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Mencken's World of Words

H.L. MENCKEN ON AMERICAN LITERATURE, By H.L. Mencken, Edited by S.T. Joshi, Ohio University Press: 284 pp., $44.95

June 16, 2002|BRAD LEITHAUSER | Brad Leithauser is the author of numerous books, including "Darlington's Fall: A Novel in Verse" and "The Odd Last Thing She Did: Poems."

When moved to scorn--and he was often scornful--H. L. Mencken was never at a loss for words. He lampooned "quacks" and "dolts" and "clodpolls," "snuffling publishers" and "jitney messiahs." He railed against the writers of "tosh" and "balderdash," "flubdub" and "buncombe" and "brummagem." He took aim at "skullduggery" and "numskullery" and "humbuggery." He tore into "piffle" and "blather."

Even if you knew nothing of Mencken, coming to him by way of this fresh new collection, "H.L. Mencken on American Literature," you would hardly be surprised to learn that in mid-career he published an enormous linguistic study, "The American Language," whose ever-expanding revisions and compendious supplements preoccupied him nearly to the end of his long life. (Mencken was born in 1880, in Baltimore, and died there in 1956.)

He was especially fond of "gingery" words--the pungency of slang, the rankness of a homespun vulgarity. The language of vitriol--the righteous indignation of the affronted literary critic--came to him naturally.

Mencken, with his love of the vernacular, spoke of giving a book a "mauling" or a "slating." These days, we're more likely to call it a "trashing." Either way, the critic who has a flair for deft dismissals is in possession of a highly prized, but ultimately trivial, talent. Certainly, we don't now read Mencken to see him send smartly on its way some long-forgotten book by some long-forgotten author. Droll though he could be, Mencken didn't have that gift, so vividly possessed by a successor of his like Randall Jarrell, for converting a straw book into a golden denunciation.

No, Mencken's critical talent--which was considerable--lay in an ability to address full-bloodedly, with very little posing or throat-clearing, an impressive range of material, much of it assembled in "H.L. Mencken on American Literature." He cultivated an invitingly lucid manner that often supported complicated thought.

Mencken had an unusual knack for holding in his head, in dynamic equilibrium, wholly contrary notions. Though critics customarily make a show of presenting balanced views--ever ready to leap forward, ambidextrously, with one more "on the other hand"--Mencken's example reminds us of how rare is a critical capacity for regarding virtues and vices simultaneously, without allowing one to cancel out the other.

Have the stylistic shortcomings of Theodore Dreiser ever been pointed out more tellingly than by Mencken, who wrote of him, "You may say that he writes with a hand of five thumbs, and that he has no more humor than a hangman, and that he loves assiduity so much that he often forgets inspiration altogether"?

Mencken later added: "I often wonder if he gets anything properly describable as pleasure out of his writing--that is, out of the actual act of composition." And yet he also called Dreiser's "Jenny Gerhardt" the "best American novel I have ever read, with the lonesome but Himalayan exception of 'Huckleberry Finn.' " When he says of Dreiser, "He must do his work in his own manner, and his oafish clumsiness and crudeness are just as much a part of it as his amazing steadiness of vision, his easy management of gigantic operations, his superb sense of character," it's clear that Mencken has done far more than arrive at a critical apercu: He has grappled in a large-souled way with a large-souled writer.

A couple of sentences in Mencken's review of Dreiser's "A Hoosier Holiday" illuminate the peculiar verve and brilliance of both men: "I know of no book which better describes the American hinterland .... It is, in more than one way, the heart of America, and yet it has gone undescribed. Dreiser remedies that lack with all his characteristic laboriousness and painstaking."

Better than the other critics of his time, and better than most of the novelists he examined, Mencken understood how much of the authentic American experience was going unharvested in its literature. As a critic who initially aspired to become a poet, and later longed to be a novelist, before eventually surmising that his creative talents were not up to either task, Mencken keenly perceived the poignancy of opportunities untapped or squandered.

Hence his almost feverish embrace of early Sinclair Lewis, particularly "Main Street" and "Babbitt." In the former, Mencken found "the typical story of the typical American family"; in the latter, "the average American of the ruling minority." In both, he detected a clearheaded dissection of an ascendant national phenomenon, a rising middle class whose conformity and unreflective boosterism located it somewhere between tragedy and farce. Mencken reveled in the observant, faithful-to-life ironies of Lewis, all the more so because here was a reality which, although ubiquitous, most writers failed to see.

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