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  Scrappy Days: The Life of H.L. Mencken
He was a literary machine, self-designed and chiefly for killing. Shortly after the century turned, H. L. Mencken says he was "full of lust to function, and before I was twenty-five it was already plain that my functioning would take the form of a sharp and more or less truculent dissent from the mores of my country." His literary autobiography, published now for the first time, amounts to about 40 percent of an enormous manuscript Mencken dictated between 1942 and 1948, when he suffered a stroke. It covers the years before 1924 and The American Mercury, the period when he was editing The Smart Set with George Jean Nathan and having a personal success with A Book of Prefaces and The American Language. It is the memorable record of a killer's progress, a body count conducted with Whistlerian relish ("In March 1909, I made another violent enemy"), even as it insists its author "was far more eager to discover and proclaim merit."

Every susceptibility of the booboisie and intelligentsia is once more on display here. As Mencken shoots them down again, like carnival ducks, the reader watches, nostalgically. He refights Mencken's wars against "comstockery" and the "Anglomaniacs," laps up his contempt for anyone caught mucking about in "the swamps of the uplift," and appreciates his still-amusing contempt for the literary seacoast of Bohemia:


*Review of My Life as Author and Editor, edited end with an introduction by Jonathan Yardley (Knopf).

Ulysses seemed to be deliberately mystifying and mainly puerile, and I have never been able to get over a suspicion that Joyce concocted it as a kind of vengeful hoax. Writing excellent stuff in conventional patterns, he got very little attention and was so hard up that he had to go on teaching languages to keep alive, but from the moment he took to the literary bizarreries of Greenwich Village and began to push them further than Greenwich Village (or even the Left Bank) had ever dared, he was a made man.


There are the incidental bashings, too ("New Orleans and Providence, both intellectual slums"), compulsive animadversions from a man who says, correctly, that "moral indignation... was foreign to [his] nature."

My Life as Author and Editor stands, for better and worse, as a matchless guide to American literary life in the years just before and after World War I. Mencken's superb retrospection introduces readers to such forgotten writers and literary personalities as the short-story writer Lilith Benda and the poet (later publisher) John Farrar:


He was slim and graceful and had the peaches-and-cream complexion of a young girl not yet condemned to night work. As a result, he became at once the darling of all the fat women who like to rub noses with authors, and in a little while he was touring the country haranguing the women's clubs and driving the old girls crazy. Of that dismal trade there was never any more successful practitioner, at least in my time.


Benda's and Farrar's names are comparatively enduring; Mencken lists fourteen others that he can find "over and over again in the disintegrating files of the Smart Set" without being able to remember a thing about any of them.

This says a mouthful about obscurity, and certainly nothing against Mencken's powers of recall, which are so formidably specific that they produce not only a peerless record of his trade and era, but also--even after Jonathan Yardley's yeoman slashing of the manuscript--some awfully dull reading. Much less about advertising lineage, sales figures, and the number of incoming manuscripts would still have gone a long way. Even the more interesting tales of business rivalry and shifting ownership sometimes make a reader feel as if he's been locked in a library seventy years from now and condemned to read page 3 of every issue of The New York Observer: When Hastings Harcourt "was introduced into the business and began to take a more and more active hand in it, the father's partner, Brace (Howe had meanwhile retired), and the principal employees were full of disquiet." But the book never takes long in coming back to life with blunt truths, small cruelties and amusing lines: "Claire [Burke] added the detail that [Willard H. Wright's] addiction had made him impotent, and thereby caused a rift in the lute of their domestic felicity."

The portraits Mencken offers of still-read writers are the portions of text exhibiting true shapeliness and polish, because with these he's willing to get ahead of himself, to jump into the future to finish them off. He shows the naive, awkward Theodore Dreiser lurching from one publisher and woman to another, hurt that Mencken's admiration for his work does not extend to personal approval: "he was... upset by my skeptical attitude toward his removal to Greenwich Village and his arty life there with [the actress] Kirah Markham. While he lived uptown with [his wife] Sarah he led a thoroughly bourgeois life." Dreiser must have realized at some point that Mencken's championship of his books was as much a matter of personal ambition as disinterested homage. Around 1909, Mencken says, he needed "an author who was completely American in his themes and his point of view, who dealt with people and situations of wide and durable interest, who had something to say about his characters that was not too obvious, who was nevertheless simple enough to be understood by the vulgar, and who knew how to concoct and tell an engrossing story." Jennie Gerhardt came along two years later.

