficits were enough for Ryan, and in 1952 he sold the magazine to J. Russell Maguire, multimillionaire oil man and munitions-maker. The new owner was not as complaisant toward his editor's policy as Ryan had been; and beginning February 1953 Huie was supplanted by John A. Clements, who had been promotion director of the Hearst magazines, with Joseph B. Breed as managing editor. The price went to thirty-five cents.
The emphasis on sex now disappeared, and the anti-Red theme was resumed with vigor. The Mercury defended Senator Joseph McCarthy in his drive against Soviet "infiltration"; and, in general, it took a strong right-wing Republican position. J. B. Matthews was chief editorial writer, assisted, especially in the crusade against Communism, by the indefatigable Lyons and Varney, as well as by Ralph de Toledano and Alan Set. George Fielding Eliot, John T. Flynn, and Harry T. Brundidge were frequent contributors. There were many short departments. Variety and brevity were watchwords; forty or more articles might appear in a single number, each from one to four pages in length. There were a few full-page cartoons.
A clean sweep changed the editorial management of the magazine in the fall of 1955. Editor Clements and his chief associates and contributors went out, and owner Maguire carried on until the appointment of William La Varre to the editorship in 1957. La Varre, explorer and feature writer, had the assistance of Natasha Boissevain, who had become managing editor on Clements' retirement; and Maguire continued to write editorials. Maurine Halliburton succeeded to the editorship in the summer of 1958.
The editorial policy was now very clear: the Mercury was an organ of rather extreme right-wing Republicanism. It published short contributions by United States senators, members of Congress, and governors belonging to that faction; and its editorials supported that school of thought. Many of its articles dealt with international affairs, but there was still a wide variety in its offering outside of politics. The "Forum" departments for readers' letters were lively and interesting. Articles on the popular religious movement had some prominence; Billy Graham, J. Howard Pew, and James Hargis wrote in that field. Circulation advanced gradually in the fifties to some seventy thousand.
It is impossible to measure such an intangible as the "influence" of a magazine. One cannot doubt, however, that the American Mercury under most of Mencken's editorship had a considerable effect on the thinking of many people—chiefly, perhaps, in the younger and more literate groups. Also, it seems evident that the magazine under the Spivak management in the forties had a notable impact on public opinion. Its later advenures in sex problems and "McCarthyism" were less impressive. In the fifties it was in some ways a spokesman for conservatives in politics. But in 1960, when one sees the magazine on a news-stand, one is likely to exclaim, "Oh, is the American Mercury still published?"*
1 TITLES: The American Mercury. (The New American Mercury, Dec. 1950 Feb. 1951 only.)
FIRST ISSUE: Jan. 1924. Current.
PERIODICITY: Monthly, 1924-62. 3 vols, yearly, 1924-40 (1-51); 2 vols, yearly, 1941-61 (52-93); 1 vol. yearly, 1962-current. Monthly, 1962 except for Summer (May, June, July) and Sept.-Oct.; quarterly, 1963-current (Fall, 1965, omitted).
PUBLISHERS: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1924-35 (Samuel Knopf, business manager, 1924-32, Lawrence Edmund Spivak, 1933-35); L. E. Spivak, 1935-36; Paul Palmer, 1936-39; L. E. Spivak, 1939-50 (Joseph W. Ferman, bus. man., 1940-50); Clendenin J. Ryan, 1950-51; J. Russell Maguire, 1952-60 (Robert C. Hodgson, bus. man., 1953-56; Leslie J. Yarbrough, 1956-60); all New York. Defenders of the Christian Faith, Inc. (Gwynne W. Davidson, chairman; M. L. Flowers, bus. man.), 1960-62; Oklahoma City. The Legion for the Survival of Freedom, Inc. (E. Wiltsie Platzer, chairman, 1963-66; Bruce Holman, chairman, 1966-current), 1963-66. The Legion name is missing from Fall and Winter, 1966, but Holman is still listed as "Chairman of the Board." (Edwin A. Walker states in the Sept. 1965 issue that he was publisher Dec. 1964—Sept. 1965.) McAllen, Texas, 1963-65; Houston, Texas, 1966; Torrance, Calif., 1966-current.
EDITORS: Henry Louis Mencken and George Jean Nathan, 1924-25; H. L. Mencken, 1925-33; Henry Hazlitt, 1934; Charles Angoff, 1934-35; Paul Palmer, 1935-39; Eugene Lyons, 1939-44; L. E. Spivak, 1944-50; William Bradford Huie, 1950-53; John A. Clements, 1953-55; J. R. Maguire, 1955-57; William La Varre, 1957-58; Maurine Halliburton, 1958-60; Gerald S. Pope, 1960-62; Marcia C. J. Matthews, 1963; Jason Matthews, 1963-64; Edwin A. Walker (man. ed.), Dec. 1964-65; La Vonne Doden Furr, 1966-current.
INDEX: Readers' Guide to 1961.
REFERENCES: Anon., "The Importance of Charles Angoff," Little Review, v. 4, August 1917. pp. 37-48; M. K. Singleton, H. L. Mencken and the American Mercury Adventure (Durham, N.C., 1962); Johnny L. Kloefkorn, "A Critical Study of the Work of H. L. Mencken As Literary Editor and Critic of The American Mercury," Emporia State Research Studies, v. 7, no. 4 (Kansas State Teachers College, 1959); Stephen E. Fitzgerald, "The Mencken Myth," Saturday Review, Dec. 17, 1960, pp. 13-15, 71; Lawrence E. Spivak and Charles Angoff, eds., The American Mercury Reader (Philadelphia, 1944).
2 William Manchester, Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken (New York, 1951), pp. 148-49. The author is indebted to this work for many facts pertaining to the Mencken editorship of the Mercury, which Mr. Manchester derived from personal communication with his subject.
3New Republic, v. 37, Feb. 6, 1924, p. 274.
4 Mencken, in American Mercury, v. 30, Dec. 1933, p. 387.
5 See circulation figures month by month, Mercury, v. 6, Dec. 1925, pp. xlii-xliv; also N. W. Ayer & Son's Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals (Philadelphia, 1925-current). Circulation figures given later in this chapter are based chiefly on Ayer.
6American Mercury, v. 1, Jan. 1924, pp. 27-28.
7Ibid., v. 1, Jan. 1924, pp. 75-76.
8Ibid., v. 1, Jan. 1924, p. 30.
9New Republic, v. 37, Feb. 6, 1924, p. 274.
10American Mercury, v. 6, Dec. 1925, pp. 451, 458.
11New Republic, v. 131, Sept. 13, 1954, p. 19.
12American Mercury, v. 15, Dec. 1928, pp. 407-8.
13Ibid., v. 19, Feb. 1930, p. 220.
14Ibid, v. 18, Oct. 1929, p. 185.
15 Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (New York, 1942), pp. 203-4.
16American Mercury, v. 1, Feb. 1924, p. 248.
17Ibid., v. 5, Aug. 1925, p. xxxviii. This appeared in the "Check List," a department of brief notices, but I have the word of Mr. Angoff, then assistant editor, that Mencken wrote it (Angoff to Mott, June 13, 1959).
18 Eric F. Goldman, Rendezvous With Destiny (New York, 1952), p. 316.
19 H. L. Mencken, The American Language, 4th ed. (New York, 1936), p. 560, n. 1.
20 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, pp. 153-54. For comment on this assimilative process in contributions to the Mercury, see Oscar Cargill, Intellectual America (New York, 1941), p. 494.
21 Charles Angoff in the New Republic, v. 131, Sept. 13, 1954, p. 21.
22 Charles Angoff, H. L. Mencken: A Portrait From Memory (New York, 1956), pp. 107-8.
23 Angoff, Mencken, p. 83 and chap. vii. Angoff says Mencken in later life bought up any stray copies of his Ventures Into Verse when he found them, and destroyed them. No wonder: see quotations from the volume in Cargill, Intellectual America, p. 484.
24American Mercury, v. 1, Jan. 1924, p. 30.
25 Statement made to Lawrence E. Spivak by Angoff, and reported in a letter (Feb 10, 1959) to Mott.
26 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, p. 187. The fullest accounts of the "Hatrack" episode are in chap vii of this book and in Arthur Garfield Hays, Let Freedom Ring, revised ed. (New York, 1937), pp. 157-85.
27 Hays, Let Freedom Ring, p. 160.
28 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, p. 196.
29 Hays, Let Freedom Ring, p. 169.
30The American Mercury v. Kiely, Postmaster, et al, 19 Fed. (2d) 295 (1927).
31 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, p. 207.
32New York Herald Tribune, April 7, 1926, p. 22, col. 1.
33 Angoff, Mencken, p. 52.
34 Lawrence E. Spivak, later business manager of the magazine, writes (Jan. 30, 1959): "According to my figures, the Mercury reached its highest volume of business—close to $415,000—in 1927, but it reached its highest profit of $16,000 on a volume of $373,000 in 1926. The profit in 1927 was only $6,000; in 1928 it was $8,500; and in 1929 the magazine lost about $15,000. It continued to lose money through 1939, with the exception of 1933, when it made $900 largely because of vigorous cuts in expenditures." Letter quoted with permission of the author.
35 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, pp. 219-20.
36 Angoff, Mencken, pp. 217-18.
37Newsweek, v. 8, Sept. 26, 1936, p. 48.
38 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, p. 266.
39Saturday Review of Literature, v. 3, Dec. 11, 1926, p. 413. This article was reprinted in pamphlet form by Knopf.
40 Angoff, Mencken, p. 225. Manchester, a much more sympathetic biographer, agrees about the decay of Mencken's popularity; Disturber of the Peace, pp. 266-67.
41Saturday Review of Literature, v. 37, June 12, 1954, p. 22.
42 Letter from Spivak, Jan. 30, 1959. Spivak adds: "According to my recollection Mencken never drew more than $9,000 a year." Letter quoted with permission of the author.
43 Upton Sinclair, Money Writes! (New York, 1927), pp. 131-32. Chaps, viii and xxvi in this volume are devoted to criticisms of Mencken.
44American Mercury, v. 30, Dec. 1933, pp. 385, 386.
45 Hazlitt joined the editorial staff in the fall of 1933, and announcement of the change was made in the papers on October 5; but his name did not appear as editor until January 1934. Angoff took over with the May 1934 issue, though he was not given the title of editor until August.
46 This statement oversimplifies a complicated deal by which Business Manager Spivak bought the magazine in January 1935 for its debt ($38,000) to be paid out of problematical profits; but, as Spivak remembers it, Palmer a little later advanced some cash and he and Spivak divided the stock equally. In April, under this ownership, Spivak became publisher and Palmer editor. A year later the company needed money and Spivak gave up his half of the stock when Palmer put up more cash. Spivak then resigned as "publisher," but continued as business manager (Spivak letter, Jan. 30, 1959).
47Newsweek, v. 5, Feb. 2, 1935, p. 26.
48 Much attention was given to the issues of this labor contest by the New Republic, v. 83, July 10, 1935, p. 254, and the Nation, v. 140, June 26, 1935, p. 741, and v. 141, July 31, 1935, pp. 128-29. [The strike was called by the Office Workers' Union after the dismissal of two employees from the Mercury staff, which had joined the union only a few days before. The union chose to interpret the dismissal as reprisal for union affiliation, which would have been against the law according to NRA regulations; Spivak and Palmer disavowed previous knowledge that the staff had been unionized, and insisted the cause of firing was "inefficiency." The dispute was taken to the Regional Labor Board which, in May, handed down a decision favorable to the strikers. However, the Supreme Court decision of that same month voided the NRA, resulting in the National Labor Relations Board dropping the Mercury case. Palmer had ignored the decision anyway, and tried to ignore the continued picketing and to carry on as usual. Mass picketing which developed in mid-June continued into July, with rough behavior causing many police problems. After fourteen weeks, the strike was called off in August, although a boycott continued. Spivak in the June 26 Nation attributed the trouble to a "radical group" which disapproved of the recent editorial change in the Mercury from an extreme left position of the previous editor to that of "liberalism" which was "always its tradition." It is of interest to note that in 1949 the C.I.O. took action to expel the Office Workers' Union from its membership because of Communist domination.]
49American Mercury, v. 45, Nov. 1938, p. 257.
50Ibid., v. 45, Sept. 1938, p. 117.
51Ibid., v. 45, Oct. 1938, p. 240.
52 See Frank L. Schick, The Paperbound Book in America (New York, 1958), pp. 62-65.
53 Correspondence with Spivak, Jan. 30, 1959.
54 About half in cash and half in subscription liabilities (Spivak correspondence).
55 All quotations in this paragraph are from the editor's statement, American Mercury, v. 71, Dec. 1950, pp. 665-68.
56Ibid., v. 72, March 1951, p. 280.
57Ibid., v. 73, Dec. 1951, pp. 3-8.
58Ibid., v. 72, May 1951, p. 616.
* This historical sketch was written in 1960. In 1966 the American Mercury was not likely to be seen on a news-stand, but it was still published, presumably by the Legion for the Survival of Freedom, Inc. (see n. 1). In the issue for June 1966, it was stated that Western Destiny, Folk, and Northern World had merged with the Mercury.
The magazine proclaims it has been "published continuously since it was founded by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan," but certainly the only continuity is in name and volume numbering. It is now a vehicle for severe criticism by the ultra-conservatives.
In 1959 Lawrence Spivak wrote that if he had known what was going to happen to the Mercury when he sold it in 1950 to Clendenin J. Ryan, he "would have buried it.… It is a shame that the magazine that contributed so much and earned a great name in its day, should come to its present low state" (Spivak to Mott, Jan. 30, 1959, quoted with permission of author). Since 1960 the magazine has shifted ever further to the right in its editorial policy.
Harriet Helms Wagniere
SOURCE: "Behind the Scenes: Charles Angoff and the American Mercury," in The Old Century and the New: Essays in Honor of Charles Angoff, edited by Alfred Rosa, Associated University Presses, 1978, pp. 79-93.
[In the following essay, Wagniere emphasizes Charles Angoff's role in editing the American Mercury from 1925 to 1935.]
The American Mercury magazine entered the world of quality journalism with its first issue in January 1924, co-founded and co-edited by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken. They were fresh from their triumphs as coeditors of the Smart Set, where they had already established a following. Mencken, however, had begun to shift his emphasis away from literature toward the political and social scene in America. Nathan, on the other hand, had hoped to focus on belles-lettres in the new journal. Early in the days of the Mercury, Mencken and Nathan would "split" ostensibly over Nathan's insistence that Eugene O'Neill's play, All God's Chillun Got Wings, appear in the magazine. The play had been written by O'Neill especially at Nathan's request for material for the magazine's first issue. Mencken objected to its publication on grounds that it shed no light on the workings of American democracy. Despite this disagreement, All God's Chillun Got Wings was printed in the February 1924 issue; Nathan had won the battle, but was to lose the war. In addition to their diverging interests, Mencken claimed that Nathan was not doing his share of the editorial work. It was a matter of time before Mencken approached Alfred Knopf, the Mercury's publisher, with an ultimatum, and Nathan was soon out as co-editor, although he continued to write two columns, "The Theatre" and "Clinical Notes."
The Nathan-Mencken "split" was the reason for Charles Angoff's catapult into the offices of the American Mercury. Mencken became anxious to find someone capable of assisting him with the editorial work. Later Mencken confided to Angoff that of the thousands of applicants for the job, he was the only one with "the good sense" to include samples of his writing.1 Once chosen, Angoff was given only three days of orientation before Mencken left him in charge of the entire operation of that notable magazine to return to his home in Baltimore. A young man, just graduated from Harvard in 1923, Angoff was an intellectual who, like Nathan, had a literary bent, and whose presence on the Mercury, after Nathan's relegation to "The Theatre" and "Clinical Notes" contributions, would serve to offset the heaviness of Mencken's preponderance with politics. Many of the important pieces of literature that saw print on the pages of the Mercury in the early days were, of course, due to Nathan's influence. But there was also an important area in which Angoff had a hand.
Because of the heavy responsibilities that were placed on him (and as time passed he would take an ever-growing share of the editorial burden), Angoff would also be "developing into one of the best managing editors in the country."2 The highly efficient office of the American Mercury was the result of two things: Angoff's diligence and ability, and Mencken's Prussian influence. His first instructions from Mencken on his duties were simple but authoritative. He had twenty-four hours to answer mail and no time to lose in handling manuscripts. As M. K. Singleton notes, Angoff's jobs, the many "hats" he has had to wear, included the following:
Angoff soon learned the facts about the monthly: the buying policy did not permit accumulation of manuscripts, nor was he to buy serial features or essays dealing with … non-American matters; a knowledge of legal restrictions on the republication of the Mercury material was acquired and he soon became familiar with Mencken's habits of arranging the format early every month (the regular mailing date was the fifteenth of every month); most important, he became sensitive to his boss's personal preferences, and he tried assiduously to follow them.3
Angoff had been hired as what Mencken "called 'a slave.' With one, he predicted to Knopf, he could get the business of the magazine done and dispense with Nathan."4 It had been Nathan's refusal to do routine editorial work that had created this opportunity for Angoff, an enormous challenge that he proved capable of meeting.
Mencken was delighted to have Angoff. He now had relief from the oppression of dealing with the six or seven hundred manuscripts that arrived at the Mercury office each month.5 On the third day after Angoff's arrival, Mencken announced that he was leaving New York for his home in Baltimore. If that was not a sufficient enough shock, Mencken also said that he would be gone three or four weeks.6 "'Anyway,' said Mencken, 'the office is yours. I don't want to hear from you unless it's something very urgent. If any masterpieces come in, hold them till you hear from me, but they won't come in.… So you're the general from now on Bye.' And he was off."7 Angoff's natural response was, as he recalled it, that "I was terrified. I worked as I had never worked before."8 Mencken was to be well-satisfied, and in a letter to his friend Phil Goodman on February 4, 1925, he wrote, Angoff "turns out to be very good. He has already relieved me of much of my routine drudgery, and I hope to put even more on him."9 When Mencken returned to New York three weeks later, he praised Angoff for the work he had done and told him he would not only be kept on the Mercury, but that he was asking Knopf to raise his salary.10
In retrospect Angoff remarked, "The reason Mencken took so much from me, was that he needed me. It would have taken four people, at least, to replace me."11
Angoff did almost everything on the magazine. Besides looking through the manuscripts as they came in and rejecting them or passing them on to Mencken when it was warranted, he also wrote to authors with suggestions for manuscript revisions.
I was the first reader of all manuscripts. There were no second or third or fourth readers as on so many magazines, for Mencken said: "A number of readers on a magazine only means that the magazine is overstaffed … that no one of its editors is really competent.… An editor is an editor in all things."12
Angoff was also to write brief reviews for the Mercury's "Check List" of new books. This job, in addition to everything else, was assigned to Angoff within the first three days. Small wonder that he would say, "My head was in a whirl, and I wondered how on earth I could handle what seemed like so complicated an administrative task.…"13 Mencken also gave Angoff the important job of proofreader. Mencken's instructions were: "The proofs—you read them and keep the master proof, for the make-up. I may read some proofs, and I may not. We send proofs to all authors. Add their corrections to your own."14 The responsibility for making certain that there were no typographical or other errors in the final pages of the Mercury was an awesome one, one that was usually handled by several proofreaders on other magazines. Angoff was to become superior in this area of the technical aspects of editing. He would later routinely allow "plenty of time to polish it [the final make-up]—the writing, the layout, the typography, the order of the articles."15 Angoff commented that "one of the things both Mencken and I were especially proud of was the reputation the Mercury had won for its excellent technical editing." An amusing story about how well Angoff would perform this job took place in the Mercury office between Angoff and Mencken. There were only two days before the issue was to go to the printer, and Angoff was anxious to get started. When he pressed him to begin, he was told by Mencken, who was in one of his frequently humorous moods:
I know what you have on your mind, Meester Angoff. You want time to read the proofs again, and give it a final touch. Well, I think we ought to have a couple of typos in the next issue. Pearl [Raymond Pearl, the noted biologist of Johns Hopkins University] was telling me the other day that he spent two whole nights on the last issue looking for a grammatical or typographical mistake. He gave up in disgust and filled himself with English beer, the worst in the world.16
Despite his joking, Mencken felt strongly about the importance of having an editor perform this function instead of a full-time proofreader. He told Angoff that
having a full-time proofreader on a magazine … was worse than a waste of money. It was an assurance of bad proofreading, for [to him] there was more involved in proofreading than checking spelling and typographical errors. A good proofreader, he believed, was ready to violate grammar and "good usage" in order to preserve the author's special flavor and style, and the only one who could be such a proofreader, therefore, was the editor who knew all the reasons why the manuscript was bought and who was eager to preserve those reasons in the printed page.17
In the matter of accepting manuscripts, Mencken and Angoff had a similar arrangement to the one that Nathan and Mencken had adopted, with the exception that Mencken had the final word with regard to Angoff's decisions. However, it is an indication of the respect that Mencken had for Angoff's ability, that he was often able to persuade Mencken to accept an article or story after he had initially refused it. On one point, though, Mencken was relentless. His Prussian insistence on the speedy flow of manuscripts was part of this demand for efficiency. He told Angoff, "Get rid of all manuscripts, one way or another, within a day, never longer than two days. It's impolite to keep anything longer."18
The fact that the important job of reading and selecting manuscripts was relegated to a half a dozen readers on each of such magazines as the Forum, the Century, the Atlantic, and Harper's, was considered "preposterous" by Mencken, notes Angoff. Therefore, full burden for first readership on the American Mercury was thrown on Angoff's shoulders as well. Mencken informed him of this responsibility as follows:
Run through the manuscripts. If you see anything you like real well and think we ought to buy, let me see it, otherwise reject it. Except, of course, stuff that is all right but needs repairing. In that case tell them how you want it repaired. If they come through with an acceptable manuscript, send it on to me. Otherwise, send it back for further repairs.… Most of the manuscripts stink on sight.… If a first reader doesn't know the difference between a good and a lousy manuscript, he should be fired. Every editor should be a potential chief editor, ready to take over on an instant's notice.19
Mencken was right in this respect, and one day Angoff would take over the editorship of the Mercury. This insistence on editorial competence by Mencken is also analogous to Nathan's demand that the dramatic acuity of critics and their knowledge of their craft be such that they should be able to tell the quality of a play "within twenty minutes."
Angoff, who like Nathan had intense literary interests, was responsible for getting "Ballad of the Gallows Bird" by Edwin Markham for the American Mercury. The poem had been "rejected by Mencken before Angoff's arrival,"20 but when he heard of it he contacted Markham by phone and in less than a week he had the poem on his desk. The original piece, if uncut, would have taken "eleven pages in the Mercury."21 Angoff saw approximately twelve stanzas that could be deleted without harming the poem. He says he had to muster his courage to call Markham and suggest the cuts because of his great respect for his work, especially "The Man with the Hoe."22 Angoff was surprised and pleased when Markham agreed to the changes. There still remained the problem of Mencken's approval about printing it, since even after the cuts it would take up ten pages. Angoff informed Markham of the situation, and assured him that he would do everything possible to get that approval. Markham "chuckled and merely said: 'God bless you, young man.'"23
Angoff immediately called Baltimore to tell Mencken. When Mencken "exclaimed" over the length, Angoff said he did a little fibbing to get him to come around. "That's the best I could do," he told Mencken. "I argued and argued with Markham and I had a hell of a time getting him to agree to the cuts. Either we take it now with the cuts, or we send it back."24 Mencken asked Angoff to read several stanzas to him. Then Mencken said, "You'll never be an actor or an elocutionist, my boy, but the stuff has swing to it. All right, buy it. But if he gives you any more trouble, send the damn stuff back to him." Angoff knowingly replied, "He won't."25 In August 1926 "Ballad of the Gallows Bird" was printed in the Mercury, all ten pages of it after editing.26
Because of this little episode, Markham and Angoff became friends—"as much as a man in his early twenties and a man in his sixties could be friends."27 The thought occurred to Angoff that Markham "might have, at the bottom of one of his trunks," some other poetry, or an article that the Mercury would print.28 Mencken gave Angoff the day off, as he had asked, to go to Staten Island to Markham's home. But Mencken warned him not to expect to get any material.
Angoff said that Mencken turned out to be right. Markham, it seems, "preferred to talk about a new religion, Unity, in which he was greatly interested." Then he said, "Young man, … would you like to be saved?#x0022;29 Angoff answered "yes" and Markham replied, "Fine. Give me a dollar, and I'll see you get some fine, inspiring, uplifting literature for a whole year."30 Angoff handed over a dollar and Markham "continued to talk about the glories of Unity."31 Despite Angoff's attempts to return to the subject of Markham's contributing something else to the Mercury, he could not be dissuaded from talking about Unity.
"It is the New Light come to enlighten the world," he said in a quavering voice, "and it is young men like you, with the light of old wisdom in their eyes and the strength of the New Order of Evolution, who must help spread it upon the earth and among the people."32
Angoff began his [writing] career with a boom; his first article, "Boston Twilight," appeared in December 1925. A long-time resident of Boston, he denounced "the cultural poverty of Irish elements in the Hub city and made passing remarks about censorship."33 This article was followed by two others: "The Baptists," in February 1926, and "The Methodists," in April 1926.34 Both were written under the pseudonym James D. Bernard. In "The Methodists" Angoff once again took a crack at the Watch and Ward Society, a group of Boston censors led by the Reverend T. Frank Chase.
Kemler says that Mencken felt that the articles did not do "justice to the subject,"35 but it soon became obvious that they had hit their target. They would produce sufficient ill feeling in Boston to cause the Watch and Ward Society to ban the April issue of the American Mercury and bring legal action because of a story in that number, "Hatrack," which would lend its name to the famous censorship fight known as the "Hatrack" case. Kemler records the incident as follows:
After the December attack, Chase advised his friends that the Mercury was such a filthy magazine that sooner or later he would have to suppress it. After looking at the April attack he soon found the pretext he was looking for. It was "Hatrack," a study of a prostitute. At once he issued the order outlawing the issue.… On March 30 he issued press releases explaining that "Hatrack" was immoral, "unfit to read," "full of filthy and degrading descriptions" … the injustice of the thing fell full upon him [Mencken]. Months before, Mencken had selected "Hatrack" from Herbert Asbury's forth-coming book about his boyhood in Farmington, Missouri.… It ["Hatrack"] ridiculed the evangelists who went through town, railing against imaginary bawdy houses, while it spoke very compassionately about the town's one and only prostitute, called Hatrack because of her figure, who accommodated her customers in the cemetery.36
What happened is now history. Mencken went to Boston, himself, deliberately to be arrested selling an issue on Brimstone Corner to Frank Chase, to dramatize the situation. "By the daring of his defiance, he would attract widespread public attention, rallying a nationwide opposition to the Boston censorship."37 In the trial that then took place, the judge dismissed the case after stating his opinion of the Mercury's April issue: "I have read every article in the magazine … and find them all intellectual and of a serious nature.… I do not find anything in any other article that touches upon sex except 'Hatrack,' but there the subject is not made attractive—in fact the contrary is the case."38 Kemler notes that Mencken was told by a "Knopf Boston book agent that the city's Irish politicians had really been outraged and had become 'anti-Mencken' because of the 'Boston Twilight' article, and the 'Hatrack' story had only been a pretext to confiscate the Mercury."39
The American Mercury and Mencken had won an important and well-publicized victory. But as Angoff later wrote: "The whole case did not sit so well on the literary conscience of the Mercury nor was it very comfortable in his [Mencken's] own mind. There was something shabby and flamboyant about it."40 Mencken had felt that the whole thing had been a mistake; "If you're going to fight the moralists, fight them with something that has high literary value in itself, that you're not ashamed of."41
In the course of Angoff's career on the Mercury, several of his articles would draw intense reactions, both negatively, as the "Boston Twilight" article had, and positively. One article that caused favorable comment and even resulted in his being offered a fabulous job, was "Railroads at Bay," which appeared in January 1928. Angoff considered the piece a "hack job from beginning to end. I wrote it because Mencken asked me to," he said. Soon after its appearance, he was offered a job as a traffic manager by the vice-president of a Southern railroad who had called him long distance.42 He had been so impressed by the knowledge displayed in the article that he wanted Angoff to handle his company's traffic problems. When Angoff explained that the article contained everything that he knew about railroads, the executive still persisted. Angoff refused. Both he and Mencken would laugh over the incident, and Mencken said that "It would have served them right if he [Angoff] had accepted the job."43
In 1930 Angoff had been corresponding with William Faulkner. Early in 1931 Faulkner sent him his short story, "That Evening Sun Go Down." Angoff was "thrilled," but Mencken, who said he saw no sense in Faulkner, refused to publish the story. "It is gibberish," he contended. "My God, the man hasn't the slightest idea of sentence structure or paragraphing."44 Angoff defended the story on the grounds of "its impact, of its weird yet powerful characterization, of its truly magnificent writing."45 In an attempt to over-ride Mencken's objections, Angoff suggested they submit the story to a third party for an opinion. They agreed to have Sara Haardt (a contributor who became Mencken's wife in 1930) read the story, and if she liked it, it would be printed.46 "To Mencken's dismay" and Angoff's delight, Sara liked the story and it was printed in the March 1931 number. This incident has a resemblance to Mencken's and Nathan's dispute back in 1925, about publishing Eugene O'Neill's play All God's Chillun Got Wings. That issue had been mediated, too, but by Alfred Knopf. However, the similarity ends there. The ill will between Mencken and Nathan over the event was to cause Nathan to leave his co-editorship of the Mercury. The situation with Angoff and Mencken was one of friendly dispute, which took on a sense of humor with the mediation by Sara. Although Mencken was surprised at the outcome, no eruption in his and Angoff's relationship occurred as a result.
Mencken would take a last crack at Angoff by suggesting that the first two pages of the story should be cut out.47 Angoff, who left that they should be retained, "left them in and said nothing to Mencken."48 He was "pretty sure that Mencken would not read the proof … [he] took another chance when make-up time came around … [and] suggested that … [they] lead off with the Faulkner story."49 Mencken took the whole thing with good spirits: "Have it your own way," he said. "You have me buffaloed, but you'll pay for this stupidity some day, and your stay in purgatory will be eternal."50
Because of the falling circulation during the depression years, Mencken and Angoff printed a three-part series called "The Worst American State," which appeared in September, October, and November 1931. Angoff says, "The idea for the series was Mencken's."51 However, it was Angoff who did all of the research work, which involved looking up hundreds of statistics on life, death, health, education, incidence of various diseases, and book buying among other things. The first draft was also written by Angoff.52 It was an effort to "enliven the magazine"53 and to lighten its tone during the somber days of the depression. The article concluded that Mississippi was the "worst state." It did not help circulation from falling, but much to Angoff's and Mencken's astonishment, "the series became source material for many important academic studies on sociology."54 In addition, the series was heavily used as source material for the last major book, Mainsprings in Civilization (published in 1945), by Ellsworth Huntington, Yale's late distinguished geographer.55 In fact, five years after it was printed in the Mercury, a New York publisher had wanted to issue the series in book form, but by that time both Mencken and Angoff had lost interest in the project.
There is a statement about the Mercury regarding its source of articles that needs correction. When DeWitt Wallace, who began the Reader's Digest, came to Angoff back in the twenties, he asked if, for a yearly amount, he could have the exclusive right, for a period of three months after an article appeared in the Mercury, to digest whatever he wanted. The author was to get a fee, and so was the Mercury, for each article used.56 Angoff, because he felt sorry for Wallace, said that he would not tie him up legally, but if within a month after an article appeared in the Mercury, he wanted to digest it, he could so do.57
However, in Peterson's Magazines of the Twentieth Century, the following statement appears:
In the mid-thirties, having money enough to commission the sort of nonfiction he wanted, Wallace began offering original articles to other publications in exchange for the right to "condense" and reprint them. Editors of some magazines with small budgets, welcomed articles they could not otherwise afford. A dozen magazines like … the American Mercury … took advantage of this offer.58
This statement is very misleading. Angoff, who was editor of the American Mercury from August 1934 until March 1935, and who had been with the magazine since 1925, denies this statement.59 He said that during the entire time that he was there no such articles were purchased. But Peterson's remark implies that the practice was quite prevalent, and that many articles of this nature went into the Mercury. Perhaps, Angoff noted, when Paul Palmer became editor these articles were received from Wallace, but this was not the case at any time during his stay as managing editor or as editor.
In 1933 Mencken would finally leave the Mercury. He was succeeded as editor by Henry Hazlitt. Hazlitt did not remain on the Mercury long. Within little over a year, in August 1934, Angoff assumed the editorship. Although he was politically liberal during his editorship, Mencken would write, "Angoff took the Mercury far to the Left, and became the hero of all the New York Reds, who regarded the conquest of the American Mercury, with plenty of reason, as a notable feat."60 This, however, was not the case from Angoff's point of view. He said, "I printed articles in defense of the New Deal. And I never printed Mike Gold as Mencken did. In fact, the Communists didn't like me, even though they tried to court me, because I said favorable things about Trotsky."61 In any event, circulation of the Mercury, which had begun a downward swing in 1929, continued to decline. Knopf, who had long wanted to unload the magazine, was given an offer by Paul Palmer, and he sold the Mercury. Angoff left in March 1935.
1 Charles Angoff lecturing at the Theodor Herzl Institute, November 4, 1975.
2 Edgar Kemler, The Irreverent Mr. Mencken (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1950), p. 191.
3 M. K. Singleton, H. L. Mencken and the American Mercury Adventure (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1962), p. 60.
4 Carl Bode, Mencken (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), p. 234.
5 Singleton, Mercury Adventure, p. 59.
6 Charles Angoff, H. L. Mencken: A Portrait from Memory (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, Inc., 1956), p. 29.
9 Singleton, Mercury Adventure, p. 59.
10 Angoff, Portrait, p. 29.
11 Interview with Charles Angoff, May 12, 1973.
12 Angoff, Portrait, p. 186.
13 Ibid., p. 28.
14 Ibid., p. 27.
15 Ibid., p. 38.
17 Ibid., p. 190.
18 Ibid., p. 26.
20 Singleton, Mercury Adventure, p. 80.
21 Angoff, Portrait, p. 91.
26 Singleton, Mercury Adventure, p. 80.
27 Angoff, Portrait, p. 92.
33 Kemler, Irreverent Mencken, p. 192.
35 Ibid., p. 193.
36 Ibid., pp. 193-94.
37 Ibid., p. 194.
38 Ibid., pp. 203-4.
39 Ibid., p. 199.
40 Angoff, Portrait, p. 52.
41 Ibid., p. 53.
42 Ibid., p. 155.
44 Ibid., p. 107.
46 Ibid., p. 108.
51 Ibid., p. 203.
53 Singleton, Mercury Adventure, p. 220.
54 Angoff, Portrait, p. 204.
56 Charles Angoff, The Tone of the Twenties (New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1966), p. 44.
58 Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the Twentieth Century (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1956), p. 215.
59 Interview with Charles Angoff, May 12, 1973.
60 Singleton, Mercury Adventure, pp. 238-39.
61 Interview with Charles Angoff, August 27, 1973.
SOURCE: "Mencken and the Mercury," in Harper's Magazine, v. 201, No. 1203, August, 1950, pp. 65-73.
[In the following essay, Manchester discusses H. L. Mencken's collaboration with George Jean Nathan on the Smart Set, their founding of the American Mercury, and Mencken's contributions to the editorial content and early success of the magazine.]
The end of the first world war found H. L. Mencken climbing over a personal parapet, throwing up a batch of signal flares, and advancing with fixed bayonet into the wacky no man's land which was public life in the nineteen-twenties. The image may not be altogether apt—Mencken detested physical exercise, and a month before the Armistice he had written a friend, with some bitterness, that the draft would probably snare him "despite my asthma, piles, tongue trouble, hay fever, alcoholic liver, weak heels, dandruff, etc."—but it is certainly true that the coming of the new era brought him extraordinary recognition and that he met that recognition more than half-way. The first edition of his American Language (which he called "a heavy indigestible piece of cottage cheese") was a smashing success; everywhere his name was identified with liberating influences, and from the indiscriminate came a chorus of praise and abuse—a chorus which delighted him, though he took it with small seriousness. The center of American cultural gravity had shifted. It had swung toward Mencken. And it sent him, as his most hostile critic put it, off "at a hard gallop, spattered with mud … high in oath."
It was during this period of unrest and change that Mencken's individual and specific impact upon the national letters reached its height. He was still regarded, and still regarded himself, as primarily a literary critic, and the swarms of young and promising authors drew him, more and more frequently, to New York. He remained, on these visits, the hick from Baltimore, but the city was now teeming with hicks who had something to say, and the cosmopolitan tone of the literati, together with the tremendous esteem in which he was now held, served to temper his painful self-consciousness. Alfred Knopf, his publisher, drew his friends together when he was in town, and Mencken's suite at the Algonquin was thrown open to late parties, with illegal hooch and subversive statements carrying the insurgents through until dawn.
George Jean Nathan, back on his feet after a bout with influenza, was as delightful as ever. Together he and Mencken redecorated the walls of their Smart Set office, tacking up a Hoover-for-President poster, a one-sheet of Louis Robie's "Crackerjacks," and a batch of temperance posters Edna Ferber had sent them from Paris. They sent out requests for a gilt chair which would collapse if a fat lady poet sat in it, photographs of the late Czar Nicholas, Bishop Manning, and Lillian Russell (in tights), and a concrete bust of a leading reformer.
When delighted friends responded, the two editors promptly announced for the Republican Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidacies, and they published in their magazine a platform including promises to take the Statue of Liberty out beyond the three-mile limit and dump it, to wear no cutaway coats or plugged hats, to abolish the Y.M.C.A., to establish enormous arenas in which to turn clergymen loose upon one another, and to turn the Philippines over to Japan. Word of the announcement spread, to the indignation of Harding big-wigs, and even in London there was a brief, solemn flurry of interest over the "surprise candidates." In the New York Sun, Berton Braley pretty well summed up the attitude of their contemporaries to all this in the opening lines of his satirical "Mencken, Nathan, and God":
There were three who sailed away one night
Far from the maddening throng
And two of the three were always right
And everyone else was wrong
But they took another along, these two,
To bear them company,
For He was the only One ever knew
Why the other two should be.
And so they sailed away, these three—
No issue was serious to them, no figure exempt from the harlequinade. Every topic of importance, it seemed, wound up on the vaudeville stage as a sort of burlesque of itself. Nathan, who loved the theater, and Mencken, who hated it, spent much time defending their respective positions, but when the difference reached the dignity of debate, it was slapped down mightily by Nathan. He had, that season, discovered a play by Dario Niccodemi which, in sheer awfulness, surpassed anything ever seen on the New York stage. Indeed, so terrible was the performance that, fascinated, he sat through the last curtain. Back at his apartment in the Royalton Hotel he wrote Mencken, with great seriousness, that however much a man might dislike the theater, he should not miss the greatest drama since Ibsen's debut. Mencken was doubtful, but if Nathan said so.…
Up he came to New York, dressed to kill for the great occasion. Nathan tipped off John Williams, then Charles Frohman's right-hand man, and the three took a box at the Morosco. Mencken was placed in the center. There he sat, bolt upright, looking, as Nathan told him later, like Harding, while his hosts, during the performance, murmured ecstatically to one another, "Oh, this scene!" …"Isn't it tremendous?" …"What a speech!" etc. Mencken at first said nothing—Nathan was a drama critic, he ought to know—but as the farce wore on, he protested over and over again, more and more loudly, "Pishposh!" At the very end, he caught on, eyed Nathan and Williams with great severity, and lustily croaked. "PISHPOSH!" And the dignified debate was over.
