H. L. Mencken stipulated that this memoir remain sealed in a vault for thirty-five years after his death. For good reason: My Life as Author and Editor is so telling and uproariously opinionated that is might have provoked a storm of libel suits. As he recounts his career as a critic, essayist, and editor of the ground-breaking magazine Smart Set, Mencken brings us face to face with the literary aristocracy of his day, from the dour womanizer Theodore Dreiser to F. Scott Fitzgerald, drowning his gifts in alcohol. Here, too, are the hacks, poseurs, and bohemian crackpots who flocked around them. Most of all, here is Mencken himself, defying censors and Prohibition agents with equal aplomb in an age when literature was a contact sport.
The DEFINITIVE EDITION OF The American Language was published in 1936. Since then it has been recognized as a classic. It is that rarest of literary accomplishments--a book that is authoritative and scientific and is at the same time very diverting reading. But after 1936 HLM continued to gather new materials diligently. In 1945 those which related to the first six chapters of The American Language were published as Supplement I; the present volume contains those new materials which relate to the other chapters.
The ground thus covered in Supplement II is as follows:
1. American Pronunciation. Its history. Its divergence from English usage. The regional and racial dialects.
2. American Spelling. The influence of Noah Webster upon it. Its characters today. The simplified spelling movement. The treatment of loan words. Punctuation, capitalization, and abbreviation.
3. The Common Speech. Outlines of its grammar. Its verbs, pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. The double negative. Other peculiarities.
4. Proper Names in America. Surnames. Given-names. Place-names. Other names.
5. American Slang. Its origin and history. The argot of various racial and occupational groups.
Although the text of Supplement II is related to that of The American Language, it is an independent work that may be read profitably by persons who do not know eithe The American Language or Supplement I.
Edited and annotated by H.L.M., this is a selection from his out-of-print writings. They come mostly from books--the six of the PREJUDICES series, A BOOK OF BURLESQUES, IN DEFENSE OF WOMEN, NOTES ON DEMOCRACY, MAKING A PRESIDENT, A BOOK OF CALUMNY, TREATISE ON RIGHT AND WRONG--but there are also magazine and newspaper pieces that never got between covers (from the American Mercury, the Smart Set, and the Baltimore Evening Sun) and some notes that were never previously published at all.
Readers will find edification and amusement in his estimates of a variety of Americans--Woodrow Wilson, Aimee Semple McPherson, Roosevelt I and Roosevelt II, James Gibbons Huneker, Rudolph Valentino, Calvin Coolidge, Ring Lardner, Theodore Dreiser, and Walt Whitman. Those musically inclined will enjoy his pieces on Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner, and there is material for a hundred controversies in his selections on Joseph Conrad, Thorstein Veblen, Nietzsche, and Madame Blavatsky.
Perhaps the first truly important book about the divergence of American English from its British roots, this survey of the language as it was spoken-and as it was changing-at the beginning of the 20th century comes via one of its most inveterate watchers, journalist, critic, and editor HENRY LOUIS MENCKEN (1880-1956).In this replica of the 1921 "revised and enlarged" second edition, Mencken turns his keen ear on:
The general character of American English loan-words and non-English influences expletives and forbidden words American slang the future of the language and much, much more.
Anyone fascinated by words will find this a thoroughly enthralling look at the most changeable language on the face of the planet.
[Democracy] is, perhaps, the most charming form of government ever devised by man... It is based on propositions that are palpably not true and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true...
H.L. Mencken, America's greatest journalist and critic, wrote Notes on Democracy over 80 years ago. His time, the paranoid and intolerant years of World War I, Prohibition and the Scopes trial, is strikingly like our own. Notes isn't just a blast from the past, but also a perceptive and unsentimental report on contemporary life.
The period covered is that of his professional nonage--from his entry into journalism as a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899 to 1906. It was not all Baltimore, however, for he went into brief exile when the fire of 1904 destroyed the plant and forced the paper to print in Philadelphia for five weeks. During those roaring years the young journalist did little, if anything, to bring uplift to his city, nor did he become an influential figure in the councils of state or nation. But he did gain a rare knowledge of his community in all its more colorful and uproarious aspects; and he has set them down here in his own inimitable way. It is not the great events of civic life that draw his attention, not the respectable--and dull--doings of respectable citizens. Rather it is the caperings of the judiciary on their days off, the mysterious and melancholy ways of the commercial artists who haunted the newspaper offices of the period, the peccadilloes and generosities of cops and cabbies, of madams and Baltimores omnipresent Afro-Americans that make up the bulk of this highly personal memoir. As such it brings to livid life the whole of an American city of sixty years ago. It is a book to read and savor, not only for its constant delightful humor, but for its fine picture of the salad days of American journalism as well.
"I am quite convinced that all religions, at bottom, are pretty much alike. On the surface they may seem to differ greatly, but what appears on the surface is not always religion. Go beneath it, and one finds invariably the same sense of helplessness before the cosmic mysteries, and the same pathetic attempt to resolve it by appealing to higher powers."--from Treatise on the Gods H. L. Mencken is perhaps best known for his scathing political satire. But politicians, as far as Mencken was concerned, had no monopoly on self-righteous chest-thumping, deceit, and thievery. He also found religion to be an adversary worthy of his attention and, in Treatise on the Gods, he offers some of his best shots, a choreographed cannonade.
Mencken examines religion everywhere, from India to Peru, from the myths of Egypt to the traditional beliefs of America's Bible Belt. He compares Incas and Greeks, examines doctrines, dogmas, sacred texts, heresies, and ceremonies. He ranges far and wide, but returns at last to the subject that most provokes him: Christianity. He reviews the history of the Church and its founders. "It is Tertullian who is credited with the motto, Credo, quia absurdum est: I believe because it is incredible. Needless to say, he began life as a lawyer." Mencken is no less interested in the dissidents: "The Reformers were men of courage, but not many of them were intelligent." Against the old-time religion of fellow countrymen, Mencken posed as a figure of old-time skepticism, and he reaped the whirlwind. Controversial even before it was published in 1930, Treatise on the Gods remains what its author wished it to be: the plain, clear challenge of honest doubt.
In the fall of 1948 H. L. Mencken, then at the top of his unmatchable form (he had spoken at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia only a little while before), suffered a stroke. He soon recovered his physical vigor, but writing was for him a thing of the past. Some months before his death, in going through some papers that he was putting in order for deposit in his beloved Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, his long-time secretary discovered these Notebooks. Mencken meant to publish them, as he makes clear in the preface, which also describes them better than I can.
Suffice it to say that here is one more generous sampling of the old Mencken battling fearlessly for the freedom and dignity of the individual and for the general decencies of life and attacking all that seems fundamentally hostile to man: government, organized religion, professional philosophers, and pedagogues above all. It shows his restless and inquiring mind ranging over many of the problems that beset all of us who ever take time out to think, all in his unmatchable style, which, however much it crackles, has the supreme virtue--which Henry always found in his own great model, Thomas Henry Huxley--that of never leaving you in doubt of its meaning.
Read the preface and note that this book is precisely what its title suggests; it consists of hundreds of notes--some only a few lines in length, some running to several pages, all reflecting a rigorous and exhilarating mind and personality. It may be a long time before another like him crosses our path.