As we all know, serious criticism of the arts is leaving the pages of mainstream newspapers and magazines. Shrinking under the pressures of new-media innovation and the triumph of Zagat-inspired populism, the once potent prerogatives of cultural tastemakers are fading fast. For some prominent reviewers, including major American writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, criticism has become so marginalized that they are reluctant to judge negatively, setting their dainty digits to keyboard only to ladle out praise. Fighting for survival, furiously marketing themselves on the web, critics increasingly opt for an all-thumbs-up approach.
Given the mental and spiritual retreat of the critique, it is hard to believe that for a brief and (so far) unique time in our history, a journalistic critic named H. L. Mencken ruled the roost of American culture. Mencken was admired by the young and the rebellious, and feared by established plutocrats, artists, academics, religious leaders, and politicians. He accomplished this by exercising his right to be excessively, vulgarly, courageously, and charmingly negative.
At the height of his influence in the 1920s, when he was churning out the bestselling volumes in his Prejudices series, Mencken transformed criticism into a liberating force. He perfected a sledgehammer satiric art that delights in radical disturbance via the well-timed guffaw and the devastating deflation of ideologues, do-gooders, puritans, professors, and Bible thumpers. He was a basher of bosh who turned his dissection of democracy and its low-brow arts into riotous entertainment for tens of thousands of readers.
Of course, negativity was not a new tactic for a homegrown arts critic. Mencken admired Edgar Allan Poe, who earned his nickname of “tomahawk critic” thanks to his merciless lambasting of American reviewers and writers who chose patriotism over independence and high standards. Poe lamented “the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American.” Bouncing from publication to publication, the frequently penniless Poe was mauled rather than hailed for his dedication to honest judgment. He had few critical groupies; instead, he fended off regular invitations to duels and potential lawsuits from unhappy reviewers and authors.
Like Poe, who grew up in Virginia, Mencken was an outsider (from Baltimore) who wanted to make his reputation by taking on the northern cultural establishment. Mencken was also the beneficiary of the success of his friend James Huneker, who rose to prominence as an arts critic for a variety of small, ethnic, European-friendly music magazines at the turn of the century.
But Mencken thought his mentor was too accommodating, too willing to bottle up his disgust at the mainstream. It was time, he believed, for some cultural bloodshed. In his “Footnote on Criticism,” Mencken argued that critical debate “does not necessarily establish the truth . [Instead] it melodramatizes the business of the critic, and so convinces thousands of bystanders, otherwise inert, that criticism is an amusing and instructive art, and that the problems it deals with are important. What men will fight for seems to be worth looking into.”
Mencken drew on the growing frustration, particularly among the young, created by a period of rapid change and turmoil after World War I. A wised-up postwar generation, aroused by Mencken’s bolts of bile, yearned to jettison (or at least question) the lockstep patriotism of the Gilded Age and the bigoted irrationality of the evangelical Right. He also made expert use of the new marketing attitudes and vocabulary of the 1920s—the era’s love of zippy absolutes and linguistic flash—to sell an invigorating form of anti-Americanism. In the process Mencken revolutionized, to the point of fleetingly glamorizing, the image of the critic, whose essential responsibility was to attack all that Americans believe to be sacred. The shock treatment was therapeutic: lampooning complacency reveals the rot underneath society’s smiling façade.
The Prejudices series, which originally numbered six volumes and was published between 1919 and 1927, gathered the author’s reviews, commentaries, reporting, and portraits, many of them written for the Smart Set, American Mercury, and The Baltimore Sun. Throughout, he argues that our national propensity for glad-handing and self-congratulation is essentially a reassuring mask. Beneath, insists Mencken, sits a deep-seated fear of freedom, a dread where conformity and delusion combine into a death wish: “The one permanent emotion of the inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear—fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.” To get at this dread, Mencken uses the explosives of anarchistic humor and ridicule, poking fun at our collective anxieties, contradictions, and hypocrisies.