Three Early Works: A Book of Prefaces, Damn! A Book of Calumny, and The American Credo (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]


H. L. Mencken presents master styling in A Book of Prefaces (1917), Damn! (1918), and The American Credo (1920). Prefaces is a book of literary criticism containing the essays "Joseph Conrad," "Theodore Dreiser," "James Huneker," and "Puritanism as a Literary Force." He hoped that "they may at least blow a wind through the prevailing fogs, and reveal what is sound and important in some first-rate books." The ensuing intellectual battle energized a generation. Damn! A Book of Calumny contains some of Mencken's ...
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Three Early Works: A Book of Prefaces, Damn! A Book of Calumny, and The American Credo (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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H. L. Mencken presents master styling in A Book of Prefaces (1917), Damn! (1918), and The American Credo (1920). Prefaces is a book of literary criticism containing the essays "Joseph Conrad," "Theodore Dreiser," "James Huneker," and "Puritanism as a Literary Force." He hoped that "they may at least blow a wind through the prevailing fogs, and reveal what is sound and important in some first-rate books." The ensuing intellectual battle energized a generation. Damn! A Book of Calumny contains some of Mencken's wittier turns in its forty-nine short essays. It has been mined for anthologies, but it has never before been reprinted as a whole. The American Credo: A Contribution Toward the Interpretation of the National Mind contains four hundred and eighty-eight articles, co-written by drama critic George Jean Nathan, about American popular belief.
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H. L. Mencken (1880–1956) lived his whole life in Baltimore, and as a newspaperman he was primarily associated with the Baltimore Sun. His columns reached a national audience through syndication, making him a well-known critic of war fever, every president from “Roosevelt I” to “Roosevelt II,” censorship, the Ku Klux Klan and rampant lynching in the South, Prohibition, and the residual Puritanism which, in his definition, underlay most of America’s problems.  He directed his writing to what he called the “civilized minority.” 
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Henry Louis Mencken was possibly America's greatest and most wide-ranging man of letters, in that he excelled as a journalist, essayist, philologist, satirist, political commentator, magazine editor, and literary critic. The various skills he demonstrated throughout his careers are amply displayed in the three works collected here: A Book of Prefaces (1917), Damn! (1918), and The American Credo (1920). They were written at the end of his critical and journalistic apprenticeship, during World War I and its aftermath. By this time he had perfected his inimitable satiric style and had found among the disillusioned an audience for his literary and political theories. Mencken hurled his invective against the complacencies of the Jazz Age, and in the 1920s, as in the previous two decades, he had the most authoritative voice of any American writer. Novelist Richard Wright claimed in his memoir Black Boy that he discovered from A Book of Prefaces how words could be used as weapons. Edmund Wilson, a leading man of letters in the next generation, made the broader claim that Mencken's public role was "the civilized consciousness of modern America."

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) lived his whole life in Baltimore. He graduated valedictorian from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a high school (1896), and was self-taught thereafter. As a newspaperman he was primarily associated with the Baltimore Sun, from 1906 until 1948 when a debilitating stroke prevented further writing. His columns reached a national audience through syndication, making him a well-known critic of war fever, every president from "Roosevelt I" to "Roosevelt II," censorship, the Ku Klux Klan and rampant lynching in the South, Prohibition, and the residual Puritanism which, in his definition, underlay most of America's problems. He directed his writing to what he called the "civilized minority." He had another significant platform in the pages of two influential magazines. Mencken joined The Smart Set as book reviewer in 1908 and, with drama critic George Jean Nathan (1882-1958), edited it from 1914 to 1923. They resigned to become founding editors of The American Mercury the next year; Mencken stayed until 1933. Both journals featured his reviews and essays, as well as writing by others that bore his editorial stamp and usually reflected his point of view. His critical task, which is manifest in A Book of Prefaces, was to bring to the foreground the kind of realistic and naturalistic writing that had been developing since the end of the previous century. He advanced authors like Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis (and published James Joyce for the first time in America). He recruited women writers and gave more space to minority authors than any other white editor of his time. Mencken's most famous work is his monumental The American Language, whose first edition (1919) appeared in the same fruitful period as the three books presented here. It was thoroughly revised for three later editions, the last in 1936. The latest version has been reprinted many times, along with two supplements (1945, 1948). It remains an enjoyable and respected survey of the subject. For all that, Mencken may be remembered just as long for the humorous New Yorker reminiscences that were collected into Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943).