Mencken's reputation, like himself, was most stimulated among other aliens in New York or among writers in other parts of the country. His New York friends, like Mencken, were strangers to Broadway; in New York they might cavort, free from the taboos of the home town. His most enthusiastic followers lived in the provinces, and their number seemed to increase in direct proportion to the ridicule directed at rural regions. All over America the reaction against patriotism had set in, and if the local boomers fumed when a specific locale was singled out for Smart Set abuse, the local literati flourished. No more violent attack was printed in these years than the "Sahara of the Bozart," and none stirred up greater enthusiasm among Southern poets. The South, Mencken wrote, was "that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities, and paralyzed cerebrums … that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate" which stretched, "a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence," between "senile" Virginia and "crass gross, vulgar, and obnoxious" Georgia. Contemplating its letters, Mencken thought of "Asia Minor, resigned to the Armenians, Greeks, and wild swine, of Poland abandoned to the Poles."
As Mencken's popularity zoomed, he devoted his social energies to cultivating and whooping up the young talent which had sought out the Smart Set. Characteristically, he met the new excitement with great industry and incessant grumbling. He acknowledged that "a hundred thousand second-hand Coronas rattle and jingle in ten thousand remote and lonely towns, and the mail of every magazine editor is as heavy as the mail of a get-rich-quick stockbroker," but the manuscripts pouring in from every direction, he wrote to a friend, were "mainly crap." It may be that he actually thought so, but if so, his interests had suddenly and completely turned to the soliciting, reading, and purchasing of crap. Every young man who approached either Mencken or Nathan was cordially received and his talents thoroughly investigated. When a bacteriologist named Paul de Kruif sat down one afternoon in the old Hotel Pontchartrain in Detroit and wrote Mencken, asking if he could combine science and writing, he was invited to the Smart Set for succor. When a playwright named Eugene O'Neill timidly ventured to cross recognized dramatic horizons, his plays were printed and he was urged to go still further. And when three young Princeton graduates—John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—stormed the Royalton one morning after the war, they were wined, victualed, and warned by Nathan that failure to submit stories to the magazine would be taken as a personal affront. It was this same critical tutelage, given the first faltering steps of nearly every major writer of the twenties, which accounts for Mencken's elevation to critical sainthood by the first war generation. For almost a decade there was scarcely a major writer in the country who did not trace his career from a first acceptance by the Smart Set.
Mencken and Nathan still avoided literary parties, partly because of the people they drew, but also because they had no time for such frivolity. In the first year after the war, they were lured to but one such affair. It turned out to be the most ghastly experience of their careers to date—and by all odds the most profitable. Tom Smith of the Century insisted they drop by "just for one drink." Mencken complained vigorously in the cab, and as soon as the door opened he knew he had made a dreadful mistake.
They were greeted by a tall, skinny redhead, obviously quite drunk, who wrapped one arm around Mencken's neck and another around Nathan's. Resistance was quite useless; he had them by the esophagi, and as Nathan groaned and Mencken grunted pitifully, this apparition from another planet yelled into their flinching eardrums, "So you guys are critics, are you? Well, let me tell you something. I'm the best goddam writer in this here goddam country and if you, Georgie, and you, Hank, don't know it, you'll know it goddam soon. Say …"
There was no escape, at least not for the present. While Smith shrugged and the other guests, amused, looked on, the summit of their fears held forth on his own abilities and the necessity for favorable notice in the Smart Set. At the end of a half hour the door of the flat opened and Mencken and Nathan, wild-eyed, fled down the stairs and into the first cab that passed, sympathizing with one another and vowing never again to come within shouting distance of Smith's place.
But their troubles with "the louse," as Mencken called their persecutor for want of a name, were not over. Next morning, dropping by the office on his way back to Baltimore, Mencken was amazed to find the proofs of a novel, together with a note from the publisher, thanking him for the praise he had allegedly bestowed on the author at Smith's party. Disgusted, he was about to toss the sheets in the wastebasket when he suddenly remembered he had nothing to read on the train. In Jersey City he became interested. In Philadelphia he was fascinated, and back at Hollins Street that afternoon he excitedly wrote Nathan: "Grab hold of the bar-rail, steady yourself, and prepare for a terrible shock! I've just read the advance sheets of the book by that lump we met at Schmidt's and, by God, he has done the job! It's a genuinely excellent piece of work. I begin to believe that perhaps there isn't a God after all. There is no justice in the world."
The novel, as many will have guessed, was Main Street; the redhead, Sinclair Lewis. His performance that first night had not been out of character, but Mencken had learned to be tolerant with men of talent, and once he and Nathan had extracted a promise to "keep your goddam hands off our goddam necks," they got along famously. Between them, on Mencken's visits to New York, they gave bar patrons as bizarre a show in the perversion of American mores as even that jaded audience had ever seen, with Mencken quoting from Prohibition pamphlets and Lewis delivering a lecture on the merits of Rotary or a sermon on the beauty of the Church of God. By January of 1922, Lewis was looking to Mencken for critical tutelage. "You ask about the new novel—which won't be out till next September," he wrote from London:
It's curiously associated with yourself. A year ago in a criticism of Main Street you said that what ought to be taken up now is the American city—not NY or Chi but the cities of 200,000 to 500,000—the Baltimores and Omahas and Buffalos and Birminghams, etc. I was startled to read it because that was precisely what I was then planning, and am now doing. But your piece helped me to decide on this particular one as against one or two others which, at the time, I also wanted to do.
I think you'll like it—I hope … you do. All our friends are in it—the Rotary Club, the popular preacher, the Chamber of Commerce, the new bungalows, the bunch of business men jolliers lunching at the Athletic Club. It ought to be at least 2000% American, as well as forward-looking, right-thinking, optimistic, selling the idea of success, and go-getterish.
The central character is a Solid Citizen, one George F. Babbitt, real estate man, who has a Dutch Colonial house out on Floral Heights.…
For some time Mencken had been anxious to get rid of the Smart Set. For one thing, the title was distasteful. To him and, he felt, to many of his readers, it meant a fashion magazine. Since the days when he and Nathan had dreamed of a periodical to be called the Blue Review, he had nursed plans for a new magazine with an American motif, and when Knopf brought up the idea on his own hook, Mencken fairly seethed with enthusiasm. There was but one obstacle. He found Nathan, who was little interested in Mencken's talk of a periodical dealing with the political ramifications of the national scene such ramifications, lukewarm. Literary and artistic interests were quite enough for him, and he viewed as alarming Mencken's increasing absorption with things political. Knopf was acceptable—eminently acceptable—as a publisher, but if Knopf wanted a magazine, why couldn't it be the Smart Set? Mencken, doubtful, approached Knopf, and Knopf, after huddling with his father, business manager of the firm, returned their verdict. It was No. A new magazine or none was Knopf's position, and Nathan, somewhat dubious, was drawn into the scheme.
Nor were Nathan's doubts his alone. Knopf had seen, as Mencken had not, the growing breach between the editorial enthusiasms of of the two editors, and a new politically minded magazine, he believed, would be best edited by Mencken alone. But Mencken's sense of loyalty balked at this. Nathan had always been with him, and, he vowed, Nathan always would be. There had to be two editors for the new project, and they had to be Mencken and Nathan. Thus it was that two of the three sponsors for the Smart Set's heir—Nathan and Knopf—went into the inaugural conference with grave misgivings.
The first squabble developed over a name. Mencken and Nathan liked the Blue Review, probably for sentimental reasons, but Knopf vetoed it. Then a long series of prospective titles was proposed: the Twentieth Century, the Capitol, the Defender, the Sovereign, the Regent, the Chancellor, the Portfolio, the Pendulum, the Other Man's Monthly, the Gray Monthly, the Colonnade, the Inter-Continental Review, the Athenaeum, the Colonial Review, and the New Review. Finally, Nathan suggested the American Mercury. Mencken protested at once; it would, he argued, be interpreted as an imitation of the London Mercury, the Mercure de France, or the Mercurio Peruano. Knopf, however, voted for the American Mercury, and the American Mercury it became.
Next came the problem of the Smart Set. Before any sort of contract could be written between the publisher and his editors, Mencken and Nathan must first get rid of their Smart Set stock. Hearst was approached, but refused to buy. Mencken suspected that he was really interested, however, and an ingenious scheme was devised. The stock was sold to a friend, with the understanding that if Hearst would buy within a year, the editors should share in the proceeds. Sure enough: in a few months, Hearst was nibbling. He bought the Smart Set and turned it over to a sub-editor, who for six years turned out a sleazy product. This done, Mencken and Nathan signed with Knopf, assuming complete editorial responsibility and the ownership of one third of the magazine. Offices were to be at Knopf's at 730 Fifth Avenue.
Throughout 1923 Mencken and Nathan shaped the details, conferring with Knopf over problems of typography and format and writing prospective contributors, asking for manuscripts which might fit the tone of the Mercury. The magazine, designed by Elmer Adler, was to be green-backed; the type, Garamond—again, over objections from Mencken, who was afraid it would look "too damned Frenchy." Letters went out each week to such men as Upton Sinclair, Dreiser, Hergesheimer, Gerald W. Johnson, Gamaliel Bradford, Jim Tully, a newcomer to the Smart Set, and Dr. Raymond Pearl of Baltimore, whom Mencken then knew only as one of the scientific writers he was patronizing. Later, as Pearl contributed more and more frequently to the Mercury he became one of Mencken's closest friends, but in August he was simply "Dear Dr. Pearl":
I am preparing to set up a new monthly review in New York, and turn to you in the hope that you may be interested in it.… I am trying to get together a group of collaborators who at least know their subjects and may be depended upon to tell the truth as they see it. For example, Lowie in anthropology, Chafee and Pound in law, Grant La Farge in architecture, Watson in psychology, and so on.…
To Sinclair [Lewis] he wrote more frankly:
I shall try to cut a rather wide swathe with it, covering politics, economics, the exact sciences, etc., as well as belles-lettres and the other fine arts.… You know me well enough to know that there will be no quarter for the degraded cads who now run the country. I am against you and the Liberals because I believe you chase butterflies, but I am even more against your enemies.
Certain features were carried over from the Smart Set: the collection of "Americana," Mencken's literary article, Nathan's drama criticism, and the column of observations on the human comedy, written by Mencken and Nathan in the Smart Set under the heading "Répétition Générale," henceforth to be known as "Clinical Notes" and written by Nathan alone. It was a time which augured well for infant publications—the Reader's Digest was founded in 1922, Time in 1923, and the New Yorker in 1925—and Mencken and Nathan were full of high hope as they put the finishing touches on the first issue.
It was hope well justified. The opening number, for January 1924, came out just before Christmas, and was swept off the news-stands. By December 28 they were on the presses with the second edition of the number, and Knopf excitedly sent Mencken word from New York that the circulation department was already 670 subscriptions behind. "Knopf has bought thirty new yellow neckties," Mencken wrote a friend, "and has taken a place in Westchester County to breed Assyrian wolf-hounds."
Within a month the issue had been reprinted a second time and the February number was headed for a twenty-five-thousand circulation—this in a fifty-cent magazine which its editors had never expected to go over twenty thousand. So rapidly did the subscription lists mount that the printers, who had taken credit for the first new numbers, were paid off at once and the Mercury, in effect, had financed itself. Nor was the end in sight. An average monthly circulation of 38,697 in 1924 soared to 77,921 in 1926, and never dropped below sixty-five thousand until the Depression. Knopf's business department, stunned at first, immediately plunged into advertising in the big cities, whence most of the subscribers came, and in the college towns, where circulation seemed to approximate population. Mencken was delighted. "Prayer still has its old power," he wrote Carl Van Doren.
In The Mercury office he was regarded with a mixture of awe, respect, and affection. Knopf had set aside a tiny room for the magazine, and this was divided by a partition, with Mencken, Nathan, and Edith Lustgarten, their editorial secretary, on one side, and ten advertising and circulation workers on the other. These ten worked at extremely close quarters, huddled among great piles of figures, bills, and copy layouts, and to reach the editors visitors had to step warily between them. Once through to the other side of the partition, they found a bare and only slightly less crowded closet furnished by three desks and the great brass spittoon Mencken had rescued from his gaudy Smart Set quarters.
To this office he now came on his periodic visits to New York, which began Monday morning and extended through Wednesday afternoon. All outstanding business in the editorial offices was settled Monday. Letters were dictated, and the few authors who had to be seen were interviewed. As a general rule, he and Nathan avoided the company of writers outside the office, and lunch hours and evenings were spent with old friends. Often, just as Mencken had settled down to some particularly absorbing editorial chore at the Mercury, the phone would ring: Knopf, anxious to show off his prize dog, had a distinguished visitor in his office. Mencken would swear a bloody oath—part of Miss Lustgarten's necessary equipment, she had been told, was a pair of asbestos ears—and after methodically washing his hands he would trot off to the front office.
To his desk each day came between fifty and sixty letters, from authors, aspiring authors, admirers, and, more often, assailants of the Mercury. "I have just read your magazine, and it certainly is nothing I would want my fourteen-year-old daughter to read" a matron would write; or, "If you don't like the good old U. S. A., the boats are still sailing for Russia, buddy." At first, their terrific labor brought the editors small financial return; despite the Mercury's soaring circulation, the initial expenses soaked up most of the income, and Mencken found himself working at a frantic pace with little difference to his bank book save the money drawn out for New York trips. "The increasing business of the American Mercury is working me to death," he wrote Gamaliel Bradford. "I find that I am now a business man in active practice, with many of the duties that also belong to the pants business." The 1924 Democratic convention, which he spent sweating naked in a New York hotel room, furiously editing Mercury articles between Baltimore Evening Sun editions, nearly broke his health, and he began to cast around for help.
He found it in a wide-eyed young product of the Boston slums, fresh out of Harvard and full of desire to crash the magazine business. Charles Angoff had submitted examples of his work to a number of magazines, the Mercury among them. A correspondence with Mencken prospered, they met in New York, and ultimately he was offered the job of assistant editor. It was a bid half of young intellectual America might have snapped at, and Angoff took it without a question. Twenty-four hours later, he found himself, terrified and confused, in complete charge of the magazine: Mencken, sick of routine, had introduced him to the office staff and then blithely left for Baltimore on the next train. Angoff's only instructions were to answer all letters the day they arrived and to return all manuscripts within twenty-four hours. There was, he had been told, no excuse for not doing either.
Angoff proved capable, however, and henceforth he handled most of the correspondence and made up each month's issue. In matters of detail, he found, Mencken was completely irresponsible; indeed, his irresponsibility was at times alarming. When, during his first weeks on the Mercury, Angoff received a formal request for the magazine's circulation, and asked Mencken what it was, he was told it hovered at two hundred twenty-five thousand. The information was sent out; then he looked it up and came back to Mencken on the run.
"It's under fifty thousand," he gasped. "Why did you say that?"
"Well," said Mencken, with a nonchalant flip of his Uncle Willie cigar, "It's a good round figure."
His Mercury work, as with the Smart Set, was done at Mencken's Hollins Street home in Baltimore. There he solicited and received manuscripts and there his critical articles and editorials were written. He remained, as always, the delight of authors exasperated with the cavalier manner of editors. Rarely was a manuscript held over three days, and before it went into the magazine, the author was given the opportunity to inspect the proofs for error. His consideration for contributors was remarkable. If, reading a manuscript, he thought it might be sold to a magazine paying more money, the author was so advised, and Mencken offered to withdraw. Stories of promise which, for various reasons, did not suit the Mercury were returned with notes suggesting magazines they did suit.
In return for this, Mencken asked his contributors to bear with him through several revisions of each manuscript before it saw print.
"When it goes into the American Mercury," he wrote Jim Tully after the nth rewriting of an article, "I want it to be perfect"—by which he meant an integral part of the expression of his personality which the magazine had come to be. Twenty years before, as city editor of the Baltimore Morning Herald, he had written new leads until the managing editor had ordered him to stop; now, with no managing editor over him, he rewrote incessantly, inserting the word or phrase which gave the piece the proper salting of Menckenese. Titles were changed constantly ("The Decline of the Negro Churches" became "Black America Begins to Doubt") for this same reason, and no suggestion for a projected article went out without detailed instructions for its writing.
Back the manuscripts would go, again and again, with notes describing Mencken's bouts with his editorial conscience, usually beginning, "My eyes are streaming with tears as I write, but the bald fact remains … ," and winding up with an embellished request for another try. In the end, authors generally got the idea: everything which came under Mencken's pencil had to have something of him in it before it could get his stamp of approval. If it did not, the author wound up with the original story and the short note:
Mr. Mencken has just entered a Trappist monastery at Gethsemane, Ky., and left strict orders that no mail was to be forwarded. I am returning the enclosed for your archives.
Sincerely yours, Edith Lustgarten
Such editorial conduct would have been irritating had it not succeeded so enormously. What his readers were buying, after all, was Mencken, and if the contents had strayed far from his interests, they would have doubtless been as disappointed as would he. The scraps of "Americana" printed each month—sweet tributes to Edgar A. Guest; news items of ministers wearing black ties presented by silk manufacturers, singing "Blest Be the Tie That Binds," and offering to eat their straw hats if the word of God were proven untrue—were surely not representative of America. They were representative only of the editor's absorption and of the vital, iconoclastic personality he was vending. Open a copy of the Mercury for these years—say that for December 1924—and you find his stamp on virtually every page: in the essay on Bryan by Edgar Lee Masters; in the study of the jury system; in the article on patent medicine and fake food tonics; in the report on letters to congressmen by their constituents; in the James M. Cain attack on the blowziness of statesmen; in the notes on the Ku Klux Klan, on Dr. Frank Crane, on journalism, on the ancient Greeks.
Was it a one-man magazine? Not quite—not yet. Nathan still wrote his monthly theater article and the "Clinical Notes" department; to it he still brought authors who were his special proteges. But more and more, as Mencken threw himself into the enterprise with all of his unbelievable energy, it became a product of the peculiar maelstrom which he had created, and in which he now lived. Through its pages each month he brawled and bellowed with the gusto of a Norfolk whore, the finesse of a Spanish fencer, and the independence of a Maine farmer. "The news that the American Mercury is 'lacking in constructive points of view' is surely not news to me," he wrote Upton Sinclair in answer to criticism. "If any such points of view ever get into it, it will only be over my mutilated and pathetic corpse. The uplift has damn nigh ruined the country. What we need is more sin."
Significantly, perhaps, Sinclair, who was one of the Mercury's sharpest critics, was also one of its greatest benefactors. Like many an established writer who disagreed with Mencken's basic tenets, he was moved to admiration for the tremendous energy and positiveness of his editorship, and so sent him the names of deserving young writers who crossed his horizons.
It was this channeling of raw talent toward Baltimore, combined with Mencken's sharp eye for merit in unsolicited manuscripts, which brought to the magazine so high a level of writing. As a quality magazine unafraid to make the common man respectable, the Mercury was working in a virgin field, and hence was untroubled by competition. Stories by jailbirds on penitentiaries, by prostitutes on whoredom, by vagrants on how to bum a meal—all found an eager reader in Mencken. From Ernest Booth, behind bars, came "A Texas Road Gang," "We Rob a Bank," "I Face a Jury of My Peers," and "Ladies of the Mob"; from Robert Tasker, another convict, came "The First Day." Rightists, Leftists, geniuses, boobs—if they could write, it was enough. There was room for them between the Paris-green covers of the American Mercury.
Yet the most distinguishing characteristic of the Mercury, which gave it its very special flavor and for which it is best remembered, was not the quality of its contributions, not even the saucily edited articles on the Klan and the Babbitts, but the pieces from Mencken's own pen. While he tenderly cultivated budding talent and spread himself with courteous gestures before all authors, this other side of Mencken—this curious combination of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Thomas Jefferson, and Main Street—thundered closer and closer, as the twenties grew older, to an absolute in philosophical nihilism never before approached in America.
His stupendous gift for invective had now reached heights so incredible, so breath-taking, so awe-inspiring, so terrible in its indictment of the national culture that it wrung monthly gasps from sixty thousand readers and porcupined the hair of intellectuals, army officers, bond salesmen, and garage mechanics in St. Paul, St. Louis, St. Joseph, and St. Cloud. How could so violent a hymn of hate be sung so jubilantly?
The normal American of the "pure-blooded" majority goes to rest every night with the uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed, and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen.
Of the farmer:
No more grasping, selfish, and dishonest mammal, indeed, is known to students of the anthropoidea; he deserves all that he suffers under our economic system and more.
Of the war:
That combat was carried on, at least from this side of the fence, in a grossly hysterical, disingenuous, cowardly, and sordid manner.
The church itself, as it has grown more sordid and swinish, has only grown more prosperous.
Of the yearning of yokels to put down culture:
They dream of it behind the egg-stove on winter nights, their boots off, their socks scorching, Holy Writ in their hands. They dream of it as they commune with Bos taurus, Sus scrofa, Mephitis mechitis, the Methodist pastor, the Ford agent. It floats before their eyes as they scan the Sears Roebuck catalogue for horse liniment, porous plasters, and Bordeaux mixture … This Utopia haunts and tortures them, they long to make it real. They have tried prayer, and it has failed; now they turn to the secular arm. The dung-fork glitters in the sun as the host prepares to march.…
And as he howled across the union, month after month, back came the answering refrain, from delighted college students, from posturing preachers, from disillusioned intellectuals, from infuriated matrons of the D. A. R.:
H. L. Mencken!
"He is one of the smart type who, having no constructive ability and lacking in depth—to judge from his writings—directs his energies to undermining and pulling down. His magazine misrepresents in the interest of the anarchists, supports subversive movements, and is widely circulated among the Reds." Thus Representative Blanton in Congress.
At George Washington University, students debated whether the Mercury or Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was the more stimulating. In the vote, Mencken won by a yokel.
H. L. Mencken!
In Los Angeles, Dr. Remsen D. Bird, president of Occidental College, stormed, "Mencken's opinions are unsound, immoral, and un-American."
The Reverend John Roach Stratton, addressing four hundred students at Harvard, compared Bryan to Gladstone and opened an attack on Mencken. He was heckled to a halt by boys waving green-backed magazines. "Why are there lightning rods on church steeples?" shouted a sophomore. "God expects people to use their heads," stammered Stratton.
H. L. Mencken!
"These literary poseurs, Harold [sic] L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, mean little in the busy lives of 100,000 Rotarians," declared Alexander MacFarlane, international director of Rotary. "These highbrow writers attack Rotary because of its popularity, and it is their motto to attack everything that is popular."
In the Saturday Review of Literature, Walter Lippmann called him "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people."
H. L. Mencken!
"The buzzard of American literature says that 'one bold and intelligent editor could save Mississippi from the blight of Fundamentalism,'" wrote Frederick Sullens in the Jackson, Mississippi, News. "It is only wild-eyed, loud-mouthed jackasses like Mencken who seek to destroy mankind's faith in the fundamentals of Christianity."
Co-ed debating teams from Stanford and the University of California argued the question of whether Mencken was fit to associate with nice people. They decided he was.
H. L. Mencken!
"If a buzzard had laid an egg in a dunghill and the sun had hatched a thing like Mencken," cried the Reverend Dr. Charles E. Jones in the Gospel Call, "the buzzard would have been justly ashamed of its offspring."
In the Peninsula Daily Herald of Monterey, California, appeared the advertisement: "Wanted—Young woman would like position as housekeeper for single gentleman of simple tastes. Subscriber to the American Mercury preferred."
And throughout the Republic, in shabby Kansas city-rooms, one-building colleges, and brokers' offices; along San Francisco docks, Main Street drug counters, and Broadway bars; behind Vermont barns, stockyard fences, and Westchester hedges; in twenty-room mansions and one-room shacks; under chandeliers and freight cars—wherever thoughtful men rebelled against the brassy, shoddy atmosphere of a Model-T culture—the name became a challenge and a talisman:
H. L. MENCKEN!
Johnny L. Kloefkorn
SOURCE: "An Introduction to the Mercury," in Emporia State Research Studies, v. 7, No. 4, June, 1959, pp. 5-47.
[In the following essay, Kloefkorn offers a detailed description of the history and contents of the American Mercury, examining H. L. Mencken's role as literary editor and analyzing his achievement as a literary critic through book reviews published in the American Mercury.]
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE MERCURY
Daffy-Down-Dilly has come up to town,
In a yellow petticoat, and a green gown.
The yellow-hued mood of melancholy and disillusionment which settled over the nation's literature following World War I had just begun to assert itself when, in late December of 1923, the first issue of the green-backed American Mercury, dated January, 1924, appeared. The editors of this new periodical, as the large black print on the cover made clear, were H. L. Mencken and his associate of long-standing, George Jean Nathan. The publisher was New York City's Alfred A. Knopf, a man with whom Mencken had been connected since 1917, when Knopf published Mencken's A Book of Prefaces. Planned as a quality magazine that would appeal to only a small group of intellectuals, the Mercury surprised its editors by being immediately received with enthusiasm and acclaim throughout the country. William R. Manchester, Mencken's biographer, vividly described the event:
The opening number … was swept off the news-stands. By December 28 they were on the presses with the second edition of the issue, and Knopf excitedly sent Mencken word from New York that the circulation department was already 670 subscriptions behind. Within a month the number had been reprinted a second time and the February issue was headed for a twenty-five-thousand circulation—this in a fifty-cent magazine which its editors never expected to go over twenty thousand. So rapidly did the subscription lists mount that the printers, who had taken credit for the first few numbers, were paid off at once and the Mercury, in effect, had financed itself.1
With this encouraging beginning, the Mercury was soon firmly established in the top ranks of the quality periodicals of the day, and the coeditors were jubilant.2 Actually, however, Mencken had been planning the Mercury for some time. While he and Nathan served as joint editors of The Smart Set (1914-23), Mencken had nurtured the thought of founding a new magazine "to give American intellectuals of the Twenties the magazine for which they were yearning."3 In the main, The Smart Set was concerned with art and literature, and Mencken, by that time, wanted a vehicle through which he could voice his opinions about things political, as well as literary. Returning from a trip to Europe early in 1923, Mencken found Knopf willing to take the step.4 Since Mencken and Nathan had been partners for so long, there was little question but that they should continue as such in the new enterprise. However, Nathan, unconcerned with politics and quite content to deal exclusively with the literary aspects of the American scene, was skeptical.5 Nevertheless, he accompanied Mencken into the new project, despite his lack of enthusiasm. But the partnership was doomed to be short-lived, for Nathan's distaste for the political carnival that Mencken loved so well soon pulled him away from the editorial responsibilities, and, a year after the magazine appeared, Nathan withdrew and Mencken became its sole pilot. After that time, Nathan merely contributed theatre reviews and wrote a department called "Clinical Notes"; Mencken was then free to direct the magazine as he chose.
Once Knopf had agreed to speculate on the Mercury, Mencken and Nathan were kept busy making preparations and decisions about the content of the magazine. Throughout 1923, they discussed the formation of the periodical with Knopf, and wrote numerous letters to their friends in an attempt to solicit manuscripts for the new publication.6 Several of the departments that they placed in the Mercury were carried over from The Smart Set.7 Thus the final version of the Mercury was a blending of the old and the new.
The aims of the Mercury were outlined in an editorial in the first issue, which stated that the editors were "committed to … keep the common sense as fast as they can, to belabor sham as agreeably as possible, to give a civilized entertainment."8 The intent was to direct the magazine to the "Forgotten Man—that is, the normal, educated, well-disposed, unfrenzied, enlightened citizen of the middle minority."9 As for belles lettres, the editors would
welcome sound and honest work, whatever its form or lack of form, and carry on steady artillery practise against every variety of artistic pedant and mountebank. They [the editors] belong to no coterie and have no aesthetic theory to propagate. They do not believe that a work of art has any purpose beyond that of being charming and stimulating, and they do not believe that there is much difficulty, taking one day with another, about distinguishing clearly between the good and the not good.10
The plan, in reference to fiction, was to include "one or two short stories in each issue, such occasional short plays as will merit print, some verse (but not much), and maybe a few other things, lying outside the categories."11 Book reviews were to cover only those works which the editors chose to comment upon.12 All in all, the primary aim was "to attempt a realistic presentation of the whole gaudy, gorgeous American scene."13 and to "ascertain and tell the truth,"14 hoping, meanwhile, "to introduce some element of novelty into the execution of an enterprise so old."15
These were the aims of the Mercury when it entered the arena in late 1923, dressed in a Paris-green cover, and filled with the things that the young intellectuals had, judging from its immediate popularity, been thirsting for.
The original format of the Mercury, conceived by Mencken, Nathan, and Knopf in 1923, was changed very little during Mencken's ten years with the magazine. It was designed by Elmer Adler and printed in Garamound type.16 The first issue of the magazine carried, in addition to the main body which encompassed essays, articles, short stories, plays, poetry, an editorial, and various other unclassifiable pieces from contributors, eight special sections, or departments. These were labeled "Americana," "The Arts and Sciences," "Clinical Notes," "The Theatre," "The Library," "The American Mercury Authors," "Check List of New Books," and "Editorial Notes." Some comment about the purpose and general content of each of these departments follows:
"Americana"—In this section of the magazine, several pages (usually three, four, or five) were devoted to a recording of brief excerpts which Mencken culled from newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, and various other sources. Primarily humorous in content, the excerpts were chosen to illustrate a multitude of shenanigans, absurdities, and imbecilities which showed up in the nation's provincial press. Mencken listed the quotations alphabetically, by states, and wrote a short introductory paragraph for each. Typical of the entries in this department were the following two concerning the state of Kansas:
From resolutions adopted by the Lyon county W.C.T.U.:
Passages in Mother Goose which mention tobacco or alcoholic beverages should not be read by children, and songs which mention tobacco should not be tolerated at state music contests.17
Marvel reported by the alert Fredonia Herald:
A hog bit part of John Eisenbrandt's left thumb off Monday while Eisenbrandt was engaged in putting a ring in the hog's nose on his farm near Fort Scott. Whether it was the quickness of the bite or the sharpness of the animal's teeth is not known, but it is a fact, acording to Eisenbrandt, that he did not know that the hog had bit him until he chanced to look down and saw the end of his thumb was missing. It was the sound of the hog's teeth clinking together that caused him to look down.18
Mencken made no comments about the material he inserted in "Americana"; the items were allowed to speak for themselves.
"The Arts and Sciences"—Included in this department were articles of varying lengths by authorities in the scientific fields. Discussions of almost every recognized scientific subject—chemistry, astronomy, medicine, and the like—were placed under this heading. For instance, the first issue carried articles dealing with architecture, medicine, and philology, and covered a total of nine pages. The number of pages given over to the section varied slightly with each issue.
"Clinical Notes"—This section began as a joint enterprise by Mencken and Nathan, and it remained in the periodical until February, 1930. However, the department was written exclusively by Nathan after 1925. The articles in the section ranged in size from lengthy essays to brief, three- or four-line witticisms, and the discussions dealt with everything from advice to bachelors ("Toward men, ever an aristocrat; toward women, ever a commoner—that way lies success."19) to tracts on hedonism. An entry which captures the mood of the section:
Text for a Wall-Card—It is lucky for a young woman to be just a bit homely. The fact helps her to get a good husband, and, what is harder, to keep him after she has got him. The flawless beauty has no durable joy in this life save looking in the glass, and even this departs as she oxidizes. Men, knowing her intolerable vanity, are afraid of her, and, if snared into marriage with her, always look for the worst.20
"The Theatre"—Covering the whole panorama of the New York stage, Nathan wrote this section each month until February, 1930. Here he commented on every conceivable facet of the drama as it was then conducted in New York.
"The Library"—In this section, Mencken reviewed one or more books each month, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups according to subject. Other reviewers had a hand in the section for the first few issues of the magazine, but this practice was soon discontinued, and thereafter, Mencken wrote all of the reviews.…
"The American Mercury Authors"—Appearing on the final page of the magazine, this department contained brief, one-paragraph notes about the authors whose works were printed in that particular issue of the magazine. Various bits of information concerning the author's life and writings were included in these informal discussions.
"Check List of New Books"—This department was placed with the advertisements at the end of the magazine, and included short comments about many new books and reprints.
"Editorial Notes"—Also placed with the advertisements in the latter pages of the Mercury, this section was utilized by Mencken to air topics which consisted, in the main, of comment about the publication of the magazine—circulation, editorial policy, contributors, and so forth.
Advertisements were confined to the outside pages of the Mercury, and were printed on slicker, better quality paper than was the integral portion of the magazine. As mentioned previously, few alterations were made by Mencken in the format of the magazine during the decade. Beginning in January, 1931, he introduced a section called "Music," and this department, consisting of discussions of that phase of the fine arts by outside contributors, continued to appear throughout the remainder of that year. The name of the department was changed to "The Music Room" in January, 1932, and its purpose was much the same as that of its predecessor. However, "The Music Room" survived for only a few months, and was dropped from the magazine in September, 1932. Another section, called "The Soap Box," became a part of the Mercury in October, 1932. Here Mencken printed letters from readers, along with subscribers' queries and their answers. The plan allowed the readers a portion of the magazine wherein they could contact other readers to make requests for all types of relatively obscure information. Outside of the addition of these innovations and the loss of Nathan's contributions, only insignificant changes were wrought on the Mercury. Toward the end of his editorship, Mencken discontinued writing his usual editorial, and substituted for it a monthly article called "What's Going on the World." This article served as the lead story in several of the last issues, but its tone and general contents differed little from that of the editorials.
By far, the majority of the Mercury's space was allotted to articles dealing with some segment of American life. A glance at the Mercury for those years attests to the heterogeneous nature of the articles which Mencken selected to bring before his readers. Manchester discussed the matter as follows:
As a quality magazine unafraid to make the common man respectable, the Mercury was working in a virgin field, and hence was untroubled by competition. Stories by jailbirds on penitentiaries, by prostitutes on whoredom, by vagrants on how to bum a meal—stories which could never have got beyond the slush heaps in the Atlantic Monthly or Harper's—found an eager reader in Mencken.21
Since so many pages were given over to the articles and departments, only a relatively small amount of space was granted to the publication of imaginative prose and verse—less than ten percent of the Mercury was allowed to belles lettres.
The overall size of the Mercury was ten by seven and one-half inches, and was priced at fifty cents a copy or five dollars a year. Even when the magazine began to suffer drastic losses in circulation, Mencken did not reduce the price. Charles Angoff, Mencken's assistant editor, reported that Mencken was "delighted that the Mercury sold at fifty cents a copy and five dollars a year, and that it was so expensively put up,"22 and he quotes Mencken as saying, '"If we printed the same sort of stuff in a magazine selling for twenty-five cents or even thirty-five cents, … we'd we ruined. They'd think we were a bunch of tramps, not worth listening to.'"23 The pages in the magazine were numbered consecutively, by volume, and each volume included four issues of one hundred and twenty-eight pages each. This was the general make-up of the magazine that occupied the national spotlight when Mencken was at its helm.
When Nathan and Mencken deserted their posts on The Smart Set to found The American Mercury, Mencken's reputation was soaring higher than it ever had before. Moreover, he was not only a popular writer; he was also an astute literary critic who had made some worthwhile contributions to the field of letters in America. For, as Manchester concluded in a study of Mencken's work as critic on The Smart Set, Mencken was "fighting a battle.… His reviews … were annihilating the writers of romance and helping pave the way for the disciples of realism."24 The same study ended with this evaluation of Mencken's literary efforts on The Smart Set:
Mencken stands, despite his obloquy, his iconoclastic style, and his seeming nihilism, as an achiever who, as critic and thinker, reaffirmed certain basic beliefs, such as liberty of expression and intellectual honesty, who called for artistry in creativity and an end to cant in American life, and who prepared the way for the cultural renaissance which was to produce a coherent American literature for a nation which had known only a handful of talented writers.25
During World War I, Mencken's political viewpoints forced him to remain silent, and, during those turbulent years, when the people's patriotic zeal precluded their championing the "original, and hence subversive, ideas"26 which were the core of Mencken's existence, he retreated into what amounted to an almost self-imposed retirement. But, at war's end, the national climate shifted to the opposite pole, and the services of his bombastic pen were highly in demand. As Manchester described the phenomenon,
Something had happened. A war had ended, but more: a new era had begun. The day of the American protective league, of the war saboteurs, of the Evening Mail's pussyfooting and Theodor Hemberger's terror, the day when to be German was to be suspect, when … Dreiser and Mencken [could be] gagged—that day had passed … It was 1919. The Twenties were on the threshold. And so was H. L. Mencken.27
Another factor in elevating Mencken's reputation had also occurred at this time—the publication of his massive philological work, The American Language.
The impact of the book was terrific. With one powerful stroke he had hewed in half the umbilical cord which philologically bound this nation to England. Later strokes were to come—and he [Mencken] was to deliver them—but the immediate effect of that first edition, coming as it did with the dying echoes of rifle fire in France, was tremendous.28
In the end, the upshot of these propitious happenings was that Mencken's fame received a tremendous boost, and, what was even more significant, he once again had a chance to express his opinions in whatever manner he chose. Within the next five years, he had published four books (the series of his Prejudices) and co-authored, with Nathan, two others (Heliogabalus: A Buffoonery in Three Acts, and The American Credo). Naturally, these works aided in keeping Mencken's name in the limelight. He was immediately adopted by the war generation as a saint, and his renown gathered steam accordingly.29
Thus did the Twenties come to Mencken. The champion of intellectual unrest, of disillusion, he tapped this new vein with a flourish and zeal that staggered the Philistines and brought the jaded literati flocking. In the gaudy covered Smart Set and in his stream of books and magazine articles, they found their unspoken thoughts brilliantly couched.
He was compared to Juvenal, Dryden, Swift, Voltaire, and in the Glasgow Herald, to Sam Johnson. Overnight, it seemed, his face became international.30
The accolades which Mencken attracted during this period were not all, of course, prompted by his writings about aesthetic matters; but, in terms of reputation, the results were the same—he was being listened to, and the ranks of admirers swelled daily. There were detractors, too, but, as is always true, his popularity with the opposite wing was merely increased by their invective.
In the area of belles lettres, Mencken's "social energies were devoted to cultivating and whooping up the young talent which had sought out The Smart Set."31 Mencken tooted his horn for such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Manchester wrote that
it was this critical tutelage, given the first faltering steps of nearly every major writer of the Twenties, which accounts for Mencken's elevation to critical sainthood by the first war generation. For almost a decade there was scarcely a major writer in the country who did not trace his career from a first acceptance by The Smart Set?32
Needless to say, Mencken's activities did not go unnoticed by other critics of the day. Writing in 1923, Carl Van Doren said of Mencken that "no one holds out a quicker hand of encouragement to any promising beginner in literature or scholarship."33 Perhaps the best testimony to Mencken's reputation and influence during those years came from Angoff, who grew up with the war generation and was one of the young intellectuals who cherished Mencken's leadership:
Like so many other young men of my generation, I had been a faithful reader of The Smart Set.… The stories in The Smart Set seemed like no stories in any other magazine. The same was true of the articles and poems, but it was H. L. Mencken's book reviews and George Jean Nathan's drama reviews that attracted most of the young people I knew. They were dazzlingly written, and they expressed the rebellion that we all felt. Groups of us would discuss these reviews—always enthusiastically. Some of us could recite by heart paragraph upon paragraph of certain reviews by Mencken and Nathan.34
So it was that when Mencken and Nathan produced a new magazine, a large following awaited them. Mencken's writings in The Smart Set, his books, his magazine articles—all had served to place him in the spotlight, and he was in a position to attract an even larger audience and to continue his role of intellectual leadership in The American Mercury. "The war played into his hands … as into those of hardly any other literary American,"35 and, from his tower atop the Mercury, he was free to manipulate the gushing flow of literature in the United States.
