There are also bracing riffs on the worth of human life, the battle of the sexes, America’s “lust to make the world intolerable,” and the nature of death—all infused with the critic’s belief in a mature “pessimism which comes with the discovery that the riddle of life, despite all the fine solutions offered by the learned doctors, is essentially insoluble.” This disparate material is held together by the force of Mencken’s personality, which we might paradoxically define as a heavyweight gadfly. And despite the overwhelming pugnacity of tone, Mencken does sprinkle the books with occasional hosannas (a prescient appreciation of Ring Lardner, a salute to theater critic George Jean Nathan, a deftly ironic homage to arch-censor Anthony Comstock, an admiring shout-out to Ralph Waldo Emerson).
Because the Prejudices have been out of print for decades, our view of them has been mediated through anthologies, from Mencken’s own culling to picks by James T. Farrell and Terry Teachout. The Library of America volumes—which include helpful notes by editor Marion Elizabeth Rodgers—demonstrate the drawbacks of this cherry-picking approach: an enormous amount of amusing, provocative, and revealing material has been left out. Also, going through Mencken’s pieces as they were originally ordered suggests a more complex sensibility than the scattershot pugilist we encounter in the anthologies.
Mencken argues throughout the Prejudices that he sees criticism as an art. In “Footnote on Criticism,” he insists that the critic’s task is “to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.” Truth, as Mencken saw it, was best left to the scientists. Criticism was not about truth, but about the creation of beguiling prose. In the name of art, critics were free to indulge their “prejudices, biles, naïvetés, [and] humors.”
But just what kind of an artist was Mencken? Although he championed such challenging writers of the era as Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and the now forgotten Joseph Hergesheimer, his crusade against simple-mindedness could be deeply conservative. He was often blind to innovation in America and elsewhere. For example, Mencken took a myopic view of experimental art, ridiculing what he saw as the surreal foolishness of Apollinaire and sideswiping T. S. Eliot along the way. (“It is the best joke pulled off on the Young Forward-Lookers since Eliot floored them with the notes to The Waste Land.”) His take on the Greenwich Village rebels was equally tepid. A Mencken contradiction: the representative critic of the Jazz Age, admired by Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t like jazz much.
Still, a careful examination of Prejudices suggests that Mencken did not simply want to make “articulate noise” for its own sake. He hoped that critical dissent would set off an explosion that would blow away conventional ideas and aid the birth of new approaches. Indeed, along with the ersatz Darwinism referred to earlier, the series is enlivened by an anarchistic strain. Many of the writers Mencken admires, from Conrad and Ibsen to Wells, believe that artistry is rooted in destruction as well as creation.
In “Private Reflections,” a 1922 Smart Set article, Mencken defends himself from the charge that his criticism is purely deconstructive—that he is no more than “a mere professional ruffian.” He writes:
I am constantly accused, and sometimes quite honestly, of tearing down without building up, of murdering a theory without offering in its place a new and better theory. My business, considering the state of the society in which I find myself, has been principally to clear the ground of moldering rubbish, to chase away old ghosts, to help set the artist free. The work of erecting a new structure belongs primarily to the artist as creator, not to me as a critic.
This vision of the critic as a demolition artist also puts some of Mencken’s wackier aesthetic and political verdicts into context. His purpose, his higher calling, was to eradicate trash with panache. This gave an almost adolescent glee to some of his efforts, such as his methodical, pitiless dismissal of his Scopes Monkey Trial foe William Jennings Bryan soon after the man’s death in 1925 (“In Memoriam: W. J. B.” ).