(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

During the 1920’s, few literary events were so eagerly awaited in the United States as the appearance of a new volume of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices. A wide range of people enjoyed the spectacle of the Sage of Baltimore, as he was called, pulling yet another popular idol down from its pedestal. Mencken’s iconoclasm was accomplished with so much gusto and with such vigorous and picturesque language as to enchant a whole generation grown weary of the solemnity of much American writing. Indeed, the decade badly needed an iconoclast, for what later became almost exclusively thought of as the Jazz Age was also the era of the Ku Klux Klan and the Anti-Saloon League, of Babbittry and boosterism.

Mencken’s essays in these volumes can be divided into two categories: literary criticism and criticism of the contemporary American scene. Literary criticism Mencken defines as a “catalytic process” in which the critic serves as the catalyst. As a critic, however, Mencken derived mainly from James Huneker, whom he admired enormously and had known personally. Huneker had been familiar with Continental writers, then not too well known in the United States, and his criticism was essentially impressionistic, often couched in breezy, epigrammatic language. Mencken carried certain of these characteristics much further; indeed, his verbal acrobatics became his hallmark. His was a racy, pungent style very effective for the “debunking” then so popular and deliberately calculated to drive conservative readers into frenzies.

Mencken’s chief target, of which he never tired, was the Puritan tradition in American literature with its consequent timidity, stuffiness, and narrow-mindedness. As he saw it, the Puritan was afraid of aesthetic emotion and thus could neither create nor enjoy art. This fear had inhibited American literature, he claimed, and had made American criticism timid and conventional. Further, criticism had fallen into the hands of the professors, and there was nothing—not even a prohibition agent—that Mencken detested so much as the average American university professor. Hence, he heaped scorn on such men as Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Stuart P. Sherman, and William Lyon Phelps for years.

It is ironic that the critical writings of some of these academics have withstood the passage of time more successfully than have those of...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Fitzpatrick, Vincent. H. L. Mencken. New York: Continuum, 1989. Reprint. Mercer, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2004. Assesses Mencken’s influence on American life and letters through the presentation of significant relationships and battles. Notes Mencken’s intent in Prejudices to attack cherished beliefs and stir up his fellow Americans.

Geismar, Maxwell. The Last of the Provincials: The American Novel, 1915-1925. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949. Views Mencken as the dominant literary voice of the 1920’s, supporting the conquest of American values of older rural life. Concludes that Prejudices reflects his efforts to champion the new economic order of industrialization over Puritan conscience and the reaches of the American hinterland.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. 1942. New ed. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace, 1995. Classic treatment of the emergence of modern American literature. Considers Mencken’s capacity for imposing his skepticism on a new generation. Argues that Mencken is the perfect illustration of America’s passage into the second half of the twentieth century.

Lippman, Walter. “H. L. Mencken.” Saturday Review of Literature (December 11, 1926): 413-415. One of the earliest and most astute assessments of Mencken’s ideas. Insists that Mencken’s effectiveness lies in his ability to alter prejudices. Sees Mencken as a personal force overwhelmingly preoccupied with popular culture working for the liberty of an ideal democracy.

Rodgers, Marion Elizabeth. Mencken: The American Iconoclast. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Comprehensive, meticulously researched portrait of Mencken. Includes information about the creation and reception of Prejudices.

Teachout, Terry. The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Concise but thorough biography that discusses how Mencken’s work helped shape American social attitudes.

Williams, W. H. A. H. L. Mencken. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A chronological study of Mencken’s life, focusing on the development of his ideas and the way he draws on them throughout his criticism. Evaluates Mencken’s social criticism in the 1920’s and concludes that his involvement with the struggle between the rural and the urban, as shown in Prejudices, was his major theme of the decade.

_______. H. L. Mencken Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998. Williams’s revision of his 1977 study includes two decades of new scholarship on Mencken to provide a more up-to-date overview of the writer’s life and work. Chronicles the development of Mencken’s ideas, examines the major themes of his work, and discusses his opinions about American society.