ON MENCKEN by John--Ed. Dorsey

ON MENCKEN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A centenary celebration of the many shades of Mencken: eight accredited commentators and, in illustration, their selections from the master's work. William Manchester, writing of the private man behind the public face, refers to his lifelong flight from despondency into ""illusions,"" and appends three grandly expansive, Mark-Twain-ish excerpts from Mencken's memoirs. Huntington Cairns treats of Mencken the compleat--musical, gustatory, homebody--Baltimorean; from Mencken himself, we hear of ""the snugness, the coziness, the delightful intimacy of it all"" (but, this being Mencken, the banqueting isn't what it used to be, and neither are Catholic ceremonials). The best of the commentaries is Alistair Cooke's, on Mencken's prose style--which, he demonstrates, varied according to the sort of piece he was writing, excelled when he was writing to a deadline, became leaner and purer over the years. And Cooke's preference for Mencken's journalism is buttressed by Charles E. Fecher's selections from the philosophical works--easily the least readable, and the least worth reading, here. Malcolm Moos notes Mencken's affinity for ""the boisterous and exuberant antics, the exaggerated prose and promises, of the American politicians of his day,"" notwithstanding his strictures on politics; and he puts into evidence a clutch of acerbic, still acute newspaper reportage. The surprise, perhaps, is how well Mencken's literary criticism bears up--even under the burden of William H. Nolte's lavish, leaden encomiums. Read his infectiously zestful fanfare for Babbitt; or his bare-boned tribute to Stephen Crane's ""eye for the cold, glittering fact in an age of romantic illusion."" The letters, introduced by Carl Bode, include two so free of bombast or fancy foolery as to startle. To an early romantic interest: ""Ah, that I were less windblown and wheezy, and could make love in true waltz time. As it is, you have it all."" And to Bernard De Voto, he apologizes for the ""general badness"" of a manuscript. Lastly, we have Alfred A. Knopf's account of his ""relationship with Henry"" (who, ""unlike most authors. . . was concerned that his publisher should find publishing his books profitable""). Mencken, however much anthologized and analyzed, remains one of our less exhaustible national resources. One does miss, here, any writing as creative or individual as his; but issued in tandem with choice episodes from the memoirs (below), this will alert the unaware and even reward initiates.

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 1980
Publisher: Knopf