Though it makes use of reason and logic, Mencken’s prose throughout the Prejudices sets up an internal, irrational drama: it pits the rabid energy of the author’s mind and the slangy friskiness of his vocabulary against the width and breath of American chaos. The critic needs to command two-ton adjectives, burly verbs, and exotic nouns because there is so much utter nonsense to cart away. A more modest style simply couldn’t contend with, say, an American presidential campaign: “Would it be possible to imagine anything more uproarishly idiotic—a deafening, nerve-wracking battle to the death between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Harlequin and Sganarelle, Gobbo and Dr. Cook—the unspeakable, with fearful snorts, gradually swallowing the inconceivable?”
Despite this rhetorical firepower, Mencken’s habitual stance is that of an impartial observer, a reporter valiantly attempting to describe a parade of monstrosities. He wants you to see what he sees. Reviewing a dry tome entitled The Social Objectives of School English, he gets rolling in the very first sentence: “Here in the form of a large flat book, eight and a half inches wide and eleven inches tall, is a sight-seeing bus touring the slums of pedagogy.” The entire series teems with exaggerated visual metaphors. Mencken hot-wires descriptive language, mashes together argot high and low, in order to shake his readers awake.
The author is also fond of huge, eye-catching generalizations: “Hygiene is the corruption of medicine by morality.” Or (in a somewhat more archaic vein): “Women like to be wooed endlessly before they loose their girdles and are wooed no more.” He likes to follow these lofty overviews with endless, absurd, faux-Whitmanesque lists. For example, in “On Being an American,” Mencken delights in toting up the nation’s most coveted jobs: “Let him bear in mind that, whatever its neglect of the humanities and their monks, the Republic has never got half enough bond salesmen, quack doctors, ward leaders, phrenologists, Methodist evangelists, circus clowns, magicians, soldiers, farmers, popular song writers, moonshine distillers, forgers of gin labels, mine guards, detectives, spies, snoopers, and agents provocateurs.” Where Whitman heard America singing, Mencken hears it braying like an ass.
Catching that sound is a big part of his mission, requiring all of his reportorial chops. In the age of Glenn Beck, his rousing jeremiads against Christian Fundamentalism remain as vivid and incisive as ever. He saw early on that the movement embodied a yen for a theocratic America. In “Memorial Service” (“Where is the grave-yard of dead gods?”) Mencken lists the deities that have bit the dust over the centuries—giving atheism the same sort of shot in the arm that Christopher Hitchens did in his recent God Is Not Great. However, his coverage in Prejudices of the Scopes Monkey kerfuffle, “The Hills of Zion,” is somewhat disappointing. (Readers eager for a sharper take should seek out A Religious Orgy in Tennessee, which collects his actual dispatches from the trial.)
An irascible comic stylist who envisions the world as a “vast, lumbering, hideous, obscene ball of mud—the football of the devil,” Mencken serves as a bridge between the sour yuks of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce and the apocalyptic satire of Nathanael West, as well S. J. Perelman’s linguistic acrobatics. His jaunty nihilism feeds American anti-utopian satire to this very day. Vulgar, combative, unfair, and on target, he may also be seen as the godfather of Internet trolls, though his comic conceits are much more substantial and inventive.
As early as 1931, Mencken noted in his diary that the Prejudices series was aging badly: “My plan is to let the Prejudices books go out of print. Large parts of them begin to date. What is still good I shall rewrite and republish, probably in two volumes instead of six.” He never got around to the task—and given the changing times, his rejiggered volumes might have gotten a mixed reception. As the years passed, Mencken’s vaudevillian bravado became increasingly predictable. Even an admiring reviewer, Stanley T. Williams, had to confess his fatigue in a 1923 Yale Review notice of Prejudices: Third Series: “My own charge against him is probably new—a heretical charge. That unending flow of German phrases, that avalanche of cheap simile, that insistence upon a pet joke, such as ‘Dr. Wilson,’ the incoherence, the vilification, the ignorance, in spite of a quotation or two from Martial—surely this is, in the last analysis—is it not?—just boring.” To that bill of fare could be added ethnic comments that make even thick-skinned readers flinch: “No other race, save the Chinese, is so thoroughly solid, or so firmly unresponsive to ideas from without.”