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.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.


More in Second Read

What It Was Like

Read More »

Bill Marx is a contributor to CJR.