A Dozen Neglected Titles from Mencken’s reviews for “The American Mercury”

I came across a synopsis of H. L. Mencken’s literary criticism from the ten years he wrote and edited The American Mercury with George Jean Nathan. Mencken was one of the magazine’s regular book reviewers, publishing at least one review in each issue. In total, he reviewed eighty-nine works by fifty-eight different authors. Many of the authors–Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway–are still familiar and widely read today. But at least a dozen that received his enthusiastic praise have slipped away into obscurity:

The White Robe, by James Branch Cabell

Cabell “… has never done a better piece of work.” Mencken went on to write that, “No man writing in America today has a more strongly individualized, or, on the whole, a more charming style.”

Stuffed Peacocks, by Emily Clark

Mencken wrote that Clark displayed “… plain signs of a fine talent,” and that her characters had “brilliant color, fine insight, and a sort of hard, scientific mercilessness.”

Harvest in Poland, by Geoffrey Dennis

He called Dennis, “[A] story-teller of unusual talent, with a great deal of originality.” The novel was an “… impossible story told in terms of the most meticulous realism.” Mencken praised Dennis’ style with an adjective that probably says less to today’s readers than to his: “His prose has a Carlylean thunder in it; he knows how to roll up gorgeous sentences.”

Backfurrow, by G. D. Eaton

Mencken felt, “There is not much finesse in the story, but it is moving.” But he went on to say that, “Few first novels show so much seriousness or so much skill.”

The Keen Desire, by Frank B. Elser

Mencken found it, “…immensely better than any of its predecessors,” and that Elser had a “sensitive feeling for character,” depicting his protagonist “… with great insight and unfailing skill.”

Wolf Song, by Harvey Fergusson

“[An] extraordinarily brilliant and charming story,” he wrote.”The Old South-west is made to palpitate with such light and heat that they are felt almost physically, and the people that gallop across the scene are full of the juices of life.”

Roundabout, by Nancy Hoyt

“It is a tale of calf love—-not done with superior snickers, but seriously and even a bit tragically.”

A Hind Let Loose, by C. E. Montague

Mencken declared it “satire in the grand manner,” satire managed “superbly.” The work was a “charming and uproarious piece of buffoonery, carried on with the utmost dexterity from start to finish.”

Pig Iron, by Charles G. Norris

Mencken read it, “… with immense interest, and enjoyed it … unflaggingly.” He argued that Norris’s novels “have received a great deal less critical attention than they deserve.”

Rainbow Round My Shoulder, by Howard W. Odum

A “… work of art that lives and glows,” a “story of extraordinary fascination,” and one “managed with the utmost skill.” The book inspired him to summon up the names of the two finest American writers of the 19th century: “Walt Whitman would have wallowed in it, and I suspect that Mark Twain would have been deeply stirred by it too.”

Spring Flight, by Lee J. Smits

Mencken wrote that he could not “recall a first novel of more workmanlike dignity. There is absolutely no touch of amateurishness in it — It would be absurd to say that it shows merely promise.” The writer had handled his “machinery … in an extremely dexterous manner” in producing “an extraordinarily sound and competent piece of work.”

Iowa Interiors, by Ruth Suckow

“Who has ever published a better first book of short stories than this one? Of its sixteen, not one is bad–and among the best there are at least five masterpieces.” The characters were “overwhelmingly real, and not a word can be spared.”

4 thoughts on “A Dozen Neglected Titles from Mencken’s reviews for “The American Mercury”

  1. James Branch Cabell’s “Jurgen” is still one of my favorite books. Definitely deserves rediscovery. His books are whimsical without being precious, cynical without being despairing. Highly recommended if you love Tristam Shandy or Voltaire.

  2. Mencken spoke highly of a lot of writers who have slipped through the cracks of literary history to varying degrees. In 1911, in The Smart Set, he published an article arguing that David Graham Phillips was the greatest living American novelist. Phillips, unluckily enough, was stabbed to death a few days after the article came out by a crazed musician who groundlessly believed that his sister was the model for a character in one of Phillips’s books. (This writer is best remembered for Susan Lenox, published six years after his death, which was made into a movie starring Garbo in 1931.)

    A few months after Phillips’s death, Dreiser published Jennie Gerhardt and thereby restarted a literary career stalled by the quasi-suppression of Sister Carrie in 1900, so Mencken had a new writer to champion.

    Mencken also wrote favorably of the first book by Mary Maclane, the rather proto-feminist writer from Montana (see http://www.marymaclane.com).

  3. It’s also worth mentioning that the quintessially once-popular, now-forgotten American writer of the 1920s, Joseph Hergesheimer, was Mencken’s closest friend among writers, as has been noted in all the biographies of the Sage of Baltimore. (But, perhaps because of the friendship, he rarely published anything about Hergesheimer’s books.)

  4. Mencken did review several of Hergesheimer’s books, but he wasn’t as enthusiastic about them as the titles I’ve listed above. Which says something about his objectivity as a critic, I guess.

    The novel that cost Phillips his life was “The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig, which is available from Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4929. Most of Phillips’ works are in public domain and available from Project Gutenberg.

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