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.” ).

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.

Bill Marx is a contributor to CJR.