MENCKEN AS LITERARY EDITOR OF THE MERCURY
The dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town!
Some in rags,
And some in tags,
And one in a velvet gown.
Like the unknown beggars in the nursery rhyme, the nation's writers responded to H. L. Mencken's clarion-like call for manuscripts that would conform to the tone and standards of his new magazine. The manuscripts, too, were like the beggars—some were dressed in rags, some in tags, and a few in velvet gowns. It was Mencken's task to choose the velvet ones, and he knew what he wanted, as the following letter from Mencken to Sinclair Lewis, written when Mencken was soliciting manuscripts a few months before the Mercury appeared, clearly illustrates:
I shall try to cut a rather wide swath with it, covering politics, economies, the exact sciences, etc., as well as belles lettres and the other fine arts. I have some promises of stuff from men who have something to say and know how to write, and I hope to stir up the animals. In politics it will be, in the main, Tory, but civilized Tory. You know me well enough to know that there will be no quarter for the degraded cads who now run the country. I am against you and the Liberals because I believe you chase butterflies, but I am even more against your enemies.1
Motivated by letters such as this one and advance advertising, the writers scurried to ship their "stuff" to Mencken and thus make a bid for space in the Mercury. For Mencken, then, the problem that remained was one of selection, and it is this process which is interesting here. In fact, perhaps the most rewarding evidence pertaining to Mencken's critical acumen while editor of the Mercury is to be found, not in his editorials and book reviews, but in the articles, stories, plays, and poems which he selected for publication within the magazine's covers. The writings he bought reflect directly upon his tastes and abilities as editor and critic.
Works by approximately seven hundred writers appeared in the Mercury while Mencken was its editor, but a large percentage of the articles which found their way into the periodical were concerned with politics, economics, science, prohibition, and a host of other subjects outside the realm of pure literature. As mentioned previously, short stories, poetry, plays and other articles which could be classified as fiction constitute less than ten percent of the total volume of the Mercury.
Of the one hundred and seventy-five authors of fiction whose writings Mencken published, more than a third sold only one story to the Mercury. Other authors, some having a story, poem, or play in the magazine almost on the average of once each year, were more prolific, and it appears that Mencken, having made a decision about a certain writer, gave the author his unwavering support by publishing that writer's offerings again and again. All of the articles of a reportorial nature are of no concern here, except to note that they consistently dominated the contents of the magazine; the others, the works of imaginative fiction, along with the men and women who wrote them, deserve consideration. However, it would be unfair, it not impossible, to evaluate each contribution in terms of its literary importance and significance. It was felt that the best test of Mencken's critical insight as editor of the Mercury was to discover how the magazine's contributors have fared in the world of letters; to explore their contribution to belles lettres; to ascertain, as closely as possible, their positions among American writers and their reputations as craftsmen in the art of fiction. To accomplish this investigation, the author has, of course, utilized his own knowledge of the field. However, as must naturally happen, many of the people who wrote for the Mercury and who attained some distinction as writers, are practically unheard of today and would be only names to the student of literature. Therefore, three well-known reference works which list authors of importance were consulted in this investigation: William Rose Benét's The Reader's Encyclopedia; James D. Hart's The Oxford Companion to American Literature; and Twentieth Century Authors, by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft.2 It can only be assumed that a writer who is not listed in one or more of these three works has failed to make any notable contribution to the field of American letters.
No attempt has been made to classify the writers according to their reputations or to place them in the order that their works appeared in the Mercury. Therefore, the authors are listed in alphabetical order according to last names. The first section covers prose writers and the second deals with writers of poetry. The Mercury's prose writers:3
Abdullah, Achmed—This British author published one story in the Mercury, and is mentioned in Encyclopedia and Authors. Mencken's antipathy towards the English is well-known, and Abdullah is one of the few men from that country to make the grade in the magazine.
Adamic, Louis—All three references list Adamic. He published twice in the Mercury.
Anderson, David Merrill—No mention of this author is to be found in any of the three references. One piece by Anderson was in the magazine.
Anderson, Nels—This author, who appeared once in the Mercury, receives no attention in the references.
Anderson, Sherwood—It almost goes without saying that Anderson is listed in all three references, for his place in American letters is a high one. It is to Mencken's credit that three stories by Anderson appeared in the magazine.
Armstrong, John—Although this man published twice in the Mercury, he has earned no particular distinction among writers, and is not listed in the references.
Barrett, Richmond—This author, who published one story in the magazine, is also not mentioned in the reference works.
Beach, Joseph Warren—The Oxford Companion recognizes this writer, who has done some notable literary criticism. He is not mentioned in the other two references. He published twice in the Mercury.
Beer, Thomas—Listed in all three references, Beer is a fairly well-known novelist. One work by him appeared in the magazine.
Bercovici, H. LeB.—One story by Bercovici found its way into the magazine. He is not mentioned in the reference works.
Blake, Robert—Blake had one play in the Mercury. He is not cited by the references.
Booth, Ernest—One work of fiction by this author was in the magazine. He is not listed in the references.
Boyd, Albert Truman—Apparently a writer of no distinction, Boyd printed one article in the Mercury. No mention of him is found in the references.
Boyd, Thomas—This writer, who published once in the magazine, has written two or three novels of merit. He is listed in all three of the references.
Brody, Catherine—One work of fiction by this writer appeared in the Mercury. The three references contain no mention of her.
Brown, Bob—Having made one prose contribution to the magazine, Brown is not listed in the references.
Burnett, W. R.—This writer's novels, of which Little Caesar is perhaps the best, have earned him some distinction. He published once in the Mercury, and is noted in all three references.
Cabell, James Branch—Probably no student of literature has not heard of Cabell, who was one of America's most prolific writers. He was one of Mencken's favorites.… He wrote three times for the magazine, and is listed in all the references.
Cahill, Holger—This writer published once in the Mercury. He is not listed in the reference works.
Cain, James M.—Six short plays and three stories by Cain were printed in the Mercury. He gained some fame through his novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and is hence cited by the references.
Caldwell, Erskine—A writer who published once in the periodical and whose popularity as a novelist makes comment unnecessary, Caldwell is mentioned by all the references.
Cautela, Giuseppe—The references do not list this man, who printed one story in the periodical.
Chew, Samuel C.—The Encyclopedia refers to Chew, although the other two reference works do not. He wrote one play for the Mercury.
Clarage, Eleanor—Not mentioned by the references, this writer printed one work in the magazine.
Clark, Emily—Three stories by this writer appeared in the magazine. She is not listed in the reference works.
Conroy, Jack—Although neglected by the other two references, Conroy is cited by the Oxford Companion. His novel, The Disinherited, is worth mention. He published five times in the Mercury.
Crowell, Chester T.—Two works of fiction by Crowell were printed in the magazine. He is not listed in the references.
Davidson, H. Carter—No recognition is given to Davidson by any of the references. He published once in the Mercury.
Davis, H. L.—This writer's novel, Honey in the Horn, won for him a Pulitzer prize. His works appeared seven times in the magazine, and he is listed in all three references.
DeCasseres, Benjamin—Listed in all three references, DeCasseres published two times in the Mercury.
Dickinson, May Freud—This writer published once in the magazine. She is not mentioned by the references.
Dobie, J. Frank—This writer's fame as folklorist-novelist is relatively well established. Mencken printed one of Dobie's stories in the magazine, and he is mentioned by both the Encyclopedia and the Oxford Companion.
Douglas, W. A. S.—One of the magazine's most frequent contributors, Douglas appeared nine times during the ten years. However, he receives no space in the references.
Dreiser, Theodore—Since he has been recognized as one of America's best novelists in the naturalistic vein, Dreiser's name naturally appears in all three references. It is somewhat surprising that only one story by Dreiser appeared in the Mercury, because he was another of Mencken's favorites.
Eaton, Walter Prichard—Listed in the Encyclopedia and Authors, Eaton published one story in the Mercury.
Fante, John—Five stories by Fante appeared in the magazine, and he is cited by the Oxford Companion and Authors.
Farrell, James T.—This writer's stories about the character, Studs Lonigan, as well as several others, have earned him a high place in American letters. He is mentioned by all the references. He published three times in the Mercury.
Faulkner, William—A giant among American novelists, Faulkner is recognized as one of the best novelists in the United States. His many novels dealing with the deep South are all well known. Four of his works appeared in the Mercury, and he is listed in all three references.
Fergusson, Harvey—An author of several novels of secondary importance, Fergusson printed once in the magazine. He is mentioned by all three references.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott—This writer's novels, and particularly This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, went far towards capturing the mood of the Twenties, and he is today regarded as a sort of symbol of the cynicism and disillusionment of that era. He published two stories in the Mercury, and is listed in all three reference works.
Forsling, Elizabeth Paxton—Not mentioned by the references, this writer had one story in the magazine.
Francis, Owen—One work by Francis appeared in the Mercury. The references do not list him.
Gale, Zona—A short story writer of some distinction, this writer published twice in the magazine. She is listed by all the references.
Garey, Robert B.—Not listed in the references, Garey had one article in the periodical.
George, W. L.—Listed in the Encyclopedia and Authors, George had one story in the Mercury.
Gilman, Mildred Evans—This author is represented in the magazine by one story. She is not listed in the references.
Gold, Louis—This writer, who is not mentioned by the reference works, printed one story in the magazine.
Gold, Michael—A writer of minor importance who published twice in the Mercury, Gold is listed in all three reference works.
Grafton, Samuel—Not listed in the references, Grafton wrote two stories for the periodical.
Greene, Ward—Listed only in Authors, Greene appeared three times in the magazine.
Haardt, Sarah—Not mentioned in the references, this writer printed four pieces in the Mercury. She was Mencken's wife.
Hackett, Francis—One-time editor of The New Republic, Hackett is referred to in all three works. He printed one story in the magazine.
Hale, Nancy—This writer published two stories in the Mercury. She is listed in the Encyclopedia.
Hall, Leonard—Never mentioned by the references, Hall wrote two pieces for the magazine.
Halper, Albert—This writer has a few novels to his credit, all of which are of minor importance. Five of his stories were bought by Mencken, and his name appears in all three references.
Hanko, Arthur—Represented by one story in the magazine, Hanko is not listed in the reference works.
Hanley, Hugh—This writer also had one story in the Mercury. He is not mentioned by the references.
Hartswick, F. Gregory—Another writer with a single entry in the magazine, Hartswick is not listed in the references.
Hecht, Ben—An author of many novels and plays, Hecht appeared in the magazine once. He is listed in all of the three reference works.
Herbst, Josephine—A minor novelist, this author is mentioned by all the references. Four stories by her appeared in the Mercury.
Herrmann, John—Not cited by the references, Herrmann had two stories in the magazine.
Hess, Leonard—This writer printed one piece in the magazine. He receives no mention by the references.
Heth, Edward Harris—The references do not list this author, whose writings appeared once in the Mercury.
Holbrook, Stewart H.—Not mentioned by the references, Holbrook had two stories in the Mercury.
Hughes, Langston—A Negro writer, Hughes is mentioned by all the references. Two of his stories found their way into the Mercury.
Hussey, L. M.—This author published three pieces in the magazine. He does not appear in the reference works.
Huston, John—Represented in the Mercury by two stories, Huston is not listed by the references.
Jeans, Robert—Also not included in the references, Jeans published three stories in the magazine.
Joffe, Eugene—A single work by this author went into the periodical. He is not listed in the references.
Jones, Carter Brooke—Although four stories by Jones appeared in the magazine, he is not mentioned by the references.
Jones, Idwal—Another writer who published often in the Mercury—six times in all—Jones is not listed in the references.
Kelm, Karlton—The references neglect Kelm. He printed two stories in the magazine.
Lanke, J. J.—Mentioned only by the Encyclopedia, Lanke is represented in the magazine by one story.
Lea, M. S.—This writer published one story in the Mercury, and is not listed in the reference works.
Lee, B. Virginia—One story by this author went into the magazine, and she is neglected by the references.
Leenhouts, Grant—This writer, with one story in the Mercury, is not cited by the references.
LeSuer, Meridel—This writer's name is absent from the references. She had one story in the periodical.
Levitt, Saul—Another writer of no particular merit, Levitt published one piece in the Mercury. The references do not list him.
Lewis, Sinclair— … Mencken championed Lewis's works. This writer's Main Street and Babbitt, both firstrate novels, secured for him a high place in the nation's letters. He is listed by all three references, and he printed one story in the Mercury.
Lindsay, Malvina—One story by this writer appeared in the magazine. None of the references lists her.
McClure, John—Listed only in the Encyclopedia, McClure published seven stories in the Mercury.
McIntosh, K. C.—Represented in the magazine by one story, Mcintosh's name is not included in the reference works.
Manlapaz, Ignacio—Ignored by the references, Manlapaz printed one piece in the magazine.
Mason, Gregory—Published once in the magazine, Mason is mentioned only by the Encyclopedia.
Maynard, Lawrence M.—Not listed in the reference works, Maynard had one story in the Mercury.
Meyer, Ernest L.—A writer who published once in the magazine, Meyer receives no mention in the reference works.
Milburn, George—With thirteen stories to his credit, Milburn was the most frequent contributor to the Mercury. His reputation today is of no consequence, and none of the references includes him.
Miller, Harlan—Also not cited in the references, Miller wrote one story for the magazine.
Moore, Muriel—This writer contributed one story to the Mercury. She is not listed in the references.
Mulhern, Alice—One article by this writer appeared in the magazine, and she is not mentioned by the reference works.
Mullen, Kate—A single story by this author appeared in the magazine. None of the references lists her.
Newman, Frances—A novelist with little reputation today, this author sold one story to the Mercury. She is listed in the Encyclopedia and Authors.
Nuhn, Ferner—Not mentioned by the references, Nuhn had three stories in the magazine.
Odum, Howard W.—Two stories by Odum were printed in the Mercury. He receives no mention in the references.
O'Mara, Patrick—This author sold two stories to the Mercury. He is not cited in the reference works.
O'Neale, Albert Lindsay Jr.—Mencken purchased one story by O'Neale. He is not listed in the references.
O'Neill, Eugene—One of America's most famous playwrights, O'Neill is represented in the Mercury by one play. As a writer considered by many critics as the nation's greatest dramatist, O'Neill naturally receives attention in all the references.
Parker, Dorothy—This writer's reputation as a satirist is fairly well established, particularly through her verse. She published one story in the magazine, and is listed in all three references.
Peterkin, Julia—This writer, who has won some fame as a novelist and was once awarded a Pulitzer prize, sold one story to the magazine, and is included in all three references.
Peters, Paul—Author of one story that appeared in the Mercury, Peters is not listed in the references.
Purdy, Nina—This writer also sold one story to the magazine. None of the reference works lists her.
Purroy, David—Mencken bought one of Purroy's stories. He is not listed in the references.
Roberts, Elizabeth Maddox—This novelist has a minor reputation in the United States. She is represented in the magazine by one story, and she is mentioned by all three references.
Rosenfeld, Louis Zara—Another writer who published one story in the Mercury, Rosenfeld receives no mention in the references.
Sampson, Charles—Three stories by Sampson appeared in the magazine. He is not listed in the reference works.
Sanford, Winifred—This writer's works appeared frequently in the periodical—eight times in all, but is seldom mentioned today, and is not cited in the references.
Sawyer, Ruth—Listed in the Encyclopedia and Authors, this writer has only a slight reputation. She published one story in the periodical.
Sayre, Joel—Although five stories by Sayre were purchased by Mencken, none of the references mentions him.
Schuyler, George S.—Two stories by Schuyler found their way into the Mercury. He is not included in any of the references.
Sherwin, Louis—Ignored by the references, Sherwin published one play in the magazine.
Snider, Charles Lee—Also neglected by the references, Snider had one play in the periodical.
Sonnichsen, Erich—Two stories by this writer were in the magazine. He is not cited in the references.
Stevens, James—A writer of folk tales, Stevens is noticed by all three references. He published five stories in the Mercury.
Strong-Wolfe, Elela—This writer, who sold one story to the magazine, is not listed in the references.
Stuart, James—Not mentioned in the references, Stuart had one story in the Mercury.
Suckow, Ruth—This writer's fiction has earned for her a fair distinction among American authors. Mencken printed nine of her stories, and she is recognized by all three reference works.
Sullivan, Maurice S.—Two of Sullivan's stories appeared in the magazine. None of the references lists him.
Tanaquil, Paul—This writer sold one article to the Mercury. He is not listed in the references.
Tanner, Myron T.—Another writer not mentioned in the reference works, Tanner had one story in the Mercury.
Tasker, Robert Joyce—None of the references lists this writer, who contributed one story to the magazine.
Thomas, Dorothy—One of the most frequent contributors to the Mercury, this writer had eight stories in the magazine. She is not noticed in the references.
Toogood, Granville—One story by this writer went into the magazine. He receives no mention in the references.
Tully, Jim—At one time a popular novelist, Tully, whose reputation is based on such books as Circus Parade and Shanty Irish, holds only a minor position among the nation's writers. He was one of Mencken's favorites, as is shown by the fact that seven of his stories were printed in the Mercury. He is listed in all three references.
Walker, Stanley—This writer had two stories in the magazine. None of the references lists him.
Weisberg, Goldie—Represented in the periodical by one story, this writer receives no mention in the reference works.
Wembridge, Eleanor Rowland—One story by this writer appeared in the magazine. She is not listed in the references.
Whitman, Stephen French—Another writer who had one story in the magazine, Whitman is not cited in the references.
Whitney, Parkhurst—One story by Whitney was printed in the Mercury. None of the references lists him.
Wilson, Charles Morrow—This writer is mentioned in the Encyclopedia. One of Wilson's stories was printed in the Mercury.
Wimberly, Lowry Charles—Five stories by Wimberly were printed in the magazine, but he is neglected by the reference works.
Wimberly, Merritt—Also disregarded by the references, this writer had three stories in the periodical.
Winslow, Thyra Samter—Mentioned in both the Encyclopedia and the Oxford Companion, this writer has gained some recognition for her short stories. Three of her stories appeared in the Mercury.
Zugsmith, Leane—One story by this writer, whose novels have earned her a minor position in the world of letters, was printed in the Mercury. She is cited by all three references.
The writers of verse:
Aiken, Conrad—One poem by Aiken appeared in the magazine. He is a well-known poet, and is listed in all three reference works.
Anderson, Sherwood—Although Anderson is more widely recognized as a prose writer than as a poet, one of his works in verse appeared in the Mercury. The three references list him.
Auslander, Joseph—A top-notch poet, Auslander published one piece in the magazine. He is recognized by all of the references.
Bodenheim, Maxwell—One poem by this author, whose reputation among American poets is fairly well established, was printed in the magazine, and he is listed in all three references.
Brown, Bob—One of Brown's poems went into the Mercury. None of the references lists him.
Cooksley, S. Bert—Three poems by this writer, who receives no attention in the references, were sold to the magazine.
Cullen, Countee P.—This Negro poet, who is included in both the Encyclopedia and the Oxford Companion, had one work in the Mercury.
Davidson, Eugene—Another writer who had one poem in the magazine, Davidson is not listed in the references.
Davis, H. L.—Primarily a prose artist, Davis, who is cited by all three references, published one poem in the periodical.
Dreiser, Theodore—One poem by Dreiser found its way into the Mercury. His position among American writers has been noted. All three references lists him.
Dunne, Edith Hart—Not mentioned in the references, this writer contributed one verse item to the magazine.
Elmendorf, Mary J.—Two poems by this author were printed in the magazine. None of the references mentions her.
Ferril, Thomas Hornsby—Mencken obviously liked Ferril's work, since five of his poems appeared in the magazine. None of the references lists him.
Frost, Frances M.—Only the Encyclopedia includes information about this writer, who published four poems in the magazine.
Hackett, Francis—This writer's position on The New Republic has been referred to. He contributed one poem to the Mercury, and is listed by all three reference works.
Heyward, DuBose—One poem by Heyward appeared in the periodical. The author of the novel, Porgy, which was the basis of the famous drama, Porgy and Bess, Heyward is listed in all three references.
Hoffenstein, Samuel—A writer of only slight reputation, Hoffenstein sold two poems to the Mercury. The Encyclopedia and Authors list him.
Hubbell, Lindley Williams—Not included in the reference works, Hubbell had one poem in the magazine.
Jeffers, Robinson—One of America's foremost craftsmen in verse, Jeffers printed one poem in the Mercury. It goes without saying that all the references devote considerable space to this poet.
Jenkin, Oliver—No mention of this writer is given in any of the reference works. One of his poems was published in the magazine.
Johns, Orrick—Listed in the Encyclopedia and Authors, Johns's place among the nation's poets is a minor one at best. A single poem by him appeared in the Mercury.
Johnson, James Weldon—A writer who has attained some recognition through his poetry and who is cited in all three reference works, Johnson also had one poem in the periodical.
Kenyon, Bernice—Unnoticed by the references, this writer published three poems in the Mercury.
Kimball, Alice Mary—The magazine contains two poems by this writer, who is neglected by the references.
Lechlitner, Ruth—One poem by this writer appeared in the magazine. She receives no mention in the references.
Lee, Lawrence—Also represented in the Mercury by one work, Lee is not discussed in the references.
Lee, Muna—The Mercury contains four poems by this writer. None of the reference works lists her.
Lindsay, Elizabeth—This writer had one poem in the periodical. She is not noticed by the references.
Lindsay, Vachel—In view of Lindsay's eminence as a poet, it is to Mencken's credit that he bought two of his poems. Lindsay is, of course, discussed in all the references.
Lundbergh, Holger—One poem by this writer, who is ignored by the reference works, appeared in the magazine.
McClure, John—Referred to in the Encyclopedia, McClure had one poem in the magazine.
Masters, Edgar Lee—No student of literature is not familiar with this writer's Spoon River Anthology, and he is generally considered as one of America's best poets. He is listed in all three reference works, and three of his works were printed in the Mercury.
Moore, Virginia—Not listed in the references, this writer sold one poem to the magazine.
Morton, David—The author of several books of poems, Morton's reputation is a minor one. Only the Encyclopedia lists him. One of his poems was published in the Mercury.
Prosper, Joan Dareth—Also the author of one poem printed in the magazine, this writer receives no mention in the references.
Rorty, James—Three poems by Rorty appeared in the magazine. He is neglected by the references.
Sandburg, Carl—Another titan of American letters, Sandburg published three works in the magazine. He once won a Pulitzer prize for his verse, and is naturally listed in the reference works.
Speyer, Leonora—A famous American poet and winner of a Pulitzer prize for her poetry, this writer appeared twice in the Mercury. She is discussed in all three references.
Sterling, George—A relatively well-known poet, Sterling had three poems in the magazine. He is recognized by all three references.
Stuart, Jesse—A writer of some merit, Stuart published two poems in the magazine. He is noticed by all three reference works.
Untermeyer, Louis—Three poems by this widely known artist were included in the Mercury. He is mentioned by all three references.
Walton, Eda Lou—Listed in the Encyclopedia, this writer published two poems in the magazine. Her work as a poet is of minor significance.
Widdemer, Margaret—Winner of a Pulitzer prize, this writer's poetry deserves attention. One poem by her was printed in the Mercury, and she is listed in all three references.
Wood, Clement—A minor poet, Wood published one piece in the magazine. He is discussed in the Encyclopedia and Authors.
Wylie, Lou—Not mentioned in the reference works, this writer is represented in the Mercury by four poems.
Although no concrete conclusions pertaining to Mencken's editorial skills and prejudices can be drawn from the foregoing, the investigation provides a basis for several general observations. The first is that Mencken gave relatively little space to belles lettres in the Mercury; the second, that many of the most frequent contributors to the magazine have, since that time, either stopped producing or have been totally neglected by the nation's readers and critics. Of the writers who published in the Mercury, only forty-five percent are recognized by the Encyclopedia, and even less—thirty-one percent—by the Oxford Companion and Authors. The large number of contributors who have failed to make the ranks in the world of letters is an indication that Mencken often printed works by authors with little or no reputation.
Angoff's statement that "Mencken's abiding heroes as fiction writers were Joseph Hergesheimer, James Branch Cabell, Ambrose Bierce, Ring Lardner, and George Ade"4 seems out of place in relation to this study: these writers, only Cabell's fiction appeared in the Mercury.
THE BOOK REVIEWS IN THE MERCURY
Peter White will ne'er go right:
Would you know the reason why?
He follows his nose wherever he goes,
And that stands all awry.
Angoff, who was possibly Mencken's closest professional associate during his days on the Mercury, has since brought forth the charge that
Mencken's ambitions and envy eventually landed him into the writing of literary criticism and scholarly works. Heaven knows he tried hard enough, but it became apparent to the discerning at once, as it has become clear to nearly everyone now, that he didn't have the necessary gifts.1
The charge went even further when Angoff declared that Mencken "was in the main, for or against an author depending upon the agreement of the author's general outlook on life with his own."2 These are, of course, devastating assaults on Mencken's critical acumen, and they suggest that, as critic, he merely followed his nose. But whether they are totally accurate, only partially correct, or completely false and prejudiced appraisals of Mencken's abilities is still a matter for dispute. Writing as late as 1956, Henry Hazlitt recalled that Mencken "was the outstanding American literary critic of his generation, its most influential stylist, its most prominent iconoclast."3 Evidently, then, the feud over Mencken's critical talents continues unabated.
To form a basis for evaluating Mencken's work as literary critic on The American Mercury, pertinent comments from his book reviews have been taken from the magazine. The works he reviewed which could be classified as pure fiction have, of course, been ignored, for they shed no light on his critical alertness.
Only two groups of books of verse were reviewed during the decade, and the reflections Mencken recorded about them indicate that he was not interested in the form. In October, 1925, he examined twenty-nine volumes of poetry,4 and concluded the following:
What I get from them is mainly the impression that we are passing into an era of flabby stuff—that the fine frenzy which seized the poets fifteen years ago has spent itself, and they are laid up for repairs. It was something of an adventure in those days—or even so lately as five years ago—to review the current verse. There was an immense earnestness in it, and a great deal of originality, some of it almost hair-raising.
And in the rubbish there were some pearls. But I can find none in the volumes now under review. There is a great deal of respectable writing in them, but the old glow is gone.5
Included in those twenty-nine volumes were one each of the works of Edgar Lee Masters, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and William Butler Yeats, to name a few. Thus it is evident that Mencken's interest in poetry had expired by that time, and he was ready to turn his back on it. However, in June, 1926, he presented the last poetry review to appear in "The Library" while he was with the magazine.6 He devoted less than three pages to a review of sixty-one volumes, and summarized his opinion of them by remarking:
I offer this appalling list as proof beyond cavil that the art and mystery of the poet still flourishes among us, despite Coolidgism and Rotary, despite even the collapse of the New Poetry Movement. The general average of the current poetry is very high.7
The contradictory nature of his two reviews is immediately apparent, and this, considering the fact that he wrote the second only eight months after the first, is an indication that he was, perhaps, either confused in his decisions or eager to disregard verse altogether. The meager quantity of poetry examined in the Mercury certainly tends to support Angoff's recollection that Mencken's
attitude toward poetry was a strange combination of shame over his own youthful verses … and of a peculiar theory he had developed, namely, that poetry was almost entirely an occupation of the young and was not worth the serious attention of mature people.8
The fact also upholds Manchester's comments about Mencken's feelings toward the medium:
Mencken was at his funniest and least discriminating in the field of poetry. Distrust of the emotions without which poetry cannot live killed his own poetical urge … and his concept of verse—that it should sing a song pleasantly and never attempt an idea—was downright medieval.… He found little worth supporting in contemporary poetry. Poets were treated as children and their poems subjected to the sharpest gibes. Free verse was scorned.9
At any rate, the inconsistency of Mencken's judgments does anything but lend credit to his criticism. The main point, though, is that he obviously was not interested in the writers of poetry, and consequently, failed to give them a hearing in the Mercury.
The field of prose got a better hearing, however, and a total of eighty-nine works by fifty-eight different authors was reviewed by Mencken during the ten years. A look at these reviews should provide ample evidence for an appraisal of Mencken's work as literary critic. The following list was arranged alphabetically, by the author's last names, rather than by any system of chronology. Included under each name are the author's works, or work, and Mencken's appraisal of each.
