A Genius for Contempt


by H.L. Mencken
Library of America, 1,222 pp., two volumes, $35.00 each

The material that H.L. Mencken published in a series of six volumes under the title Prejudices was a collection of his journalism written between 1914 and the late 1920s. Most of it, he told a good friend on publication of the first volume in 1919, was “light stuff” with an occasional “blast from the lower woodwind” that would “outrage the umbilicari, if that is the way to spell it.” Such books, he added, were “mere stinkpots, heaved occasionally to keep the animals perturbed.”

Most of the pieces in the first volume—or “series,” as it was called—had originally appeared in The Smart Set, the magazine he had edited since 1914, but they also included articles published in newspapers, as well as material written especially for the book. A painstaking editor of his own work, Mencken also did a good bit of rewriting; stinkpot or not, this was not to be a quick harum-scarum hustling of secondhand goods but a high-quality piece of prose from a master.

Its commercial success surprised him as well as his friend and publisher, Alfred Knopf, who seemed to realize for the first time that Mencken had a promising future, or, as he expressed it to his author, “that H.L. Mencken has become a good property.” The book was quickly followed by Prejudices: Series Two, Series Three, and so on to a final Series Six in 1927, by which time Mencken had developed from a good property into the most exciting literary figure in the country.

The complete Prejudices has now been issued by the Library of America in two volumes of more than 1,200 pages total, including extensive notes and a useful chronology of Mencken’s life and career. All the material here was selected from the journalism composed in the most triumphant and perhaps the happiest years of his life. In this thirteen-year span between 1914 and 1927 he emerged from the obscurity of Baltimore newspaper work to become editor of two of the country’s most influential magazines and eventually a national figure with immense influence in American intellectual society.

In those years everything he tried seemed to succeed, and he tried a great many things and, oddly, tried them without ever really leaving his Hollins Street house in Baltimore, except to commute to the New York offices of the magazines he ran. In Baltimore he retained close bonds to the Sun papers as a valued local columnist, friend and adviser to the publisher, and for a while editorial page editor of their new afternoon paper. In addition to editing The Smart Set with the aid of the theater critic George Jean Nathan, he was working on a scholarly study of the English language’s development in the Americas, which would eventually be published in three volumes as The American Language; he was also compiling a dictionary of quotations that eventually ran to more than 1,300 pages.

It was his journalism, however, that made him a celebrated figure. In modern jargon he would have been called…

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