H. L. Mencken was unquestionably the most provocative and influential journalist and cultural critic in twentieth-century America. The six volumes of Prejudices, published between 1919 and 1927, were both a slashing attack on what Mencken saw as American provincialism and hypocrisy and a resounding defense of the writers and thinkers he thought of as harbingers of a new frankness and maturity. Laced with savage humor and delighting in verbal play, Mencken’s prose remains a one-of-a-kind roller-coaster ride through a staggering range of themes: literature and journalism, politics and religion, sex and marriage, food and drink.
In this and a companion volume, The Library of America presents all six series of Prejudices in their original form. The first three series include some of his most famous writing, including “The Sahara of the Bozart,” an attack on Southern culture so unbridled as to earn him widespread criticism from politicians and the press; “The National Letters,” a lively and free-spoken survey of writing in America; “The Dry Millennium,” an analysis of the multiple absurdities of Prohibition; “Exeunt Omnes,” an unblinking and deromanticized contemplation of death; and “On Being an American,” a humorous celebration of the political and cultural panorama that he saw as “incomparably the greatest show on earth.” Here are his harsh summing-up of Theodore Roosevelt’s career (“he didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government”) and his sympathetic portraits of literary friends like James Huneker and George Jean Nathan. Mencken’s account of the original reception of Prejudices, from his memoir My Life as Editor and Author, is included as an appendix.
Edmund Wilson wrote: “Mencken’s mind . . . has all the courage in the world in a country where courage is rare.” That courage may sometimes have been coupled with an inflexible stubbornness that led him into positions hard to defend. But to succeeding generations of writers and readers, Mencken was the figure who had risked charges of heresy and sedition and almost single-handedly brought America into a new cultural era. To read him is to be plunged into an era whose culture wars were easily as ferocious as those of our own day, in the company of a critic of vast curiosity and vivacious frankness.
LIBRARY OF AMERICA is an independent nonprofit cultural organization founded in 1979 to preserve our nation’s literary heritage by publishing, and keeping permanently in print, America’s best and most significant writing. The Library of America series includes more than 300 volumes to date, authoritative editions that average 1,000 pages in length, feature cloth covers, sewn bindings, and ribbon markers, and are printed on premium acid-free paper that will last for centuries.