Anderson, Sherwood—Reviewing Horses and Men, a volume of short stories, the critic thought Anderson owed a big debt to Theodore Dreiser, and that the tales were "of the very first rank. They are simple, moving, and brilliantly vivid." About the lead story, Mencken declared, "There is a vast shrewdness in it; there is sound design; there is understanding; above all, there is feeling."10 When Dark Laughter was published, Mencken shouted that Anderson "has at last found his method, and achieved his first wholly satisfying book." He thought the book had defects, but that Anderson made his characters "breathe and move."11
Atherton, Gertrude—Mencken ventured the opinion that parts of The Crystal Cup were very sensational, and probably "sugar for the movie lads." A quote on the cover of the book which praised the author in glowing terms brought this comment from Mencken: "God save the Republic!"12
Benefield, Barry—A review of Benefield's volume of short stories, Short Turns, concluded that the "stories are essentially well-made and situation is more important in them than character … but after all, Maupassant said most of it long ago."13
Bodenheim, Maxwell—Replenishing Jessica smacked too much of Greenwich Village to please Mencken, and the author was "completely devoid of humor." Employing a dash of invective, Mencken called the work "a show of marionettes, and the philosophizing that goes with that show is simply the doctrinaire tosh that passes for pro-found in the Village."14
Burke, Kenneth—This author's The White Oxen and Other Stories also incited a flow of harsh criticism. He said the "early pieces are … simply bad. His later ones are such muddy, indignant stuff as thrills the bold minds of the Cafe Rotonde."15
Cabell, James Branch—Five books by Cabell were reviewed during the period, and, except for the last one, Mencken gave all of them his highest praise. The High Place had minor defects, but, overall, was done "in the manner of the celebrated Jurgen," and was, "in brief, the melancholy story of a dream come true."16The Silver Stallion: A Comedy of Redemption had, he believed, "its lacks, but as a piece of writing it is Cabell at his best." All in all, the book was packed with "sly and devastating jocosities, lovely rows of musical words, turns of phrase and thought that bring one up with a gasp."17 As for Something About Eve, Mencken surveyed it and posed the question, "Who can match him at his diabolical best?" and gave Cabell a stirring ovation: "As year chases year the position of Cabell gradually solidifies, and it becomes manifest that his place among the American writers of his time, seen in retrospect, will be at the first table."18The White Robe, too, drew resounding acclaim, and Mencken mused that Cabell "has never done a better piece of work." This judgment was followed by a statement about Cabell's position as a writer: "No man writing in America today has a more strongly individualized, or, on the whole, a more charming style."19 The final book by Cabell that was examined, The Way of Ecben, left Mencken "discontented" because "things that get into it have no place in it." But even this work, he thought, had its merits. "It might have been much better, but the worst of Cabell is surely not bad."20
Cather, Willa—In his reviews of three of this author's novels, Mencken consistently applauded her skillful writing, but regretted her lack of form. The first, A Lost Lady, was "excellent stuff, but it remains a bit light." Nevertheless, he believed that the story had "an arch and lyrical air; there is more genuine romance in it than in half a dozen romances in the grand manner."21 "A somewhat uncertain grasp of form" was discovered in The Professor's House, but the surface was "so fine and velvety in texture that one half forgets the ungraceful structure beneath." All in all, it was "an ingratiating piece of work."22 The narrative of Death Comes for the Archbishop occasionally fell "to the level of a pious tale. But … not often. If there is a devotée in her, there is also an immensely skillful story-teller." Miss Cather had done stories "far richer in content, but … never exceeded Death Comes for the Archbishop as a piece of writing."23
Clark, Emily—Mencken declared, in a discussion about Stuffed Peacocks, that the author displayed "plain signs of a fine talent." The sketches of characters had "brilliant color, fine insight, and a sort of hard, scientific mercilessness."24
Cohen, Lester—Sweepings, wrote Mencken, seemed "dull.… It bears the air of an enterprise a bit beyond the author's skill." Mencken felt that the reason for this was that Cohen had not collected enough observations for a full-length book. "Before he has gone fifty pages his characters begin to stiffen, and after that the thing is less a chronicle of human beings than an elaborate and somewhat improbable fable."25
Conrad, Joseph—Two of Conrad's books were held up to the critical light. The Rover was a tale with "a beginning, a middle and an end; it moves smoothly and logically; it is nowhere discursive or obscure; in truth, it is almost well-made." And, overall, a "capital tale, done by a great master."26 Mencken did not judge Suspense to be an equivalent of Conrad's top work. "It begins clumsily, but after the first chapter it is a truly superb piece of writing." But, despite the awkward opening, the book was "well-nigh perfect. Sheer virtuosity could go no further."27
Crawford, Nelson Antrim—The only book by Crawford reviewed during the decade, A Man of Learning, aroused loud guffaws from the critic, but he gave it only brief notice. He thought Crawford's well-drawn picture of an American college president was a "superb piece of cruel buffoonery."28
Croy, Home—This writer's R.F.D. No. 3 was a "dreadful drop" from Croy's earlier one, West of the Water Tower. "The novel proceeds, not from cause and effect, but by leaps. No step, true enough, is overlooked, but no step is made quite plausible." The writer's best qualities were in his character sketches, which were "by no means without a grim, compelling realism." A characteristic Menckenism slipped out when he described one character as a "sort of third-rate Promeseus chained to a manure pile."29
Dennis, Geoffrey—A "story-teller of unusual talent, with a great deal of originality" was Mencken's summation of Dennis, and his Harvest in Poland was an "impossible story told in terms of the most meticulous realism." And the author invested this combination with "new life by widening the spread between its two parts." Lavish praise for Dennis's style followed: "His prose has a Carlylean thunder in it; he knows how to roll up gorgeous sentences. And he has humor."30
Dixon, Thomas—Discussing Dixon's The Love Complex, Mencken was astounded to discover in the author a "Baptist who can dream." After this remark, Mencken neither blasted nor praised the book; but he recommended "this lush and thoughtful work to all students of American Kultur."31
Dos Passos, John—The two books by Dos Passos examined during the period were both viciously attacked. The plot of Streets of Night was "simply a series of puerile and often improbable episodes in the lives of two silly boys and an even sillier girl." The author had not explained his characters enough to "make their conduct intelligible and plausible," and the book was thus "depressingly disappointing." The work caused Mencken to offer the thought that the United States needed someone to understand and depict the Young Intellectual. He believed Dos Passos was obviously not equipped for the task, and concluded that "if Sinclair Lewis could only lay eggs and hatch young of his own kind there would be hope."32 As for Manhattan Transfer, Mencken judged it "incoherent, and not infrequently very dull," and doubted that any human being would "ever be able to read it—that is, honestly, thoroughly, from end to end." Mencken surmised that the extremely favorable reception of Dos Passos's first book, Three Soldiers, had ruined him: "His first book was far too successful: a very unfortunate thing for a young novelist. His later volumes have shown him hard at it, but making extremely heavy weather."33
Dreiser, Theodore—This writer, whom Mencken had long supported, was the subject of two reviews, wherein Mencken flogged him for his wordiness, but, in general, lauded his books. The two-volume An American Tragedy was seen as a "vasty double-header, … a shapeless and forbidding monster—a heaping cartload of raw materials for a novel, with rubbish of all sorts intermixed—a vast, sloppy, chaotic thing." Parts of the novel were overwritten, filled with "dreadful bilge." However, Mencken thought the overall effect of the book was extremely satisfying, and that the latter portions were very well done. His advice: "Hire your pastor to read the first volume for you. But don't miss the second."34 Dreiser's book of twelve character sketches, A Gallery of Women, also received mixed comment. He thought the author was "full of pretty phrases and arch turns of thought … [that] seldom come off." But, despite Dreiser's shortcomings, Mencken mused that his books were the best in modern American fiction.35
Eaton, G. D.—Mencken decided that the protagonist in Eaton's first book, Backfurrow, was well drawn. As a whole, the work elicited mild praise. "There is not much finesse in the story, but it is moving. Few first novels show so much seriousness or so much skill."36
Elser, Frank B.—The Keen Desire was "immensely better than any of its predecessors," although Mencken found that Elser over-worked the "device of projecting his hero's acts against a background of his hero's thoughts." But the author had a "sensitive feeling for character" and his main character was "depicted with great insight and unfailing skill."37
Ferber, Edna—The critic ventured a guess that Miss Ferber's virtues had been marred by her popularity, and that, in portions of Show Boat, she seemed to be writing only for her huge audience. Mencken lauded her for having a "sharp eye for character," and was impressed that she could "evoke genuine feeling."38
Fergusson, Harvey—The first of Fergusson's two books discussed during the period, Women and Wives, was moderately acclaimed. Mencken thought his competence lifted the "familiar story of the novel out of the common-place," and that the method was "unhackneyed and effective." The author, he thought, had "very solid talent."39 The other book, Wolf Song, was an "extraordinarily brilliant and charming story," and better than anything Fergusson had ever done. "Full of acidulous humors," the novel's descriptions were very life-like: "The Old South-west is made to palpitate with such light and heat that they are felt almost physically, and the people that gallop across the scene are full of the juices of life."40
Fitzgerald, F. Scott—Although Mencken was not impressed by the story in The Great Gatsby, he declared that it was "full of evidences of hard, sober toil," and that it was an indication that Fitzgerald was making "quick and excellent progress" in his writing. With the novel, the critic believed Fitzgerald had changed from a "brilliant improvisateur to … a painstaking and conscious author." His final decision: "As a piece of writing it is sound and laudable work."41
Glasgow, Ellen—This author's works were met with a blend of applause and abuse. Barren Ground left Mencken "rather in doubt" because the author exhibited "no sign of an intimate knowledge of the poor, flea-bitten yokels she sets before us." Altogether, it was "a novel somehow weak in its legs. There is, in detail, excellent work in it. It is boldly imagined and competently planned. But it is not moving."42 Her next book, They Stooped to Folly, drew plaudits for its satirical approach in a story about the South, for Mencken thought satire was the "immemorial refuge of the skeptic who has abandoned hope." The story was meritable because it had a "local vestiture and a local significance." The author, he decided, wrote "very skillfully. She knows how to manage situations and she has an eye for the trivialities which differentiate one man or woman from another."43
Gold, Michael—This writer's Jews Without Money was highly praised, and Gold's writing reminded Mencken of Jim Tully's, although there were "important differences." Gold's tale was "one of the most eloquent stories that the American press has disgorged in many a moon."44
Greene, Ward—Greene's first novel, Cora Potts, went a "good deal beyond mere promise." It was a "gorgeous panorama of the New South," and "full of a hearty gusto … despite the fact that now and then it edges over the borders of the probable."45
Hackett, Francis—"A novel that misses its goal by an inch" was Mencken's summation of That Nice Young Couple. He thought Hackett was a better essayist than story-teller, but that the essays were "unfailingly exhilarating. They are full of novel phrases … and … shrewd observation and penetrating wit." Mencken decided Hackett was a "beginning novelist who has seen something of life in this world, … and acquired a genuinely resilient and charming English style."46
Harrison, Henry Sydnor—Acid comments followed the publication of Andrew, Bride of Paris. It contained "only a pathetic hollowness" and was "childishly transparent—a moral tale that even schoolboys—nay, schoolmasters, must laugh at."47
Hecht, Ben—Count Bruga impressed Mencken as somewhat of a paradox because, although the story was "deliberately artificial," Hecht "gets so much gusto into the writing of it, and adorns it with so many flashes of insight into motive and character, that the impossible … takes on a sort of possibility." His writing was often "careless, but … never banal."48
Hemingway, Ernest—A book of short stories, Men Without Women, led Mencken to write that the author was "somewhat uncertain about … characters." He thought the praise Hemingway had been receiving stemmed from his "technical virtuosity," and that "hard and fundamental thinking … must get [him] on if [he is] to make good [his] high promise." The book's lead story, "The Killers," was a "thing to be sincerely thankful for."49 ' The merit of A Farewell to Arms was in its "brilliant evocation of the horrible squalor and confusion of war." Mencken decided that toward the end of the book the main characters "fade into mere wraiths, and in the last scenes they scarcely seem human at all." Hemingway's dialogue was lauded for being "fresh and vivid," but, "otherwise, his tricks begin to wear thin. The mounting incoherence of a drunken scene is effective once, but not three or four times."50Death in the Afternoon was seen as an "extraordinarily fine piece of expository writing, but … it often descends to a gross and irritating cheapness." He thought Hemingway's observations and style were excellent: "The narrative is full of the vividness of something really seen, felt, experienced, … done in English that is often bald and graceless, but … with great skill." The primary objection to the book had to do with Hemingway's obscene language. Mencken shouted that the "four-letter words are as idiotically incongruous as so many boosters' slogans or college yells" and that they would probably "give the Oak Park W.C.T.U. another conniption fit." Hemingway digressed too often in the book to "prove fatuously that he is a naughty fellow." Mencken's departing words: "The Hemingway boy is really a case."51
Hergesheimer, Joseph—The critic found little lacking in Tampico, and the book's appearance occasioned Mencken to remark that it was Hergesheimer's "business to evoke … the hideous, and he does it with easy skill and vast effect." The novel was "full of the glow that he knows how to get into a narrative. It is carefully designed. There is color in every line."52
Hoyt, Nancy—Roundabout was deemed charming despite its "load of somewhat naive melodrama," and Mencken liked it. "It is a tale of calf love—not done with superior snickers, but seriously and even a bit tragically."53
Huxley, Aldous—The critic had little to say about Antic Hay other than that it was "full of a fine gusto." But he rendered an opinion that Huxley "suffers from the fact that the burlesque modern novel is very hard to write—that the slightest letting down reduces it to mere whimsicality and tediousness."54 He was considerably more elated over Two or Three Graces: "All his sure and delicate skill gets into the telling of it. It is rich with searching and frolicsome humors. It is a capital piece of writing."55
Kennedy, Margaret—A pat on the back was awarded for The Constant Nymph's "excellent workmanship," but Mencken said the author had "by no means penetrated to the secrets of the harmonic soul; she has simply done us a set of amusing Bohemians."56
Komroff, Manuel—A book of short stories, The Grace of Lambs was testily dismissed. Mencken found "nothing in the pieces save a vague desire to be poetical and profound. They have no direction, and only too often they have no sense."57
Lardner, Ring W.—Lardner's How to Write Short Stories, mainly a volume of his own works, evoked lofty acclaim. The stories were "superbly adroit and amusing; no other contemporary American, sober or gay, writes better." But Mencken feared that they would not endure, because "our grandchildren will wonder what they are about." Mencken also made another prediction: "The professors will shy at him until he is dead at least fifty years. He is doomed to stay outside where the gang is."58The Love Nest, and Other Stories was "satire of the most acid and appalling sort—satire wholly removed, like Swift's, … from the least weakness of amiability, or even pity," and the characters were "unmistakably real." Mencken reckoned that "few American novelists, great or small, have character more firmly in hand," and championed Lardner for "trying to get the low-down Americano between covers."59 Reviewing Lose With a Smile, Mencken recalled his earlier prediction, and maintained that the "professors continue to look straight through him, just as they looked through Mark Twain in 1900 and Walt Whitman in 1875." He decided the professors did not like Lardner because he denied the "doctrine that the purpose of literature is to spread sweetness and light." The book, itself, was "vastly amusing, but there is a great deal more in it than a series of laughs."60
Lewis, Sinclair—Six books by Lewis were reviewed during the decade, and Mencken's evaluations of them fluctuated between lofty accolades and spicy denunciations. Arrowsmith was "five hundred pages of riotous and often barbarous humor, yet always with a sharp undertone of irony in it, always with a bitter flavor," and it was "well thought out and executed with great skill." In the book, Mencken found no "uncertainty of design. There is never any wavering in theme or purpose."61 The characters in Mantrap were "only a herd of stuffed dummies. They are never real for an instant." After guessing that "perhaps the book is a mere pot-boiler, done with the left hand," Mencken wrote, "I have presented Mantrap to my pastor, and return joyfully to a re-reading of Babbitt."62Elmer Gantry evoked a different tune: "For the third time Lewis knocks one clear over the fence." Mencken suggested that it would go higher than Babbitt or Main Street. The book was "American from the first low cackle of the prologue to the last gigantic obscenity," and Mencken opined that it would "consolidate and improve his position in his craft." Lewis was, he thought, "within his bounds, an artist of the first calibre."63The Man Who Knew Coolidge spurred the comment that Lewis had "created characters of genuine flesh and blood, and not merely two or three of them, or half a dozen, but whole companies." The protagonist in this book was excellent, but not as good as Babbitt: "The wistful earnestness of Babbitt is not in him; he is the First Gravedigger rather than Hamlet." Babbitt, he decided, would "haunt historians of the Ford Age long after Ford himself sinks into a footnote."64 Dodsworth was a "somewhat sombre work," mainly because the characters' actions were not accounted for rationally, and some of the dialogue between the two principal characters was "simply impossible." Here Mencken noted that Lewis's work was "uneven. From the best scenes of Babbitt to the worst of Mantrap there is a drop as dizzy as that from a string quartette to a movie."65Ann Vickers was, primarily, "flubdub." Mencken thought the main character "simply gets away from him." It was a "kind of patchwork, partly very good, but mainly bad."66
Lewisohn, Ludwig—"Soberly composed, devoid of the usual novelists' tricks, and full of excellent writing" was Mencken's judgment of The Case of Mr. Crump. He decided the author's future would be a bright one: "Lewisohn is a man of fine talents, and I believe that his best books are ahead of him. He has learning … and a sense of beauty, a rather rare combination."67
Loos, Anita—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes filled Mencken with "uproarious and salubrious mirth." The laughter came from a "farce full of shrewd observation and devastating irony," and from her dashes of "fresh humor, not too formal and refined."68
Masters, Edgar Lee—This author presented a paradox to Mencken, because his verse ranged from the eloquent and profound Spoon River Anthology to a "great mass of feeble and preposterous doggerel." The same was true for Master's novel, Mirage. It was "one of the most idiotic and yet one of the most interesting American novels that I have ever read." He admitted that the book's "fascination lies in its very deficiencies as … a work of art—in its naive lack of humor, its elaborate laboring of the obvious, its incredible stiltedness and triteness."69
McFee, William—Mencken was not impressed by Race, which he thought was "a challenge to all the dull English practitioners of stewed tea realism." McFee was "unable to come to grips with his characters; they never got beyond a feeble whimsicality."70
Millin, Sarah Gertrude—Three works by Miss Millin were reviewed in the Mercury. Discussing God's Step-children, Mencken asserted that the author had a "truly astonishing capacity for narrative," and that the book was a "searching and mordant treatise, often brilliant, upon the effects of racial mixtures." All in all, it was an "extremely artful, knowing and moving piece of work."71 The story in Mary Glenn was "achieved with great plausibility and effect," and was "a splendid thing, indeed—vivid, highly dramatic, and full of a poignant eloquence."72 As for An Artist in the Family, Mencken thought she had "done better work," but, though not the best of her books, it offered "something very delicate and fine."73
Montague, C. E.—A reprint of this English writer's book, A Hind Let Loose, was met with high approval. Mencken declared it "satire in the grand manner," satire managed "superbly." The work was a "charming and uproarious piece of buffoonery, carried on with the utmost dexterity from start to finish."74
Muilenburg, Walter J.—The critic was not "moved" by the author's "peasants" in Prairie, and the characters bore the brunt of his criticism:
… they never seem real to me for an instant. I can't get rid of a feeling that they are set up in front of me, not by one who has lived among them and sweated with them, but by a spectator from … some agricultural experiment station.75
Norris, Charles G.—Pig Iron was read "with immense interest, and enjoyed … unflaggingly," and Mencken insisted that Norris's novels "have received a great deal less critical attention than they deserve." His books, Mencken thought, had "solid substance in them, and a fine dignity."76
Odum, Howard W— The author's Rainbow Round My Shoulder was a "work of art that lives and glows," a "story of extraordinary fascination," and one "managed with the utmost skill." Mencken did not spare his praise. "Walt Whitman would have wallowed in it, and I suspect mat Mark Twain would have been deeply stirred by it too."77
Parrish, Anne—"Written with quite unusual skill," The Perennial Bachelor was a "work of sound virtues." Mencken thought this new novelist's talent was "unmistakable," and that the "narrative moves without a hitch; there is not a false note; the final effect is achieved surely, and even brilliantly."78
Remarque, Erich Maria—All Quiet on the Western Front received thunderous applause as a "brilliantly vivid and poignant story of man in war—unquestionably the best story of the World War so far published." Somewhat tartly, Mencken hoped the book would teach the leaders of the American Legion the "difference between falling safely upon a starved and exhausted foe and fighting against great odds for four long years."79
Scott, C. Kay—Siren displayed a "great deal of genuine novelty," and the critic thought the author's "effort to enter into the very minds of his characters" was ingenious. Mencken judged this technique as a "novelty that lifts itself above the general run of such things. Mr. Scott is intelligent, and has something to say."80
Sergel, Roger L.—This author was dismissed as a second-rate Dreiser and Arlie Gelston was acidly abused. The main character was "stupid and dull without being pathetic; her story has the impersonal emptiness of a series of fractions," and the book was called a "respectable, but entirely undistinguished work."81
Smits, Lee J.—The Spring Flight summoned forth the highest approbation. Mencken wrote that he could not "recall a first novel of more workmanlike dignity. There is absolutely no touch of amateurishness in it … It would be absurd to say that it shows merely promise." The writer had handled his "machinery … in an extremely dexterous manner" in producing "an extraordinarily sound and competent piece of work."82
Stevens, James—The book on folklore, Paul Bunyan, received exceedingly high acclaim, and the author was lauded both for his style and for recording the material. "He is a skillful writer of English, with a simple, ingratiating style. He is full of a rich, wholly masculine humor, and hence thoroughly in rapport with the extravagant Rabelaisian humor of Bunyan himself."83
Stribling, T. S.—Teeftallow, Mencken declared, approached "perilously near to the border of moral indignation. But … in no other volume known to me is there a more truthful picture of life among the Tennessee hillbillies." The work accomplished the mammoth task of rendering the Scopes trial "comprehensive to the bewildered unbeliever."84
Suckow, Ruth—Mencken reviewed Miss Suckow's first book, Country People, and found it "quite bare of the usual obviousness and irresolution of the novice." He evaluated the work as "curiously impressive" and thought she had a "profound understanding of simple and stupid people." Miss Suckow's future was seen as "unquestionably secure."85 His praise flowed again when The Odyssey of a Nice Girl appeared, and he wrote that she "can discern and evoke the eternal tragedy in the life of man." The work was "genuinely moving, … never banal."86 The book of short stories, Iowa Interiors, too, elicited lofty approval. "Who … has ever published a better first book of short stories than this one? Of its sixteen … , not one is bad—and among the best there are at least five masterpieces." The characters were "overwhelmingly real, and not a word can be spared."87 However, Mencken's zeal diminished somewhat when The Bonney Family was published, and, in a scanty review, he wrote that she had "done better work."88 His customary praise returned when Cora appeared, but he still harbored a "feeling that this is not her best." The main character was "a sort of case history in a thesis: one has an uneasy sense that she is being used to prove something." Nevertheless, the story was "very deftly put together; with each successive book, indeed, Miss Suckow writes with greater skill."89
Tully, Jim—Jarnegan was given a relatively unfavorable reception because Tully had managed the story badly "by succumbing to the charms of a moving-picture ending." But Mencken was convinced that the work showed improvement over Tully's earlier efforts. The story was "immensely interesting—a bravura piece done at high pressure. There is a great deal more than a picturesque part in Tully; he has begun to learn his trade."90
Van Vechten, Carl—Three works by this author were examined during the period. Only brief comments were made about The Blind Bow-Boy. Mencken was not impressed by it, but he conceded that it never "grows dull, even when it grows thin."91 Much the same was true for Fire-Crackers, and Mencken concluded that it "does not lift me." Perhaps, the critic thought, his own, "mounting troubles" had put him "out of the mood" for Van Vechten's type of story.92Nigger Heaven evoked mild praise. "The scenes of revelry in the book, to borrow a Confederatism, are genuinely niggerish. And the people, in the main, are very real."93
Wells, H. G.—Two books by Wells were criticized during the decade, and the appraisals of them struck opposite poles. Christina Alberta's Father was "dreadful stuff," a "thoroughly bad piece of work—muddled in plan, carelessly written, and full of characters that creak in every joint." He declared that Wells had resorted to "all sorts of fly-blown devices—the omniscient scientist, the long-lost father, and so on." Mencken refrained from describing the book, and gave this advice: "Go read it yourself—if you have the endurance."94 But Wells regained Mencken's favor with The World of William Clissold, and the critic gushed with praise. He thought it was "extraordinarily meritorious. It is not only a good book; it is an amazing book." Mencken decided he could recollect "no more penetrating discussion of sex in general, or of its social implications, including marriage," and concluded that there were "weak spots in it, as there are in Holy Writ, but taken as a whole it is unquestionably a sound and brilliant performance."95
Wilder, Thornton—A short notice followed publication of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Mencken decided that after reading the "most surprising bravura passages" he still had some "doubt as to what it is all about." The book often seemed "fragmentary: it charms without leaving any very deep impression. But that is a defect that the years ought to cure."96
Winslow, Thyra Samter—Mencken bestowed moderate praise upon Show Business, and found the author to be "an ironist both subtle and merciless." He was pleased that the "stage is neither a region of romance to her nor a hell of sin. It simply amuses her, and she gets her own sardonic delight in it into her book."97
Young, Francis Brett—The critic's perusal of Sea Horses led him to believe that Young was a "disciple of Joseph Conrad, and … he surely does no discredit to his master." The tale was "very deftly managed. It is the work of a man whose talent is obvious."98
The inferences to be drawn from the preceding mass of reviews are, in number, several; in significance, highly important; and, in respect to Mencken's interest in literature while pilot of the Mercury, devastating. One fact about the reviews presents itself with resounding force. It is the fact that an overwhelming percentage of them are, overall, extremely favorable, which makes it appear that Mencken was trying to appease rather than criticize. Evidently, he judiciously selected the books he reviewed, and, in the main, chose only works by writers he liked. Some support for this judgment is gained from disclosing the number of books of fiction that were criticised each year; in 1924, fourteen works were reviewed; in 1925, twenty-four; in 1926, twenty-five; in 1927, five; in 1928, eight; in 1929, five; in 1930, five; in 1931, none; in 1932, one; and in 1933, two. Surely, this information indicates that Mencken's interest in literature declined steadily throughout the ten years. In fact, since he discussed only thirteen books during the last half of his stay on the magazine, it seems foolish to regard him as an active literary critic during those years. Furthermore, only three works were reviewed during the last three years: Death in the Afternoon, Lose With a Smile, and Ann Vickers—all three by writers who had been prominent and popular for several years. Therefore, it seems likely that, while on the Mercury, Mencken lost touch with America's swirling flow of fiction, and merely coasted on his reputation from The Smart Set. Angoff has pointed out that, "In spite of Mencken's reputation as a discoverer of new writers, during the Mercury days he read very few of the new novels, generally only those by established authors."99 All the evidence certainly bolsters this statement.
What Mencken did primarily choose to review in "The Library" was far removed from pure literature. Most of his examinations were of books about such subjects as religion, politics, and sociology. A general idea as to the types of books he discussed may be derived from a list of titles which were lifted, at random, from the pages of the Mercury. All of the following books were reviewed in the magazine between February, 1929, and August, 1933: Protestantism in the United States100; The Nature of the Physical World101; Washington Merry-Go-Round102; The Beliefs of 700 Ministers103; What Is Life104; Liberalism in the South105; Genetic Studies of Genius106; The Prohibition Experiment in Finland107; England's Crisis108; Arctic Village109; and Life in Lesu.110
The very titles of these books—typical examples of the majority of works reviewed by Mencken—almost preclude the necessity for pointing out the obvious fact that Mencken's main interests during the period were not in things literary.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king's horses
And all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty
H. L. Mencken's years on The American Mercury were exciting ones, for his sparkling treatment of the American scene was thoroughly in tune with the times. His audience, throughout most of the Twenties, was both large and appreciative; his writings were read widely; he was quoted and revered by the nation's young intellectuals; he was regarded as somewhat of a literary dictator; and, in brief, he was the darling of the Jazz Age. The green-backed Mercury was his mouthpiece, and through it he trumpeted and hooted—and was heard. But he was, like Humpty Dumpty, doomed for a fall, and, when he fell, the Mercury began to collapse, too. The postwar spirit had ushered him into power, but when the tenor of the times changed, he was swept back out again. As Angoff has pointed out, Mencken's descent was caused by the depression: "In the years 1918-1928 Mencken's name seemed to be on the tongue of every literate man and woman. His decline was almost coincidental with the beginning of the depression in the United States."1 Somehow, Mencken's antics were no longer appreciated after bread became precious, and, by December, 1933, his audience had dwindled away, and he left the Mercury with that month's issue. The announcement that he was quitting his post stimulated the following editorial, which appeared in the October, 1933, edition of The Christian Century. It aptly sums up the reasons why Mencken's brand of leadership suddenly went out of fashion.
The retirement of Mr. Mencken from the editorship of the American Mercury may not mark an epoch in American literature but it has significance as one of the signs of the passing of a type of criticism which during the past decade has had a vogue disproportionate to its value. Mr. Mencken's scorn of the 'booboisie' and his Rabelaisian laughter at the queer antics of the 'Bible Belt' have been his conspicuous contributions to the interpretation of American culture.… One had already begun to sense a disquieting untimeliness in these keen cynicisms which professed to be so absolutely timely. Their subject matter was of today, but their spirit was of yesterday. We are fed up with cynicism. 'Oh yeah' has lost its charm. Criticism must pass into a somewhat more sober and disciplined mood to get a favorable hearing. We no longer relish being told that we are fools. We have heard it often enough, and have admitted it.… Mencken's abandonment of his post as the mentor of American mores is symptomatic of a change in the American mood.2
Upton Sinclair, a long-time adversary of Mencken's, had predicted the fall as early as 1927:
Mencken has 'made his school,' as the French say; he has raised up a host of young persons as clever as their master, and able to write with the same shillelah swing. For the present that is all that is required; that is the mood of the time. But some day the time spirit will change; America will realize that its problems really have to be solved.3
The prediction was fulfilled, and Mencken retreated because, just as he had been unable to change his views and was hence forced to become silent during World War I, "the entire world had shifted key, and C Major, the only tone he knew, was suddenly discordant and out of tune."4 The Mercury rapidly lost circulation as the depression became more and more severe, and, as Manchester remarked, it could not be saved.
An affidavit filed by Joseph C. Lesser, comptroller at Knopf's … summed up the predicament of the magazine when it contended that the depression had struck it especially hard because it was dependent entirely on 'the activity, ingenuity, and popularity' of Mencken. Class magazines, Lesser pointed out, must be revamped and reorganized if they were to survive, but that could not be expected of the Mercury since it was a 'one-man magazine catering to a very selective class of readers who are followers of its editor.'5
At any rate, Mencken was jilted. His reign as literary dictator had ended before his last edition appeared in late 1933, and he never regained the power and influence that was his for so many years.
However, Mencken's work on the Mercury, both as editor and literary critic, has never been forgotten, although the various critics differ broadly in their evaluations of the man and his writings. No one denies his onetime influence, though, not even the critic Louis Kronenberger, who had no praise for Mencken's literary abilities. He once stated that "the editorials and book reviews in The Smart Set and the earlier issues of The American Mercury proved formidable instruments—probably the most formidable of their day—in creating literary trends and reputations,"6 and this judgment is supported by practically everyone who has ever written about Mencken. But, as mentioned previously, opinion concerning Mencken's abilities and contributions is more divided. One observer, L. B. Hessler, writing in 1935, accused Mencken of founding a school of "bad boy" criticism7 ; namely, meaningless, ill-founded criticism:
No attempt is made by practitioners of this spiteful school of criticism to give an unbiased and honest appraisal of the work under observation or to concern themselves with the reader at all. Since it is much easier and vastly more interesting to throw brickbats, mud, and rotten eggs … at others, the bad boy does so.8
To be sure, Mencken threw many "brickbats" and "rotten eggs" in his reviews, but they were not always aimed in the wrong direction. For this reason, Hessler's attack on Mencken's critical acumen seems a bit too general. More truth is to be found in Kronenberger's assertion that Mencken lacked
… an esthetic judgment to match his common sense. A very good pamphleteer, he turned out to be a very bad critic. Once he got into the temple of art, he seemed no better than an adventurer. He drummed up bad novelists and talked good ones down.9
Nevertheless, when Mencken reviewed a book by someone who has since been awarded a high place among the nation's writers, he was usually correct in his decisions. He was completely wrong about Dos Passos, of course, and his judgment of Dreiser's An American Tragedy now seems a bit cruel, but these are exceptions to the rule. The statement that Mencken "drummed up bad novelists" is a true one. Surely, he wasted many superlatives on such writers as Cabell and Hergesheimer, writers who have now faded into literary oblivion.
However, not all of the criticism about Mencken has been adverse. Burton Rascoe, for one, thought that Mencken, along with Nathan and Cabell, had
taken part in all of the important socio-literary affairs of their day— … each of them having done in his time mightier and more successful battles against Philistinism and Pharisaism, against the stultifying and repressive forces of ignorance, censorship, prejudice and other enemies of liberty and freedom of conscience than all the Hickses, Forsythes, Cowleys and fellow-travellers put together.
Mencken has not only honored Twain's memory; he has carried on the Mark Twain tradition in the American language and literature.10
The truth is that Mencken was not altogether a bad critic and editor while on the Mercury, and he made some worth-while contributions. He was always eager to give a hearing to young and inexperienced writers, and he published much of their work in the magazine. Angoff recorded that
Mencken was always eager to print authors for the first time, and to that end he carried on a huge correspondence with young men and women in all parts of the country in the hope that they would come through with a printable piece.… No wonder he was called the managing editor of all the young hopeful writers all over the nation. There has been no one like him in this respect ever since he gave up The Mercury … , and the life of all beginning writers has been so much the harder and so much the lonelier.11
However, it is not to Mencken's credit that the vast majority of the beginning writers he championed so lustily failed to gratify the promise he evidently saw in them. In brief, his attitude toward new writers is estimable, although his critical judgment was seldom sound.
The most stirring indictment to be made about Mencken's treatment of belles lettres, and one that the evidence renders irrefutable, is that he tended to give increasingly less attention to literature in the Mercury as time went by. Little by little, whatever literary erudition he possessed, whatever interest he had in the ebb and flow of the nation's fiction, and whatever grasp and understanding of belles lettres he owned were supplanted by an attachment for the more superficial movements of the day. The energy he had devoted to fiction while critic for The Smart Set and during the early years of the Mercury was eventually burned up in his writings about the political carnival, and he apparently had little left for the arts. Mencken made only a feeble effort in his book-review department to cover the literature that was published during the Twenties, and, if the small number of works he examined in "The Library" is any indication of the amount he read, it is likely that by the time the Mercury lost its popularity he was merely floundering somewhere in the murky backwaters of American literature; the main stream had passed him by. And not only did Mencken fail to listen to the writers who were, at that time, literary nonentities, but he also ignored the authors who were receiving thunderous applause from every corner of the country—people who were molding and transforming the nation's literature. His failure to review books by such writers as William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and John Steinbeck, to list but a few, presents conclusive testimony to the fact that he had relinquished his grasp on American literature. Granted, Mencken tooted his horn for several writers who have since been awarded a select niche in the ranks of America's top-flight novelists, but his support of, and contribution to, belles lettres while editor of the Mercury was in no way commensurate to that which has often been accorded him by many of the country's leading critics.
Manchester's assertion that Mencken had, by the time the depression struck,
… not only lost touch with the older writers he had championed, i.e., Dreiser, Boyd, Anderson, Cabel, et al; he had lost that very contact with borning fiction upon which his reputation as a literary critic was predicated. He had become completely the magazine editor and social philosopher and had, in so doing, defaulted a role for which, intrinsically, he was far better suited.12
is, perhaps, slightly exaggerated, although it misses the mark only by an inch; Mencken had kept a finger in the nation's literary pie, but it was the little one.
Another thing that is inferred by an examination of Mencken's Mercury is his distrust of innovators. His highly unfavorable reviews of Dos Passos's works definitely attests to the assumption. And, according to Angoff, Mencken was never impressed by Faulkner and his experiments with the stream-of-consciousness technique, a literary device that he manipulated such that it figured prominently in securing for him the fame he now has.
Mencken could not see him at all. He claimed that 'there is no more sense in him [Faulkner] than in the wop boob, Dante,' and 'he has no more to say than do Hawthorne and all those other New England female writers. My God, the man hasn't the slightest idea of sentence structure or paragraphing.'13
Angoff also recorded that Mencken was opposed to printing Faulkner's short story, "That Evening Sun Go Down," which appeared as the lead story in one issue.14 And, wrote Angoff, during the argument between him and Mencken, the latter said, "It is gibberish, Angoff, I tell you it is gibberish."15 This reluctance to embrace the new trends which were then being developed in the short story and the novel is another facet of Mencken's relations with belles lettres which makes him appear out of tune with the flow of literature that was passing across his desk.
A note of confusion about literature and a strong indication of a declining zeal for it was sounded by Mencken, himself, in his writings in the Mercury. Apparently, when he assumed the editorship in January, 1924, his old fire was still burning, for, in June of that year he urged a novelist to write a book about a marriage that succeeds,16 and the reasons he presented indicate that his campaign for realism was still in motion. "The more novels get away from what is typical," he maintained, "the less substance and vitality they have. The odd, the strange, the fantastic—these things belong to the romance, not to the novel."17 As the years passed, however, such comments became less and less frequent, and, in September, 1927, he ventured the following:
The new novels show a vast facility, but one must be romantic, indeed, to argue that they show anything else. The thing vaguely called creative passion is simply not in them; they are plausible and workmanlike, but they are never moving. The best fiction of today is being written by authors who were already beginning to oxidize ten years ago; the youngsters, debauched by the experiments of such men as James Joyce, wander into glittering futilities. One hears every day that a new genius has been unearthed, but it always turns out, on investigation, that he is no more than a clever sophomore. No first book as solid and memorable as McTeague or Sister Carrie has come out since the annunciation of Coolidge.18
Today it seems somewhat unbelievable that Mencken wrote this at a time when Hemingway, Wolfe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos were publishing fairly regularly. And, according to a piece he wrote less than a year later, he did not believe it himself. In "The Library" for May, 1928, he reviewed a group of six new books—three novels and three volumes of short stories. The novels were by Sarah Gertrude Millin, Ruth Suckow, and Nelson Antrim Crawford, and the short stories by Emily Clark, Ernest Hemingway, and Thornton Wilder. The review began with an overwhelming ovation:
The amazing thing about the current fiction is how good it is. Is the novel, as certain croakers allege, an outworn form, with no more juice of life in it? Then let them read such things as these …
And is the short story, squeezed between the O. Henry curse and the True Confessions curse—I assume that a curse can squeeze, as it can undoubtedly hiss—is the short story, as one hears, empty, artificial and passe? Then let whoever believes it give attention to these pieces … 19
The appalling inconsistency of these diatribes requires no elaboration; they shout for themselves.
A few months later, in December, 1928, the pendulum had swung back the other way, and Mencken penned yet another contradiction when he explained his attitude toward letters in an editorial which summed up the first five years of the magazine's existence:
The American Mercury has not neglected belles lettres, but it makes no apology for devoting relatively little space to mere writing. Its fundamental purpose is to depict and interpret the America that is in being; not to speculate moonily about Americas that might be, or ought to be. It would print more short stories if more good ones could be found. But not many are being written in the United States today.20
At the same time, Mencken speculated that few short stories were then being produced because the form, itself, was in decay and the market for inferior stories was too good; money, he thought, was contaminating the writers' artistic standards.21 And this at a time when such notables as Lardner, Katherine Anne Porter, Willa Cather, Faulkner, John O'Hara, Steinbeck, and Hemingway were turning out some of the most admirable stories that the country has ever produced!
The state of poetry was also a sad one: "In the field of poetry there are similar doldrums. An immense mass of verse is being written, but not one percent of it has any merit whatsoever."22 Here, again, Mencken's views seem extremely shallow, for these top-flight poets were producing at the time: E. E. Cummings, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, John Crowe Ransom, Roy Campbell, Stephen Spender, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren—the list is long and mighty, and it goes on and on. Mencken's inconsistency in evaluating verse has already been mentioned, and it would be pure repetition to belabor the point further.
The reason why Mencken's opinions were so jumbled and confounding seems obvious: he simply was not giving belles lettres its just due. Instead of keeping only a little finger in the literary pie, he should have either removed it entirely or shoved his whole fist in, for a glance at his Mercury reveals two things: Mencken was not always walking with the avant garde of American letters during his ten-year stay on the magazine, and, when he was, he was often out of step.
The final conclusion can only be that, despite whatever weight Mencken's literary efforts may have carried during the Twenties, he was neither a profound literary critic nor an astute judge of America's beginning writers during his years on the Mercury. Anyone who thinks that he was either of these things while editor of the magazine is mistaken, because, in the light of this study, it appears certain that he virtually neglected belles lettres throughout the decade. It is likely that Mencken's reputation will dwindle in the future, and, if he is revered at all fifty years from now, it will be for his humorous iconoclasm and for his inimitable writing style, which was, perhaps, the best of its type that America has ever seen.
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE MERCURY
1 William R. Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, The Life of H. L. Mencken (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951), pp. 150-51.
2Ibid., p. 151.
3Ibid., p. 148
6Ibid., p. 149.
7Ibid., p. 150.
8 H. L. Mencken, "Editorial," The American Mercury, 1:23, January, 1924.
10Ibid., p. 29.
11Ibid., p. 30.
14Ibid., p. 27.
16 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, The Life of H. L. Mencken, op. cit., p. 149.
17 H. L. Mencken, "Americana," The American Mercury, 4:45, January, 1926.
18 H. L. Mencken, "Americana," The American Mercury, 5:37, May, 1925.
19 H. L. Mencken, "Clinical Notes," The American Mercury, 1:77, January, 1924.
20Ibid., p. 75.
21 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, The Life of H. L. Mencken, op cit., p. 155.
22 Charles Angoff, H. L. Mencken, A Portrait from Memory (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, Inc., 1956), p. 192.
24 William R. Manchester, A Critical Study of the Work of H. L. Mencken as Literary Critic for the Smart Set Magazine, 1908-1914 (A thesis presented to the graduate school of the University of Missouri, August, 1947), p. 213.
25Ibid., p. 215.
26 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, The Life of H. L. Mencken, op. cit., p. 105.
27Ibid., p. 116.
28Ibid., p. 115.
29Ibid., p. 134.
30Ibid., p. 125.
31Ibid., p. 133.
32Ibid., p. 134.
33 Carl Van Doren, "H. L. Mencken: A Gadfly for Democracy," The Century Magazine, 105:796, March, 1923.
34 Angoff, H. L. Mencken, A Portrait from Memory, op. cit., p. 19.
35 Van Doren, op. cit., p. 791.
MENCKEN AS LITERARY EDITOR OF THE MERCURY
1 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, The Life of H. L. Mencken, op. cit., p. 150.
2 When referring to one of these works in this chapter, the author has used, for the sake of brevity, the following abbreviations: Encyclopedia for The Reader's Encyclopedia; Oxford Companion for The Oxford Companion to American Literature; and Authors for Twentieth Century Authors.
3 The names of authors listed in this section were taken from The American Mercury for the ten years, January, 1924, to December, 1933. Anyone interested in knowing what fiction was contributed by the writers in this compilation should consult the magazine for those years.
4 Angoff, H. L. Mencken, A Portrait from Memory, op. cit., p. 104.
THE BOOK REVIEWS IN THE MERCURY
1 Charles Angoff, "Mencken Twilight," North American Review, 246:218, Winter, 1938-39.
2Ibid., p. 221.
3 Henry Hazlitt, "MencKen: A Retrospect," Newsweek, 47:90, February 20, 1956.
4 H. L. Mencken, "Poetry," The American Mercury, 6:251, October, 1925.
5Ibid., p. 252.
6 H. L. Mencken, "Books of Verse," The American Mercury, 8:252, June, 1926.
8 Angoff, H. L. Mencken, A Portrait from Memory, op. cit., p. 83.
9 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, The Life of H. L. Mencken, op. cit., p. 46.
10 H. L. Mencken, "Three Volumes of Fiction," The American Mercury, 1:252, February, 1924.
11 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 6:249, October, 1925.
12 H. L. Mencken, "The Gland School," The American Mercury, 6:249, October, 1925.
13 H. L. Mencken, "Certain Works of Fiction," The American Mercury, 9:381, November, 1926.
14 H. L. Mencken, "Novels Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 5:507, August, 1925.
15 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 6:379, November, 1925.
16 H. L. Mencken, "Three Gay Stories," The American Mercury, 1:380, March, 1924.
17 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 8:509, August, 1926.
18 H. L. Mencken, "A Comedy of Fig-Leaves," The American Mercury, 12:510, December, 1927.
19 H. L. Mencken, "The Story of a Saint," The American Mercury, 16:508, April, 1929.
20 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction by Adept Hands," The American Mercury, 19:126, January, 1930.
21 H. L. Mencken, "Three Volumes of Fiction," op. cit., p. 252.
22 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 6:379, November, 1925.
23 H. L. Mencken, "The Desert Epic," The American Mercury, 12:508, December, 1927.
24 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 14:127, May, 1928.
25 H. L. Mencken, "Certain Works of Fiction," op. cit., p. 381.
26 H. L. Mencken, "Three Volumes of Fiction," op. cit., p. 252.
27 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 6:379, November, 1925.
28 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 14:127, May, 1928.
29 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 5:124, May, 1925.
30 H. L. Mencken, "Novels Good and Bad," op. cit., p. 507.
31 H. L. Mencken, "A Reverend Novelist," The American Mercury, 6:122, September, 1925.
32 H. L. Mencken, "Rambles in Fiction," The American Mercury, 2:380, July, 1924.
33 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 7:506, April, 1926.
34 H. L. Mencken, "Dreiser in 840 Pages," The American Mercury, 7:379, March, 1926.
35 H. L. Mencken, "Ladies, Mainly Sad," "The American Mercury, 19:254, February, 1930.
36 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 5:124, May, 1925.
37 H. L. Mencken, "Certain Works of Fiction," op. cit., p. 381.
38 H. L. Mencken, "Three Novels," The American Mercury, 9:127, September, 1926.
39 H. L. Mencken, "Rambles in Fiction," op. cit., p. 380.
40 H. L. Mencken, "The Desert Epic," op. cit., p. 508.
41 H. L. Mencken, "New Fiction," The American Mercury, 5:382, July, 1925.
42 H. L. Mencken, "New Fiction," op. cit., p. 382.
43 H. L. Mencken, "Two Southern Novels," The American Mercury, 18:251, October, 1929.
44 H. L. Mencken, "The Life of the Poor," The American Mercury, 19:381, March, 1930.
45 H. L. Mencken, "Two Southern Novels," op. cit., p. 251.
46 H. L. Mencken, "Novels Good and Bad," op. cit., p. 507.
47 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 7:506, April, 1926.
48 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 8:509, August, 1926.
49 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 14:127, May, 1928.
50 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction by Adept Hands," op. cit., p. 126.
51 H. L. Mencken, "The Spanish Idea of a Good Time," The American Mercury, 27:506, December, 1932.
52 H. L. Mencken, "Certain Works of Fiction," op. cit., p. 381.
53 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 8:509, August, 1926.
54 H. L. Mencken, "Three Gay Stories," op. cit., p. 380.
55 H. L. Mencken, "Three Novels," op. cit., p. 127.
56 H. L. Mencken, "New Fiction," op. cit., p. 382.
57 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 6:379, November, 1925.
58 H. L. Mencken, "Ring W. Lardner," The American Mercury, 2:376, July, 1924.
59 H. L. Mencken, "A Humorist Shows His Teeth," The American Mercury, 8:254, June, 1926.
60 H. L. Mencken, "Pongo Americanus," The American Mercury, 29:254, June, 1933.
61 H. L. Mencken, "Arrowsmith," The American Mercury, 4:507, April, 1925.
62 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 8:509, August, 1926.
63 H. L. Mencken, "Man of God: American Style," The American Mercury, 10:506, April, 1927.
64 H. L. Mencken, "Babbitt Redivivus," The American Mercury, 14:251, June, 1928.
65 H. L. Mencken, "Escape and Return," The American Mercury, 16:506, April, 1929.
66 H. L. Mencken, "A Lady of Vision," The American Mercury, 28:382, March, 1933.
67 H. L. Mencken, "Portrait of a Lady," The American Mercury, 10:379, March, 1927.
68 H. L. Mencken, "Brief Notices," The American Mercury, 7:127, January, 1926.
69 H. L. Mencken, "Edgar Lee Masters," The American Mercury, 2:250, June, 1924.
70 H. L. Mencken, "Rambles in Fiction," op. cit., p. 380.
71 H. L. Mencken, "Novels Good and Bad," op. cit., p. 507.
72 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 7:506, April, 1926.
73 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 14:127, May, 1928.
74 H. L. Mencken, "Rambles in Fiction," op. cit., p. 380.
75 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 6:379, November, 1925.
76 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 7:506, April, 1926.
77 H. L. Mencken, "Black Boy," The American Mercury, 15:126, September, 1928.
78 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 6:379, November, 1925.
