The articles Mencken wrote for magazines and newspapers served as drafts for the pieces in the series; in that way he could respond to the initial reaction to his line of attack, honing his vituperation to a sharper edge. “I kept the Prejudices books in mind for all my magazine and newspaper work,” he writes in My Life as Author and Editor, “and not infrequently an idea that was first tried out in the Baltimore Evening Sun was later expanded and embellished in the Smart Set or some other magazine, and then finally polished for book form.”
Throughout the series he holds steady to his organizational formula. Each volume begins with a big bang aimed at a fat quadrant of American philistinism (“The American Tradition,” “Journalism in America,” “The National Letters,” “On Being an American”), followed by a grab bag of essays, portraits, book reviews, and squibs. His targets throughout range from the anemic state of the arts to complaints about the stupefying limitations of the American character to broadsides against the “experts” who believe they hold a monopoly on the truth, including the grand poobahs of religion, politics, academia, psychology, and economics.
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.