Former Fugleman

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BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 8, 2013

Former Fugleman

Recently, there appeared two items concerning H. L. Mencken, and I wish that somebody would explain them. Taken together, they don't make sense.
 
Item I. The Modern Library has reprinted Scott Fitzgerald's best novel, The Great Gatsby. It is a book whose unique value has been overestimated by many people, including T. S. Eliot, Rebecca West and its own author, but nevertheless it is a fine piece of work, a sentimental poem to the Jazz Age that I was glad to reread in 1934: It hasn't staled or withered. The item about Mencken appears in the preface to the new edition. Here Fitzgerald gives a round scolding to the present race of critics and says that there is no one today who goes to the trouble of discovering and guiding able but unknown novelists, as Mencken used to do in Smart Set and in the early days of The American Mercury. And it is perfectly true that Mencken not only engineered the success of Dreiser, and helped to put Lewis across, but also had a share in the humbler triumphs of several talented writers who followed them. He wasn't in many cases the real discoverer; somebody else usually performed that function; hut Mencken was the only critic out of blinkers who was widely read by people under thirty. He was, to use one of his favorite words, the fugleman of the new fiction.
 
Item 2. To the October 6 issue of The Saturday Review, Mencken himself contributed an article on proletarian writers. A great many of the able young novelists who have appeared during the last three or four years belong to this category. It happens that the literary and human value of their work has heen persistently undervalued hy critics who don't like their politics. It also happens that the worst attacks against them have appeared in journals which Mencken used to despise for being stodgy. Therefore, on the face of the record, we might expect that he would now come to their defense, would praise them immoderately in order to restore the balance in their favor, would shout and prod and bludgeon a little sense into the heads of the Tory reviewers. This is the sort of thing he used to do often. If he had done it again, the two items would agree, and that would be the end of it. On the contrary, he takes the side of the stodgier critics. He tries to make us believe that all proletarian novelists are dull beyond description and are writing about factory hands and farmers only because they tried and failed to break into The Cosmopolitan with Cinderella stories. He doesn't stop there, unfortunately. He also implies that most proletarian writers are Jews, even though many of them sign their work with "distinguished (albeit largely bogus) Anglo-Saxon names." It is curious how this thread of anti-Semitism runs through his essay. He talks about young men who "took to religion and declared themselves High Church Episcopalians—despite, in many cases, inconvenient surgical evidence to the contrary." Like Reichshischoff Muller of the German State Church, he evidently believes that nobody is entitled to be a Christian unless he can prove that all four grandparents were Aryans. Mencken speaks of novels "too often done in English that seems to be a bad translation from the Yiddish." In Hitler's Germany there is s movement to prohibit all Jews from writing in any language except Yiddish or Hebrew, on the ground that they have been corrupting German taste and style. This critic who used to think for himself now writes as if he were making a free translation from a pamphlet by Dr. Joseph Goebbels.
 
And the voice of Goebbels rings even louder at the end of this essay. Mencken suggests that the whole radical movement could be ended suddenly hy the declaration of another war—in twenty-four hours all the proletarians would be patriots. Or else, he continues, "on some rather remoter tomorrow, the cops may turn Nazi and get out of hand, and prudence may suddenly consume the passion for Service, as in 1917. There is, indeed, never much heroism in literati." But I don't enjoy this blowing of warlike trumpets hy a Baltimore gentleman of sedentary habits who has passed the age for military service. And the physical courage of the literati is not a question of vast importance. I can't remember that Mencken himself has done anything bolder than what H. G. Wells describes Frank Harris as doing—that is, to "sit and talk exuberantly in imminent danger of unanswerable contradiction." 
 
It is true that he avoids some of this danger, in the present essay, hy naming no names. He never tells us just which writers he is attacking (nor, for that matter, does he say anything to prove that he knows the work of any proletarian writer whatever). But it would be better to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume that he has actually read some proletarian novelists and that, being fair-minded, he is choosing as target the best or most prominent of those who have appeared during the last two or three years. In that case he is writing about Rohert Cantwell (this being the nom de plume or pseudonym of a young man from the state of Washington who was christened Robert Cantwell); he is writing ahout William Rollins (the pseudonym of William Rollins), Grace Lumpkin (the pseudonym of Grace Lumpkin), Albert Halper (the pseudonym of Albert Halper), Jack Conroy (the pseudonym of Jack Conroy) and Fielding Burke (the pseudonym of Olive Tilford Dargan). There is one bogus name in the list of six. There is also one Jew, but the Jew writes under his own name. As a matter of fact, Jewish writers have not particularly distinguished themselves in this particular type of fiction, for reasons that have nothing to do with racial genius or literary talent. Most proletarian novels deal with the struggles of workers in the basic industries. There is not a high proportion of Jews in these industries, and honest writers of any race prefer to deal with subjects they know at first hand.
 
How much does Mencken know about proletarian novels? He says they are amateurish, preposterous and written in shaky English. Well, in all the hooks by all the authors I have mentioned, there is not so much downright bad writing, not so much English that sounds like a fancy translation from the Polish, Coptic or Aramean, as there is in any chapter of Joseph Hergcslieimer, whom Mencken regards as a fine stylist. He conjectures that the chief charm of proletarian fiction "to those who can endure it at all, is probably the flavor of pornography that is in most of it."  Well, there are several proletarian novelists who use coarse language—and rather too much of it for my own studious taste—but in all their books there is not enough real pornography to butter thin a single page of "Jurgen." If I remember correctly, Mencken was one of those who worked hardest to rescue "Jurgen" from the censor. No, there is some deep and strange disparily between Item I and Item 2, between the adieistic, censor-baiting, freedom-roaring Mencken of 1920 and the pious God-and-Pierpont-Morgan-fearing Mencken of these depression years. Something is gnawing at his vitals, and it would take a surgeon, a psychoanalyst, two Marxian critics and an investment banker sitting in conference to diagnose the disease from which the man now suffers. He has nightmares and delusions. He starts up from an uneasy sleep to cry that the country is going to the dogs and that Stalin himself is in the White House. He summons the cops and the censors to his bedside to protect him from pornography. After ten years spent fighting the Ku Kluxers and making himself feared by kleagles and wizards, he is ready to swallow the nostrums of Imperial Wizard Hitler and Grand Dragon Goehbeis. And he has lost his appetite for good writing. There was a time when Mencken the critic used to praise young novelists and Mencken the editor used to print their work, even though he suspected them of being Jewish or radical or stony broke. But the critic and the editor are dead now, and their clothes are too big for Mencken the politician. 

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posted in: malcolm cowley, h.l. mencken, f. scott fitzgerald, the great gatsby

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