Books by H.L. Mencken

Released: Jan. 30, 1995

Rescued from an abandoned but essentially finished manuscript, the second of Mencken's chrestomathies forms as good a compendium of social and literary irascibility as one could hope for. Mencken put together his first chrestomathy (from the Greek, "useful learning") to bring back his pungent but out-of-print writings from his Prejudices, the American Mercury, the Baltimore Sun, and the Smart Set. Although his philological The American Language had sustained his reputation after the Depression, the Chrestomathy's success inspired him to a sequel, which he had almost finished editing at the time of his crippling stroke. Teachout (City Limits, 1991, etc.) has retrieved the manuscript from Mencken's voluminous deposit of papers in Baltimore and, with a last boost of editorial care, perfected it into a mirror-image of the first volume, succeeding in preserving Mencken's character as well as his writing. With sections titled "Americana," "Progress," "Constructive Criticism," and "Lesser Eminentoes," this farrago is less coherent than most miscellanies; but that is likewise true of Mencken's supercharged polemical prose, whether he is attacking YMCA morality ("The Emperor of Wowsers"), the legal profession ("Stewards of Nonsense"), or New York City ("Totentanz"). A few of his better-known pieces appear here, such as his sardonic history of academic criticism, "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism"; his attack on the later George Bernard Shaw, "The Ulster Polonius"; and his gastric analysis of America, "Hot Dogs." Throughout there are gems of cultural and literary criticism, even buffooneries like an anthropological satire of the discovery of fire. The only drawbacks to this anthology, aside from Mencken's lapses into offensive remarks (e.g., about non—Anglo Saxon immigrants) and bombastic opinionating, are the omissions of an author editing himself for posterity: Mencken includes no substantial excerpts of his political, philological, or autobiographical writings. Still, this has everything that puts Mencken alongside Ambrose Bierce and Edmund Wilson in the American tradition of intelligent ornery writing. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 29, 1993

The unmistakable iconoclasm of Mencken resounds again in this memoir of his early days in the literary trade. The original 1,000-page manuscript, scaled in a vault for 35 years after Mencken's death, has been trimmed 60 percent by Pulitzer-winning book-critic Yardley (Our Kind of People, 1989, etc.). Many of the deleted passages evidently dwelled on the trivial—and even in the finished product only an accountant could love Mencken's itemizations of his financial affairs. Admirers might wish that Yardley had also used the blue pencil on the casually flagrant stereotypes that litter this memoir much as they did The Diary of H. L. Mencken (1989), particularly those brief but pungent comments like the one about publisher Philip Goodman, who remained Mencken's friend "until the shattering impact of Hitler made him turn Jewish on me." The autobiography lacks some of the raffish nostalgia of Mencken's Days trilogy, an absence reflecting bitterness over America's second war with his beloved Germany, but it still offers an invaluable record of Mencken's impact on American letters until the early 1920's (a 1948 stroke prevented him from chronicling his stewardship of the American Mercury and his later journalism). Mencken is justifiably proud of how he and George Jean Nathan turned the cash-starved Smart Set into a forum for America's brightest newcomers. He cheerfully recalls the feuds and quirks (often alcohol-induced) of now-obscure neophytes, as well as of the more famous, including Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Ezra Pound, and Aldous Huxley. Mencken's description of his stormy friendship with Theodore Dreiser is masterful, as admiring of the latter's clumsy genius as it is exasperated with his oafishness ("Whenever an obvious fact competed for his attention with a sonorous piece of nonsense, he went for the nonsense"). Often comically brilliant in detailing Mencken's "sharp and more or less truculent dissent from the mores of my country"—and always brutally frank about others' foibles and his own prejudices. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 15, 1989

