Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974
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 Mencken. For though less a geographical provincial than they, he was more provincial in time and was interested mainly in the contemporary. Of the older native writers, he really admired only Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman—the nonconformists. Even among the progressives of his age his preferences were curiously limited. He had great regard for Joseph Conrad and Theodore Dreiser, but he overlooked much of the talent that was budding during the 1920’s. That he should have overpraised some of his contemporaries, James Branch Cabell, for example, or Dreiser, should not be held against him; few critics are sufficiently detached to escape this fault. Dreiser was an important writer but not the “colossal phenomenon” that Mencken called him.
Mencken’s greatest failure as a critic was his blindness to poetry. In the third series of Prejudices he includes an essay, “The Poet and His Art,” a study so full of false assumptions, logical fallacies, and plain misstatements of fact as to be an embarrassing legacy for a critic to have left behind him. Because Dante’s theology was unacceptable to Mencken, he therefore judged that Dante could not really have believed what he wrote; according to Mencken, The Divine Comedy (c. 1320) was a satire on the Christian doctrine of heaven and hell.
The essays dealing with the national scene are written in the same slashing manner and naturally infuriated far more readers, since Mencken here attacks people, institutions, and ideas familiar to everyone. Many of these pieces retain little significance in later times, for they deal with situations reserved for that particular decade. Yet some of them are valid still: “The Sahara of the Bozart” (second series) is in some ways almost as true of the South today as it was in 1920; his comments on the farmer (“The Husbandman,” fourth series) are even more appropriate, and his dissections of such eminent figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Thorstein Veblen are still funny.
Of Americans in general, Mencken had a low opinion, considering them a mongrel people incapable of high spiritual aspiration. His opinion of democracy was equally low. It was, he felt, merely a scheme to con the have-nots in their unending battle with the haves. The inferiority of Americans Mencken attributed to the lack of a genuine aristocracy and to Puritanism. Without an aristocracy, there could be no real leadership in America, and the vacuum would inevitably be filled by politicians, whom he detested. Nor did he have any faith in reform or reformers.
As for Puritanism, Mencken believed that it had always been the dominant force in American history and had left Americans the narrow-minded victims of religious bigotry. The predominance during the 1920’s of the more extreme forms of religious fundamentalism gave some support to his argument. In his attacks on religion, however, he made the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Because he himself was a complete skeptic, he could not believe that there could be intelligent and yet sincere Christians.
Mencken’s enemies were always urging him, in anguished tones, to leave the United States if he found it so distasteful. His reply was that nowhere else could so much entertainment be had so cheaply. According to his calculations, it cost him personally only eighty cents a year to maintain Warren Harding in the White House. Where could a better show be found for the money? In spite of his exaggerations, crudities, and often bad taste, Mencken performed a valuable service as a national gadfly, and his cynical wit provided the sting at just the right historic moment.