Recently, I ran across a reference to the word "ecdysiast". It wasn’t attributed (by the AskOxford folks) to H.L. Mencken, so I dashed off (and clearly failed to proofread) a letter. Praising Mencken led me to read some of Mencken’s essays again, and what a treat they are. Mencken was the author of The American Language and several volumes of essays under the apt title Prejudices; he was a newspaperman, a columnist and reporter for the Baltimore Sun; he was an editor, founding both the American Mercury and the now-forgotten Smart Set. Mencken was viruently anti-Christian, anti-fundamentalist, anti-Appalachian, anti-black, anti-Semetic, anti-female, anti-FDR, anti-upper-class, anti-middle-class, and anti-lower-class. He was anti-people. He probably kicked dogs and babies. About the only things I can bring to mind that Mencken thoroughly approved of were free speech, lucid writing, good cigars, and the occasional tipple. One of the things he mostly approved of was Harriet Monroe‘s Poetry. Mencken was a professional crank, but unlike the vast majority of the crank classes today, he was both ferociously eloquent and a discerning critic. (He also was vastly more complex and self-contradictary than a crank, particularly a politically conservative one, could afford to be today, I suspect.) One need only contrast a Mencken essay with, say, any of George Will‘s regrettably frequent musings on the nature of Art to see the decline of American crankhood. Mencken wasn’t just a political writer; he was both a noteworthy literary critic and a major literary magazine editor.
According to Mencken, Monroe’s journal Poetry (still published today, ninety years after Monroe founded it) has "printed a great deal of extravagent stuff, and not a little downright nonsensical stuff, but in the main it has steered a safe and intelligent course…. No other poetry magazine — and their have been dozens of them — has even remotely approached it in interest, or, for that matter, in genuine hospitality to ideas. He praises Monroe, an "intelligent woman, [which is] alone sufficient to give her an austere mountebanks and their dupes." That is no small praise from the fabulously vipurtitive Mencken, who, in the same essay refers to the "nebulous vaporings and chautauqua posturings" of Vachel Lindsay and the "highfalutin bathos" of Amy Lowell. Even an author Mencken likes — Carl Sandburg, say, or George Bernard Shaw — usually comes in for some thought-provoking criticism.
And that’s one of the two things (the other being Mencken’s acid-laced prose, of course) that makes Mencken’s literary criticism so enjoyable to read: he was a sensitive, intelligent critic trying to reconcile his critical impulses with his contempt for most art and artists. Had it been a few decades later and the censorship laws he railed against been a little looser, Mencken might well have been the one to formulate Sturgeon’s Law — he had a knack for aphorisms.
Mencken’s essay on Poetry and the New Poetry also mentions Bynner and Ficke’s literary parody, Spectra, which I hadn’t heard of before. Bynner and Ficke, two Yalie poets, decided to mock what they saw as unfortunate tendancies by publishing deliberately bad poetry and seeing who they could get to proclaim its greatness. I might have been surprised that a poem like this one:
Beside the brink of dream
I had put out my willow-roots and leaves
As by a stream
Too narrow for the invading greaves
Of Rome in her trireme…
Then you came - like a scream
could find its champions, but this sort of thing seems to be more common than I would have guessed. Australia’s invented Modernist, Ern Malley (link via temporary MetaFilter stand-in 5kFilter) found praise even after the hoax was revealed; the editor who held that Malley’s work was powerful and profound maintained his stance, and in the end, his opinion seems to have provailed. (I was also reminded of Alan Sokal’s pack of nonsense that Social Text published.) Neither Malley nor the Spectralists strike me as particularly inspired, but who knows? Maybe the hoaxers really were worse when they wrote as themselves. Art springs up in the most unlikely of places — as Mencken put it, art is "blue-penciling the bad spelling of God."