Sealed for 25 years since his death in 1956, the diaries of the once popular critic and newspaperman only now have been edited from the original manuscript, which is three times longer than the selections brought together here by Mencken scholar Fecher. Though something of an event for Menckenites, the publication of these diaries reveals little that wasn't already known from the famous curmudgeon's voluminous publications. What is new here isn't very pleasant, and even Fecher—a devout Mencken defender—admits the uglier aspects of these less inhibited jottings. Mencken proves to be both a racist and an anti-Semite, as many have long suspected, though not quite as vehement in his prejudices as Fecher suggests in his informative introduction. Written during the Thirties and Forties, the diaries follow Mencken's decline in popularity—temporarily forestalled by the succes of his American Language series—and reflect none of the excitement of his heyday as a critic and editor. By the Thirties, Mencken no longer championed writers such as Dreiser, but in fact found him an "incurable lout," and Sinclair Lewis an alcoholic "psycopath." Despite cameos by a drunken Faulkner, a charming Fitzgerald, a dull T.S. Eliot, and a manic Ezra Pound, the literary celebs in these pages are mostly second-rate and in decline themselves. Mencken hobnobs with politicians, medical men from Johns Hopkins, and journalists, but spends most of his time recording what he ate and drank, as well as the aftereffects, for he was clearly a hypochondriac, recording every heart palpitation and gas bubble. Much of the diary follows the internal affairs of The Baltimore Sun, with which Mencken remained affiliated long after he ceased writing for it, and the publishing house of Alfred Knopf, on whose board Mencken sat. Throughout the war years, Mencken remains true to his isolationist and libertarian principles, reserving his greatest invective for that "mountebank" FDR. Hardly the American Samuel Johnson (as Fecher avers), Mencken isn't even equal to Edmund Wilson, whose own diaries contribute to literary history in a way Mencken's seldom do. Read full book review >
MENCKEN AND SARA by Marion Rodgers
Released: Jan. 19, 1986

As edited and richly introduced by Mencken scholar Rodgers, these are the charming, often rambunctious letters between Mencken and star-crossed Sara Haardt, his admirer and later his wife. In wavering health, Sara was a 24-year-old Alabama short-story writer, budding novelist and poet in 1923 when she first wrote for advice from Mencken. He was 42, author of The American Language and coeditor with George Jean Nathan of The Smart Set, and literary dictator of the United States. A devoted beer-drinker and tippler despite Prohibition, Mencken was also the nation's most renowned flower of bachelorhood, witty indeed about husband hunters and the demerits of marriage, and the most unlikely man to fall for a young Southern charmer. But, as the reader quickly sees, Sara had everything: beauty, wit, open-minded agnosticism, a brilliant pen and—as doctors told him when he married her in 1930—only three years to live. She lived five. The happily surprised reader finds "The Bad Boy from Baltimore" on his absolutely best behavior in every letter and growing ever more lovable as the correspondence moves forward year by year (Sara died in 1935). They seem to have been bonded by his editorial remarks on her work, his guidance of her career, restaurants, and considerable bourbon, rum and beer. Their sex life appears gallantly platonic until marriage, despite many unchaperoned meetings in the country and elsewhere. Mencken would give her notes for revising her novels and stories, tips on the best ways to approach editors for various magazines. He was also helpful in getting her a job in Hollywood, where she was a scriptwriter at Paramount. Meanwhile, Mencken went off to cover political conventions and wrote her cracklingly funny letters. The marriage seems to have been sheer delight, aside from the tubercular writing on the wall and her hospitalizations. Moving and lively, an epistolary Southern beauty-and-the-beast, with a very sad ending. Read full book review >
A CHOICE OF DAYS by H.L. Mencken
Released: Sept. 12, 1980

Memories of infancy, early schooling, Baltimore provender, "The Larval Stage of a Bookworm," and other autobiographical essays culled from Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943) and splendidly—which is to say buoyantly—introduced by Edward L. Galligan. Readers are alerted to Mencken's relish of idiosyncracies, his "admiration for competence," his "delight in language"; warned of his racism and reminded of his irreverence (which attracted Richard Wright); and then turned loose with this "genuine razzle-dazzle of a book." Here is Mencken, at 18, applying for his first newspaper job, disappointed and elated at being told "to drop in again of an evening." "I came back, you may be sure—and found him missing. . . . The next night I was there again—and found him too busy to notice me. And so the night following, and the next, and the next. To make an end, this went on for four weeks, night in and night out, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. A tremendous blizzard came down upon Baltimore. . . but I hoofed it ever hopefully to the Herald office, and then hoofed it sadly home. There arrived eventually. . . the evening of Thursday, February 23, 1899. I found Max reading copy, and for a few minutes he did not see me. Then his eyes lifted, and he said casually: 'Go out to Govanstown, and see if anything is happening there. We are supposed to have a Govanstown correspondent, but he hasn't been heard from for six days!" (Continued on page 136.) Alfred A. Knopf writes—in the companion centenary volume, On Mencken, edited by John Dorsey (above)—that the three Days books did not sell well (they are now o.p.); at the very least, these two new works should be mutually reinforcing. There is entertainment to spare in Mencken, and lots of snazzy writing. Read full book review >
Released: July 13, 1976

