November 21, 2005


Complex portrait of an American literary icon: a review of Mencken: The American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (Anthony Day, November 21, 2005, LA Times)

Mencken's strengths turned out to be his weaknesses. His early enthusiasm for Nietzsche — his 1907 book "The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche" was for years the leading American introduction to the moody, brilliant German — hardened into an admiration for the "superior" man, one of whom, of course, Mencken considered himself.

His enthusiasm for some naturalistic American writers — he championed Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Walt Whitman and most of all Mark Twain — faltered when he could not appreciate the writers of the next generation such as William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck.

Yet his place in American history seems, half a century after his death, to be secure. For all his goggle-eyed admiration of things German, he was an early and effective promoter of realistic writers of American life, notably in his magazines the Smart Set and the American Mercury.

He was the first widely recognized defender of the country's language as a force of its own; his various editions of "The American Language" are a model of amateur scholarship. No American has written more easily or joyfully as Mencken did in his memoirs "Happy Days," "Newspaper Days" and "Heathen Days."

Mencken's endless poking at the "Boobus Americanus" — those gullible members of the American middle class — may seem tiresomely repetitious now, 100 years after he started it. But because of him, the critter is less boobus and more authentically Americanus.

Easier to forgive his enthusiasm for Nietzsche, who was at least an insightful genius, than for the tedious Dreiser.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 21, 2005 9:41 AM
Comments for this post are closed.