Any best-of list dealing with American political satire has to include H.L. Mencken, who was the country's leading social critic between the world wars. This volume of new material was written at the end of his life, well after his epochal days at the Smart Set and the American Mercury were over and his pro-German sentiments had driven him from the national stage. My Life as Author and Editor is taken from the immense unfinished manuscript that was deposited in the Enoch Pratt Free Library upon Mencken's death; in accordance with his wishes, the packet was not read for 35 years. To modern readers, it is not scandalous as much as fiercely opinionated; Mencken pulls no punches regarding the people he met and the life he led from 1896 to 1923. Fitzgerald, Dreiser, Pound, Joyce, and many others all pass under Mencken's gimlet eye. Along the way, plenty of the author's criticism is heaped on "Life in These United States," the stupidity and lack of sophistication that Mencken raged against his entire career. Better examples of Mencken's satire can be found, but as an introduction to the author's gruff charm and bombast, My Life as Author and Editor is well-suited. And, of course, it is a necessity for the devoted Mencken fan. --Michael Gerber
Let's set the scene...
The following may look a little familiar... but it's kind of difficult to have a unique "Let's set the scene" when two books are referenced in the same sentence. So... deal! ;o)
Richard: Rory, I have a surprise. Not only did I find that copy of Mencken's "Chrestomathy" we discussed, I also found a first edition of his memoirs as well.
Rory: You're kidding?
Richard: It's in my office if you'd like to see them.
Rory: Oh my God, I totally would.
Emily: I'd like to take a look at those myself.
For someone as off-putting and smug as H.L. Mencken, his memoirs were fascinating and amusing. He may think very highly of himself, but his list of accomplishments as a literary and newspaper figure tends to give him an excuse for his condescending tone. I think the fact that he appears to be completely conscious of his smarter-than-thou arrogance not only makes it more forgivable, but in fact, makes it charming and entertaining.
What I can't forgive, however, is his unrepentant bigotry (against Jews and homosexuals, specifically). I'm not sure if it's simply a byproduct of the time, or if Mencken was one of the more intelligent white supremacists in existence. Either way, I don't abide anti-semitism or homophobia, so his prejudice against these groups made me come to the conclusion that old Henry and I wouldn't be friends if I had lived in Baltimore in the early to mid 20th century. Then again, he would probably conclude that I was too stupid to associate with and I wouldn't be invited to share a pint of bootleg pilsner with him anyway. Gotta love when a decision is made for you! Arguments have been made that Mencken wasn't racist (as seen through his long-lasting, close friendships with a lot of the high powered literati of Jewish persuasion) and that he believed that each group had inferior members that gave a bad name to the rest of his people. Maybe I'm sensitive to racism/bigotry in any form given the time period I live in. Who knows? I would like to believe that, if H.L. Mencken was alive today, he wouldn't be one of those people who uses the laughable "but one of my best friends is _insert group here_, so it's okay that I say that!" I guess we'll never know... all I can judge him on is the man he was at the time of his writing. And it's not looking that good for him.
Mencken never finished this book, as he had a stroke during it's writing and subsequently died on March 29, 1956. After the stroke, he was unable to continue working on My Life as Author and Editor. He donated the manuscript to the Enoch Pratt Library with instructions to leave the boxes containing the pages of My Life as Author and Editor sealed until 35 years after his death. On January 29, 1991, the boxes containing the manuscript were opened and Jonathan Yardley (a book critic with The Washington Post who received the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism) began editing down the minutiae that Mencken tended to get bogged down by. Removing his overzealous footnoting and the unnecessary volumes of appendices, Yardley filtered the manuscript into the version that was ultimately published (and a very emphatic "thank you" goes to Yardley for keeping me from having to read all those footnotes). I give credit to the person who chose not to try to fill in the remainder of H.L.'s life. This book ends with the last sentence about the fact that Isaac Goldberg's work has gone forgotten since his death... a fate I'm assuming Mencken would be pleased to know he evaded. And that's it! Another author did not come in and fill in the gap from that final sentence to Mencken's stroke and death. To me, that gave this particular memoir a real glimpse into a point in time and made H.L. Mencken less of a character and more that a man of flesh and blood whose journal we just happened upon in some basement in Baltimore.
Who do I see reading this in the Stars Hollow gazebo?
Being contributor and editor of both The Franklin and The Yale Daily News, Rory Gilmore would absolutely be fascinated to read about the life and career of the newspaper industry's legends. The fellow authors Mencken name-drops throughout his memoir are people I know Rory would respect and admire... so insight into their private lives through the eyes of a trusted friend and colleague would be something Rory just couldn't pass up. Although I'd like to believe that our Rory would be just as outraged over the bigotry Mencken displays throughout... she would be able to look past that into the heart of the newspaper industry in the early 20th century.