Mencken takes up F. Scott Fitzgerald at the outset of his alcoholic train wreck ("so shy a young fellow by nature, that he not only mistered Nathan and me, but also sirred us"), and makes every stop along Sinclair Lewis's downhill slide, saving his best shots for Lewis's second wife, Dorothy Thompson:


the true daughter of her Methodist pa--a tin pot messiah with an inflamed egoism that was wholly unameliorated by humor. Her eight years abroad as the correspondent for a third-rate newspaper had filled her with the conviction that she knew all that was worth knowing about the political, social and economic problems of the world, and her views, stated freely, had all the confidence of divine revelation.


A letter Mencken wrote to Ezra Pound in November 1936--"You made your great mistake when you abandoned the poetry business, and set up shop as a wizard in general practice"--makes one realize that Mencken traveled something of the same route himself (he was writing triolets in 1900) with greater cunning and steadier success. Each one's anti-Semitism, however, came from a different mental precinct. Pound's was a predictable ingredient in the simmering crackpot of his "system." Mencken's, as this book amply shows, was something else--an almost physical compulsion, a Tourette-like discharge of poison he seemed doomed to vent at regular intervals while the proud machine of his judgments kept chugging on and laying down the law. This was no incidental flaw, no posthumous discovery limited to his private diaries (he was called on the matter as early as 1930), and not something that can be explained away by making allowance for the era and circumstances in which he lived. "Jew-like"; "a Jewish law firm called Fishbein, Goldfarb, Spritzwasser and Fishbein, or something of the sort"; "prehensile kikes"--and so on and on. These are less the genteel barbarities of another age than the eternal chant of the crazy who's just boarded the subway car.

One would be hard put to find any book more indicative of this particular hatred's being, literally, a mental illness, one that in Mencken's case led to breathtaking abandonments of logic. In a single paragraph of his admiring treatment of his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Mencken says, first: "I had little if any prejudice against Jews myself." Six lines later we are told that Knopf "showed a certain amount of the obnoxious tactlessness of his race." Twenty pages later, in a discussion of the actor-producer Edgar Selwyn, cause precedes effect: "there was but little suggestion of the Jewish in his appearance and manner, and I got on with him very well." Finally, three pages before the book breaks off, this risible imparting of information: "Isaac Goldberg, like DeCasseres, was a Jew...."

Mr. Yardley, who seems to have thought about this issue honestly and long, reaches the following conclusion: "if by the standards of our day Mencken was anti-Semitic, by those of his own he was not. Inasmuch as he lived in his time and not in ours, it is by this we should judge and, I believe, acquit him." But Mr. Yardley acknowledges the existence of "legitimate objections" to this view, and one must raise strong ones here. Mencken's anti-Semitism, by any definition, and in any time or place, was spectacular--gaudy, energetic, and marked by, to use a Mencken term, "salacity." His editor's excuses are overly sophisticated, and they're offered with a certain embarrassment: "there is the old some-of-his-best-friends argument, which in Mencken's case carries considerable force." To Yardley's credit, he has presented this uncivilized material in a civilized way, taking care "not to excise any material that might be unfavorable to Mencken in that regard," and finally to let the reader make up his own mind.

Like many witty people, Mencken lacked humor. Even worse, he was low on normal measures of self-awareness. On this point Mr. Yardley is acute and unsparing: "Mencken's impregnable self-confidence is, to my taste, the least appealing of his traits, suggesting as it does an incapacity for self-doubt or real self-scrutiny." Eventually more conscious of being a symbol than a man, he came to view himself as a petrified phenomenon passing into posterity on a schedule of his own choosing. (The boxes containing the memoir were opened in Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library on January 29, 1991, exactly thirty-five years after the author's death.)

His soundest bit of self-appraisal came in a review of his activities around the time he was thirty-six: "No reasonably attentive reader of my monthly discourses, by the beginning of 1917, could be in any doubt about my fundamental ideas, which were, in the main, scientific rather than moral or aesthetic: I was in favor of the true long before I was in favor of either the good or the beautiful." He reviewed according to standards instead of theories, even if in summarizing his principal one, he chose the other word:


My central theory was that an author was entitled to choose his own manner, his own weapons. If, having made his choice, he produced a work of genuine vitality, giving a plausible picture of human life as he had seen it, and devoid of fustian and brummagem, then I was for him; but if there was any sign of falseness or affectation in him, then I was against him.


On balance, if we look at his work by his own lights, we should probably be for Mencken--but also not unrelieved to board the train out of Baltimore and get the hell away.



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