Mencken had to suspend many of his journalistic activities because of increasing restrictions on free speech during the lead-up to America's entry into World War I. His loyalty was suspected because he supported Germany and opposed the calls for the United States to side with Britain and France. When he could no longer print such opinions, he began putting together the four essays that would comprise A Book of Prefaces: "Joseph Conrad," "Theodore Dreiser," "James Huneker," and "Puritanism as a Literary Force." He did so, as he said in the preface to the first printing, in hopes that "they may at least blow a wind through the prevailing fogs, and reveal what is sound and important in some first-rate books." He later wrote that they set forth "my objections to the whole Puritan Kultur in a large and positive way." The challenge was heard around the country, and the ensuing intellectual battle energized a generation. Because of the effect it had on his professional career, Mencken considered Prefaces to be his most important book.

Only marginally connected to the New England culture of colonial times, "Puritanism" was Mencken's comprehensive term for what ailed the America he knew. It embraced such things as religious fundamentalism, Prohibition, the world-saving idealism of Woodrow Wilson, book-banning on the one hand, and literary timidity on the other. His chapter on the subject, the longest and most important in the book, assails classic American writers, including William Dean Howells (his immediate predecessor as chief man of letters), for their excessive restraint. Too often, he claims, moralism weakened their writing, and moralists set up hedges against those who would rebel. Puritanism was kept alive by such defenders of the "genteel tradition" as Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, and Mencken's arch-enemy among the critics, Stuart P. Sherman.

One aim of the chapter on Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was to bring further recognition to this great novelist, whom Mencken had been one of the earliest American critics to promote. The effort was part of his campaign to arouse interest in the new literature and new ideas being produced in Europe. To that end he had written the first book on Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1905) and the first in English on German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1908). He had even co-translated two plays by the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1909), at a time when the American stage was badly in need of models for the new trends in realism.

Like Conrad, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) is praised for not being a moralist. The chapter on him demonstrates why Mencken is still considered one of the best champions and most incisive critics of the novelist. Sister Carrie (1900), the manuscript of which Dreiser presented to Mencken in gratitude for his support, has been thought of as the literary fanfare for the twentieth century. Dreiser's subsequent fiction realized Mencken's ideas on what a novelist ought to be saying about the true (meaningless) nature of life, no matter the graceless style. In the fascinating correspondence between the two, published in 1986, one can see them working out their common agenda, despite misgivings on both sides and the occasional need to defend Dreiser against prudish censors. It was an agenda that benefited all subsequent authors who strove to write realistically about the American scene.

James Gibbons Huneker (1857-1921), whom Mencken had known since 1905, fascinated him primarily as a raconteur. Their friendship gave Mencken access to the larger esthetic world, both European and American. Huneker's lush style, moreover, was a major influence on that of Mencken, who soaked it in over beer at Lüchow's restaurant in New York City and from reading the extensive criticism of art, music, literature, and culture that flowed from Huneker's pen. He was a fellow anti-philistine and, for Mencken, that rarest of Americans, "a civilized man." In fact, like Conrad and Dreiser, he is praised for his decidedly non-American qualities.

As a defender of Germany, Mencken was limited by the censorship of the times in what he could criticize about America. His choice of essays for the book continued his assault by indirection, generally avoiding the political commentary that might have gotten him into trouble. (The United States declared war on April 6, 1917, and Prefaces appeared on October 8.) It was the first of his books to be published by his friend Alfred A. Knopf, who had gone into business just two years before. Their stars would rise together, and Knopf's famous Borzoi device appears on posthumously published Mencken works as late as 1995.

Much of the material for the four essays in Prefaces was revised from work that Mencken had done for the Baltimore Sun and The Smart Set. He had been writing about Conrad, Dreiser, and Huneker for years, and his task now was mostly to make judicious selections. The freshest revision stemmed from his recent canvass of American public libraries to find the distribution of Dreiser's books. (Only the "intellectual slums" of New Orleans and Providence had no Dreiser books at all.) "Puritanism as a Literary Force" drew upon a Smart Set series called "The American" and other articles, but it also contained a great deal that was original. While it was, by his standards, somewhat tempered, Mencken wanted it to be the most "headlong and uncompromising" attack on American culture ever made, leaving no doubt where he stood on the war and the Wilsonian ideals behind it.