79 H. L. Mencken, "Im Westen Nichts Neues," The American Mercury, 17:510, August, 1929.
80 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 7:506, April, 1926.
81 H. L. Mencken, "The Husk of Dreiser," The American Mercury, 1:509, April, 1924.
82 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 5:124, May, 1925.
83 H. L. Mencken, "An American Saga," The American Mercury, 5:254, June, 1925.
84 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 8:509, August, 1926.
85 H. L. Mencken, "Rambles in Fiction," op. cit., p. 380.
86 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 7:506, April. 1926.
87 H. L. Mencken, "Certain Works of Fiction," op. cit., p. 381.
88 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 14:127, May, 1928.
89 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction by Adept Hands," op. cit., p. 126.
90 H. L. Mencken, "Certain Works of Fiction," op. cit., p. 381.
91 H. L. Mencken, "Three Gay Stories," op. cit., p. 380.
92 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction Good and Bad," The American Mercury, 6:379, November, 1925.
93 H. L. Mencken, "Three Novels," op. cit., p. 127.
94 H. L. Mencken, "The English Novel," The American Mercury, 6:509, December, 1925.
95 H. L. Mencken, "Wells Redivivus," The American Mercury, 9:506, December, 1926.
96 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 14:127, May, 1928.
97 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 8:509, August, 1926.
98 H. L. Mencken, "New Fiction," op. cit., p. 382.
99 Angoff, H. L. Mencken. A Portrait from Memory, op. cit., p. 103.
100 H. L. Mencken, "The Gods and Their Agents," The American Mercury, 17:123, May, 1929.
101 H. L. Mencken, "The Riddle of the Universe," The American Mercury, 16:509, April, 1929.
102 H. L. Mencken, "The Men Who Govern Us," The American Mercury, 24:251, October, 1931.
103 H. L. Mencken, "The Pastors and Their Dogmas," The American Mercury, 17:509, July, 1929.
104 H. L. Mencken, "The Origin of Life," The American Mercury, 16:253, February, 1929.
105 H. L. Mencken, "The Agonies of Dixie," The American Mercury, 28:251, February, 1933.
106 H. L. Mencken, "Superiority in the Young," The American Mercury, 23:126, May, 1931.
107 H. L. Mencken, "Coroner's Inquest," The American Mercury, 24:381, November, 1931.
108 H. L. Mencken, "The Panting Motherland," The American Mercury, 23:380, July, 1931.
109 H. L. Mencken, "Utopia in Little," The American Mercury, 24:124, May, 1933.
110 H. L. Mencken, "How People Live," The American Mercury, 29:506, August, 1933.
1 Angoff, "Mencken Twilight," op. cit., p. 230.
2 "Mr. Mencken Leaves the Mercury," The Christian Century, 50:1292, October 18, 1933.
3 Upton Sinclair, "Mr. Mencken Calls on Me," The Bookman, 66:255, November, 1927.
4 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, The Life of H. L. Mencken, op. cit., p. 262.
5Ibid., p. 266.
6 Louis Kronenberger, "H. L. Mencken," The New Republic, 88:245, October 7, 1936.
7 L. B. Hessler, op. cit., p. 215.
8Ibid., p. 223.
9 Kronenberger, op. cit., p. 245.
10 Burton Rascoe, "Mencken, Nathan and Cabell," The American Mercury, 49:365, March, 1940.
11 Charles Angoff, "The Inside View of Mencken's Mercury" The New Republic, 131:21, September 13, 1954.
12 Manchester, Disturber of the Peace, The Life of H. L. Mencken, op. cit., p. 220.
13 Angoff, H. L. Mencken, A Portrait from Memory, op. cit., p. 107.
16 H. L. Mencken, "Clinical Notes," The American Mercury, 2:186, June, 1924.
17Ibid., p. 187.
18 H. L. Mencken, "Editorial," The American Mercury, 12:35, September, 1927.
19 H. L. Mencken, "Fiction," The American Mercury, 14:127, May, 1928.
20 H. L. Mencken, "Editorial," The American Mercury, 15:409, December, 1928.
22Ibid., p. 410.
SOURCE: "H. L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan and the American Mercury Venture," in Menckeniana, No. 78, Summer, 1981, pp. 1-10.
[The following essay presents Alfred A. Knopf's account of the professional and personal breakup between H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan.]
H. L. Mencken first met his future collaborator, George Jean Nathan, in 1908 in the offices in New York of The Smart Set magazine, where both were being interviewed for editorial positions. Mencken was offered the job of literary critic and Nathan that of drama critic. According to Mencken's biographer. Dr. Carl Bode, Nathan's work in The Smart Set didn't actually begin to appear until 1909, almost a year after their first meeting.
Such was the chemistry between the two men that an extraordinary friendship developed, both literary and personal. It would last until 1923 when, with the assistance of an innovative young publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, the two founded the American Mercury, perhaps the most influential literary magazine of the time. Mr. Knopf was publisher.
Shortly after the first issue appeared in January of 1924, it became apparent that there were differences between Mencken and Nathan. The following story was written by the surviving member of the team that created one of the most sensational literary magazines in the history of publishing.
Only one man could write this story and it is a view from the inside. Much of the other writing concerning the Mencken-Nathan break-up has been scholarly speculation over the intervening half-century.
This chapter concerning H. L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan, and the American Mercury is drawn from Mr. Knopf's memoirs, an undertaking he now describes as "a task long since abandoned." It was written during the 1960's.
Mr. Knopf has graciously granted Menckeniana the privilege of publishing this account. He has also included an entry from his diary, dated October 7, 1925, which further sets the stage for this exciting story.
The text is uncut and appears as Mr. Knopf wrote it almost twenty years ago.
A somewhat edited version of this story appeared on the "Other Voices" page of the Baltimore Evening Sun and was published between June 22-25, 1981.
In writing to Op-Ed page editor, Gwinn Owens, Mr. Knopf said: "I gave my chapter no further thought until in the special edition of Menckeniana, issued as part of the centenary celebration of Henry's birth last September 12, I read 'HLM and GJN: The Editorial Partnership Re-examined' by Carl Dolmetsch (author of an admirable work on The Smart Set magazine), which is a paper he had given at a seminar on Mencken at the Newberry Library in Chicago the previous May. I found this piece so inadequate, ignoring so much of what I knew was missing, that I determined to publish my own record."
I find in a diary dated October 7, 1925, the following: "Pow-wow with HLM this morning. His soreness for George Nathan seems deep-seated and growing. The more he gets from George in the way of getting rid of the old-fashioned old partnership, the more he wants. Nothing in the end will satisfy him but complete divorce. It looks like Henry's one weakness. He insists that George isn't our friend any more than the friend of the Mercury—that he talks much of what books he gets for us (exactly none) and what financial sacrifices he made leaving his own books with us. Meanwhile, George is more friendly personally than ever before. Henry can force a row if he will, but I hope he won't, because after all George is within his rights and only his taste in not long ago clearing out from where he so clearly isn't wanted could be questioned. It's just another example of how the best of friends, when they once fall out, become the bitterest of enemies. Outwardly all is calm and amiable; actually Henry will never rest till he ruins George. Poor game it seems to me for Henry—not worthy of his ammunition. What a story the true history of the rise and fall of the Mencken/Nathan partnership will make some day."…
Long before this, differences between Henry and George had become acute, and Henry determined either to leave the magazine himself or to get rid of his associate. He somehow never seemed to realize that George couldn't just be wished or ordered off the premises. After all, he owned one-sixth of the property and would sooner or later have to be bought out.
October 15th (probably 1924) Mencken wrote Nathan, "After a year's hard experience and due prayer, I come to the conclusion that the scheme of the American Mercury as it stands is full of defects, and that to me at least it must eventually grow impossible. We can go into my reasons at length if necessary next week. I am proposing to Alfred that a meeting be called for Wednesday. For the present I state only my conclusions.1 They are:
- That the magazine is fast slipping into the formalism which ruined The Smart Set—in other words, that we are beginning to depend upon rubber stamps rather than upon ideas.
- That this decay is due mainly to the need to stay within the narrow (and progressively narrowing) circle of our common interests—in brief, to the duality of editorial control.
- That no remedy is worth anything that doesn't strike at the root of the difficulty.
"I therefore propose the following alternatives:
(1)I will as of January 1st next take over complete control of the editorial department, put in a managing editor, run the office and operate the magazine as Sedgwick operates the Atlantic, or (2) I will retire from all editorial duties and responsibilities and go upon the same footing that other contributors are on. My inclination at the moment is to choose Number Two. I can see nothing ahead under the present scheme save excessive and uninteresting drudgery and a magazine growing progressively feebler.
"You may not agree with my conclusions even after you hear my reasons, but the point is that it is not necessary that they be correct. It is only necessary that I believe them. I don't want to begin to think of the editorship as a job and a nuisance. Either it must be something to interest me greatly or it is something to be got rid of.
"If case No. 2 is adopted I am willing to cancel my stock in the company or to turn it into the treasury. I offer to write one article a month for the magazine at the same rate paid to other contributors."
A few days later he wrote another and much longer letter to Nathan.
"What I am thinking of is the future—two, five, or ten years hence. In particular, I am thinking of my own future. As things stand, I see nothing ahead save a round of dull drudgery, with no chance to life the magazine out of casualness and triviality and to make it of solid dignity and influence. Its present apparent success (i.e., that of the Mercury) I believe is largely illusory. It is appealing mainly to a superficial and unstable class of readers. Their support is not to be depended on. They buy it at the newsstands and gabble about it intermittently, but they are not permanently interested in ideas. What the magazine needs is a sounder underpinning. It must develop a more coherent body of doctrine, and maintain it with more vigor. It must seek to lead not a miscellaneous and frivolous rabble, but the class that is serious at bottom, however much it may mock conventional seriousness. There is great significance, I believe, in the fact that the most successful thing we have ever printed, and by long odds, was the Kent2 article on Coolidge.
"You mention The Smart Set and say that I was wrong about it. I believe on the contrary that I was right every time. The Smart Set went to pot because it was too trivial, because it interested intelligent readers only intermittently, and then only when they were in trifling moods, when they were, so to speak, a bit stewed intellectually. Eventually many of them tired of it because it got nowhere. Their reading of the magazine became irregular, and so its circulation declined. As you will recall, I proposed at least a dozen times that we put more solid stuff into it. We could never agree as to the character of the solid stuff, and I thus lost interest in it. During its last three or four years I certainly put no hard work and thought into it, I simply slopped along. I don't want to do this with the American Mercury. On The Smart Set we could hide behind the obvious handicaps, the absurd name, the wretched printing, the imbecility of Warner (Elting F. Warner, its owner) and so on. But now we are out in the open with the harsh sunlight on us.
"I believe that either of us convinced of all this, and with a simple and vigorous policy, could make the Mercury something very much better than it is, and give it eventually the sort of position of the Atlantic, or even a better position. Its chances are not unlike those which confronted the Atlantic in the years directly after the Civil War. It has an opportunity to seize leadership of the genuinely civilized minority of Americans. But I doubt that the job just presented is one for two men. Divided counsels make for too much irresolution and compromise. In particular I doubt that you and I could carry it off together. Our interests are too far apart. We see the world in wholly different colors. When we agree, it is mainly on trivialities. This fundamental difference was of relatively small consequence on The Smart Set, where neither of us took the magazine very seriously. The presence of Warner made it impossible. But it is different with the American Mercury. I see no chance of coming closer together. On the contrary, I believe that we are drifting further and further apart. I note an obvious proof of it: we no longer play together. Another: when we sit down to discuss the magazine itself, we are off it in ten minutes.
"What is to be done I don't know. But I believe the matter ought to be talked out. I can see clearly only what is ahead for myself. My current job tends to irritate me. I am tied to routine, and much of it is routine that shouldn't be thrown on me—for example, watching the printer, and especially the make-up man. Page 374 in the November issue is in point. If I get out of contact with the office for three days my desk is in chaos. All this makes it a practical impossibility for me to do what I ought to do, and what Sedgwick does—that is, track down ideas, manuscripts and authors. I have duties that are antagonistic, and that kill each other. If I go on I'll slide inevitably, in self protection, into the easier of them. In other words, I'll do precisely what I did on The Smart Set. I could work with a competent slave, but I can't work when I must be that slave myself."
"But I don't want to make this a roster of grievances. You have your own troubles, and some of them are worse than mine. All I suggest is that we sit down and look at the situation realistically, and try to remedy it if it can be remedied. It goes without saying that I am willing to go on as now until a remedy can be found. But nothing is to be gained by evasions. It ought to be clearly understood by all hands that I am dissatisfied with the present scheme, and that its continuance is bound to make me less and less useful to the magazine. Look at my December book article: it is dreadful stuff. I therefore propose a palaver. Why should we quarrel? Either I am right or I am wrong. If I am right, I assume that everyone will agree. If I am wrong, I engage to shut up."
January 17th, 1927, Henry wrote me:
"Keep off the subject of the Mercury as much as possible. I have laid a good foundation, I think, for an absolute divorce. The details need not be hurried. There is plenty of time. I have told George that under the agreement which I propose to observe very strictly and even pedantically, I shall:
- Refuse to take any salary for five years.
- Hand over no manuscripts to him that come into the office.
- Refuse absolutely to put his name on letter paper or to do anything else not required by the agreement clearly and specifically."
But whatever this agreement may have been, it was never signed. So the two continued to quarrel. From time to time they would report to me that they had reached an agreement and were ready to tell us about it. Blanche, Father, and I would then sit down with them around a table in my father's office prepared for good news but within a matter of minutes they would be quarrelling again and the meeting would break up. This happened over and over again.
Meanwhile, we had managed to convince Henry that, if George were to be got rid of as Henry insisted, we would have to buy him out. This led to discussions between the two of them at which we of course were not present. Their nature is shown by this letter from Henry to me:
"The status of affairs on the editorial side is as follows:
"George asked me to make an agreement with him, in advance of any agreement he might make for his stock with your father, for his continuance as a contributor to The American Mercury. He said the completion of such an agreement with me would materially condition the demands he would make for his stock. I told him that it was impossible to discuss the matter, save most informally. I told him I had agreed with you and your father to make no arrangement with him until the stock business was settled.
"In the course of the informal discussion, which he insisted upon I told him:
- That, no matter what arrangement he made about the stock, I would discontinue Clinical Notes at the end of the year, my reason being that I did not think they fitted into the scheme of the magazine.
- As for his theatre reviews, I told him that my mind was open. I said I could not decide until the stock matter was settled and I had had a chance to discuss the future of the magazine with you and your father. In case we decided that we should head in the direction of the Atlantic Monthly, I would be against printing theatre reviews.
On the contrary, if we decided to make a lighter magazine I'd be inclined to continue them.
"He asked for an immediate decision on the ground that, if the reviews were dropped, he would have to make other arrangements as soon as possible. I told him that it was out of the question to decide until the stock matter and the question of the magazine's future plans were out of the way, but that if the decision were against the reviews I would naturally protect him until he could make other arrangements. He then asked if I'd be willing to make a long-term contract with him, in case we decided to go on with the reviews. I told him no. I said that I'd protect him against being thrown out without notice, but couldn't go any further.
"All these discussions were at his request, and I couldn't avoid them. I offer this exact account of their conclusions in order to prevent misunderstanding. The essence of the matter is that George tried to make his editorial status a condition of the negotiations about the stock, but that I refused absolutely to agree. As things stand, I have made no promise whatever, save to treat him decently in case we decide against continuing him as a contributor. So much, of course, goes without saying. To sum up:
- In case he and your father come to terms and you continue to publish his books, I'll follow your advice about printing his theatre reviews. I am not eager for them, but am willing to carry them on (without any contract) so long as you print his books.
- In case you part with him as his publisher, I shall notify him at once that his reviews will be terminated not later than January 1st next (and at once if he says so). In other words, I won't print him at all if you cease publishing his books.
- In either case the Check List will cease not later than January 1st.
"If you want me to come to New York during the week a wire will bring me at once. I believe the time has come to clear up the whole situation. We have all been harassed enough."
Stock in the American Mercury, Incorporated consisted of one hundred and fifty shares divided as follows: Samuel Knopf, fifty, Blanche, twenty-five, Henry, twenty-five, George, twenty-five, and twenty-five for me. At a meeting held January 9th, 1928, the board of directors of Alfred A. Knopf, Incorporated resolved that the corporation should acquire all the Mercury stock in exchange for seven hundred and fifty shares of preferred stock in Alfred A. Knopf, Incorporated and five hundred shares of its Class B capital stock—all, that is, except twenty-five shares held by Nathan. An agreement had finally been reached by which his connection with the Mercury ceased with the February, 1925, issue, although his name would remain on the cover of the magazine up to and including the July issue of that year. It was more than four years, however, before we were finally able to purchase George's twenty-five shares, and the price finally arrived at was twenty-five thousand dollars, which we paid him in four equal installments, the first November 20th, 1929, the last May 20th, 1931. This was a good sale for George, for as things turned out our publishing house had acquired stock that in the end had no value whatever.
While from then to the time of his death George did what he could to create a public impression that there had been no breach between the two old friends, he would have been more than human did he not continue to hold a grudge against Henry, though he had only himself to blame for suffering the indignities to which he was subjected when the partnership broke up.
Thus Henry ordered Nathan's name to be removed from the directory in the lobby at 730 Fifth Avenue and his desk—he insisted on having one in the office somewhere—moved to an inner office where most of the stenographers worked.
But matters didn't end here, and those of us who knew both men were not unaware of how things really stood. Nathan shortly became the prime mover in the establishment of the American Spectator, which he edited with the collaboration of Ernest Boyd, Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, and Eugene O'Neill.
It began as a monthly and the first issue appeared in November, 1932. There were no issues in April and May of '35 and after November, 1936, it became a bimonthly. Richard R. Smith was the President of the company and claimed that the magazine was "circulated simultaneously in England, France, Germany, Austria, and Italy." The last issue bore the date April-May, 1937, and the masthead named Charles H. Fingerhood President and Publisher and M. Lehman Editor.
A more serious matter arose when Reynal and Hitchcock announced the forthcoming publication of The Smart Set Anthology, to be edited by Burton Rascoe and Groff Conklin.
Rascoe first approached Henry with regard to this book in his letter of June 28th, 1934, and two days later Mencken replied, declining to participate in the venture. He wrote with regard to Nathan, "We ceased to publish jointly at least ten years ago, and I am against resuming. Why in hell didn't you write to me when the project was first proposed? Your letter is my first news of it." And to this Rascoe replied, "Unless I hear from you to the contrary, I shall consider your decision final."
Mencken wrote again, "I hate like hell to sit on my rights, but the whole Smart Set enterprise belongs to the far past and I don't want to revive it. If you want to say that I decline to enter upon it go ahead, but don't quote this letter or my last. I think you understand my objection." (My italics.)
Then Rascoe July 11th, "O.K. on all counts—with, of course, regrets."
And Mencken on the 14th, "Very good. I trust to your discretion."
In the light of what developed, it seems clear that Rascoe did not understand Henry's objection, and Henry was mistaken in trusting to Rascoe's discretion. Indeed it would have been more sensible all round had Henry spelled out to Rascoe quite frankly what his relations with Nathan had become.
July 12th, 1934, Henry wrote me:
"Rascoe wrote to me about that book a week or so ago. I refused absolutely to let him use anything of mine. He reports that Nathan is eager to see the thing go through, but I am teetotally opposed to appearing with him in any manner or form, now or hereafter. I can't, of course, prohibit the publication of the book, but I can at least prohibit the publication of any of my own stuff. Rascoe asked Sara3 for permission to reprint one of her early stories, and I advised her to refuse it, which she did."
The explanation of Rascoe's animus is, of course, extremely simple: to publish a Smart Set Anthology with nothing in it by Mencken would be like a performance of Hamlet without the Prince. Rascoe tells in his preface how in 1919 Mencken asked and received his permission to reprint in a pamphlet which we called "Fanfare"4 a piece he had written in November, 1917, for the Chicago Sunday Tribune. Seventeen years later, in his preface to the Smart Set Anthology, he stated for the first time that "permission was not asked of the Chicago Tribune … and the Chicago Tribune's copyright on the article," and that this meant that his article could now "be reprinted by anybody legally, without my consent and without payment to me."
He went on, "I should not consider it proper to mention, also, that I was paid nothing by Alfred A. Knopf or by Mencken for my contribution to this pamphlet, if an ironical situation had not arisen when Mr. Conklin and I sought permission from authors and publishers for work to be included in this anthology. All of the authors, but one, whose permissions we particularly sought, granted it with enthusiasm, Mencken being the one exception. All, but one, of the publishers controlling copyrights, whose permissions were necessary, granted them with grace and alacrity, Alfred A. Knopf being the one exception.
"I had written to Carl Van Vechten, asking his permission to include an essay which had appeared in the Smart Set and later included in a book issued by Knopf. Mr. Van Vechten readily granted the permission, expressed entfiusiasm about the project.… He told me it was necessary to get Knopf's permission, since the latter controlled the copyright.
"Knopf granted the permission and sent me the necessary papers to sign.… The next day a letter arrived from Knopf, saying that since granting the permission he had learned that H. L. Mencken was not to be represented in the anthology and that, on talking it over with Mr. Van Vechten, Mr. Van Vechten had decided that he did not want to appear in a Smart Set anthology in which Mencken was not represented."
Rascoe went on to say that he did not know the cause of the break between Mencken and Nathan, "but I do know that on Mencken's part it has been complete, uncompromising and, as the above singular action on Knopf's part of once granting and then withdrawing copyright permission, appears almost vindictive." But note what follows:
"In all the conversations I have had with Nathan from the time the break was supposed to have occurred until the other day, he had given me no indication that a rupture of their long friendship had ever occurred, his references to Mencken have always been as affable and affectionate as they ever were."
Through all of this Rascoe, usually knowledgeable, seems to me to have acted with great naïveté. Certainly the breach between Mencken and Nathan was no secret, and he could have learned the facts easily enough had he consulted me. But Nathan must have bemused him, for he solemnly writes, "I asked Nathan recently (about the break) and he replied that there was no break as far as he was concerned; and that the only thing he could figure out that had made Mencken sore at him was something he said, in a jest, about Mencken's collar. 'He thought I was making fun of him and got very angry,' said Nathan." Rascoe adds, "But this sounds so preposterous that it must be dismissed as improbable"—a magnificent under-statement which makes one wonder why, if he felt that way about it, Rascoe saw any need to print it.
It seems clear from this record that Mencken wanted a complete divorce from Nathan, and it was just as obvious to me—though there was naturally no written record to support this—that the one thing Nathan didn't want was that kind of a divorce. After all, the theater and HLM were, I think, the two great experiences of his life.
As advance-of-publication promotion, Reynal and Hitch-cock printed in pamphlet form the introduction which Rascoe had written. This contained matter that Henry and I regarded as clearly libelous. For example:
"Mencken broke with Dreiser,5 because Dreiser would not contribute to a fund to defend the American Mercury, a Knopf publication which was profiting handsomely in circulation by reason of the fact that the issue of the magazine containing the story, "Hatrack," by Herbert Asbury had been banned in Boston. Mencken went up to Boston, sold the magazine on the Boston Common, and got himself arrested as a test case. Mencken later said he bore the expense of the trial himself, and that all who were interested in the freedom of American literature should have contributed to the cause. He thought Dreiser should do so particularly because, when The Genius was suppressed, Mencken got up a petition to procure release of the book. But Dreiser himself bore the cost to him of the impounding of The Genius. He pointed out that Knopf had not contributed any support to Dreiser's cause, even moral support in that case. He saw no reason why he should contribute money to defend a case which was proving the very best advertisement a Knopf property could get. If Mencken bore the entire legal fees, court costs, and other expenses without calling upon Knopf that, according to Dreiser, was Mencken's lookout. That's Dreiser's side of the break with Mencken as Dreiser related it to me."
The facts: the American Mercury paid all expenses of the "Hatrack" affair, Mencken never approached Dreiser or anyone else nor, of course, did I, for any financial help. Indeed, no such conversation or correspondence between Dreiser and Mencken as Rascoe describes ever took place. Finally, we took no advantage whatever of the publicity given the American Mercury, by the "Hatrack" case because, as I have stated earlier, we never reprinted the issue of the magazine and, at the time of the acquittal of Mencken by Judge Parmenter in Boston, we did not have a single copy of it for sale. And in any case it would have been mighty hard for anyone who knew Mencken—and Rascoe surely claims he did—to imagine him ever passing the hat.
November 20th Henry wrote me:
"The pamphlet has just come in, and I have had time only to read the paragraph on page 33. I incline to agree with you that Rascoe has gone mashuggah. It is not infrequently the fate of peasants who try to make the grade as intellectuals. The whole paragraph is a mass of humorless imbecilities. I'll read the rest of the pamphlet before the end of the day.
"The truth is that I have had no communication with Dreiser, either direct or indirect, since December 12, 1925. I remember the day precisely because it was the day before my mother died. Drieser came to Baltimore with his girl and disgusted me so greatly that I resolved to have no more to do with him in this life. The Hatrack case did not break until April 2, 1926. The American Mercury company, of course, paid all the expenses of the action. It even refunded to me my expenses on the trip to Boston. Before I left Baltimore Paul Patterson, of the Baltimore Sun, came to me with an offer of any financial support that I might need. He remembers this clearly, and is willing to make oath that I refused. Obviously, if I refused the help of a plainly solvent man, I was not soliciting money from Dreiser.
"At the time of the raid on The Genius there was no trial of any one, and hence no war chest was needed. But a protest of American authors was got up, and I financed the tedious business of getting signatures. My stenographer worked on it for weeks, and all of this correspondence is in my vaults, so there can be no question about my participation. After the protest was finished, Dreiser insisted on adding the names of a number of Greenwich Village women—the primeval female larvae of what are now known as proletarian authors. I thereupon washed my hands of the matter.
"I enclose copies of my correspondence with Rascoe. As you will observe, I was polite to him. Moreover, you will note that he showed no signs of indignation himself. Yet more, you will note that Nathan agreed to further the enterprise after learning that I would refuse to have anything to do with it."
When Dreiser learned how he had been misrepresented by Rascoe, he responded nobly and wrote his old friend: "What the devil do you mean by imagining things and putting them in my mouth? Mencken, outside of an occasional request for a story or article, never asked me for anything, or to support him in any way, and in this particular case, at that time, if he had asked me I most certainly would have contributed, provided my means, which were slight enough, would have permitted.
"I know that you never willingly misstate anything. So there must be some yarn of some kind, either in connection with someone else or some statement that I have made which has stuck in your mind but which can have nothing to do with this. In consequence you must arrange, as I know you will, with Reynal and Hitchcock to retract this in a satisfactory form.
"I can't be angry with you because I care for you too much. But I must be just to all concerned and so must you."
On the same date, November 20th, Dreiser wrote Mencken, sending Henry a copy of a letter I had written him and saying, "My first reaction to it is that Rascoe has lost his mind.… I am writing Rascoe, mailing him a copy of this letter to you and also sending one to Knopf. Regardless of Burton's feelings, and I care for him very much, I am in common decency bound to address Reynal and Hitchcock, his publishers, in regard to it."
And to them he wrote, "In justice to myself, Mencken, and for that matter, Rascoe, since I never questioned his desire for accuracy, something must be done about it. Neither the public nor the critics can be left with the conviction that something occurred which never did occur."
Next day Mencken replied to Dreiser:
"It goes without saying that I never suspected you for an instant of saying anything of the sort. Putting aside the wanton libel on Alfred Knopf and the distress I knew it must have given you to be involved in it, the pamphlet gave me a loud laugh, rare enough in these last days before the Second Coming. The source of some of Rascoe's more grotesque statements is only too obvious. The poor fellow is himself a ridiculous object. He got a stout kick in the pants, and now he is running around rubbing his backside and complaining that it hurts. He has been silly before, and he will be silly again.
"I am seriously thinking of doing my literary and pathological reminiscences, probably in ten volumes folio. This is my solemn promise to depict you as a swell dresser, a tender father, and one of the heroes of the Argonne.
"My best thanks for your letter. It was decent of you to go to the bat so promptly. The libel on Knopf—perhaps the squarest man in money matters ever heard of—was really filthy and disgusting."
November 19th Reynal and Hitchcock sent a circular letter to those who had received Rascoe's pamphlet, which read in part, "The paragraph on page 33 referring to Mencken's break with Dreiser, which was intended for obvious reasons to have been omitted, was included in the copy that was sent you. This paragraph contains certain implications we find are not in accordance with the facts, and it was not our intention to give distribution to any statement containing such implications." They asked for the return of the original copy, "which we will replace with a corrected copy of the pamphlet."
As I had always been friendly with Eugene Reynal—I hardly knew Curtice Hitchcock—I said I was satisfied with this notice, but Mencken felt differently and I think now he was right. He wrote me:
"I have a letter from Hitchcock, enclosing a copy of his circular withdrawing the Rascoe pamphlet, and a copy of his letter to Dreiser. I suppose you have seen the last named. It is a cool piece of effrontery, and expresses surprise that you should have written to Dreiser, inasmuch as you had approved the circular. Obviously, this Hitchcock is a bounder comparable to Rascoe himself. He nowhere expresses any regret for his palpable libel on you, and he lies deliberately when he says that it was included in the pamphlet by error. I think you should make him come across with a more frank and categorical disclaimer. I shall not reply to him."
But in the end, because Rascoe's animus was so great, Henry and I agreed with our attorney, Benjamin H. Stern, that we couldn't possibly do ourselves any good by taking any sort of recognition of it and that it was best to drop the matter. Which we did.
Later Henry wrote me: "I gather from a note in Walter Winchell's column that Rascoe's introduction to his so-called Smart Set Anthology is largely devoted to Nathan's side of our late unpleasantness. So far as I am concerned, I don't care what either Nathan or Rascoe writes or says. It may be well, however, for you to examine the story with some care. We made a great error in being merciful to Nathan. We should have thrown him out on his back-side and let him yell. It is foolish to be decent in dealing with a rat."
1 This account is based on a manuscript history of the Hatrack case, which Mencken later wrote for his private records.
2 Frank R. Kent, Baltimore Sun columnist.
3 Mrs. Henry Mencken.
4"H. L. Mencken: Fanfare" by Burton Rascoe; "The American Critic," by Vincent O'Sullivan; "Bibliography" by F. C. Henderson (pseudonym), pamphlet published by us in 1920. Rascoe's article, a review of "A Book of Prefaces," was first published in his column in the Chicago Sunday Tribune November 11th, 1917.
5Kemler, The Irreverent Mr. Mencken, page 301, writes, "George Jean Nathan insists that Dreiser's break with Mencken had absolutely no connection with his. As I see it, the two incidents had their origin in the same remote cause—namely, Mencken's transformation into a political pundit."
SOURCE: "The West as Gauged by H. L. Mencken's American Mercury," in Menckeniana, No. 89, Spring, 1984, pp. 1-14.
[In the following essay, Schwartz examines editorial attitudes toward the American West in the American Mercury through a bibliographic survey of works about the West and by Western regional writers that appeared in the magazine during the Mencken era.]
So given was H. L. Mencken to criticism of the South, that in 1974 there appeared a lengthy monograph by Fred C. Hobson, entitled The Serpent In Eden, dealing with the Sage's treatment of that region. There seems to be less awareness among Menckenophiles of H.L.M.'s attitudes toward another vast and distinctive region, the trans-Mississippi West. With this in mind the present author tackled the pages of Mencken's American Mercury, in an attempt at discerning such attitudes on the part of Mr. Mencken, his peers and disciples.
The prospects for a bibliographic essay focusing on the West appeared none too good, since the Mercury's editorial staff was comprised exclusively of professional Easterners, both urban and urbane. In addition to the Baltimore iconoclast and his co-editor, the cosmopolitan drama critic George Jean Nathan, the crew which got out the monthly publication included Charles Angoff, a young Bostonian, fresh out of Harvard.
But Mencken's maiden editorial informed his readers that "The American Mercury will live up to the adjective in its name. It will lay chief stress at all times upon American ideas, American problems and American personalities because it assumes that nine-tenths of its readers will be Americans."1
While the Mercury was in the planning stage, Mencken proclaimed that the publication would become "the gaudiest and damnedest ever seen in the republic."2 This prediction proved not mere hyperbole, but rather close to the mark. For half a dozen years or more, the attractive green cover was ubiquitous in college dormitories and fraternity houses, in libraries, in the reading rooms of the best clubs and resorts, and in the homes of the intelligentsia.
The Depression marked the end of the honeymoon between Mencken and his Mercury on the one hand, and the "civilized minority" on the other. Unable and unwilling to revise his nineteenth-century liberalism, and to shed his anachronistic world-view grounded in the philosophies of Nietzsche, Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and their like, Mencken declined swiftly in popularity, and the Mercury declined along with him.
The Baltimore Sage remained as editor through 1934, but the publication was pretty much moribund from 1931 onward. It was in the Fall of that year that the Mercury's editors received a manuscript entitled "The Tragedy of the Sioux," by Chief Sitting Bull. The chief was "hoping to bring about a more just appraisal of the Sioux people and to relieve them from wardship."3 Mencken waxed enthusiastic over the article. Angoff dismissed it as "dull and pointless," a piece that "might have found a place in the The Atlantic Monthly around the turn of the century."4 The younger man warned the editor that the Mercury would become a laughing stock if Sitting Bull's article occupied the lead position in the November, 1931 issue.5 The altercation, though eventually resolved, seemed an appropriate cut-off point for the scope of this article. Fittingly, it related to a Western theme. More, it had turned out that the present author's initial fears about a paucity of Western material had been unwarranted. Happily, The American Mercury devoted an abundance of space to Western authors, Western history, Western social criticism, and, in keeping with its generally iconoclastic tone, to Western buffoonery, as well.6
No region, save the Deep South, which H. L. Mencken labeled "The Sahara of the Bozart," in one of his most provocative satirical essays, came in for harsher treatment in the Mercury's "Americana" section each month, than the Far West. This regular feature, compiled jointly by Mencken and Nathan, was enormously popular among the journal's readers, according to both editors. It had as its purpose the mocking of the values of "the booboisie," and Babbitts, both secular and ecclesiastical. Items of a nature guaranteed to amuse, or outrage Mercury readers, were extracted from selected publications and reprinted in "Americana."
At times the items chosen were downright macabre, such as the advertisement in the Yakima (Wash.) Morning Herald which announced the Annual Benefit Dance, replete with "Snappy Music," sponsored by the Wenas Cemetery Association, or the news from Medford, Oregon, that a young resident of that community, upon reading in a physical culture magazine that fasting would improve his health, proceeded to forsake food, and died some days later, of starvation.7
The editors delighted in reporting ludicrous and undignified acts committed by eminent Westerners. Did Dr. C. H. Marvin, President of the University of Arizona, "camouflaged as a bewhiskered white wing—help State American Legion Commander Dougherty sweep a Phoenix thoroughfare because Phoenix defeated Tucson in a Legion membership campaign"?8 Then the Mercury was quick to lend national publicity to the item. Did Washington's governor, Roland H. Hartley, boast that he emphatically would not approve the purchase of expensive spittoons for the new State Capitol building, and then proceed to sign a voucher authorizing the buying of fifty-six cuspidors, valued at up to $100 apiece, and did this same Hartley dance a jig for high school students near Spokane, and then invite them to Olympia in the best Babbitt-like fashion, to "sit in a chair that cost $1,000, and I'll show you through the Governor's office, which is filled with furniture valued at $40,000."?9 Then it was not long before the Mercury's sophisticated readers were chuckling over the incident in the "Americana" column.
Perversions of individual liberty induced intense disgust in the Mercury's editors, assuaged only by the gales of pejorative laughter, at the antics of such types as Oregon's Governor Walter M. Pierce, who was quoted as saying that "Time has modified the old adage that every man's home is his castle and sanctuary, and in the future Oregon homes must be kept in such condition that a visit from an inspector of the State Prohibition forces will be welcomed at any time."10
Ridiculed too, under the caption "Free Speech in Salt Lake City," was the pronouncement by the Utah Associated Industries, to the effect that "The antecedents of speakers, should first be known, and the nature of their attitude be ascertained before hospitality is extended to them."11
A Westerner won his town's volunteer fire department spitting championship.12 Another was divorced by his wife because he was in the habit of drinking milk directly from his goat's udder at the breakfast table.13 Yet another, this time the pastor of a Bellingham, Washington, church, proudly boasted that newspaper advertising was helping to bring on the Kingdom of God, since "$100 worth of advertising had brought in more than $1,700 in silver plate collections."14 A Santa Paula, California, editorial writer mocked hand-kissing as a prime example of European decadence.15 All found their way into the pages of "Americana."
Criticism of Western manners and morals, both past and present, was not restricted to "Americana." California, or more specifically the Southern portion of the state, was referred to by the Mercury as "Moron-Land."16 The state was "controlled by moronic Babbitts."17 It was a fitting home for the obscene mob-master William Randolph Hearst whose gaucheness led him to "hold court in Cecil de Mille magnificence," and for success oriented Stanford University, where academic credit was given to sophomores who registered for a course in cheer leading.18
Mencken summed up the Golden Gate State as "an Alsatia of retired Ford agents and crazy fat women—a paradise of Rotary."19 He bewailed the failure of California to live up to its original promise of producing "a charming and enlightened civilization." At one time there had been "a touch of tropical balm in its air, and a touch of Latin and even oriental color in its ideas. Like Louisiana it seemed likely to resist Americanization for many years."20 But, alas, under the influence of hordes of invading garden-variety American dullards, the state had slid downhill and the "civilized minority" was in despair. Small wonder that despite the potential along the gorgeous California coast for "an almost Latin elegance and voluptuousness," the inhabitants "insisted upon conducting themselves precisely as if they lived in Iowa or Mississippi."21
A thousand or more miles to the East, Kansas stood as a "resplendent jewel which sends out rays of Holy Thinking," a state so revolting, so dominated by cranks and uplifters, and so oriented toward evangelical crusading and fundamentalism, that it was only a shade above California on the scale of civilization.22
Between the two loomed Bernard de Voto's Utah, which the young historian whose early literary reputation was largely made between the Mercury's covers, characterized as "a commonwealth of greengrocers who have lifted themselves from the peasantry."23 To Edgar Lee Masters, who had declared that were he a young artist he would flee not to Paris, but to Salt Lake City, the home of "a whole people who loved, respected, encouraged and produced beauty," de Voto replied
I defy—anyone—to find one artist or even a quasi-artist in all the wide expanse of Utah, from Soda Springs to Hurricane, from Roosevelt to St. George. No artist ever lived there ten minutes after he had the railroad fare out. If the presence of one should become known, the Mormons would damn him as a loafer and the Gentiles would lynch him as a profligate.24
Nor did other Western states fare better at the hands of the Mercury's editors and authors. From the Dakotas to Arizona, from Washington to Texas, all suffered at one time or another similar stings of biting social criticism.