The '48 presidential campaign was Mencken's last hurrah; soon he would suffer a massive stroke and dwindle into silence. But how could the great curmudgeon resist the '48 conventions? American politics was in spectacular disarray, and Mencken loved it. Joseph Goulden has edited and provided an introduction to Mencken's savaging of the candidates and their sideshows: Dewey, Taft, Truman, Henry Wallace leading away the Progressive pack, Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrat walkout. No one looks to Mencken for fairness; malice toward all and charity for none was his credo. He judged politicians as performers—orators, buffoons, circusmen. He had a magnificent ear for the inanities of campaign speeches, the cacophony of bands and choirs, the "loud brassy politicianesses" who festooned the platform; his eye took in the banal placards, the Republican minions in "their seersucker suits and sweatproof plastic collars," the pawing and nuzzling of the delegations. Some pronounced his early campaign coverage a bit subdued; he warmed to his task with the coming of the "Wallace evangel," mocking the gathering tribes of "Negro Elks. . . Armenian Youth of America, the National Council of Women Chiropractors" and the rest of the motley band that clustered around "Swami" Wallace. Conservatives and reactionaries will continue to claim him, with some justification. Mencken was an implacable foe of the New Deal and Truman, a snide anti-feminist, a jeering red-baiter. But this is at least partly to miss the point: Mencken the journalist could cut through the flummery of party politics like no one else. Would that he were around to write up the '76 election. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1975

Theo Lippman, Jr. supplies a sizable sketch of Mencken to go with this selection of the great curmudgeon's nasty comments on newspaper publishers, editors and reporters. Tightly selected pieces, these show Mencken at his wittiest and most barbed (in later years the wit ran down and became rather mean). He worked on the Baltimore Sun for over 40 years, while producing his much revised The American Language, several volumes of reminiscence and satire, and studies of Shaw and Nietzsche. The pieces are from The Smart Set (which Mencken co-edited with George Jean Nathan), The American Mercury (which he edited), and various other magazines and newspapers. The roastings of Hearst and Britain's Northcliffe are balanced by sensitive depictions of Joseph Pulitzer and, especially, of the garden variety daily newspaper reporter. News gathering is a young man's game and Mencken's sad picture of a 40-50-year-old journalist, calcified but still hacking out stories ("correct in every idea and hollow as a jug"), connects. His hardest attack is on the "pecksniffs"—hypocritical publishers who in Mencken's day were bewailing infringements of the First Amendment while harassing the public with idiotic alarms about Bolshevism and bringing on the wholesale jailing and deportation of innocent men (remember Eugene Debs' prison term?). ". . . the great American journals continue to display, as usual, the morals and public spirit of so many Prohibition enforcement officers, Congressmen, or streetwalkers." Great fun all the way, and first-rate American prose crisp as a new dollar bill. Read full book review >
Released: May 21, 1956

Astringent commentator, this one time the Idol of the youth of the '20's, became — according to Barzun- the "Monumental Mencken" of the 40's. Now, posthumously, the jottings of his notebooks have been brought together. They reveal him to the end the iconoclast, the debunker. In a sense this supplements A Mencken Chrestomathy (published in 1949, and culled from his famous Prejudices), but it has less cohesion, is more repetitive and unselective. In the main the material consists of brief notes, out of which something might eventually have developed. Here are germs of his theories on crime and punishment, on new ideas, on the emotional stimulus of war, on survival after death, on the new leisure, on the failures of education, on the reading of newspapers, on the franchise- right or privilege?- on the unreliability of history, on the fallacies concerning the Southerner and the Negro, etc. Two major themes can be picked out as dominant:- the lesser one of his scorn for the New Deal, his hatred of Roosevelt; the major one of his cynicism about religion, particularly Christianity in all its forms (Christian Science and Catholicism come in perhaps for the hardest jabs). Somehow, Mencken read today fails to shock, to challenge, though he can still provide the quotable epigram. Read full book review >
Released: April 5, 1948