Some tinkering was done at Knopf's behest to avoid trouble with the censors, but even so a number of reviewers denounced the book for its defense of Dreiser and its assault on the "Comstocks," who were anti-vice crusaders in the mold of the leading figure of that endeavor, Anthony Comstock. The most notorious attack was by Stuart P. Sherman, who is discussed in the Dreiser chapter as "the moralist turned critic." He had criticized Mencken and Dreiser before, and now, in the Nation of November 29, 1917, he took advantage of the wartime hysteria to assail Mencken's fondness for European culture and his pro-German stance. Mencken never forgave him-in spite of Sherman's later change of heart-not because of the critical sparring, which Mencken enjoyed, but because of the ethnic slurs against himself and Dreiser as German-Americans that Sherman employed in this and other pieces.

Such attacks confirmed Mencken in his belief that a strain of Puritanism still infected the national letters. However, not all the reviews were negative, and Prefaces sold well for a book of literary criticism: some 6,300 copies of six Knopf printings, the last in 1928. The second of them was revised, and Mencken wrote new prefaces for the second through fifth printings. Doubleday sold 10,000 more as one-dollar reprints in the late 1920s. The fourth printing, which is reproduced here, was also used for the London issue by Jonathan Cape (1922). Mencken recognized that, for all the hurtful personal attacks, he had gained the kind of authority that his newspaper and magazine reviews alone could not provide. Here and abroad his audience widened, and the discussion he initiated would carry on for years.

Damn! A Book of Calumny was another project in which Mencken assembled and revised material that he had published before. Some of it had appeared in The Smart Set; even more came from pieces he had done for the New York Evening Mail, which had also printed two of his most famous essays: "The Sahara of the Bozart" (an attack on Southern culture with far-reaching effects) and "A Neglected Anniversary" (wherein he created the Bathtub Hoax, a fictional history of the bathtub that his later disclaimers have not kept out of standard reference works). His usual practice was to work up an idea as a newspaper article, develop it later for a magazine audience, then rewrite it for a book. After the monograph on Nietzsche in 1908, he did not create a book out of entirely new matter until Treatise on the Gods (1930).

Apart from containing some of Mencken's wittier turns in its forty-nine short essays, Damn! was an interesting experiment in literary marketing. It was one of two Mencken books published in 1918 by his friend Philip Goodman-the other is the often-reprinted In Defense of Women. Though a newly fledged Knopf author, Mencken kept a promise to Goodman by allowing him to put out these two works.

Goodman's novel idea was to avoid relying solely on bookstores, for both he and Mencken thought that they were "run by idiots." Instead, he would look to places like pharmacies, which were beginning to handle merchandise other than drugs. Mencken observed that he was ahead of his time in this attempt; twenty years later the idea would be a commonplace. But for various reasons, including inadequate advertising, Goodman could not make it work in 1918.

Damn! was published on April 1, 1918, five months before In Defense of Women. One of three titles in the same small format, it was offered to druggists and other retailers at a fifty-percent discount. Goodman promoted it with circulars and a dust jacket that exaggerated its naughtiness. In fact, the front of the jacket contained denunciations of Mencken, not the usual praise-filled blurbs. The ploy did not do much for sales, though it probably increased the hostility of the reviews, which in turn brought further publicity. In the long run, these notices were helpful in calling attention to Mencken's writing, but Damn! was a financial failure.

Goodman initially blamed the small format, so after the first edition of 1,000 copies ("divided bogusly into Second Printing and Third Printing" by claims on the title page, according to Mencken) he had the book reset for a second edition in July. There were some revisions, a preface was inserted, and larger type was used, adding about forty pages. The price went up from 90¢ to $1.25. Mencken used the preface to lament the title, which was Goodman's idea. It "has libelled the book, which is moral and reassuring in character, and not only libelled it, but also brought down upon it the indignation of the right-thinking." He noted that, because of the title, the New York Times refused to print more than one ad for it so as not to outrage its subscribers. Mencken continued the joke by claiming that many critics had misrepresented the book, which "is obviously not cynical or immoral or pessimistic, but full of high hope and rectitude, and not strutting and squalling, but extremely polite and pianissimo."