It is not to be supposed, however, that the Mercury's editorial policy directed toward the West that variety of Eastern chauvinism which such Western authors as Vardis Fisher would later persistently decry. Quite to the contrary, the West, according to Mencken, Nathan, Angoff, and their underlings and contributors, had once been a gloriously romantic place, peopled by lusty giants. That it had been reduced, by the prohibition era, to a mere replica of the disgustingly tame and "cultured" East, was a tragedy for America. It was an especially poignant tragedy for the type of men and women who in an earlier day had been lifted out of the doldrums of mundane living to the ennobling adventure implicit in the migration to a new, mysterious and challenging land. Here is de Voto telling Mercury readers about the Great Migration of the eighteen-forties:
for all the anguish of the trail, the expedition had, reminiscently, a glamor beyond anything else in our national experience. Oregon never quite came up to the advertisement it had had, and few emigrants attained the bliss they expected there, but the wandering itself was a glorious success. It had brought daily adventure into ordinary lives. It had keyed limited souls to the vastness of the plateaux and the sonoras. It had made of the commonplace folk veteran wanderers of the wilderness, who had dared the impossible and survived it. For thousands, the months along the trail were the climax of experience, a crescendo of vigor and intensity and wild color, which they could never attain again. It was for a season life at the highest pitch, something splendid and heroic beyond expression.25
The Old West had been free-wheeling, wide-open, a perpetual carnival. "Seattle," H. L. Davis informed readers, "got its start from having the only first-rate sporting house on Puget Sound: Portland forged ahead of the other cities of Oregon largely through the social popularity of its North End."26
The Western spirit at its freest had been exemplified by those towns which sprang up and flourished as a result of the discovery of mineral wealth. Virginia City, in the days of the Comstock lode, was "the sublimated essence of the mining town, it was the superlative extreme of the mineral West."27 The town's saloons were supplemented as places of entertainment by lecture halls and opera houses as well as by brothels and gambling dens. "The itinerant performers of America, from trained fleas to transcendentalists, from Schuyler Colfax and Samuel Bowles to Artemus Ward and Orpheus C. Kerr, followed the serious money to the Comstock."28
Duncan Aikman maintained that Deadwood afforded the ultimate in Western joie de vivre. The town was prepared to revel in "Whatever was violent, whatever was grotesque, or carried a stench above the gulch's high evening shadow line," he wrote in an article entitled "Deadwood The Dreadful."29 By the time of Deadwood's birth the technique of "staging a new mining town," had been perfected and Westerners flocked in
to show off before one another all the tricks they had learned from Abilene to Walla Walla, and from Poker Flat to the furthest geographic reaches of Mr. Beadle's collection. In 10 years time the old-timers would be in Hell with their boots on or forgetting their lore through age and apathy, the promising youngsters would be reformed by the process of civilization or the penitentiaries—But in Deadwood, "300 miles from nowhere," with the Sioux riding about them on the warpath, with no state, or even territorial government to claim jurisdiction, the veterans of a hundred minor duchies of the Kingdom of Hell on Wheels gathered for their last appearance in their prime. Here they indulged their vanity for grotesque splendors, and strutted the last refinements of their arts and sciences of living before it was too late.30
This nostalgia for a paradise lost, that is to say, for a Nietzschean paradise lost, runs like a motif throughout those pages of the Mercury devoted to the West. Of Phoenix, Arizona, her adopted home, the Polish born Goldie Weisberg lamented, "the champion bull-dogger of other days has been replaced by the champion golfer."31
The Southwest had fared perhaps worst of all at the hands of progress. An El Paso writer compared "the paved, pious and stolid city," of his advanced years with the "rough, uncouth and very gay town," in which he had been born, and could not repress a deep sigh of regret. "Where life was once cheerful, filled with alarms and worth living," he complained,
it is now flat, decorous and commonplace; where men were once publicly and delightfully naughty and openly bellicose they are now only surreptitiously so; where the leading citizens once wore six-shooters and Winchesters they now wear wrist watches and golf sticks, and where—God save the race! the communal sports, in days past, were wont to drink hard liquor out of the original carboys and to play poker with the North Star as the limit they now absorb coca-cola with a dash of tequila in it, and bet on mah jong at a twentieth of a cent a point.32
San Antonio, too, had once been a splendid place in which to live, wrote another Mercury contributor. The town, before the reign of George F. Babbitt, and his ilk, had boasted gaudy gambling houses. "Chili queens dispensed smiles and indigestion on the plazas."33 Tourists delighted in the many saloons and in the bustling redlight district, which was widely regarded as a major business asset. Good music, good theatre, good food, all abounded. "Holidays and fiestas were greeted with acclaim. Life was very gay."34
Butte, Montana, was one of the few Western communities which remained, well into the post World War I era, relatively uncorrupted. It was in fact lauded by a native author, whose tribute to its glories was entitled "Hymn to an Oasis."35 The city was admittedly controlled by Anaconda Copper as a fief of sorts, but so what? Though the blatant capitalist exploitation produced scores of radicals, it produced too a lack of delusions about The American Way of Life. "It is," the writer proclaimed, "a wise, weary, sardonic burg, this copper camp pigeonholed away in the remoter Rockies; a wild one, a Rabelaisian, bad and bold."36 The typical jealous Montanan from the less fortunate reaches of the state, "loathes Butte with the acrimony that only the inferiority complex engenders."37
But Butte, and the hardy breed that peopled it, was an exception. James Stevens bemoaned the demise of the rough living "savages" who once filled railroad construction gangs, in an article appropriately entitled "The Uplift on the Frontier."38 These men, among whom the wildly talented Stevens had long lived and worked, were "savages" no more. They had been reduced to the comfortable, respectable, but sorry status of "mere laborers," by such civilizing forces as the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, which had sprung up during the war. These tamed milk-shake drinkers and movie-goers "belonged to the tribe whose calked boots once crashed on the floors, and whose bellows once rattled the glasses of the bars on Burnside Street and Yesler Way," Stevens lamented.39
Even San Francisco, which had at one time given promise of developing into the most charming city on the continent, was fast sliding downhill. By 1925, "The merry and turbulent days were dying out."40 Americanization was proceeding at an alarming rate. Local color was fading from that very Chinatown, which in happier days had been the home of paper dragons and porcelain-faced prostitutes.41
Mencken and his editorial associates, with their characteristic delight in tweaking the noses of the bourgeoisie, extolled the virtues of Western "bad men," and inhabitants of the demi monde. The professional gambler of an earlier day, reported D. I. Potter, basing his conclusions we may conjecture on Bret Harte's Oakhurst and Jack Hamlin, was a gentleman in the classic meaning of the term. He
dressed, shot, swore, played, drank, ate, looked—no doubt slept—harder than any other men. He had his adventures more openly. He took his code of debts and honor more seriously. He flung way his cash more recklessly upon charity, debauchery and display. He was more ostentatiously sentimental in his reverence for "decent ladies." In New Mexico, and Arizona, in territorial days, he took a solemn and decently exposed pride in the fact that the taxes on his concessions were the most lucrative source of the public school funds. He flourished in the hairy 70's and 80's, so his beard and moustachios were of the fiercest. He came and went trailing his gusto in life as he found it. He did not cheat.42
Conventional Western heroes like Boone, Crockett, and Kit Carson fared less well on the pages of the Mercury. Sam Houston, was depicted as a mundane frontiersman, whose career paled when contrasted with that of his colorful adversary, Santa Anna, "The Napoleon of the West."43 Brigham Young, the Mormon's "first pope," was "a serpentine politician," and "a mob-master of the first order."44 John C. Fremont was tormented by delusions of grandeur, and was "tragically symbolic of the youthful visions, the fatal optimism, the inability to reconcile crude fact and beautiful ideals, the sordidness and pretense—that form the true history of the United States."45
The cowboy, personification of frontier heroism, was, contrary to the myth makers, not at all a dashing and romantic figure given to prodigious drinking, dramatic gambling bouts, gunfighting, and an intense appreciation of nature's beauties. He was rather a prosaic fellow, who drank and gambled merely as an escape from boredom, rarely fought, and was devoid of esthetic perception. That he hated his environment and longed to be shut of it, was evidenced by the sentiment of such ballad lyrics as "Oh bury me not on the lone prairie."46
The Mercury's Western heroes were of a different stamp. "Jesse James is deep in the hearts of his 100% countrymen," wrote Benjamin DeCasseres, a frequent contributor to the journal.47 "He is the manifestation of romantic lawlessness. Jesse James has achieved immortality. He is a great American. When I was a boy he was looked upon as the great American by all the boys I knew."48
The hero of H. L. Mencken's youth, according to the editor, knew "no such posthumous eminence as Jesse James—although he was a far more gallant and engaging figure." He was Billy The Kid, who Harvey Ferguson, echoing Mencken's sentiments in a Mercury feature, called a "quixotic romantic, who cared nothing for money—who lived and died an idealist."49 Billy, according to Ferguson, was "the key figure of an epoch—the primitive pastoral epoch in the history of the West."50
"All of us who were boys in the 80's remember Billy the Kid," wrote Mencken, in a review of Walter Noble Burns' biography of the noted killer:
and with a veneration that is still bold and unaffected. He was one of the glories of that purple decade along with Sitting Bull, Geronimo and General Nelson A. Miles. He ranked far above Buffalo Bill, for Bill's butcheries were confined to Indians and horned cattle, whereas Billy was covered with Christian blood.51
The Indian generally emerged from the columns of the Mercury a heroic figure, at least when contrasted with his white oppressor. Anthropologist Robert H. Lowie, whose features on Western tribes frequently appeared, fairly gloated over the "—vast contrast between the standardized Anglo-American civilization of today with its ubiquitous radios, automobiles, and cinemas, and the widely varied patterns of its predecessors on the same soil."52
George A. Custer was portrayed as a treacherous egomaniac, his adversary Rain In The Face, as a noble and fierce warrior, by Eli L. Huggins.53 The Indians of Oklahoma were being "swamped in the flood of Babbittry," Mercury readers learned.54 "The old, tolerant, helpful, help-yourself West is gone or going," but the red-man remains relatively unimpaired.55 The "well-to-do Oklahoma Indians approach more closely the type of the English country gentleman man any other group in the United States," wrote Stanley Vestal, paying them the supreme compliment.
They have been taught to exalt personal qualities, to believe that character is more important than achievement. They had a rigid code of honor, and they have been, until lately, quite indifferent to property. Like an English country gentleman, the Indian prefers a small, sure income from the lease of his inalienable lands—to a finer home and no certain income. His chief interests have always been war, politics, and charity—to his friends or to the needy—and, of course, sport. These are precisely the interests of the English governing classes.56
The Indian, be he Cheyenne from the Plains, Hopi from the Pueblos, or Yurok from the Pacific Coast, "thumbed his nose at the economic interpretation of history."57 He was very much a noble savage, or, in brief, a natural gentleman.
Alone among the effete whites to be in a position, moral or otherwise, to look down upon the first-Americans, was the scout and Indian fighter. Captain James Cook, who had "devoted more than thirty years of his life to herding, hunting, scouting and trailing from Mexico to Montana," was such a man."58 Captain Cook had known Geronimo, Lone Wolf, Chief Joseph, and others of their ilk, and while they remained for him mere "savages," he was loud in the praise of their bravery. "The most pleasant thought," he concluded, "in connection with the battle scenes during the wars with the Western savages is that such scenes will never be reenacted."59
H. L. Mencken delighted in the adverse criticism heaped on the Mercury by more conventional humanists, who extolled the values of progress and civilization, and were proud of the taming of the West. "The news that The American Mercury is 'lacking in constructive points of view' is surely not news to me," he wrote to Upton Sinclair. "If any such points of view ever get into it, it will only be over my mutilated and pathetic corpse. The uplift has damn nigh ruined the country. What we need is more sin."60
Historians who have subscribed to Dr. Turner's thesis, and either lamented the passing of the free-land frontier, noted by the master in his 1893 address, or substituted other kinds of frontiers in the manner of Lucy Hazard, or David Potter, likely have overlooked the type of "New Frontier," proclaimed by Mencken in 1925. "No one seems to have noticed, so far" he wrote,
that the science of bootlegging has restored the frontier to the Republic.—Today the Indian-trails are jammed with Fords, and the soughings of Rotary resound in the Sierras and up the flanks of Pike's Peak. The young idealists of the Union no longer run away from home to follow Buffalo Bill and General Nelson A. Miles; if they stir from the village at all it is to become movie actors or bond salesmen.
But in the rum runners, a new frontier hero has sprung up. "In them is all the romance of the old-time trail-blazers and Indian fighters. They have restored the frontier to American history."61
Though Mencken had, on the eve of launching The American Mercury, written a friend that he and George Jean Nathan were "abandoning belles-lettres for more serious literature," quality fiction remained a foremost concern of the journal throughout his reign.62 If California were indeed "The Champion," i.e., the very worst of the forty-eight states, in the Sage's hierarchy of values, it nevertheless was discussed at great length in the Mercury, as a well-spring of literature.
Ludicrous, according to George P. West, was the proclamation of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce pledging its "ceaseless efforts for Bigger and Better Art.63 Outrageous was the notion of California dilettantes that since the state was "physically another Greece," and since "its Spanish background and romantic past constitute a rich and stimulating tradition," art would flow from it in abundance.64 West pointed out that "Bret Harte vented a positive dislike of the California climate and scenery in waspish verses now buried deep in the old files."65 Twain, despite all the benefits to his literary career which emanated from California, "disliked the State and never revisited it. His friends of the 'Jumping Frog' days knew him no more after that first sensational success."66 But a group of excellent California writers could not be overlooked. Among them were Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, George Sterling, and Frank Norris, who captured "the essence of San Francisco" in his books.67
The relative merits of California writers were debated at length by Mercury critics. Norris had, according to Charles C. Dobie, "helped to rescue the California scene from the languishing sentimentalities of Bret Harte."68 He was, Dobie continued, "both a story teller and a novelist, something that in these days of bastard sophistication is continually under critical surveillance and suspicion."69 The literary tradition of Carmel, California was examined at length. The town had housed and inspired not alone George Sterling and Jack London, but Charles Warren Stoddard, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens and a host of other literati.70 Appropriate homage was paid to The Golden Era, a mining boom publication, which had "influenced the pre-Civil War humorists, definitely colored Mark Twain's prose style, made the fame of Petroleum V. Nasby, and terminated in the writings of the Danbury News Man and Bill Nye."71
Carey McWilliams proclaimed that current West-coast writing, "reveals a self-conscious enthusiasm for a genuinely Western spirit. It seems that this spirit must be defined, if at all, in a negative way; that is, it consists in freedom from the prevailing Eastern vices of sex interest, morbid psychology and realism."72
But Mencken and his associates threw open the pages of the Mercury to all writers of talent, and Western writers, not merely Californians of course, but Oregonians, Oklahomans, and countless representatives of points-in-between, if they did not quite dominate the magazine's columns were nonetheless very much in evidence.
Such a writer was H. L. Davis, a native and longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, who had worked as printer's devil, sheepherder, harvest hand, deputy sheriff and county editor, before he began his professional writing career. Though a group of Davis' poems had been awarded the Levinson Prize in 1919, he was, in essence, discovered by Mencken, and first encouraged by the Baltimorean to launch a serious literary career.
Davis was of the opinion that "the past century of settlement and conquest in the Oregon country was a greater historical epoch than the migrations of the Israelites from Egypt, and that it has for the most part been written up with the same sentimentality."73 In a series of lustily written narratives, centering about the wheat and cattle country of Eastern Oregon, he attempted to rectify this condition, and to write in a genre which transcended mere realism, and approached what Hamlin Garland termed "verityism."
If H. L. Davis loved the land about which he wrote, then it was with the love of the battle-scarred career soldier for his tattered company. In such stories as "Cow Town Widows," "A Town in Eastern Oregon," and "Old Man Isbell's Wife," he poignantly portrayed a tired and much-abused species, living out their mediocre lives in a desolate and lonely land, struggling in the manner of Sherwood Anderson's grotesques, for communication and love, but usually without success. Davis was skeptical about the human condition, at least as it was manifested in his native region. His observations about wheat farmers echo Mencken's earlier sentiments about tillers of the soil, which the latter had expressed in his famous essay "The Husbandman." That is to say, they were characterized as uncivilized louts, to whom "sportsmanship was wholly foreign."74 In his amusing piece entitled "Water On The Wheat," Davis describes the effects of a sudden measure of affluence on a community of North-western "Scissorbills."
They built a community hall, and held meetings and made speeches once a week, with resolutions condemning gambling, bootlegging and the holding of dances in public schoolhouses in the rest of the country. The sheriffs office began to get letters from them, tattling on each other for making kitchen-beer. They demanded remission of county taxes, a Federal law pricing wheat at $3 a bushel, laws compelling the railroads to haul wheat for nothing, a law compelling farmhands to work for a maximum of $2.50 a day, a law forbidding people to use substitutes for butter, a law compelling all prisoners in the county jail to work during harvest for nothing.75
Davis' Menckenesque loathing of boosterism, particularly of the variety which the Babbitts of preposterous Oregon cow towns attempted to foster, is vented in his hilarious story entitled "Hand-Press Journalist." In this tale a small town editor, driven by intolerable social pressures to escape the hamlet, runs off a final edition of his journal prior to fleeing. Beneath the masthead which proclaims "The City With A Future … Pure Air, Clear Water, Clean Surroundings … And Other Public Enterprises Too Numerous To Mention," he prints the banner headline "A Stink In Nature's Nostrils," and proceeds to lambast the town and all of its residents.76
Mencken was proud of his "discovery," and a couple of years after he had left the Mercury expressed the opinion, in private correspondence with Davis, that "Honey In The Horn seems to me to be the best first novel ever printed in this country, and I incline to believe that it is the best novel of any sort since Babbitt."77
James Stevens was another of the Mercury's literary "finds." Stevens' first contribution to the Mercury, the magazine boasted editorially, midway through Mencken's decade of tenure,
dealt with his adventures and observations as a lumberman in the Northwest. He was working at the time in a lumber mill, and there was a sharp reality in his story that no professional writer save the most adept could have hoped to match. The response of readers was immediate and he was encouraged to try his hand further.78
Stevens took to retelling the Paul Bunyan legends in the Mercury. Soon readers of the green-covered journal were familiar with the great Western lumberman's hero, and with Babe the Blue Ox, "who ate 300 bales of hay at a meal, wire and all"; Hels Helsen, "the Big Swede and bull of the woods, who muddied the Missouri river forever with one Spring bath"; Johnny Inkslinger, "the time-keeper who figured with a fountain pen fed by hose lines from two barrels of ink"; Hot Biscuit Slim; Cream Puff Fatty; and a host of other woodsey characters.79 The contributions of James Stevens were not restricted to the Paul Bunyan legends, which he later expanded into a book, but they constituted the high-point of Steven's work.
Louis Adamic, a Yugoslavian-born dock-worker from San Pedro, California, made his literary debut in the Mercury. George Milburn, an Oklahoma college student, whose sensitive and perceptive personality and local color sketches had hitherto reached only the subscribers of an obscure and insignificant anthology, was introduced to a considerably wider reading public. Milburn, according to Charles Angoff, "was one of Mencken's finest discoveries."80 His stories, Angoff continued, were "among our most magnificent fictional pieces," and who, after having been introduced to the intensely human, if often pathetic Oklahomans who people Milburn's work, would dispute this?81
The number of "single-shot," Western authors, writing about Western themes, who were published by the American Mercury is far too great to warrant their inclusion in an article of this length. The same is true of the many obscure poets from Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and elsewhere, whose works appeared in the journal. Ballads of Belle Starr, of Kit Carson, of star-lit nights on the plains, and in the Rockies, all found their way into the Mercury, along with Thomas Hornsby Ferril's "Fort Laramie," and Carl Sandburg's "Santa Fe Sketches."
It was quite a publication, Mr. Mencken's Mercury, in the days before the harsh realities of the depression shifted the national spotlight from that ring wherein the gaudily colored brass-bands played, to the one in which the somber-hued economic determinists held forth. Many and significant were its contributions. Among the greatest of these was that its Western authors transmitted to the "civilized minority" in the brownstones and row-houses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and points East, what it felt like to amble down Main Street, as a lad, and see "—a Pueblo buck string a bow and shoot at a bird on a telegraph wire."82
1 (H. L. Mencken), "Editorial," The American Mercury (January, 1924), p. 30.
2 Carl R. Dolmetsch, "Mencken As a Magazine Editor," Menckeniana (Spring, 1967), p. 1.
3 "Editorial Notes," The American Mercury (November, 1931), p. XXVIII.
4 Charles Angoff, H. L. Mencken: A Portrait From Memory (New York, A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1956), p. 213.
6The American Mercury continued publication for many years after Mencken's departure, though it underwent several changes in editorship, format and policies.
7 The first item is derived from "Americana," The American Mercury (October, 1930), p. 173. The latter is from the same monthly feature and journal (February, 1924), p. 179.
8 "Americana," The American Mercury (July, 1926), p. 296.
9 The first item is derived from "Americana," The American Mercury (December, 1927), p. 420. The latter is from the same monthly feature and journal (May, 1928), p. 175.
10 "Americana," The American Mercury (April, 1924), p. 431.
11 "Americana," The American Mercury (March, 1927), p. 305.
12 "Americana," The American Mercury (February, 1927), p. 181.
13 "Americana," The American Mercury (July, 1925), p. 302.
14 "Americana," The American Mercury (January, 1924), p. 50.
15 "Americana," The American Mercury (May, 1931), p. 48.
16 Louis Sherwin, "The Walrus of Moron-Land," The American Mercury (February, 1928), p. 190.
17 Jim Tully, "Two-Time Losers," The American Mercury (March, 1928), p. 311.
18 The first item is derived from George P. West, "Hearst: A Psychological Note, "The American Mercury (November, 1930), p. 297. The latter is from "Americana," the same journal (April, 1924), p. 429.
19 (H. L. Mencken) "The Champion," The American Mercury (October, 1924), p. 197.
21 Duncan Aikman, "Santa Barbara Has A Fiesta," The American Mercury (January, 1925), p. 50.
22 Charles B. Driscoll, "Why Men Leave Kansas," The American Mercury (October, 1924), p. 178.
23 Bernard de Voto, "Utah," The American Mercury (March, 1926), p. 322.
24Ibid., p. 321.
25 Bernard de Voto, "The Great Medicine Road," The American Mercury (May, 1927), p. 112.
26 H. L. Davis, "Three Hells: A Comparative Study," The American Mercury (July, 1930), p. 257.
27 Bernard de Voto, "Brave Days In Washoe," The American Mercury (June, 1929), p. 231.
29 Duncan Aikman, "Deadwood The Dreadful," The American Mercury (November, 1927), p. 341.
30Ibid., p. 337.
31 Goldie Weisberg, "Panorama: Phoenix, Arizona," The American Mercury (May, 1929), p. 100.
32 Owen P. White, "El Paso," The American Mercury (August, 1924), p. 437.
33 Chester T. Crowell, "Strange News From Texas," The American Mercury (March, 1925), p. 324.
35 Arthur O'Dane, "Hymn To An Oasis," The American Mercury (October, 1925), p. 190.
36Ibid., p. 193.
37Ibid., p. 194.
38 James Stevens, "The Uplift On The Frontier," The American Mercury (April, 1924), p. 418.
40 Idwal Jones, "San Francisco: An Elegy," The American Mercury (August, 1925), p. 478.
41 Idwal Jones, "Cathay On The Coast," The American Mercury (August, 1926), p. 460.
42 D. I. Potter, "Gentlemen All," The American Mercury (September, 1924), p. 112.
43 Sam Acheson, "Sam Houston," The American Mercury (August, 1927), pp. 487-495.
44 H. L. Mencken, Review of Brigham Young, by M. R. Werner (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.), The American Mercury (July, 1925), p. 510.
45 Robert L. Duffus, "Fremont And Jessie," The American Mercury (November, 1925), p. 289.
46 Chester T. Crowell, "Cowboys," The American Mercury (October, 1926), pp. 162-169.
47 Benjamin DeCasseres, "The Complete American," The American Mercury (February, 1927), p. 144.
49 Harvey Ferguson, "Billy The Kid," The American Mercury (June, 1925), p. 224.
51 H. L. Mencken, Review of The Saga of Billy The Kid, by Walter Noble Burns (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Page & Co.), The American Mercury (May 1926), pp. 125-126.
52 Robert H. Lowie, "American Indian Cultures," The American Mercury (July, 1930), p. 366.
53 Eli L. Huggins, "Custer and Rain In The Face," The American Mercury (November, 1926), p. 339.
54 Stanley Vestal, "The First Families of Oklahoma," The American Mercury (August, 1925), p. 493.
56Ibid., p. 494
57 Robert H. Lowie, "Prestige Among Indians," The American Mercury (December, 1927), p. 448.
58 "Editorial Notes," The American Mercury (June, 1931), p. XXVIII.
59 James H. Cook, "The Art of Fighting Indians," The American Mercury (June, 1931). p. 179.
60 Letter from H. L. Mencken, Guy J. Forgue (ed.), Letters of H. L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), p. 273.
61 H. L. Mencken, "The New Frontier," The American Mercury (January, 1925), pp. 59-60.
62 Adele G. Nathan, "Mencken and The Little Theatre Movement," Menckeniana (Winter, 1962), p. 6
63 George P. West, "The California Literati," The American Mercury (July, 1926), p. 281.
67Ibid. p. 284.
68 Charles C. Dobie, "Frank Norris, or Up From Culture," The American Mercury (April, 1928), p. 422.
69Ibid., p. 423
70 Mary Austin, "George Sterling At Carmel," The American Mercury (May, 1927), pp. 70-71.
71 Idwal Jones, "Plumes and Buskins," The American Mercury (March, 1928), p. 297.
72 Carey McWilliams, "Swell Letters in California," The American Mercury (September, 1930), p. 47.
73 "Editorial Notes," The American Mercury (April, 1930), p. XXVIII.
74 H. L. Davis, "Water On The Wheat," The American Mercury (February, 1930), p. 140.
75Ibid., p. 144
76 H. L. Davis, "Hand-Press Journalist," The American Mercury (April, 1930), p. 485.
77 Letter from H. L. Mencken, Guy J. Forgue (ed.), Letters of H. L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), p. 394.
78 H. L. Mencken, "Editorial," The American Mercury (December, 1928), p. 408.
79 Most of the characters listed appear in James Stevens, "Why Poker Was Invented," The American Mercury (October, 1928), pp. 129-138.
80 Charles Angoff, H. L. Mencken: A Portrait From Memory (New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1956), p. 111.
82 Harvey Ferguson, discussing his New Mexico boyhood, quoted in The American Mercury.
SOURCE: "Conroy, Mencken, and The American Mercury," in Journal of Popular Culture, v. 7, No. 3, Winter, 1973, pp. 524-28.
[In the following essay, Salzman traces H. L. Mencken's support of writer and radical Jack Conroy through their personal correspondence and the publication of Conroy's work in the American Mercury during the early 1930s.]
By 1930, so we frequently have been told, both The American Mercury and its brilliantly iconoclastic editor, Henry Louis Mencken, had lost most of their once-formidable influence. The Depression may have been the pivotal event; or perhaps, as one historian of the Mercury contends, "the glorious heyday of the green monthly was over by the time of the great upheaval."1 Whatever the exact moment, there seems to be little disagreement that by 1930 there was a drastic deterioration in the quality of The American Mercury. Everyone apparently was angry with its editor: Mencken was too conservative, too bourgeois, too pro-German, and too anti-Semitic. He failed to grasp the import of the stock market crash. His friendships with George Jean Nathan and Theodore Dreiser had ended several years earlier, and Mencken no longer had anyone of Dreiser's stature—no Sinclair Lewis or Sherwood Anderson—to champion. He was scorned by Left and Right alike. And the journal which he had edited since its inception in 1924 was now attracting "fewer first-rate, and even second-rate, minds."2
In the mid-twenties, before hard times fell upon Mencken, the Mercury, and the nation in general, Jack Conroy, who already "had begun to write some verse and have some of it published,"3 went to Hannibal, Missouri, to work in a rubber heel plant. Not long after, he moved to Toledo, where he worked in the Willys-Overland automobile factory during the day and wrote poems and stories in the evening. In the winter of 1930, when the workers were being laid off weeks at a time, he found a job picking carrots. Years later, Conroy was to recall: "That's one of the hardest jobs I had: picking carrots out of the frozen ground, I swore then I'd never look a carrot in the eye as long as I lived because part of the arrangement was to take carrots home as part-pay. We'd have creamed carrots, fried carrots, every kind of carrots you could think of. Finally, things got to such a state that we had to make it back to Missouri where we had relatives."4 At the same time, he was publishing his writings in such places as The Northern Light, The Morada, and New Masses; and, with Ralph Cheyney, he was editing Unrest: The Rebel Poets Anthology. With all this happening, Conroy may have been too busy to hear about Mencken's "decline." At any rate, it was at this time that he began to correspond with the Mercury's editor, who became, in Conroy's words, "one of the best friends I ever had."5
It was typical of Conroy, who has devoted much of his energy to getting the works of other writers published, that he initiated his correspondence with Mencken by telling him about a promising young writer, Joseph Kalar, and asking him at the same time to look at some material by a writer whom Conroy would unsuccessfully try to dub the Bard of the Ozarks, H. H. Lewis.6 Mencken, in a letter dated October 24, 1930,7 thanked Conroy for his tip about Kalar, and told him that he was indeed interested in several of the pieces by Lewis which Conroy had sent him. Mencken was strongly tempted by Lewis' "School Days," but felt that it would have to be cut before it could be published in The American Mercury. He also was intrigued by Lewis' "Marathon diary" and an article about a mail-order swindle, although he thought that "Lewis ruins [the latter] by his socialistic fulminations. They seem to be dragged in without point. After all, suckers would still be suckers under Bolshevism." Lewis would not alter the mail-order piece and Mencken would not publish it as it was. Nor did he get to publish the "Marathon diary." But Mencken did publish "School Days." He made a few minor changes, retitled the piece, "School Days in the Gumbo"—that seemed "less flat"—and included it in the January, 1931, issue of the Mercury.
In the meantime, Mencken, who clearly was not as oblivious to the Depression as some people have made him out to have been, had asked Conroy to do a piece about his winter in Toledo, to be called "A Hard Winter." When Conroy wrote that he would do the article, Mencken replied on November 13, 1930, "It is good news that you will tackle 'A Hard Winter.' It should make a capital piece. But get it in before the winter is over. We make up January tomorrow, and February on December 15." Conroy made the December 15 deadline, and "Hard Winter" was the feature piece in the February, 1931, American Mercury.
In the same issue, Mencken published a notice of the 1930 number of Unrest. He earlier had written Conroy that the notice was not to be altogether favorable: "It seems to me that there is some dreadful bilge in the book," Mencken wrote on November 13, 1930. "But also some very good stuff." The notice was not altogether favorable, but it was a good notice nonetheless. Mencken refrained from calling any of the poems "dreadful bilge"—"banal doggerels" was his term for the poorest poems—and he spoke glowingly of the "eloquent pieces" by Michael Gold, James Rorty, and Jack Conroy. Gold's "A Strange Funeral in Braddock" was somewhat puzzling, for Mencken could not understand how the episode of a worker trapped in a steel ingot was a reflection upon the capitalistic system: "Precisely the same accident might have happened in a Soviet steel-mill," Mencken wrote, "and there is no reason to believe that the Bolsheviki would have been more successful in separating the corpse from the steel than Charlie Schwab's hirelings were at Braddock." Still, despite his reservations, Mencken found that Unrest "makes good reading. Not a few of the radicals write well, and all of them are in deadly earnest."8 It was very much like Mencken not to allow his political disagreements with the Left to determine his aesthetic judgments. For several years, Mencken had been vilified by the Left in general and Mike Gold in particular (who called Mencken "one of the salon singers" who was popular because he "has expressed the philosophy of the nouveaux riches").9 Yet he published some of Gold's Jews Without Money sketches in the Mercury, he had kind words for Unrest—including Gold's contributions—and, as he wrote Conroy on November 30, 1930, he published more articles in The American Mercury in favor of the Soviet Union than against it, "though my own feeling is that they [the Soviets] have failed."
Mencken's iconoclasm made him a perfect editor for Jack Conroy. If the material was interesting, Mencken would publish it. In a three year period, he accepted and published six of Conroy's sketches (the checks for which, Conroy has said "kept me alive for months").10 Five of the sketches became part of The Disinherited. In May, 1931, three months after the publication of "Hard Winter," the Mercury published Conroy's "Boyhood in a Coal Town." This sketch, together with one published in August, 1932, "Life and Death of a Coal Miner" (a title which Mencken changed from "Shot Firer") became the essence of "Monkey Nest Camp," the first section of The Disinherited. In February, 1932, Mencken read Conroy's sketch based on his experiences in the rubber heel factory in Hannibal. "It is capital stuff," he wrote Conroy on February 6, 1932, "and I'll be delighted to take it." A few cuts were made, "for the article is rather long as it stands," the title was changed to "Rubber Heels," and Mencken included the piece in the April, 1932 issue of American Mercury. Later, it was printed in The Disinherited as part of Section VII of "Bull Market." And, in September, 1932, Mencken published "Pipe Line," which Conroy incorporated into the last section of The Disinherited, entitled "The Hard Winter" (which begins with the sketch Conroy had written in 1930, at Mencken's request, about his winter in Toledo).
The last work of Conroy's to be published in The American Mercury was "The Siren." It appeared in the May, 1933, issue, and was the only one of the Mercury sketches not to be incorporated into The Disinherited. Although the setting for "The Siren" once again is Monkey Nest, the story did not go into The Disinherited, as Erling Larsen explained in his article on "Jack Conroy's The Disinherited or, The Way It Was," "perhaps because the 'I,' no doubt Larry Donovan, is here only an observer and narrator and not a heavily involved participant." And perhaps, as Larsen also notes, "the substance of the story would not here fit into the book Professor [Daniel] Aaron calls 'a good example of the American picaresque novel.'"11 Larsen's essay considers most of the important aspects of Conroy's story. Little need be added to it, except to note that some of the ambiguities which Larsen finds in the opening pages of "The Siren" may be due to Mencken's request—or insistence—that Conroy cut the story to fifteen or sixteen pages of typescript: "You have some capital material here," Mencken told Conroy on January 25, 1933, "and it seems to me that you handle it very well. Unluckily, the story, as it stands, is a bit long. Worse, it gives the effect of being a bit long.… I believe that you could make some easy cuts in the earlier parts. If you agree, let me have the manuscript back." Conroy agreed. He also accepted Mencken's suggestion that it would be less theatrical to have Hassem "escape actual execution" (as he apparently did not in the original manuscript), and concluded the story, as Mencken advised, "at the time of [Hassem's] departure for home."
On October 6, 1933, the New York Times carried a statement of Mencken's resignation as editor of The American Mercury. The new editor was to be Henry Hazlitt, and on November 25, 1933, Mencken wrote Conroy, "I think you'll find Hazlitt very hospitable, even though he did fail to take one of your manuscripts. Don't forget that you and I used to differ also, at least now and then." But Conroy did not try The American Mercury again. The Disinherited was published by Covici-Friede in 1933, the first issue of The Anvil appeared in May of that year, and there was a lot of work to do. Mostly, though, it was Mencken whom Conroy respected, and with his departure the Mercury no longer seemed as receptive as it once had been.
The American Mercury never did get to publish anything by Joseph Kalar, nor did it publish anything by Moe Bragin, the author of "Cow," whom Conroy also urged upon Mencken. But it did include Lewis' "School Days in the Gumbo," and the September, 1931, issue contained a piece entitled "Ohio Town," by Hugh Hanley, the man who had been an assistant editor of The Spider, the American college radical magazine, of which Jack Conroy had been the managing editor. As for Conroy, Mencken not only published his sketches; he also was a constant source of encouragement. When Conroy wrote the Baltimore sage that he wanted to find a wider market for his sketches, Mencken, in a letter dated March 6, 1931, immediately suggested the liberal weeklies: "The New Freeman would probably be delighted to print parts of it, and maybe you could also sell some to the New Republic." When Conroy had difficulty finding a publisher for The Disinherited, Mencken wrote on December 23, 1932, "Please don't be discouraged about your book. Keep it moving among publishers, and soon or late it will find a place. I suggest that the younger firms are more likely to take it than the older ones." And when Conroy told him that the book was to be published by CoviciFriede, Mencken wrote on April 1, 1933, "I am delighted to hear that Covici is to do your book. At the moment the publishing business is completely paralyzed, but there are already signs of a picking up and by September business should be fairly good again. It goes without saying that I'll want to print a notice of the book in The American Mercury [sic].… "
Perhaps by 1930 the heyday of The American Mercury was indeed over. Yet from 1930 to Mencken's resignation in 1933, the Mercury published works by Maxwell Bodenheim, Erskine Caldwell, James T. Farrell, John Fante, William Faulkner, Albert Halper, Josephine Herbst, James Rorty, and Leane Zugsmith. Not a bad record. Most impressive of all, however, was the series of six sketches by Jack Conroy. He succeeded brilliantly in doing just what he wanted to do: "to be a witness to the times, to show how it feels to be without work, and with the imminent fear of starving, to move people to think about it, and what's more important, to do something about it."12 In large part, Mencken made Conroy's success possible, and his importance during this period of our cultural history must be recognized. For it was, after all, The American Mercury, not New Masses, which first published the sketches which were to form the base for Jack Conroy's The Disinherited, one of the few essential testaments of the 1930s.
1 M. K. Singleton, H. L. Mencken and The American Mercury (Durham, N. C: Duke University Press, 1962), p. 214.
2 Carl Bode, Mencken (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), p. 256.
3 Jack Conroy, '"Home to Moberly,'" Missouri Library Association Quarterly, XXVIX (March, 1968), pp. 41-50.
4 Interview with Robert Lefley, Radio Station WFMT, Chicago. Reprinted in Chicago Daily News, May 18, 1963, p. 9.
5 Interview with Lefley.
6 See Jack Conroy, "H. H. Lewis: Plowboy Poet of the Gumbo," December, XI (1969), 203-206.
7 Copies of H. L. Mencken's letters were lent me by Jack Conroy, whose cooperation I gratefully acknowledge.
8 "Check List of New Books," American Mercury, XXII (February, 1931), xiv.
9 Michael Gold, "America Needs a Critic," New Masses, October, 1926.
10 Interview with Lefley.
11 Erling Larsen, "Jack Conroy's The Disinherited or, The Way It Was," Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, ed. David Madden (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), p. 90. Daniel Aaron's quote is to be found in his Introduction to the Hill & Wang reprint of The Disinherited.
12 Interview with Lefley.
Leo M. J. Manglaviti
SOURCE: "Faulkner's 'That Evening Sun' and Mencken's 'Best Editorial Judgement'," in American Literature, v. LIII, January, 1972, pp. 649-54.
[In the following essay, Manglaviti compares extant versions of William Faulkner's "That Evening Sun," which was first published in the American Mercury in March 1931, focusing on Mencken's role in the revision process.]
