The American Mercury Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 69,930 words.)