Supplement One amplified, revised, enriched the first 300 pages- roughly- of the original The American Language. Supplement Two does the same with the next 300 pages. Together, the two supplements have used the original book as a springboard, an outline, a basic investigation, and have gone on from there, absorbing, discarding, expanding, occasionally contradicting, but always making this searching into the making of a language an exciting, all-absorbing passion. New contribution made by the extending fields of radio and motion pictures; the diverse elements introduced through new language of professions, businesses, science, industry; the effect of the war; the contributions made by opening up of new sources of information on origins of word forms, uses phrases, etc. There's new material on proper names, including some wholly fresh data on origins of names of hotels, apartment houses, churches, ships, Pullman cars, and so on. Geographical names receive a generous share of attention, and provide fresh angles on history. A fascinating book, which will bear endless study, affording something new with each fresh investigation. Don't consider this as saleable only to those who have the earlier volume — but use as opening wedge to introduce Supplement One. Read full book review >
Released: June 27, 1945

This is apparently a complete revision, corrected, expanded, brought up to date (even to including the material used in the American Army pamphlet relating to word variations between England and this country). I have seen only about 600 pages, of an incomplete galley proof; these 600 pages cover the corresponding 300 in the original book. there is additional illustrative and historical amplification, expanded discussion of sources and comparative opinions, controversial slants on sources, etc. There is more space devoted to such ways of expanding the language as the jargon of Variety and Time, Winchellisms, trade names, and recent adaptations of foreign words, localisms, verbs from nouns, and Hollywood specialties. There is a fascination for me in any book on word origins, and I felt, in examing this page by page comparison with the original volume, that this too I must own. It is not a book for quick reference, but for thoughtful consultation and pickup reading. Read full book review >
Released: March 1, 1943

A third panel in the Mencken autobiographical kaleidoscope, as the once near, now sage Mencken presents a potpourri of events and personalities from 1890 to 1936. This might be a sifting of the wheat from the chaff of material left over from Happy Days and Newspaper Days; it is certainly not second string material, for it is fresh and entertaining and delightful reading. He tells how the most popular man in the neighborhood fell from grace when he went a-courting; how a Shetland pony made his life and his brother's a misery; he talks of the Y M C A and its effect on him, his career at the Baltimore Polytechnic, of early newspaper days, of hangings and press agents and musiciane; of an abortive filing at the vice-presidency of the U.S.A., of a theatrical producer and his girl, of a trip to Europe before the war and an audience with the Pope; of prohibition, the Soopes trial, musings on Carthage, on modern Jerusalem, on cratorical politione and so on. Easy manner, with many a sidelight and excursion to provide comfortable and salty old slippers' reading. You've an established market there — don't miss it. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 22, 1939

Reminiscences of the author's boyhood in Baltimore that will delight more than the usual Mencken satellites. An enjoyable delight in days past, a mellow recalling of childhood episodes, family affairs, religion, education, picnics, food and many other things, that have their own special flavor. His early capitulation to printing, tales of his father, the livery stable, the anecdotes of the colored people — the sort of material that appealed to the audience of Life with Father. A gentler, more amiable quality than one would expect from Mencken, but his name will give it space and it's worth it for the content as well. New Yorker readers will recognize parts of it. Read full book review >
Released: May 3, 1937

A centenary tribute to makers of journalistic history, the Sunpapers of Baltimore, written by men who have contributed to that history. A skillful piece of "patchwork writing" in which the seams are not evident. Follows closely the inner machinations of the papers, the owners and the editors and the reporters who made them, the politics — local and national — that brought them into the limelight, the ups and downs of management and policy, the fairly consistent attitude of courage and forthrightness that characterized them. The interest will be primarily local, for Baltimore and its citizens feature largely in the story. Newspaper people everywhere will want it. Read full book review >
Released: June 27, 1936

Do you recall that the suggestion was made (in reviewing Herbert's What A Word! (page 80). that a record be kept of customers — a growing number — interested in dictionaries, books about language, etc. ? Here is another candidate, the most comprehensive, thorough study of the growth of a language virtually our own that has appeared. Mencken is admirably equipped for the task — and he has approached a vast subject with scholarly vision. One may feel, that, at times, he applauds Americanisms too loudly — but on the whole, the viewpoint is objective, the analysis sound. Words, phrases, pronunciation, usage, sheer barbarisms and colloquialisms, dialects, sectional peculiarities, place and proper names, etc. etc. An essential item for public and college libraries, and for any private library that pretends to have well rounded reference shelves. Read full book review >
Released: April 2, 1934