H. L. Mencken's American Mercury published William Faulkner's "Honor" in July, 1930, and "Hair" in May, 1931. In October, 1930, Faulkner sent to Mencken still another contribution, the typescript of "That Evening Sun Go Down," which in the permanent Faulkner canon became "That Evening Sun." The final version of the story is one of Faulkner's most critically discussed short prose pieces. Following by two years The Sound and the Fury, it is a sequel to the world of the Compson children in which Quentin narrates a few hours in the life of Nancy, Dilsey's relief servant, who fears becoming the victim of a husband seeking retribution. Mencken printed the story in March, 1931, with alterations and omissions made in the original typescript,1 itself a revision of a manuscript entitled "Never Done No Weeping When You Wanted to Laugh."2 The present version, "That Evening Sun," restored excisions and changes in the Mercury version and was included in These 13 in the fall of 1931, and later in Faulkner's Collected Stories (1950).3 The story has thus had four versions, only three of which have been studied.
After 40 years the missing text in the chronology, the typescript which Mencken received, is available as part of the H. L. Mencken Papers in the Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library. When Mencken died in 1956, he restricted from public use for 15 years the estimated 30,000 items in the correspondence deeded to the library. This restriction was lifted on January 29, 1971, on the fifteenth anniversary of Mencken's death. Mencken the arbiter of American letters is again apparent, his protégé no less than the Faulkner newly becoming established as the directing force of the Southern literary renaissance.
Bearing Faulkner's interim title of "That Evening Sun Go Down," the typescript consists of 26 letter-sized pages, with autograph corrections by both Faulkner and Mencken. In addition, pages four and five have been completely retyped by Faulkner, in accord with suggestions by Mencken. Mencken's criticism and Faulkner's notes in reply are also contained in the slim Faulkner folder of the Mencken Papers.4 This correspondence clarifies Mencken's role in the revisions, as Norman Holmes Pearson speculated in an essay written when Yale acquired the manuscript in 1954. In noting the change of Nancy's husband's name from Jesus to Jubah in the Mercury printing, Mr. Pearson concludes:
Whether the substitution was Faulkner's own idea of improvement or expressed his fear of an unintentional blasphemy, or whether it was the editor of The American Mercury who was more conservative than he liked to appear, I do not know.
Leaving aside the question of Mencken's elusive attitude, it is not difficult to agree with Mr. Pearson that the restoration of the name Jesus gave back to the story a "certain paradoxical tension which was otherwise lost." Faulkner's decision to restore the name Jesus also is essential for resolving at least one conflict in the story (MT, p. 10; AM, p. 261; CS, pp. 296-297), where the dialogue holds in painful suspension Nancy's fear of the Lord and a dread of her husband's revenge sworn on her prostitution with white men. And Mencken was more concerned with this aspect, and with Faulkner's portrayal in his explicit fashion of Nancy's sinful pregnancy.
The substitution of the name Jubah was indeed precipitated by Mencken, as was a major alteration in dialogue and imagery. After receiving the typescript, Mencken wrote to Faulkner a letter of impeccable composition, dated simply "November 7th." The editor writes:6
This is a capital story and I certainly hope to use it, but it leaves me with doubts about two points. One has to do with the name of Nancy's husband. I see no reason why he should be called Jesus—it is, in fact, a very rare name among Negroes, and I fear using it would make most readers believe we were trying to be naughty in a somewhat strained manner.
Don't you think the story would be just as effective if it were changed to some more plausible name?
Secondly, it seems to me that the dialogue about Nancy's pregnancy, on pages four and five, is somewhat loud for a general magazine? [sic] I believe it could be modified without doing the slightest damage to the story.
I hesitate extremely to make such suggestions to an author of your skill, but such is my best editorial judgment. If you care to carry them out, let me have the MS. back at once. It is a fine piece of work, and I'd like very much to print it.
Faulkner returned the typescript with an undated typed note, on which Mencken later penciled "1931":7
Here is the story, corrected according to your letter. Will you please have them hold the check until you hear further from me? I expect to be in New York in November. I'll be obliged to you.
His trip to New York probably included a visit to Cape and Smith to settle affairs in the publication of These 13. In this collection of stories, Faulkner restored the deletions agreed upon for the March, 1931, issue of the American Mercury, where "That Evening Sun Go Down" was printed on the very first page, having been given a prominent position on the cover.
In addition to his typed letter, Faulkner at some point curiously returned Mencken's "November 7th." letter.8 On the reverse Faulkner penned unsigned notes for what may have been the first draft of an abandoned longer letter. In a characteristically near illegible hand (with two cancellations, as shown below) are recorded his thoughts on the changes he made in the typescript:
I did not delete the section, the dialogue about the pregnancy, altogether, because it seems to me that it establishes Judah [sic] as a potential factor of the tragedy as soon as possible. [and so crossed out here] Otherwise, to me, the story would be a little obscure [until crossed out here] for too long a time. However, if you think best, it might be taken out completely. I am glad you like the story; I think it's pretty good myself.
I did remove the "vine" business. I reckon that's what would outrage Boston.
Thus the retyped section (MT, pp. 4-5) represented William Faulkner's temporary compromise with the popular taste which H. L. Mencken helped legislate for many busy years.
The sensibilities of Boston or Mencken notwithstanding, Faulkner later restored the "vine business" and the final version now reads (CS, p. 292):
"It never came off of your vine, though," Nancy said.
"Off of what vine?" Caddy said.
"I can cut down the vine it did come off of," Jesus said.
The fruit in question is Nancy's unborn bastard child. This exchange follows Jesus's telling the Compson children that Nancy's pregnant stomach was really a water-melon under her dress. In the typescript, where Jesus becomes Jubah, Faulkner inserted "And it was winter, too" immediately before the revision of the vine metaphor, thus softening the original sexually violent effect (MT, p. 4; AM, p. 258):
"Where did you get a watermelon in the winter?" Caddy said.
"I didn't," Jubah said. "It wasn't me that give it to her. But I can cut it down, same as if it was."
Also removed here as unnecessary (though the ambiguous "cut it down" remains) was Caddy's bewilderment at the original double entendre: "Off of what vine? … What vine?" These lines were also restored in Collected Stories (p. 292).
In its final form "That Evening Sun" also includes a line, omitted from the Mercury version, immediately after the description of Nancy found hanging "stark naked" in her attempted jail suicide: "her belly already swelling out a little, like a little balloon" (CS, p. 292). In the revised typescript Faulkner had written (MT, p. 4):
"… her belly swelling a little, paling a little as it swelled, like a colored balloon pales with distension."
This entire phrase has been penciled out, and subsequently did not appear in the Mercury. Did Mencken's "judgment" again exercise the final say? Faulkner had recently implied the granting of such a prerogative, in his unsigned notes, and apparently it was Mencken himself who acted as censor.
Mencken was the proofreader, or at least one of the readers of the revised typescript. The first page has a byline for Faulkner in Mencken's hand, as well as a note to himself about payment for the story. In one long paragraph (MT, pp. 16-17; AM, p. 263) Mencken's pencil substituted "she" and "her" for "Nancy" and "Nancy's," changes which Faulkner eventually incorporated into his rewriting (CS, p. 301). And Mencken no doubt made the scattered paragraph divisions, later kept by Faulkner, a few more pronominal changes, capitalizations ("Negroes," "Winter," "Summer"), and the Roman numeral insertions for an arrangement into five sections. Faulkner later modified the last of these changes to six sections, and he restored the lower case to "winter" and "summer." Faulkner's own changes in the typescript, in addition to retyping the "vine" dialogue, consist of neat blue-inked substitutions of "Jubah" for "Jesus," the removal of the superfluous line about "the other Jesus" in Nancy's frightful wailing (MT, p. 10; CS, p. 297), and a few typing corrections. A third hand has inserted lines and Arabic numerals, probably indicating galley sheet pagination. Mencken would thus emerge as the reader who probably removed the description of Nancy's swollen belly.
Faulkner prevailed in the end, reworking the final draft of "That Evening Sun" from both the Yale manuscript and the Mercury version.9 It is not likely that he saw the type-script again during the revision process. For a line in his typed story was apparently accidentally omitted from the Mercury printing (AM, p. 260) and likewise does not appear in Collected Stories (p. 295). While Nancy is cursing the possibility of Jesus' having slept with another woman, she threatens to cut off his arm (MT, p. 9). She reiterates: "Ara hand that touched her, I'd cut it off." This is intact in the typescript but has mysteriously disappeared from the printed versions. The reason may never be known, but possibly revelatory reminiscences may be forthcoming in 1981, when Mencken's five-volume diary is opened for public view in the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Mencken noted in his Faulkner file, on his customary small scrap of orange paper, a diary entry for what appears to be December 16, 1931. Joseph Blotner's forthcoming biography of Faulkner will no doubt illuminate the editorial relationship with Mencken from perspectives far south of Baltimore. As for Mencken, perhaps he felt the world unworthy of access all at once to his privacy, where he helped negotiate for all ages the position of Faulkner and others in the annals of literature.
1 Hereafter referred to as the Mencken Typescript and cited in the text as MT. Originally published as: "That Evening Sun Go Down," American Mercury, XXII (March, 1931), 257-267, hereafter cited in the text as AM.
2 This manuscript is now at Yale. See Norman Holmes Pearson's essay (cited below), "Faulkner's Three 'Evening Suns,'" in Yale University Library Gazette, XXIX (Oct., 1954), 61-70.
3 "That Evening Sun," in Collected Stories of William Faulkner (New York, 1950), pp. 289-309. This version will hereafter be cited as CS.
4 The typescript is apparently the only one of Faulkner's five contributions kept by Mencken. Besides the letters printed below, Mencken in this collection retained only three exchanges of 1948 in which Faulkner promised to ask Random House to send copies of his works to a friend of Mencken's in the University of Berlin.
5 Pearson, p. 65. The essay documents Faulkner's extensive revisions of his original manuscript, and analyzes as well the dramatic movements in the story.
6 For permission to quote this letter in full I am indebted to Mr. William G. Frederick, Vice President of the Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Company of Baltimore, which administers the Mencken Trust.
7 I am grateful to Faulkner's daughter, Mrs. Paul D. Summers of Charlottesville, Virginia, for permission to quote this letter to Mencken, and for my citations (below) of both the complete text of Faulkner's explanatory notes and occasional sections of the unpublished Mencken Typescript.
8 This autographed Mencken letter is a rarity in his papers. Mencken did not keep carbons, and his own letters generally appear as transcripts later typed by his secretary from her notes.
9 Mr. Pearson discusses this development, citing particularly Faulkner's thorough revision of the ending of the story. See his essay, especially pp. 67-70.
SOURCE: "Mencken Leaves The American Mercury," in Catholic World, v. 139, April, 1934, pp. 10-20.
[In the following essay, which was written on the occasion of H. L. Mencken's resignation from the American Mercury, Maynard offers a consideration of his influence and career.]
Let me make two preliminary remarks. The first is that I know Henry Mencken and have a great respect and liking for him. Therefore perhaps I write with a bias in his favor, though it should be said that I respected him long before I knew him. The second remark is that I do not propose offering here a general discussion of the life and miracles of the Sage of Baltimore, or even of his literary work as a whole. My concern is primarily with his editorship of The American Mercury.
Of his early work on Baltimore newspapers, or on The Smart Set from 1908-23, I do not know enough to speak with any competence, though I am aware that this should be considered in any final estimate of Mencken. But as nothing so ambitious as such an estimate is to be attempted, there is hardly any need for an apology. And, after all, The Smart Set was conducted in a mood of sardonic cynicism, the trashy stories being offered to what Mencken loves to call the "booboisie," and the mordant criticism (which was the real purpose of the magazine) to what some people, but never Mencken himself, love to call the "intelligentsia." It was in The American Mercury that Mencken really set up a pulpit from which he could address the country. So distinctive a thing did he make of it that it is difficult to conceive of it without him. We may get a very good magazine from Mr. Hazlitt, but it is bound to be a different magazine under the old name. I wish it all success, but the terms "Mencken" and "Mercury" will remain always inseparable in my mind. I shed a few tears of regret before continuing.
In January, 1924, the first number of The American Mercury appeared under the editorship of H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. All the characteristic features of the magazine had been carefully thought out, so that during ten years it has received practically no modification. From the beginning it was a smashing success, the first issue having to be printed twice. In fact, its success was greater at the start than later on. The depression caused sales to drop off; but even had the Coolidge boom kept up, The Mercury would probably have declined somewhat. Mencken had done his work so thoroughly that everybody who had read the early issues had a pretty good inkling as to what would be in the later ones. He had thumped his point home so well that there was no longer much need of doing any thumping at all. Yet I am reliably informed that The Mercury was almost alone among magazines of its class in the fact that it ended 1933 with a profit.
From the start it was Mencken's magazine. He had, indeed, stipulated that Nathan should be associated with him; but it was plain that the association was merely nominal. There were for some time joint "Clinical Notes" (mainly written by Nathan), and some pages of dramatic criticism, wholly written by him. But it is clear that his function was that of an advisory contributor. After the first year it was announced as such, and eventually he retired altogether. It is no reflection upon him to say that he never really fitted into The Mercury. His keen intelligence takes little interest in the turbulent life of the world, though nobody could make more bitingly satirical comments upon some of its more superficial aspects. In politics he has no interest whatsoever. As Mencken once said of him, he probably could not name the Vice-President of the United States. Without precisely living in an ivory tower, his life is mainly spent in the theater.
But Mencken's preoccupation was with the whole of American life, though his riotous taste in humor led him to prefer its gaudier manifestations. His gusto at first sight leaves one with the impression that he was willing to gobble everything down without discrimination. But with that gusto goes a delicate epicureanism: none of his cannibal banquets is quite complete without a Methodist bishop or a dry senator to grace the board. These were his larks' wings and nightingales' tongues. On the other hand, those Anti-Saloon League ecclesiastics and politicians who thought of Mencken as a dreadful ogre who could be satisfied with nothing except their raw flesh, were in error. He enjoyed morticians and beauticians and horticians almost as much. On lean days he would even tear a Lion limb from limb, and track a Shriner to the inmost recesses of his shrine. He has even been known to make do upon such coarse fare as insurance company executives, realtors, publicity experts, shoe-salesmen, radio-announcers, chiropractors and taxi-drivers, with a little juice squeezed out of the bones of bootleggers and baseball-players as a sauce. Not always could he roll upon his voluptuous tongue the blood of Y. M. C. A. secretaries or prohibition enforcement officers. No doubt Mencken is a monster, but only on holydays of obligation did he fasten his vampire teeth on a justice of the Supreme Court or a founder of a new religion.
Yet in spite of somewhat rowdy fun at times, The Mercury's articles were almost always well-informed. Mencken saw to that. If he had a way of jazzing up the contributions to his magazine, he was also careful to check statements of fact. One may think his point of view warped, or dislike his style, but I cannot recall where any of his critics convicted him of serious error. Never once has he been sued for libel, despite his years of outspoken controversy. The Mercury told us many things which we could not easily learn about elsewhere; and it was generally safe to rely upon what we were told. Despite his fondness for wild humor, Mencken has an extremely orderly mind, chock-full of practicality and common sense, and detests inaccuracy as much as any other form of slovenly inefficiency.
The Mercury was above all else The American Mercury, and confined itself to life in this country. It never contained articles about happenings in Europe, unless they were concerned with the way Americans disported themselves in, say, Paris or Majorca. Even European books received scant attention, when they were noticed at all.
Many Americans were very naturally indignant at some of the aspects of the American scene that were exposed, and at the irreverence with which many of their most cherished traditions were handled. As Mencken himself put it, he for years spilled ink "denouncing that hypocrisy that runs, like a hair in a hot dog, through the otherwise beautiful fabric of American life." With loud scoffs he derided all the politicians and wowsers and members of Rotary who unctuously proclaimed that their lives were dedicated to the social uplift. Take this, for instance, upon Rotary:
One hears of its spokesmen announcing that Moses, or Homer, or St. Francis, or Martin Luther, or George Washington was the first Rotarian, and arguing gravely that, when the next war threatens, only Rotary will be able to stop it. The members of this party wear the club emblem as if it were the Garter, and spend a great deal of their time worrying over such things as the crime wave, necking in the high schools, the prevalence of adenoids, the doings of the League of Nations, and the conspiracy of the Bolsheviki to seize the United States and put every Cadillac owner to the sword. They have a taste for rhetoric, and like to listen to speeches by men with Messages. The boys of the other party are less concerned about such high matters. When there is nothing better afoot they go to the weekly luncheons, gnaw their way through the chicken patties and green peas, blow a few spitballs across the table, sing a few songs, and then, when the speech-making begins, retire to the washroom, talk a little business, and then prevail upon Fred or Charlie to tell the new one about Judd Gray and the chambermaid at Hornellsville, N. Y.
No doubt Mencken would be the first to admit that Rotarians are a very harmless bunch of fellows. If he derided them, it was because they laid themselves wide open to the shafts of satire. He understood very well that by making them look absurd he would help to discredit all those other well-meaning but fatuous groups of people whose complacent good-nature tends to smother the spread of ideas. It was no good trying to argue with them; indeed there was nothing very much that one could argue about. The only thing that could be done was to try and laugh them out of existence.
As these were the very people that the mass of Americans had been taught to admire and imitate, there was a good deal of bewilderment and indignation when they were attacked. Mencken was therefore denounced by them as being un-American, a dangerous radical, a Jew, the Teuton Blond Beast, an Anglophile, and what not. He laughed at the anger he aroused, kept (and later published) a scrapbook of the terms of abuse used against himself, and let fly another quiver of arrows—with devastating effect. There was no need for him even to take the trouble to defend himself against the charge of being un-American. Though a German in blood he has none of the marks of a German about him, unless it be a liking for beer and music and methodical industry. But so far from being ponderous or stodgy, his mind clicks to a hair-trigger, and his flow of ideas is fantastic and prolific rather than deep. It would be hard to find a more representative American. However much he might make fun of American life and American institutions, one could not imagine him living anywhere except in America, or having been produced by any country but America. He had nothing in common with those aesthetic fellow-countrymen of his who, after a brief acquaintance with England or France, are never able to be happy again anywhere except abroad. When Mencken is asked why he does not clear out of the United States, since he holds the opinions he does, he answers very simply that it is because he would not for worlds miss the spectacle of rich absurdity provided for his entertainment here. That is his way of saying that he likes America too much to leave. He might add (but as he never will, I must do it for him) that he loves America too much to leave. He would warmly repudiate any suggestion that he stays for his country's good. He loathes all reformers and up-lifters. But he is doing what he can to increase the dignity and honesty and charm of American life. No doubt he does relish to the full the antics of the people he derides; but were he merely the detached spectator he would at most sneer at them. His furious and boisterous propaganda at their expense would have no meaning, did he not hope to do his part in exterminating them as pests. It would be a sad day for him when the last of them perished; but upon his conscience there rests the inexorable duty of working towards that day.
If Mencken has, as his chief assets, humor and honesty and good sense, his chief deficiency would seem to be philosophical. Not that he is without a philosophy, but it does not strike one as being very important. Thousands will laugh and cheer when he goes on the warpath against the Babbitts, where hardly one will listen when he begins to expound his system. He may be said to have a huge following, but no disciples. As Ernest Boyd says in his book on Mencken, he has had "a Nietzschean education, and he is loyal to his old teacher, but his philosophy of life and art has little of Nietzsche in it, and their points of contact are probably fewer than their points of divergence. Their one fundamental point of agreement is their rejection of Christianity and democracy." Even if we are to take the somewhat sportive In Defense of Women (thoroughly repudiated by Mencken in practice since his marriage) as owing something to Nietzsche, it would still be true that Mencken is a Nietzschean in a Pickwickian sense. Even where the views of the two philosophers coincide—that is concerning Christianity and democracy—the coincidence is far from perfect. With little of Nietzsche's bitter rancor, Mencken attacks a corrupt congressman rather than the philosophical idea of democracy; Elmer Gantry rather than Christianity. A believer in Christianity and democracy must not only approve of all this, but the more sincere his conviction, the stronger must be his approval. In the specific case Mencken is nearly always right; his general principle may be unsound, but is of little consequence one way or the other.
I must confess having always been mildly amused at Mencken's announcing himself as an aristocrat. For he is the most sociable and accessible of mortals, without a particle of "side," a good mixer, positively exuding bonhomie. Now I am aware that a real aristocrat has no need to cultivate an icy aloofness. In fact that is generally the mark of the parvenu. But the easy and affable manners of the aristocrat will have also at all times a touch of distinction. Mencken, on the other hand, is thoroughly bourgeois, though in the best sense: cheerful, sturdy, independent, comfortable. I do not question the sincerity of his aristocratic principle. But I recall another, and a far more fierce, upholder of that principle: Coventry Patmore. He was all that Mencken is not: arrogant, intolerant, but quite content to let the world go to the devil in its own way. If I am obliged to applaud his greater consistency, I confess that I much prefer Mencken's "aristocracy" on all other grounds.
Mencken's political theory boils down to this: that there should be honesty and competence in politics, and that under the parliamentary system we rarely get either. Both points may be admitted by the firmest believer in democracy. But it must be immediately added that the aristocratic system offers no better guarantee of our obtaining them, if as good a one. All that a man of intelligence and public spirit can be expected to do is to expose chicanery and stupidity wherever they appear. This Mencken always does. His practice being what it is, his political theory may be whatever he chooses to call it.
Moreover, Mencken, being the man he is, does not stop to argue with anyone of whom he disapproves. He takes a battle-ax, and tries to split his enemy's skull—which, after all, is the most effective method of controversy. He is deterred by no feelings for exalted personages, or by any concessions to respectability. Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were each in turn served in much the same way; and, though at the time many people thought Mencken was using almost blasphemous language, it would seem that the country has come very generally to share his opinions of its former heroes. Take this from an editorial written in 1930:
It is very hard to understand such a man. By what standard of values does he judge himself? What is his honest verdict when he looks into his shaving-glass of a morning? The Presidency is in his hands, and there is nothing higher for him to look for in this world. One would naturally expect a man in that situation to give some thought to the essential decencies—to devote himself to making sure, not of his immediate benefit, but of his ultimate reputation. But Dr. Hoover seems either unwilling or unable to take that view. He prefers to go on as he came in—playing shabby politics, consorting with creatures from the abyss, contributing his miserable mite to the destruction of free government among us.
It should be remembered that when he wrote this (and indeed on the very eve of the 1932 election), Mencken believed that Mr. Hoover's reëlection was certain. But he was determined that it should not occur without his protest. It should be remembered also that this comes, not from a wild radical—for Mencken is one of the few "rugged individualists" left among us—not from a Socialist, but from the reverse of one. Though in Mr. Roosevelt he has found a President whom he can respect, he has indicated clearly his disapproval of the policies of the present administration.
What it all comes to is this: Mencken makes no pretense to being a "constructive critic." He is purely destructive, but is, as such, decidedly beneficial to society. Contrary to what is generally held concerning a destructive critic, I cannot see that he is obliged to have something better to put in the place of the evil thing he would destroy. By sitting down to write a perfect constitution for future generations, he would give the scoundrels he was out to attack every chance to escape, or, perhaps, even to go, still secure in place and profit, to their graves.
The criticism I have offered of Mencken's political philosophy—that it is valuable only when it tackles specific cases—I should be equally prepared to make regarding his animadversions upon religion.
In 1930 his Treatise on the Gods appeared. The book is written in a sober style—as though to ward off the possibility of any charge of brutal iconoclasm—and perhaps for that reason is very dull, quite the dullest thing Mencken has ever produced. His object, he says, "may be roughly described as one of amiable skepticism. I am quite devoid of the religious impulse, and have no belief in any of the current theologies. But neither have I any active antipathy to them, save, of course, in so far as they ordain the harassing of persons who do not believe in them." That is a reasonable position to take up, and it must be admitted that Mencken writes his Treatise with moderation and fairness, even holding himself in leash against his old enemies the Baptists and Methodists. But the service he has done to religion (which, in my estimation is considerable) was in the smiting of religious humbug and intolerance. He is at his weakest when he attempts to systematize his unbelief.
Just as I believe that criticism, however severe, of those in high political position, can do nothing but good when it is well founded, so I hold the same thing of religious criticism. It is upon the basis of powerfully argued objections to the various articles of the Faith that St. Thomas Aquinas builds up the edifice of the Summa Theologica. There can be no firm faith until those objections have been met. And while naturally I should not force immature minds to consider a powerfully argued case against religion, I should not think a mind mature that had not weighed that case. It is in this way that a theologian is formed.
Furthermore, putting theology out of the discussion, it is good for every religious body (including Catholics) to be criticized, on the ground of the methods they employ, their ecclesiastical or personal manners, their educational standing, or their I. Q. Upon the whole Mencken has let Catholics down very lightly, and what criticism he has made of us has, as a rule, been deserved. But were I a Methodist (and intelligent) I think that, however much the lash laid by him upon Methodist backs might smart, I should be grateful, and try to correct my behavior, if for no other reason than that of avoiding the lash in future. I am speaking, of course, only of fair criticism; unfair criticism I should resent.
To what extent Mencken's criticism of certain Protestant sects has been fair, and to what extent unfair, I must leave those sects themselves to determine. But there can be no doubt whatever that, however noble the motive may have been, this country has lain under the harrow of the Anti-Saloon League, and that this was a machine of outrageous religious tyranny. There can be no doubt that American Catholics have suffered from intolerance and bigotry, deliberately directed against them by the same ecclesiastical groups who ran the Anti-Saloon League. On this score Catholics are deeply indebted to Mencken. He has done valiantly in helping to discredit our bitterest enemies.
But it is not merely because Mencken has been the enemy of those groups from which we have suffered most, that Catholics owe him a debt of gratitude. His friendly feelings towards us are shown in more positive ways. His references to the Church are kindly and respectful, because, as he says, "It is manifestly more honest, intelligent and urbane than any of the dominant Protestant sects." Now and then, it is true, he has pilloried Catholics in "Americana"; but only rarely has this happened. I recall one such case. A Catholic family in New Jersey while eating a dessert of Jello, found that the fragments left upon one of the plates resembled a statue of the Little Flower. The miraculously formed statue was exhibited to their pious (and moronic) neighbors. Well, I believe such assininity ought to be ridiculed. There are fools among Catholics, as among other people. Whether it is because Catholics more rarely make fools of themselves than, say, Baptists, which I hope is the reason, or whether it is because Mencken has a more friendly feeling for Catholics, it is certainly true that they have no reason to complain of their treatment at his hands. There is no human likelihood of his ever becoming a Catholic. Nevertheless Catholics have received a good deal of aid and comfort from him.
But if Mencken had never said a word in our favor, his strenuous fight against cant and sentimentality and humbug, by clearing the air, tends to our advantage. With the battle over literary censorship the Church officially has no concern. We have our own Index, which is designed primarily as a barrier against the dissemination of heresy. The individual conscience has to be the guide with regard to works stained with pornography.
When the law steps in at this point the question becomes hopelessly confused. All Catholics of course hold that works likely to have an immoral effect should be neither written nor read; and some Catholics have supported their suppression by the State. The result is merely that works which may not be sent through the mails, may be sent by express. Furthermore it would seem to be impossible for the law to decide intelligently as to what works are immoral. I take a case in point. James Joyce's Ulysses has until recently been banned. Now that enormous work has sections in which the limit of obscenity is reached, in the sense of Joyce's using all the nine unprintable Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. Nevertheless Ulysses is about as far as anything could be from an incitement to sin. On the other hand books of all kinds which assume the right to adultery and the rectitude of abortion are freely circulated.
I am aware that I am not making an adequate discussion of the censorship. All I am trying to maintain is that there are practical as well as theoretical difficulties in its way, so that a protest against Comstockery is both valid and valuable. While Mencken has fought against the censorship, he is not obsessed on the subject, and The Mercury has been very harmless in the nature of its contributions. Even the attempt, some years ago, to suppress an issue of The Mercury in Boston because of a story it contained, resulted, after Mencken went there to force his arrest, in his acquittal, and in the death of the local Comstock shortly after from chagrin. The story was a mild affair.
Mencken's literary criticism has really been directed against exploding every form of hokum. The man, being perfectly honest and forthright, has a keen sense of the possession or lack of these qualities in other people. He has been all in favor of vigorous writing by people who have something to say, and against, as he says in The American Language, "the typical literary product of the country … a refined essay in The Atlantic Monthly manner, perhaps gently jocose but never rough."
Against the whole tribe of professors he has waged unceasing war. Of one of these gentlemen he says that he "devotes a chapter to proving that 'of the 10,565 lines of Paradise Lost 670, or 6.3 per cent, contain each two or more accentuated alliterating vowels,' another to proving that in such word-groups as rough and ready, 68 per cent put the monosyllable first and the dissyllable second, and 42 per cent put the dissyllable first and the monosyllable second."
Experimental psychology is treated just as savagely. Here is a sample:
Lately I was reading the elaborate report of a professor who exhibited 'a set of French photographs of a pornographic nature' to twenty or thirty subjects, including two young women and a boy, and then solemnly photographed and measured their grimaces. That done, he read to them 'several of the most pornographic case histories from Ellis' Psychology of Sex.' Then he shoved their hands into buckets containing live frogs. Then he ordered them to cut off the heads of rats with butcher knives. To what end are such puerile obscenities? Who was in any doubt that the gals would jump when their hands touched the frogs, that they would shrink from butchering the rats, that the French photographs would make them blush and giggle? Yet American psychological literature is made up very largely of just such tosh and bosh.
A great day for him was when, in 1925, Boni and Liveright published a novel by a Baptist minister. Mencken's long review of it was screamingly funny, but is too long to quote. Here, however, is the knock-out blow:
Dr. Dixon is a Baptist clergyman. The Baptists are not commonly regarded as artists. One hears of them chiefly as engaged in non-aesthetic or anti-aesthetic enterprises—ducking one another in horse-ponds, scaring the darkeys at revivals, acting as stool-pigeons for Prohibition agents, denouncing the theater and the dance, marching with the Klan. But here is one who has felt the sweet kiss of beauty; here is a Baptist who can dream.
Since Dr. Dixon's preposterous novel was rather easy game, it should be said that Mencken does not hesitate to take the button off the foils with writers like H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Stuart Sherman and Paul Elmer More. Nor do his friends escape when they write nonsense, as may be seen by his reviews of Edgar Lee Masters' Mirage and Sinclair Lewis' Ann Vickers. Here is criticism that is always astringent and bracing. The only serious defects I can find in it are a comparative failure to appreciate delicate shades of meaning in prose, and a suspicion of poetry. Yet he reads verse, though he regards it as nothing but charming lying; and his first book was in verse. Much of it is not at all bad (though Mencken has since completely repudiated it) being ingenious and well-constructed. One might describe it (by slightly altering a line of Belloc's) as
Much in the style of Kipling,
This attempt, never since then renewed, at the writing of verse proves that Mencken, whatever else he is, is not a poet.
But we cannot expect everything. If Mencken's mind lacks sensitiveness, he makes up for it by his grip upon actuality, his coarse refreshing common sense. And he writes in a style which, if heavily loaded with slang, is for that reason all the more pungent. There is never any doubt about what it is that he is trying to say, or his complete ability to say it. Masculine, sinewy and lucid—we must put him, despite important differences, with Swift and Cobbett. All three are earth-bound, but all three make a virtue of their limitations.
It is a question whether any of Mencken's work is likely to survive. So essentially journalistic is it, that I must confess that (despite the pleasure I always take in his writing when I first read it) I find it hard to go back to it. The effect is immediate, not lasting. Probably of all men who have ever written, Mencken is least concerned with the judgment of posterity. It is sufficient for his purpose that he can arrest the attention of his contempories, if only for a fleeting instant. This is writing thrown out because of the urgent spur of the occasion, and may be considered as merely printed conversation. His talk is in exactly the same vein, rapid-fire, explosive, humorous. We should take what he writes in the same way, as the expression of what he means at the moment, but about which he may change his mind, and which in any case is not to be taken too literally. He should be allowed a little leeway for the play of fancy. At the same time his sincerity should be acknowledged: we must not confound seriousness and solemnity.
The man, upon a first personal acquaintance, may surprise, and yet he and his work constitute a single entity. However cruel some of his criticism seems, it all springs from his honesty. Here is a man kindly and courteous, who, though he talks exuberantly, is quite willing to listen to what other people may have to say, however dull it may be. This pitiless foe of Babbittry is unmasked as a man full of all the common and commonplace virtues. There is about him nothing of the aesthete. Literary men do not often look the part, yet few of them look less like it than Mencken. A man of his somewhat squat stocky figure, and large round face suggests the proprietor of a thriving delicatessen store. His ties look as though they had been picked in a hurry from the fifty cent bargain counter. He is the very embodiment of normality.
His cordiality puts one instantly at ease. Nobody can meet him and not like him, and his amiability is so great that when, after having fought a man upon paper for years, Mencken encounters him in the flesh, his sociability has a way of overcoming his aversion.
The first time I met him was shortly after his marriage. It was entertaining to see how tremendously he was enjoying being married, and to notice the attitude of his young wife towards her celebrated husband. She looked at him with the eye a mother would cast upon a precociously clever urchin, admiration and indulgence mingled together.
At lunch he ate voraciously of a Southern dish, the recipe for which he had got, so he told me, from Carl Van Vechten. And it pleased him that I enjoyed my food, and took a second and third helping. He apologized that he was at the moment out of beer—for he is vain of his prowess as a brewer—but, as a bottle of wine was produced, I was content to forego even the best Volstead-era home-brew. Then he said, "Maynard, look behind you! That was a wedding-present from my brother." It was a picture six feet by four that must once have hung in a saloon, and it showed a brewery going full blast.
Some time afterwards, G. K. Chesterton told me how his host in New York had written to Mencken, in the hope of bringing the two men together. Mencken had replied, "I am very sorry I cannot go to meet Chesterton. For I have long cherished an ambition to take him out and make him drunk, and then hand him over to the police while he was in that condition, to the shame of Holy Mother Church."
I told Mencken afterwards of Chesterton's comment: "Why, I could put Mencken under the table any day!" "Yes," said Mencken, "I suppose he could."
What he will do now that he has left The Mercury, I do not know. A treatise on morals is in preparation, and this, I think, is likely to be better than his excursion into theology. But it is not likely to contain anything new. His work is completed. His plea that no magazine should keep an editor for more than ten years, can be only a way of his admitting that he has said what he had to say, that there is no more to say. The American Mercury has ful-filled its destiny.
For several years past it had grown steadily less interesting. Not that the actual value of its contents declined; but subjects suitable for treatment in its pages were growing fewer. Even "Americana" was less funny than in the days of yore. Was it that Revivalists and Rotarians had, because of the Mercury lash, become more circumspect in their behavior? Whatever the reason, the crop of absurdity was thinning. And as Burton Rascoe has said of Mencken, he is now in the unhappy position of a born disputant who finds no one to disagree with him.
But if he has been a little too successful, the country should still be grateful to him. It is a better place to live in now (despite the depression) than it was in the old boom days. And while it would be fantastic to suggest that the higher level of intelligence is due to Mencken, it is no more than plain justice to acknowledge his efforts in behalf of decency and honesty. There is much that escaped his ken. His range is limited. There is no prophetic fire in the man. He has never itched to steer humanity in any particular course. He set himself one task—exposing fools and hypocrites. And that task has been accomplished.
George T. Warren
SOURCE: "The Mercury Idea," in Menckeniana, v. 47, Fall, 1973, pp. 25-6.
[In the following essay, Warren offers personal reminiscences of H. L. Mencken as a journalist in Baltimore during the 1910s and suggests a possible early stimulus for the conception of the American Mercury.]
When and where did HLM conceive of the American Mercury? I may have the answer.
In 1911, when I was twenty-one, I encountered HLM's books on Shaw and Nietzsche in the Houston, Texas, Public Library. A year later our family moved to Baltimore, where I was delighted to discover that this penetrating author, who had the American language so firmly by the tail, was doing a daily column for the Baltimore Evening Sun. What great sport he had lampooning the politicians and "the rev. clergy."
One hot June day I got up enough courage to climb the back stairs to the Sun's editorial room, expecting to find a cantankerous, blustery individual of fifty or sixty. What a surprise awaited me. Then only thirty-two, HLM proved to be the most amiable of men. He sat at his desk in shirt sleeves, proofreading his column. I had just returned from Philadelphia and while there had made a little pilgrimage to the Mickle Street cottage where Walt Whitman spent his last years. I naturally mentioned this to HLM (as a kind of excuse for calling) whereupon he countered with a story about his Philadelphia friend and literary idol, James Huneker, noted dramatic and literary critic. It was an enjoyable fifteen minutes. I think the "Free Lance" was pleased to receive this token of homage from a youngster lately come east from the Lone Star State.
Mencken was certainly not the typical hollow-chested, bespectacled author. He could pass as a husky meatcutter with a stall in Lexington Market, or a jovial drummer from New York or Chicago. Just why he gravitated into journalism when he could have so easily followed in his father's and uncle's footsteps and become a wealthy cigar manufacturer mystifies me. Maybe it would have been too easy. Like the transformation of Jack London from a swashbuckler on the San Francisco water front into a king of storytellers, answering not a "call of the wild" but a call to greater things.
Our little visits were invariably on Saturday afternoons about 2 o'clock when Henry was winding up things for the week. One time I recall wrapping up a dozen books he was taking home to wade through on Sunday for review in the Smart Set. What a glutton for punishment, although he loved to pose as a beer-drinking loafer!
One of those afternoons I found HLM pleasantly excited over a new periodical entitled the Unpopular Review. [The critic adds in a footnote that this journal "Appeared from January, 1914, to June, 1919, then continued to March, 1921, as Unpartizan Review."] Bound in somber brown, few if any advertisements, edited by Henry Holt the publisher. HLM asked me to take it home, browse through it, and jot down comments. I willingly complied, returning it the following week. As I look back it seems to me that we have here the initial pattern or stimulus that eventually resulted in the American Mercury. Since the appearance of The Letters of H. L. Mencken I find, on pages 255 to 260, that the London Mercury and the Mercure de France at much later dates were probably deciding factors. Nonetheless, Henry Holt's Unpopular Review could have started sowing the seed that later brought forth the American Mercury with its iconoclastic articles and stories calculated to jolt the members of the Establishment out of their easy chairs.
I pasted a few of Henry's letters in one of my Memory Books. This excerpt is typical of his wit and brevity: "My sincere congratulations on your marriage. This is the only noble state of man and I myself would marry tomorrow if I could find a widow whose former husband's clothes fitted me. Unluckily I am so fat and irregular of contour that such widows are rare." A year later, upon learning of the birth of my son, he wrote, "Dear Warren, Here's looking at the newcomer. May he avoid literature and devote himself, in the years to come, to supporting his father."
SOURCE: "The Inside View of Mencken's Memory," in The New Republic, v. 131, September 13, 1954, pp. 18-22.
[In the following essay, Angoff recalls editorial and administrative policies during the Mencken years of the American Mercury, and assesses the influence of Mencken's literary criticism and political ideas.]
I have before me, as I write this article, a letter from one of the most distinguished historians in the United States today, in which he says, "It is good to hear from you again. I didn't know that you are still connected with The American Mercury, which has certainly changed—and not for the better in my opinion." And only yesterday I spent an hour with the editor of one of the most intellectual, most respected and most successful periodicals in America—it has a circulation that runs well over a million a week—and the first thing he did was to hold up the very latest issue of The Mercury and say, "Shame on you." This editor prides himself upon the factual soundness of every article in his magazine. One of his celebrated boasts is, "We don't want writers on our magazine, we want reporters, men and women who respect facts, facts, and nothing but facts, men and women who make no statement without checking it first at least three times." And yet he, like the aforementioned historian, didn't know that I haven't been associated with The Mercury in any way since 1950.
