THE SMART SET by Thomas Quinn Curtiss


George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken
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A witty and engaging history of one of American modernism’s great monuments. Back in the days when magazines were important, few were devoured more avidly by the cognoscenti than the Smart Set during the tenure of coeditors H.L. Mencken and noted drama critic George Jean Nathan, who took over in 1914. Proclaiming that “one civilized reader was worth a thousand boneheads,” Mencken and Nathan engaged in a full-scale assault on American nativism, naivetÇ, and knee-jerk puritanism. Their weapons were scorn, sarcasm, and outright mockery as well as a fierce dedication to high culture and the avant-garde. F. Scott Fitzgerald was an early discovery, as was Eugene O’Neill. James Joyce even made his American debut in the magazine. The two editors were complementary in almost everything, even their eccentricities. Believing that culture was far above futile political struggles, they kept all mention of WW I out of the magazine. As Nathan wrote: “If all the Armenians were to be killed tomorrow and if half of Russia were to starve to death the day after, it would not matter to me in the least. . . . Life, as I see it, is for the fortunate few.” This kind of militant, irreverent aestheticism appalled the “booboisie” but wowed the cosmopolitans. Finally, after ten successful years, Mencken and Nathan began to feel that the magazine was running out of steam. To propound their ideas properly, they needed a completely new forum’so with the backing of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, they started the American Mercury. Stripped of its stars, the Smart Set managed to struggle on a few more years before finally going under during the Depression. Curtiss (Von Stroheim, 1971) is every bit as smart and stylish as his subject. His excellent biographical portrait of the so often overshadowed Nathan is particularly notable. A graceful, richly detailed delight. (photos, not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
ISBN: 1-55783-312-5
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Applause
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1998