The Mencken market is not very large, but it is assured and this is a book all Mencken fans will want, a companion volume to his TREATISE ON THE GODS. Against a very interesting and not too scholarly background history of the developments of codes of practice and thought, he gives his own philosophy of life and morality. Very stimulating, often controversial, not intended for the conventional minded, nor for those wedded to conventional religion, but the Mencken crowd will think it — perhaps — more conservative than they would have expected. The answer is here to his views on Biblical history, Roman Catholicism, birth control, Protestantism, Fascism, Communism, the New Deal, the family as an institution, and so on. The book has only just been announced and is being rushed through. An extensive advertising and promotion campaign and a popular press are assured. Read full book review >

The culling of the best, the choicest passages, from the famous Prejudices, which in their day made Mencken leader of the iconoclasts, shocker of the conservatives, and favorite of the younger generation. Today, the essays, the passages, the epigrams and maxims, make good reading, but somehow we take him in our stride. He has made few alterations- some elisions- but in the main they stand as written. Since the series of Prejudices, six in all, have been unavailable, many will welcome the accessibility of this material in one weighty tome. His ribaldry, his refusal to accept the orthodox, his puncturing of frauds, his gift for the pat phrase, the colorful figure of speech, all make for refreshing reading. His views on women, on sex, on religion, on morals, on government, on democracy have been much quoted, frequently misquoted. Here's a chance to read him for yourself. He will endear himself to few, for he debunks pretensions, and shows the clay feet of idols. Even his obituaries make no concessions. Urbane and witty, he is frequently a healthy irritant. Economics, pedagogy, psychology, science come in for some subtle dissection. There are bits of personal history- polemics against the New Deal- commentary on modern criticism and its shortcomings- buffooneries (including the bathtub hoax)- rich choice for varied moods. And an excellent introduction for this generation to a man who loves life. Read full book review >

This should be a good property for the long haul, as H. L. Mencken is assured of a following in what is very definitely a characteristically personal sort of dictionary of quotations. It started in 1918 as an anthology for his own use. It developed in 1933 into a much larger work than originally planned. So — after more than 20 years, here is a book of quotations that should stand by Bartlett and Stevenson and Hoyt, supplementing rather than substituting for them. There are certain features that are different. The historic principle in arrangement and selection makes the interrelation of quotations more interesting; more "rubrics" are used, since there is no index for cross reference; authors and titles of sources are given in full; mere platitudes are excluded unless of historic or literary importance; proverbs of all peoples are included; Bible quotarions are reassessed; new translations are frequently made for foreign quotations; proper names in their alphabetical place with quotations showing ebb and flow of opinion, not quotations from the individual. There is no index — cross references and expanded number of headings make location of desired quotation reasonably easy provided one has a definite idea of context, and some key word. But for the person hunting helpful quotations from some specific author for a specific occasion, the absence of an index and the fact that material is not arranged under author makes reference to some other dictionary of quotations necessary. This includes some authors not often quoted, and frequently Menoken's own personal bias is evident. Good type — good format. Read full book review >

As introduced and edited by Robert McHugh, this collection of many shorter pieces present Mencken in the "role he liked best"- as a newspaperman- beginning with the featured, title piece which first appeared in the N.Y. Evening Mail in 1917. This "tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious" was written to test- and prove- his contention that the public is fatuously credulous. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the first bathtub installation in Cincinnati, Ohio (solid mahogany, lead lined, weight 1,750 pounds) it provides a history of the bathtub from medical resistance thereto to public acceptance thereof- and of course, an even greater public acceptance of the whole hoax that it was. In the other pieces which follow, topically arranged, Mencken is the aggressive advocate of free expression and other liberties (birth control; equality before the law; etc.); he is a critic-Poe, Dreiser, Mark Twain, Beethoven, and on more general phases of the arts; he is the serious thinker and skeptic- and many matters concern him- religion and ethics, politics and government, education and language; and the collection closes with some forays on marriage or the movies, peace, progress, even cooking.... Even while some of the material may seem dated, the Sage of Baltimore is still very much alive- and the practical validity of his judgments as well as the downright vitality of the man endure. Read full book review >