But these, of course, are not the most disturbing things I hear and read about The Mercury. I am far more disturbed by the growing legends about the magazine and its editors, especially H. L. Mencken, most of them more colorful than true, and also by the strange and often unfair interpretations of the place of The Mercury and of its editors in American cultural and journalistic history. One such interpretation appeared in the Saturday Review a few weeks ago, written by the editor, Norman Cousins, under the title, "Our Times and The Mercury." The piece was vigorously and plausibly written. There was, indeed, much truth in it, but it wasn't the whole truth or even a major part of it, not at least from the point of view of one who was associated with the old Mercury and with Mencken for about ten years, during a part of which both largely set the tone of the thinking of many college students and recent college graduates, when Mencken's every sneer and smile were tantamount to royal commands among those whom he called "the civilized minority."
It is true, unfortunately, that many of the articles in the old Mercury were, as Mr. Cousins points out, of a debunking character, and hence, inevitably, of inferior quality. Mr. Cousins refers to a shabby article on Abraham Lincoln, questioning the legends about his social origins and casting doubts upon his status as one of America's great historic figures. Also, there were many other such articles—even worse ones.
Re-reading old copies of Mencken's Mercury can be a very depressing experience. There was an article arguing that the public utilities were almost unanimously true public servants and that all those who dared to criticize them were "quacks, ignoramuses, and hired lackeys of the kept liberal press." There was another article in which the author proved to his own satisfaction that Walt Whitman was not a poet of even the second class but a word monger and a general phony. There was a third article presenting in quick fashion "The Case Against Large-Scale Farming," that has failed to make much sense to hundreds of thousands of farmers since it was first published in 1932. There was a fourth article insisting that all religion began "as a conditioned reflex." There was a fifth article making such merciless fun of "the stupid pedagogues" that an overly impressionable reader might have despaired of the whole future of our country. Indeed, there were a dozen articles loaded with carefully selected "facts" and proving even to "professors and other such inferior beings" that all public schools were "a fraud and delusion, a drain upon the public treasury, and a stench to the nostrils of all decent, well-informed and well-disposed men and women."
There were many dozens of articles sneering at democracy in general and at virtually all Senators and Congressmen and Governors and mayors except those that passed Mencken's acid test to be considered civilized, namely, whether they were for or against Prohibition. And Mencken's editorials and book reviews, to a large extent, were one long harangue against all the people and things that most Americans respect and hold dear: education, the home, marriage, love, religion, the United States Supreme Court, the Presidency, the radio, children as a class, all women who haven't the "decency to keep quiet when their menfolk talk, particularly when they talk about matters beyond the ken of the female mind," the whole science of psychology, the whole science of astronomy ("You can't tell me that there is any sense to this rubbish about stars being away—hundreds of thousands of miles away—that's pish posh"), all clergymen ("a man of the cloth is ipso facto a fraud and to be watched, especially when there are young girls or young boys about"), and so on ad infinauseam. And in his very last book review for the old Mercury (December, 1933), he saw nothing really to worry about in the rise of Hitler, and at the same time expressed some views that made many of his friends wonder where he stood on Nazism.
Mencken himself—and so powerfully did he impress his personality upon The Mercury that he and it were virtually one as long as he edited it—was a man of few basic ideas, and perhaps half of them were absurd, cheap, and simply not true. He believed that there were congenitally inferior and congenitally superior people, that the people of wealth "and substance" were largely the congenitally superior, that public school education was mostly a waste of money because the congenitally inferior children naturally could not be improved and the congenitally superior needed little education or such education as they needed could be supplied by their wealthy parents, that democracy was the worst form of government and the tool of "all the poltroons and mob masters in this life," that benevolent despotism of the Frederick the Great variety was the only government that made sense, and so on.
His gift for literary criticism in the grand sense was very limited. He tended to like only those novelists who "showed up" Americans or other human beings, but chiefly Americans, as "boobs, dupes, and lackeys." Poetry was almost an unknown world to him. He claimed time and again that only "women, damaged men, perennial adolescents, and others who are ill at ease in the world of sound ideas write poetry." Painting, dancing and sculpture were, to him, "obviously third-rate arts."
He was against all political and economic reforms because reforming the "congenitally inferior" was foolish; genuine statecraft attempted to keep these "congenitally inferior" in their "proper place," which, of course, consisted in serving the "congenitally superior." America was the most benighted land in creation, or, to use one of his phrases, "America is the backside of the universe."
Finally, despite all his praise of "genuine scholarship," he himself was not much of a scholar. The American Language makes entertaining reading, but philologists, in the privacy of their libraries, have smiled at it. One of them, an eminent lexicographer, has called The American Language "an elephantine newspaper feature story." This is probably too cruel a characterization, but there is truth in it. There can be little doubt, however, that Mencken's Notes on Democracy, Treatise on the Gods and Treatise on Right and Wrong, are not much better than journalistic quickies.
And yet, despite these criticisms—and I have deliberately refrained from qualifying them, as I easily could have done, in order to forestall any charge that I am being too kind to my old teacher and friend—it is a mistake to undervalue Mencken and The Mercury. As a thinker Mencken probably had only a temporary vogue, for his fund of knowledge was limited and his ideas, as I have said, were few and largely dubious. But as a journalist, his influence was immense. Indeed, he was one of the greatest editors in all our history.
Of course, there was considerable froth in the pages of The Mercury. The Americana department was all froth, and nobody realized it better than Mencken himself. There was also excitement for sheer excitement's sake. For example, the aforementioned article on Whitman, which was the subject of heated controversy in the office, finally went in, though Mencken himself eventually admitted that the author was overstating his case, simply because, as Mencken said, "Oh, hell, Angoff, you may be right, and I guess I can't answer all that goddamn Harvard learning of yours, but I think we ought to print the piece if only to get the professors sore. For years they said Whitman was a bum, now they say he's an angel. Let's keep them hopping and squirming." And he wrote some of those dreadfully unfair things about Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan and Stuart P. Sherman and Henry Van Dyke, not because he believed every word he put down but also to "stir up the animals."
Sometimes his conscience would bother him, as when, in reviewing Sherman's posthumous book, he said some very nice things about him, taking back a large part of the abuse he had heaped upon him while he was alive. When I asked him why he did this he turned his face away and said, "It's the Christian in me, I guess. That baptismal water they poured over me when I was a boy, and against my wish, is powerful stuff. But really, there were some good things in Sherman, there really were."
Sometimes, when I would get his manuscript for the Editorial or the Library departments, I would cut out the passages that seemed in especially bad taste to me, without telling him. I imagined he knew what I had done, but he never reprimanded me, except once, when he had called somebody an "Episcopalian litvak," and I had cut it because I thought in that particular instance he was hitting below the belt. "Well, Angoff," he said, "so you cut out 'Episcopalian litvak.' I wish you hadn't. I'm fond of that phrase. Actually, in all honesty, it's not my own. I went to a briss [festival of circumcision] the other day, and the rabbi used that phrase in describing some mutual friend, a married man, who was carrying on with a shikse [Gentile girl]. If they had taught you how to drink like a man at Harvard, you would have had enough sense to let that phrase stand."
This sort of high-jinx was probably a bit adolescent, but that very fact to a considerable extent contradicts Mr. Cousin's remark that "the pulse-beat of historical America failed to come through in The Mercury." What is the pulsebeat of America? Of course, it is many varied things, but I believe that one of its dominant characteristics is high-jinx, sheer excitement, wild exaggeration, grand apostrophizing, the organ roll in prose, the "yawping from the housetops" in poetry. It is to be found in Melville and in Mark Twain and in Walt Whitman and in Thomas Hart Benton and in Charles Ives and in Thomas Wolfe and even in the fantastic debates and deliberations of Congress and the various state legislatures and the city councils. Mencken and his Mercury were anything but cold. They were always in a state of frenzy—and this frenzy was generally the frenzy of love, love of America and of its history and traditions, people and customs, heroes and rogues, saints and sinners and clowns … the American plains and mountains and rivers and cities and villages, and glories and aberrations, and dreams and hopes and regrets and miseries and … all that is America.
In fact, The Mercury printed more Americana than all the other so-called quality magazines put together. It was The Mercury that brought the whole Paul Bunyan folk-lore before literate America; before that it was known chiefly to folk-lore specialists. It was The Mercury that for years printed at least two articles in every issue on American history—and among the men who wrote those articles, incidentally, were William E. Dodd, Charles A. Beard, and Howard Odum. There were articles on life on the plains of Iowa and Montana and Nebraska, American horses and coyotes, old-time preachers and modern radio "spiritual counsellors"; there were articles on virtually every hero and rogue of more than local interest … on Daniel Boone and James Audubon and Bishop Asbury and Bishop Seabury and Samuel Adams and John Adams and Jim Corbett and Jim Jeffries and P. T. Barnum and, coming down to more recent times, Oswald Garrison Villard of The Nation and Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union, and scores of others. The Mercury loved everything that was American, the good, the bad, and the in-between.
Despite all his diatribes against America, Mencken was an ardent patriot, and he infused The Mercury with his patriotism. That was the chief reason why he had so much contempt for the expatriates of the twenties and early thirties. He looked upon them as virtual traitors. "Only third raters go off to Paris and Nice and those other frog dumps," he said to me. "A real writer stays home and writes about his own people. Look at Red [Sinclair] Lewis. You'll never see him guzzling that French wine in Paris and diddling the French girls, who, by the way, are not the cuties they are cracked up to be. They're mostly ugly as sin. But, as I say, Red Lewis stays home and writes about Sauk Center and Zenith. I tell you, not a goddam line worth reading will come out of that whole gang on the Left Bank."
What Mencken actually accomplished was nothing less than a revolution in American journalism. Though he denounced America month in and month out, and especially "the democratic bilge that is called a political philosophy," he democratized quality journalism. He brought the kitchen and the hayloft and the living room and the circus tent and the skid row and the loggers' camp and the camp meeting tent and the barber shop and the railroad yard right into the august pages of a fifty-cent magazine. The intellectuals of the big cities were thrilled to read all about this America that only the news-papers had hitherto dealt with, and skimpily at that. It is true that The Mercury sometimes overpraised the writers of the aforementioned articles—Mencken was indulging in hyperbole when he called the Jim Tully of "Circus Parade" and "Shanty Irish" "the American Gorki"—but it is also true that the readers of Tully and Holbrook and James Stevens and Frank Dobie learned about an aspect of America that they could not have learned in Harper's or The Atlantic or Scribner's or The Century or The Forum. Those who knew this best of all were the editors of these magazines. And the fact is that Harper's and Atlantic and the other "quality magazines" were never the same again after The Mercury got going.
The Mercury also vitalized the political articles. In the other magazines in its class political articles generally were written by professors who wrote about Washington and state politics from above, and who took great pains to be objective and calm, both admirable virtues but of little value when not based upon intimate knowledge of the subjects they were writing about. When The Mercury wanted an article on President Coolidge—what type of person he was, what he dreamed about when alone, what he talked about to his wife, what he actually read, who his heroes were—it did not go to a professor of history at the University of Wyoming, one who had never been within a thousand miles of Washington. The Mercury went to Frank Kent, a Washington reporter of long experience (and the original TRB of the New Republic) who saw Coolidge week in and week out, watched him smile, heard him speak, heard him stammer, talked to Senators and Congressmen who expressed their frank opinions about Coolidge. The result was something new in the field of the political article: a truly well-informed, vigorously written analysis by a man who knew him and who had a point of view. The article, which appeared in August, 1924, holds up remarkably well, and is still probably the best brief appraisal of Coolidge that has so far appeared in print.
The profile, which has become so integral a part of The New Yorker, and by which it has been deservedly praised, was actually born in the offices of The Mercury. Mencken realized that so-called second-class men—men who seldom make the front pages of newspapers but do occasionally appear at the bottom of page 17—often make better material for articles than do so-called first-class men. And he also had the same kind of abiding interest in revealing trivia that Harold Ross had: he wanted to know the kind of flower Grover Whalen prefers to have in his lapel and why, what type of suspenders Gene Talmadge of Georgia likes and why, the kind of poetry Senator Borah used to write in high-school, what type of popular songs Charles Evans Hughes generally hums when by himself.… Thus The Mercury printed excellent profiles by Henry Pringle and Herbert Asbury and Stanley Walker and others.
Since Mencken was interested in medicine and chemistry, he insisted that The Mercury print at least one and preferably two scientific pieces in every issue. This was something quite new in quality journalism. What was even more new was the treatment that Mencken called for. He demanded accuracy and completeness, but he also demanded humanity and clarity. So that in time The Mercury department of The Arts and Sciences became a model for other magazines. Lee Foster Hartman, late editor of Harper's Magazine, was especially taken with this department. He once asked where Mencken got so many good ideas. I told Mencken, and he instructed me to tell Hartman that "prayer and whiskey and the Holy Ghost are my only guides in this vale of tears."
Mencken had no respect whatever for "names." His principle was, "when a man wins the right to say what he pleases, he generally has very little to say, and he certainly has nothing worth printing." He found special delight in printing whole issues of The Mercury without a single "name." He especially liked to print issues where the names on the Table of Contents were "foreign"—Goldberg, Weissberg, Cautella, Krout, Halper. We once had an issue almost of this sort; near the bottom there was the name of Ralph Adams Cram, the celebrated Boston architect. Mencken looked and looked and then said to me, "How in hell did that Angoff-Saxon name get into decent society?"
Mencken was always eager to print authors for the first time, and to that end he carried on a huge correspondence with young men and women in all parts of the country in the hope that they would come through with a printable piece. He would send them long letters of advice on how to rewrite their articles, and he would suggest where they seek subjects. I was instructed to do the same. The young people were thrilled, and many of them did come through. What pleased them especially was that here was an editor who was not above corresponding with them, as was the case with the editors of some of the other "toney" magazines; here was a man who bubbled over with the same enthusiasms that possessed them, an editor who was truly desirous of printing good pieces about sheriffs and policemen and Governors and mayors and district leaders—and by good pieces Mencken did not mean stuffy pieces about "the socio-political implications of government on the lower levels." He meant honest, well-written, human pieces. No wonder he was called the managing editor of all the young hopeful writers all over the nation! There has been no one like him in this respect ever since he gave up The Mercury twenty years ago, and the life of all beginning writers has been so much the harder and so much the lonelier.
Mencken's respect for good writing and lively thinking amounted to a religious fervor. Frequently he would accept articles whose burden of ideas offended him, but he was so impressed by the writing or by the logic that he printed them nevertheless. The politics or "the religious aberration" of a writer didn't interest him; if his story or article or poem was good, he printed it—and then took the author out and argued with him about politics or religion. He printed chapters from Michael Gold's Jews Without Money though he detested Communism. "In politics Mike has the mind of a cat's behind," said Mencken, "but the man can write, at least he can write about the East Side of his mother." Mencken also printed sections from Emma Goldman's autobiography, though her anarchism seemed like "garbage" to him. And he once printed an article on Charles S. Peirce, perhaps the most original philosopher America has produced so far, though he looked upon most philosophers as "idiots and worse" and sneered at metaphysics and epistemology. "I'll be damned if I know why I am accepting this article," he said, "but there's something about Peirce that appeals to me, and the writing is very powerful. Don't tell any of my friends that I agreed to the publication of the piece."
Why, then, did Mencken's Mercury collapse? I haven't any sure answers. It could be, as Mr. Cousins says, that The Mercury's politico-economic philosophy, such as it was, made no sense after the crash of 1929 and after the New Deal went into office. The Mercury scoffed at all "constructive ideas," and the times called for such ideas.
It may also be that The Mercury was becoming less Mercuryish, so to speak—Mencken was getting fed up with editing and wanted to devote more time to his books. As Mencken was getting less interested in magazine editing, he began to listen more and more to advice from others, and the magazine began to lose personality, began to be less and less Mencken's Mercury but a sort of raffle barrel, a variety store.
Perhaps the 50-cent price was too steep for a time when there were apple-vendors on every corner of Fifth Avenue. Perhaps … perhaps.… Nobody really knows why one magazine dies, and another keeps on hobbling along. Why did The Bookman die—and why does The Atlantic Monthly live on? Why did The Dial pass out—and why does Harper's continue? The Atlantic and Harper's deserve to live on, but weren't The Dial and The Bookman also worthy periodicals? Of course they were, and for a while they were superb, but they died, and I don't believe anybody really knows why.
But some magazines die and are forgotten. Others die and are never forgotten. I don't think The Mercury, will ever be forgotten. It was the mouth-piece of a whole era in American cultural history.
Despite all its faults, The Mercury was very much a part of its times, even of its century. It sold for fifty cents but anybody with twenty-five cents to spare could understand it and enjoy it, for The Mercury gloried in printing articles, stories and poems about all the people, so long as these articles were interesting. Through one side of his mouth Mencken prattled about the beauties of political aristocracy and of benevolvent despotism, but through the other he would instruct me, "watch out especially for the manuscripts that come in, written in pencil, on butcher paper. The pearls of great price are to be found there, not in the fancy manuscripts, with pink and blue ribbons all about them. Read extra carefully all things, in prose or fiction, about the unknowns, the people who rub against you in the subway and on the street, the people you see as the train rushes along on the way to your lousy town, Boston. These people are worth all the politicians and all the preachers and all the moralists in Christendom. All art is about them and the still, small voice within them. They're all that matters."
Thus spoke the man who railed against the "booboisie." He was a man of contradictions and absurdities, and puerilities and even cheapness, but he was a great editor, and his Mercury was, all in all, a great magazine.
SOURCE: "Inadequate to Prevent the Present: The American Mercury at 50," in Journalism Quarterly, Summer, 1974, pp. 297-302.
[In the following essay, Anderson assesses the influence of the American Mercury on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary.]
This year marks the 50th birthday of The American Mercury, one of the chief intellectual stimulants of the Roaring Twenties. From its founding in 1924 by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, the little green-backed monthly "debunked the idols and ridiculed the mores of middle-class America."1 For admirers of Mencken and the magazine, however, it is a very unmerry birthday indeed, because The Mercury has been sinking into the quicksand of right-wing extremism for two decades.
By 1933, when Mencken departed, the magazine's iconoclasm was no longer palatable in the despair of the Great Depression. Publisher Alfred Knopf sold it in 1935 to Paul Palmer and Lawrence Spivak, later moderator of the radio-TV show "Meet the Press." They tried to make it a responsibly conservative journal, but financial problems soon forced them to imitate Reader's Digest in size and format. After Spivak purchased full control in 1939, it lost as much as $100,000 a year but was supported by his pioneering efforts in paperback book publishing.2
Millionaire banker Clendenin J. Ryan bought The Mercury in 1950, with William Bradford Huie as editor mixing sex, sensationalism and sophisticated conservatism. When Ryan pulled out in 1952 to escape mounting deficits, Huie—who said he was desperate enough to take money from Hitler or Stalin—found an angel of sorts in J. Russell Maguire. Maguire had amassed a fortune in wartime munitions production and Texas oil speculation, but the Securities and Exchange Commission had ended his career as a Wall Street broker for "flagrant violations" of the law, and he had unsavory connections with anti-Semitic groups.3 Huie stayed on for several months, gambling that he could retain control of editorial policy, but failed and left at year's end.4
Shrillness soon increased with a series of articles on Communist penetration of American life by J.B. Matthews, a former fellow-traveler turned professional anti-Communist. Matthews' modus operandi was to claim that the reds had dangerously infiltrated a profession, to carefully document the leftist records of a few of its members, and then to let readers assume he had proven his premise. The first article asserted that Kremlin agents had so successfully infiltrated higher education that the nation would be better off if all colleges had been closed for the preceding 35 years. Educators accounted for about 30% of the fellow-travelers in the Communist-front apparatus, he wrote.5
Matthews could attack professors with impunity, but his article, "Reds and Our Churches," caused a national furor. It claimed that "The largest single group supporting the Communist apparatus in the United States today is composed of Protestant clergymen." In numbers of fellow-travelers, the clergy bested even educators by a 2-1 margin and, aside from the official Communist Party leadership, "the five top pro-Soviet propagandists in this country are all Protestant clergymen."6
The article was condemned by conservatives such as Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd, religious leaders and ultimately President Eisenhower. Senate Democrats on Joseph McCarthy's subcommittee investigating alleged subversion successfully pressured the senator to fire Matthews from his new job as executive staff director.7
The Mercury was relatively tame in 1954-55, though one issue lionized the "Powerhouse in Pecos," an enterprising young businessman named Billie Sol Estes, whose amazing career was traced from his first flock of sheep to his first million. His later implication in massive frauds involving grain storage and non-existent ammonia tanks demonstrated that the sheep were only the first ones fleeced. "If you want to succeed in this world, you just keep God's Commandments and fear no man," Estes explained, although "I got lots of friends, and friends are money in the bank." Accused of being too open-handed for loaning money to blacks and Mexican-Americans, he replied: "If we don't help these folks, the Communists will win them over with promises."8
If the magazine's content was quiet, its office was not. Late in 1955 there was a blowup at The Mercury, with editor John Clements and other editors or contributors, including Matthews, quitting in October. Most of them would say only that they disagreed with editorial policy, but a reporter who knew them said it was because they felt "that attempts were being made to introduce antiSemitic material …"9
Perhaps they were right. Within little more than a year, the magazine was featuring G. (for George) Lincoln Rockwell, soon to lead the American Nazi Party until his assassination in 1967. Rockwell's first article said Marxist ideas had turned the descendants of Iceland's Vikings into "spoiled, alcohol-bemused, welfare-worshipping, security-loving, responsibility-shirking people …" Iceland had the ability to defend itself but lacked the will, and was headed for the junk heap of history. Despite the deteriorating situation, "the same healthy blood which is still coursing in young Icelandic veins can perform the spiritual and economic miracle which the country needs."10
Later Rockwell warned that the Marine Corps' fighting spirit and iron discipline were endangered by public opinion against brutalities in training. As long as the horrors of war threaten, he advised, "we must be prepared to participate successfully in these horrors." Criticism of brutality was part of a red plot to soften up Americans, because military training meant learning
the art of killing to enforce the will of the nation … And when you practice the art of killing, somebody's likely to get hurt. If we're not willing to accept that risk like men, we don't deserve to survive any longer as a nation.11
In a similar vein, Harold Lord Varney predicted doom because consistent cowardice left no more room for maneuver: "America has reached the end of its tether … The next crisis threatens to be the last." Echoing Rockwell, he moaned that Americans lacked some inner steel in their character, which was doubly sad because they could have ruled the world:
1947 saw us standing upon a pinnacle from which we could have dictated terms to the world … and could have pulverized the cities and industries of any country, including Russia, which defied our will.12
When his prediction of doom was not vindicated quickly, Varney warned again that "the United States stands upon the very precipice edge of national disaster." Things were brighter from 1921-33, good years for the nation despite "some carping egghead voices"—such as H.L. Mencken.13 (After a prolonged absence, Varney returned for a 1964 encore which sadly intoned: "The unhappy truth is that we are losing the Cold War … Unless we speedily change our course, we are certain to be surpassed in a few more years." Evidently the country was no longer on the precipice edge, but he argued that it ought to face the showdown as soon as possible.14
Anti-Semitism, which grew slowly and sporadically at first, increased in the late 1950s. One writer suggested that Communism was popular among Israelis because 20% of them backed leftist parties, and because the kibbutz was based on Marxist principles. This demonstrated that red influences were not flukes but "direct manifestations of the deeper and more lasting influence Communism exercises over the minds, hearts and aspirations of large groups of the Israeli people."15
Despite the magazine's pretense that it opposed only Zionists, Hilary Grey put the cards on the table with his statement that the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights "guarantees rights to the religious and racial minority responsible for communism …"16 An anonymous series called "Termites of the Cross" denied that Jews were persecuted in Russia because "If this were true, Jews … would constitute the most hostile group of anti-Communists in the country—whereas almost the exact opposite is true."17
The general counsel for B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League, Arnold Forster, charged that the magazine had betrayed its proud heritage. "It has become the single most important anti-Semitic publication in the United States," he said. Because of such accusations, three printers refused to produce it, and Mercury wholesalers dropped in 1960 from more than 600 to fewer than 200.18
The magazine denied everything, then carried on with more of the same. Maguire editorially decried the tyranny planned by "Zionist egocentric maniacs possessed of an insatiable and ruthless lust to rule or ruin all mankind." Miscegenation was also involved in the plot, so Maguire thundered that "Mongrelized, bestialized human dogs beget only miserable, slinking human curs."19 One of many anonymous fillers revealed that "Chronic flouride poisoning not only blunts the intellect, but also helps to limit population by causing chemical castration—and finally cancer!"20 Another announced, with no further explanation, that "Black magic is being used on the people of this country without their knowledge."21
The conspiracy was so pervasive that it took in even Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and the Salk polio vaccine. A review of the film version of Hemingway's book explained that "the huge fish which the old man cannot control is the capitalist system" and that "The sharks are obviously a symbol of the invincibility of the Communist underground procedures."22 Another article referred to the Salk serum as "monkey juice" and asserted that the shots "are being used to weaken and enslave the people" by causing epidemics.23
Maguire said farewell in January 1961, telling readers that the magazine was now owned by a patriotic organization, The Defenders of the Christian Faith, Inc., which would print The Mercury in its own plant.24 Gwynne W. Davidson, Defenders president and new board chairman, promised that the same policies and "vigorous editorial thrust" would remain in force.25 Editorial offices, which had been in New York for more than 35 years, were moved to Oklahoma City. Nobody bothered to mention that the magazine had dropped from 164 to 132 pages since the last issue of 1960.
The promise of editorial vigor was fulfilled by Maj. George R. Jordan who asserted that the Soviets had established a hospital in Ethiopia to train Russian-speaking witch doctors. Trainees were already "carrying the Kremlin's orders to the firesides of all the tribes."26 Longtime rightist Kenneth Goff, meanwhile, exulted that the death of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in a Congo airplane crash had saved America from world government. Goff said it seemed "that the very hand of God smashed the plane into the hillsides, proving once again that He is still ruler of the universe and holds the fate of man in His hands."27 Despite such extremism, the general level of vituperation decreased under Davidson's editorship in 1961-62, and anti-Semitism ceased to be a staple feature.
After the April number, financial problems hampered production in 1962, and only three more issues were printed. In a frank editorial, Davidson admitted the difficulties made obvious by the combined summer issue, which was only half the usual thickness. Nevertheless, many publications were in trouble and The Mercury considered its difficulties serious but not fatal.28The Mercury and the Defenders parted at year's end, however.
The magazine made one more attempt at monthly publication in 1963 under the ownership of The Legion for the Survival of Freedom, Inc., and the editorship of broadcaster Marcia Matthews, who contributed such novel terms as "commuliberal" and "commUNism." But she died after the April issue, and only two more were printed the rest of the year, though all were back up to 96 pages. The magazine's address was listed as a post office box in McAllen, Texas.
Her husband, Jason Matthews, became managing editor and in the October issue announced the impending death of the Republican Party. He was sure that the movement to draft Senator Barry Goldwater would fail because patriots had been unable to nominate a candidate in 30 years. His own credentials as an expert were that he once assisted President Hoover, advising him to renounce Prohibition in 1932:
Our indices had shown that if both parties had in their National platforms a promise of Repeal, the Republicans would win by an overwhelming majority in spite of the depression…29
The following September he predicted Republican victory in spite of his earlier prediction that Goldwater could not be nominated. Matthews foresaw a Goldwater landslide of 433 electoral votes and opinion polls to the contrary meant nothing because it was the first time since 1932 that "the people have had an opportunity to vote for their own survival." The Mercury touted the analysis as that of a man who was right in 1936 when The Literary Digest forecast victory for Alf Landon.30 Matthews died shortly after the electoral debacle.
During 1964 The Mercury settled into its present quarterly publication schedule. Although the first issue was 96 pages, the second and third were only eight oversized pages (81/2" x 11") each, and the final issue 16. Military Editor Gen. Edwin A. Walker, who had accused the Kennedy administration of muzzling the military, assumed editorship with the December issue, which returned to the familiar digest size.
In an election post-mortem, Walker charged that "Not Johnson but the Communist Party acquired a 42-million vote mandate …" which raised the question whether the administration and voters would accept red leadership. His answer was in the affirmative, probably because of the infiltration of "cryptos" and "ism-mystics."31
The first three issues of 1965 were written almost solely by Walker, sometimes using transparent aliases. Possibly because he was a target of Lee Harvey Oswald, Walker returned often to the subject of President Kennedy's assassination, declaring that "If one-half the homes in the United States had been flying the U.S. Flag … on Nov. 22, 1963, your president would not have been killed. No one would have dared."32 Later, he wrote that Lyndon Johnson's supporters in 1964 had voted "with the communists and the criminals involved in the assassination…"33
With the final issue of the year, Walker relinquished the editorship, and the headquarters shifted to Houston. As The Mercury acquired a board of contributors to replace personal control, it slowly grew back to 68 pages and forged an alliance with an intelligence newsletter, The Washington Observer. (The newsletter dispenses four pages of inside political gossip on a biweekly basis.) Mercury offices soon were moved again to Torrance, Calif., so it could "help to strengthen the forces of sanity" there.34
Yet in 1967 it seemed more eager to strengthen the forces of racism. One article purporting to ask "What Do We Owe the Negroes?" answered that they "enjoyed a slavery unparalleled in history for mildness and humanity" and later were freed by the magnanimous white man at little cost to themselves. Blacks had failed miserably to take advantage of their opportunities, which suggested that "perhaps the White man is at fault for making the road too easy for the emancipated Negro."35 Another writer demonstrated his white superiority by asserting that "every intelligence test [sic] … have proven conclusively that Negroes are intellectually inferior."36The Mercury concurred. "It is a simple fact that Negroes have never, at any time or place in the entire history of the world, created or maintained a culture above that of the stone age," it declared.37
As for the Vietnamese, one writer advocated bombing them back to the Stone Age. He advised America "to overwhelm the enemy with irresistible force, to smash and crush and destroy until the last quiver of resistance is wiped out."38 An editorial said the American peace movement was financed by Zionists and "must be suppressed—by force if necessary …" Or as The Mercury summed up, "PUT THE TRAITORS IN JAIL!"39
While supporting the presidential campaign of George Wallace in 1968, the magazine perceived rampant anarchy. Congressman James B. Utt believed anarchy had already gone so far that "the only salvation may be a military dictatorship." Of course, he defined anarchy rather broadly, describing the Poor People's March on Washington that summer as "an invasion intended to overthrow the government by force and violence."40
Frank Capell, chiefly known for libeling former Sen. Thomas Kuchel as a homosexual, discovered anarchy at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He informed readers that Vaseline for protection against tear gas "does not grow by the wayside" and reviled the demonstrators' "bizarre (and dangerous and/or disgusting) weapons." He concluded that "We seem to have conspiracy all over the place here."41
As a panacea for growing anarchy, The Mercury offered the fascist rhetoric of the National Youth Alliance. Dennis C. McMahon, Alliance vice-president, issued a battle cry for the "annihilation of the campus red front" because, at last, there was "an organization with determination to liquidate the enemies of the American people …" One of the Alliance's major goals was driving marijuana dealers off the campus with tar and feathers, but that would be only the beginning. Soon "the Left will be forced to cower in the sewers underground as they hear the marching steps of the NYA above them."42
Oddly enough, The Mercury soon reprinted an article which incidentally referred to McMahon as a "psychopathic-liar" and to NYA President John Acord, who had contributed an adulatory piece on Wallace, as an "arch conman."43
Whatever The Mercury thought of McMahon, it concurred with his principles. Explaining that all civilization depends on violence, it argued that "Violence that is used to maintain law and order … is a positive good." Furthermore, if government failed to use enough violence, "the people have the right and obligation to enforce the law themselves!"44 After all, as Revilo Oliver put it, since the Constitution was dead the niceties no longer counted. Evidently it was a poor Constitution anyway since it was "inadequate to prevent the present."45
Similarly, Austin App applauded ignoring the niceties abroad, terming the My Lai massacre "this execution of 109 probable Vietcong accomplices." When civilians cooperated with an uncivilized enemy which wore no uniforms, "harsh countermeasures are not only necessary but justified." Thus until liberals demanded trials for atrocities by the other side, "the call for trials against the U.S. boys who destroyed My Lai is essentially nothing but pro-Communist progaganda."46
Meanwhile, The Mercury upheld the high standards of Western culture with a poem by an "Unrepentant Westerner":
This doctrine of 'Equality'
Is just a tool of treason,
Let's heed the voice of History:
Adhere to Race and Reason!…
The Spirit of the Age decrees
Oppose these evil forces!
Our Heritage demands that we
Use all of our resources!47
Somewhat belatedly, The Mercury decided that Maguire had failed to use all his resources. It revealed that his daughter Marina had died in a Tulare, Calif., jail cell following an overdose of methadone. She arrived at this fate even though she had inherited $20 million. Despite the good Maguire did through The Mercury, it said, he had supported it with tax-deductible advertising charged off to his other businesses. The magazine's judgment of its former owner was:
What a shame that Russell Maguire did not spend his twenty million dollars in more direct action—action that he couldn't charge off against profits. If he had, his daughter might be alive today.48
Former owner Spivak's judgment of the magazine was equally harsh: "It's become a disgraceful sheet. Instead of selling out in 1950, I'm sorry I didn't bury it. I would rather have done that than see it dragged in the mud."49 Instead of being buried, The Mercury has simply sunk deeper in the mire and been forgotten by all but roughly 10,000 subscribers. For a magazine which once had influence on public opinion far exceeding its circulation, early senility may be a fate less merciful than death.
1 Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the 20th Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), p. 431.
2 Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, Vol. V (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 18-20, 22-4.
3 "Trouble for the Mercury," Time, Dec. 8, 1952, p. 42.
4 "Number Three for Mercury," Time, Dec. 15, 1952, p. 59.
5 J.B. Matthews, "Communism and the Colleges," The American Mercury (hereafter abbreviated AM), May 1953, pp. 111-12, 120.
6 Matthews, "Reds and Our Churches," AM, July 1953 pp. 3, 7.
7 "Joe Stubs Toe," Newsweek, July 20, 1953, pp. 29-30 and "Joe's Bloody Nose," Time, July 20, 1953, p. 15.
8 Karl Detzer, "Powerhouse in Pecos," AM, October 1955, p. 50.
9 "Blowup at The Mercury," Time, Oct. 3, 1955, p. 69.
10 G. Lincoln Rockwell, "No Wonder Iceland Hates Us!," AM, January 1957, pp. 7-9, 13.
11 Rockwell, "Who Wants Panty-Waist Marines?," AM, April 1957, pp. 119, 122.
12 Harold Lord Varney, "Our March to Catastrophe," AM, February 1957, pp. 29-30, 33.
13 Varney, "Our Feeble Foreign Policy," AM, December 1958, pp. 5-6.
14 Varney, "Why We Retreat in the Cold War," AM, January 1964, p. 77.
15 Fayez A. Sayegh, "Communism in Israel," AM, March 1958, pp. 50-1.
16 Hilary Grey, "U.N.—The New Cominform," AM, July 1959, p. 19.
17 "Termites of the Cross," AM, October 1959, p. 5.
18 "Mencken's Mercury Now," Newsweek, March 14, 1960, p. 92.
19 Russell Maguire, "You Too May Soon Be a Slave!," AM, February 1960, pp. 26-7.
20 "Do You Know?," AM, December 1959, p. 118.
21 "Do You Know?," AM, February 1960, p. 60.
22 "How We Swallowed 'The Old Man and the Sea'," AM, August 1959, pp. 75-6.
23 Barbara Hansen, "Salk-Serum Saddled Americans Still Get Polio—in Epidemics," AM, January 1960, pp. 91-2.
24 Maguire, "Mercury Moves Forward," AM, January 1961, p. 64.
25 Gwynne W. Davidson, "To Bear Witness to the Truth," AM, January 1961, p. 65.
26 George R. Jordan, "African Witches' Brew Concocted in Moscow," AM, February 1961, p. 19.
27 Kenneth Goff, "Setback in the U.N.," AM, December 1961, pp. 105-6.
28 Davidson, "Optimism Prevails at Mercury Headquarters," AM, Summer 1962, p. 7.
29 Jason Matthews, "Will Any Republican Ever Again Be President?," AM, October 1963, pp. 40, 44.
30 Matthews, "The Rigged Polls and the Coming Election of Barry Goldwater," AM, Summer-September 1964, p. 6.
31 Edwin A. Walker, "The November Mandate—1964," AM, Fall-December 1964, p. 7.
32 Walker, "The U.S. Flag," AM, Winter 1965, p. 14.
33 Walker, "A Letter to a Republican and a Democrat," AM, Summer 1965, p. 16.
34 "Great Leap Westward," AM, Winter 1966, p. 5.
35 Robert E. Kuttner, "What Do We Owe the Negroes?," AM, Spring 1967, pp. 8-9.
36 Raymond F. Treadwell, "Suppressed Document Rises to Haunt Politicians," AM, Spring 1967, p. 14.
37 "Fashion of the Future," AM, Fall 1967, p. 3.
38 Richard W. Edmonds, "Soldiers' Lives for Votes," AM, Summer 1967, p. 14.
39 "Is Dissent Treason?," AM, Winter 1967, p. 4.
40 James B. Utt, "Anarchy—U.S.A." AM, Fall 1968, pp. 11-12.
41 Frank Capell, "Conspiracy in Chicago," AM, Winter 1968, pp. 57-60.
42 Dennis C. McMahon, "The National Youth Alliance," AM, Spring 1969, pp. 61-3.
43 C.B. Baker, "James J. Kilpatrick—Conservative Quisling," AM, Fall 1969, pp. 55-6.
44 "Freedom and Violence," AM, Summer 1969, p. 3.
45 Revilo Oliver, "After Fifty Years," AM, Fall 1969, p. 19. Oliver won notoriety in 1964 by suggesting that President Kennedy was killed because he failed to advance the Communist cause fast enough.
46 Austin J. App, "My Lai, Dresden and War-Crimes Trials," AM, Spring 1970, pp. 12-13.
47 "Oppose These Evil Forces!," AM, Spring 1970, p. 56.
48 Ian Bruce MacLeod, "Maguire's Folly," AM, Fall 1971. p. 13.
49 Mencken's Mercury Now," Newsweek, March 14, 1960. p. 92. Anti-Semitic mud remains an integral part of the magazine. In the Summer 1973 issue, for example, one article declared that "the world would be a far better place to live if Germany had won—even if it had meant the defeat of American arms!" because Hitler would have saved the white race from liberalism, juvenile delinquency and integration. Yet the magazine smugly editorialized in its 50th anniversary issue (Spring 1974) that if Mencken returned, he would approve of its editorial policies. An accompanying article by Joseph P. Kamp, though marred by factual errors and fulsome obeisance to the current editor, provided inside explanations for events discussed here. He claimed the 1952 staff shakeup was the work of an ADI agent provocateur.
Chielens, Edward E. "The American Mercury" in his The Literary Journal in America, 1900-1950: A Guide to Information Sources, pp. 39-43. Detroit: Gale Research, 1977.
Annotated bibliography of writings about the American Mercury.
(The entire section is 34 words.)