Sales remained sluggish, and Knopf took over the remaining sheets later in the year; he would do the same for In Defense of Women in 1919. (Unlike Knopf, Goodman failed as a publisher, but he later enjoyed success as a theatrical producer.) Knopf reissued the book without "Damn!" in the title and without the preface, adding a dime to the price. Despite everything, the book sold only about 1,800 copies altogether. While it has been mined for anthologies, it has never before been reprinted as a whole.

When the war ended, so did most of the constraints on Mencken's method of attack. He no longer had to demonstrate the gullibility of the American "booboisie" by such indirect means as the Bathtub Hoax. One of the fruits of the postwar environment was "Répétition Générale," a department in The Smart Set that he created with co-editor Nathan. It ran from April 1919 until they left the magazine. With an early installment, Mencken and Nathan began the practice of including what they imagined were items of American popular belief, and from these they constructed The American Credo: A Contribution Toward the Interpretation of the National Mind. Knopf published the book on February 6, 1920.

Of the four hundred and eighty-eight articles, Mencken contributed about half, and though the long preface (more than half the book) is jointly signed, he wrote all of it. The preface gave Mencken a chance to revenge himself on those who had attacked him for his stance during the war and to elaborate on such perennial Menckenian themes as intolerance and conformity. Here is the satiric voice that would be heard in his writing throughout the rest of the 1920s, including the Prejudices series (1919-1927) and his famous dispatches from the Scopes "monkey trial" at Dayton, Tennessee (1925). Mencken is once again at odds with a moral and intellectual tradition that stifles non-conformists.

The comic creedal statements (twelve of them claimed by Smart Set author F. Scott Fitzgerald in his copy of the book) together are meant to constitute proof of the credulity of "the national mind." After the first edition, twenty-nine comically obscene articles were left over. Mencken knew that the "Comstocks" would not allow them in the book, so he had them privately printed for his friends in a four-page leaflet, now a collector's item.

In 1921, Knopf brought out the revised second edition reprinted here; it is enlarged to eight hundred and sixty-nine items. Most of the new ones came from readers, so this was to some extent a national collaboration in the manner of Mencken's The American Language, which benefited from many specialist and nonspecialist contributions. (Six years later Nathan recycled the items and partially quoted Mencken's preface in The New American Credo.) The game continued when Mencken, Nathan, and Knopf founded The American Mercury in 1924. One department carried over from The Smart Set was "Americana," in which they quoted articles published throughout the nation to demonstrate the absurd doings and beliefs of the American people. If anything, the country came off worse than it did in Credo, because these were not imaginary (if often plausible) items of faith made up by the diabolical editors. Not everyone was amused: the editor of The Saturday Evening Post set up a department that offered contrary examples. Undaunted, Mencken and Nathan assembled two collections in book form (1925, 1926), and the composer Randall Thompson even selected five texts for Americana: A Sequence of Choruses for Five Voices (1932). Others were edited as Mencken's Americana (2002).

Mencken's first published books were Ventures Into Verse (1903) and the monographs on Shaw and Nietzsche. His other works in the years before A Book of Prefaces demonstrate the diversity of his interests, and they include a small Nietzsche anthology, a dialogue defending individualism over socialism, a ghost-written guide to baby care, a play, a travel book, and collections of his humor and satire from magazines and newspapers. After the amazing performance already noted in the years 1917-1920 (Prefaces, Damn!, In Defense of Women, American Language, Prejudices: First Series, and American Credo, not to mention Heliogabalus: A Buffoonery in Three Acts, co-written with Nathan), he generally concentrated on literary and social criticism. Ahead lay self-compiled anthologies of his miscellaneous writing in the rest of the Prejudices series and in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949). Less successful were treatises on democracy, religion, and morals. His strength lay in political commentary, including the matchless reports he sent from the quadrennial presidential nominating conventions (1904-1948). Several posthumous anthologies gather up these and other writings, as well as many of the estimated 100,000 letters that he wrote. Correspondence was his way of staying in touch with hundreds of writers and with those ordinary people who contributed to The American Language. He stipulated that three autobiographical works be kept sealed until after his death: his Diary (1989), My Life as Author and Editor (1993), and Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work (1994). They exploded like time bombs on an America unused to his comic persona and trained to regard all satire as "mean-spirited." Thanks to a new kind of censorious Puritanism, now called "political correctness," the memoirs inspired the kind of controversy that Mencken provoked in his lifetime, as he once again "stirred up the animals." Readers of the three earlier works presented here will be better prepared to enjoy a master stylist, comedian, and cultural commentator.

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