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.”
On the whole, though, the wham-bam prose more than outweighs the moments of discomfort. Among the gems is Mencken’s wonderful 1927 review of a Festschrift dedicated to a retired master “mixologist”—a wise fixture in Washington, D.C., who knew just when to cut off serving the hard stuff to politicos. In this loving elegy to the bartender’s trade (“an art that made men happy”), Mencken notes that in the photo of the saloon keeper at the front of the volume, the “light of tragedy” is visible in his eye. (We can probably blame that on Prohibition.) “He looks as Washington would have looked if he had lived to see Coolidge,” concludes Mencken.
No doubt that same tragic look will be found on some of the writers safely enshrined in our literary Valhalla, Library of America. The “schoolmarmish” targets of Mencken’s acidic sarcasm, such as William Dean Howells and Henry James, will now discover their tomes sitting cheek-by-jowl with the scoffing Prejudices. Perhaps even those who no longer think criticism should utter a discouraging word will tremble to see this arch-critic in such a lordly literary berth. And Mencken, in the afterlife reserved for hell-bent non-believers, is probably thundering forth a long horselaugh.