The New Mencken Letters, edited by Carl Bode, New York: Dial Press, 1977, 670 pp., $19.95.
Mencken! For a generation the name seared itself into America, galvanizing emotions of adulation or hatred in the minds of nearly everyone who meant anything at all.
In 1926, Walter Lippman, essayist, editor, and palindromic pundit, called Mencken "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." In 1979, however, a scant 53 years later, ask anyone who H.L. Mencken was. This is a particularly dirty trick to play on college or graduate students, who should know such things but who are on the receiving end of inculcation rather than education. Chances are that even the merit-scholar-types will gaze at you blankly, avert their eyes, and mumble quizzically, "H.L. Mencken?"
In his lifetime, Mencken is estimated to have written over 100,000 letters; in print he left a bulk of books, essays, articles, reviews, epigrams, poems, and critiques stretching out to more than five million words. He was, perhaps, the quintessential American journalist, in whose shadow all subsequent practitioners stand. But he was so many other things as well, including a seminal philologist whose most enduring contribution was The American Language with its several supplements. Additionally, he edited the Smart Set magazine, presiding with George Jean Nathan over its transmogrification from a pulp sheet to a literate periodical, of which Mencken remarked, "The name is ghastly, but now and then the magazine is worth at least a nickel of the thirty-five cents we charge for it." He also edited, for ten years, the American Mercury, a post he resigned in January 1934. Mencken' s political reportage is of a genre all its own, lively with gross distortions, facile generalities, specific insults, and filled with an exuberance unmatched by any other political correspondent, the majority of whom seem unfortunately and erroneously to consider themselves men of importance.
Mencken's letters reveal, to the extent that he could consciously surrender his privacy, some insight into the human being masked by the public persona. Firstly and finally he was an epistemological skeptic: "What is Man, of course, is not profound. But it shows the rare quality of honesty—it tries to examine the truth. The fact is, of course, that there is no truth. You always assume that, because Christianity seems to me to be piffle, I believe in some contrary theory—that, because I laugh at Christian Science, I therefore swallow all the childish hocus-pocus of incompetent family doctors practicing up side streets. This is absurd. My skepticism is more thoroughgoing than you imagine. I doubt everything, including even my own doubts."
A representative precis of the multifaceted Mencken' s career is not feasible within the strictures of a review of a collection of the man's letters. Suffice it to summarize by noting that Mencken was a force within his own age—which, however, is not our age, although his life ended in 1956. In 1948, he suffered a stroke that robbed him of his ability to read, write, or converse coherently, all the ingredients that made Mencken the man he was. He dangled for eight years in this condition; the internal agony must have been excruciating.
As a force, Mencken had perquisites mere mortals do not. He affixed his personal imprint to an epoch, shaping and molding its ideas, tastes, and opinions to a degree, it was said, unmatched by any other private person of his time. He was a Nietzschean transvaluator of values and, as he defined them, so did his age adopt them. His biographer, the duly celebrated author William Manchester, called his work on Mencken Disturber of the Peace. And so Mencken did disturb the peace, consistently and over many years, often wrongly and with prejudice aforethought, but always in the direction of steering the "civilized minority" of men to remark the anomalies, thereby raising the level of their aspirations. A not unworthy monument to the man so nicely adumbrated in this collection of his letters.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The New Mencken Letters".