During the twenties, H. L. Mencken was the darling and prophet of America’s young literati. His caustic, uncompromising attitude towards stupidity in government, morals and the arts was hailed with delight by the younger iconoclastic souls. His was almost a lone voice, shouting lustily against the “accepted” codes. But in the past few years something seems to have happened to Mr. Mencken. Perhaps the same bug that infected Al Smith also lit upon Mr. Mencken, or it might be that Mr. Mencken has simply been slowed up by old age.
Regardless of the cause, the martial notes that once rang out against oppression are heard no longer. The instrument remains, but the tune has changed. Since his resignation from bachelorhood and the editorship of the American Mercury, Mr. Mencken has become the “rightest” of the Tories. The pen that once attacked the misrule of politicians motivated by nothing more than a desire to stay in office, now slings feeble barbs at the rule of brains in the present administration. His outspoken disgust with those who believed that blind, 100 per cent Americanism was the cure for all social evils has now become a whine that things should be left alone.
MENCKEN ROAR GONE
Once upon a time Mencken roared out his impatience with the church and churchmen who meddled in politics and education. Now the same Sage complains that too much money is spent on education. In his attitude towards the arts, Mencken has also about-faced. In his hey-day he defended the young writers, the Lewises, Hemingways, Dreisers, Andersons, Hechts et al., because they broke with the critical tradition then in vogue. Now he has no patience with the writers of proletarian novels and in last week’s imposing issue of the Saturday Review of Literature he attacks these writers with a violence that is almost pathological.
Not only does he say that they cannot write but adds, “It is done only too often in English that seems to be a bad translation from the Yiddish….” About the writers themselves he remarks. “There hangs about all of them a kind of natural nonentity, like that of soldiers in a file, though many of them bear distinguished (albeit largely bogus) Anglo-Saxon names….”
Mr. Mencken is not satisfied with annihilating the active writers in the radical movement but goes after those who have left it by saying. “Others took to religion and declared themselves High Church Episcopalians â€” despite in many cases, inconvenient surgical evidence to the contrary….”
SHAFT AT JEWS?
Whether Mencken consciously means to be anti-Semitic is questionable but when his book, “Treatise on the Gods,” was published in 1930 it caused some comment because of its anti-Jewish views, and now come these articles which might well be construed as a shaft aimed at the participation of Jews in the radical movement. That there are Jews in the movement cannot be denied but that they predominate is a dangerous falsehood. Among the proletarian writers whose books are read, the names of Caldwell, Curran, Conroy, Cantwell, Dos Passos and Rollins, Halper, Brody and Dahlberg, appear most often. Only the last three listed are Jews and of that trio Halper is the single writer whose books sell in any quantities.
Literature being the most powerful weapon of the proletariat it is necessary that the Jews, if they are to be blamed for dominating the radical scene, must be either prolific or numerically great in this field and as you can see, this is not the case, which makes Mencken’s remark about “translations from the Yiddish” pretty silly, especially since Caldwell is a Southerner, Conroy from Missouri, and Curran, a native of Minnesota.
Mencken’s other accusations are too vague to answer but they are palpably unfair and not a little vicious.
Since Mencken left the American Mercury which was slowly fading to a whisper of its once robust self a Jewish gentleman, Charles Angoff, was made the managing editor. Under that young man’s regime the paper has once again become alive, alert and liberal. Could it be that Mr. Mencken is resentful?