What started as a correspondence between an illustrious personage and an ardent fan developed into a friendship between two individuals with congenial temperaments, interests, and tastes
“Ich Kuss Die Hand”: The Letters of H. L. Mencken to Gretchen Hood relates an episode in Mencken's life that has received only passing mention from his biographers. Gretchen Hood's acquaintance with the journalistic life of Washington formed a bond with Mencken, who thought of himself, first and foremost, as an inveterate newspaperman (they playfully entertained the idea of starting their own Washington newspaper), and she had a ready appreciation for his performances as a connoisseur of the Washington political spectacle. Mencken, the amateur musician and music buff, respected her talent and professional background.
His letters indicate that he found in her an intelligent, witty, and charming respondent to his characteristic traits of personality and style. She both flattered his ego and challenged him to exhibit his celebrated manner at its best. On her part, Hood was not simply awestruck by Mencken's attentions but met them with her independent verve. “Nothing scared me,” she later said of her attitude; “ready to take on all comers.” Mencken liked to refer to her as “a licensed outlaw,” a designation that captures his impression of her and describes as well the fashionable unconventionality, which fueled the Mencken vogue.
Mencken wrote Hood over two hundred letters, and she must have written him about the same number. For much of the time they corresponded, they exchanged several letters every month, sometimes as many as four or five a week. As their communications blossomed into a four-year friendship, personal meetings soon supplemented the flow of letters.
Long famous as a political, social, and cultural gadfly, journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken was unafraid to speak his mind on controversial topics and to express his views in a deliberately provocative manner.
Mencken was prolific; much of his best work lies buried in the newspapers and magazines in which it originally appeared. Mencken’s America is a sampling of this uncollected work, arranged to present the wide-ranging treatise on American culture that Mencken himself never wrote.
The core of the book is a series of six articles on “The American” published in the Smart Set in 1913-14. Never before reprinted, they embody the essence of Mencken’s views on the deficiencies of his countrymen.
What was the problem with America? For Mencken, it could be summed up in one word: Puritanism. Puritanism accounted for much that was wrong with American culture: the prevalence of “militant morality” represented by Prohibition, by campaigns against prostitution, and by religious fundamentalism. American hostility toward the fine arts led to furious attempts to suppress any work of art that was thought to contravene conventional morality-attempts that Mencken chronicles with impressive scholarship in the essay “Puritanism as a Literary Force.”
Mencken reserved his greatest scorn for American political institutions. Opposed to the very principle of democracy and universal suffrage, he maintained that, in the absence of an educated electorate, all politicians are compelled to become demagogues.
Bracing, infuriating, and pungent, H. L. Mencken’s writings retain their relevance even after the passage of nearly a hundred years, cogently discussing issues with which Americans of the twenty-first century are still wrestling. Sagaciously edited by S. T. Joshi, one of the country’s foremost Mencken scholars, Mencken’s America is a superb example of America’s turning the looking glass on itself.
H. L. Mencken’s reputation as a journalist and cultural critic of the twentieth century has endured well into the twenty-first. His early contributions as a writer, however, are not very well known. He began his journalistic career as early as 1899 and in 1910 cofounded the Baltimore Evening Sun. The next year he initiated a column—The Free Lance—that ran six days a week for four and a half years, until the Sun discontinued it, partially in response to Mencken’s controversial defense of Germany during World War One.
In this early forum for his renowned wit, Mencken broached many of the issues to which he would return again and again over his career, establishing himself as a fearless iconoclast willing to tackle the most divisive subjects and apply a heady mix of observation, satire, and repartee to clear away what he regarded as the “saturnalia of bunk” that clouded American thinking. The Free Lance reveals Mencken at his scintillating best as a journalist, polemicist, and satirist.
These columns are collected here for the first time, edited and annotated by Mencken expert and critic S. T. Joshi. This extraordinary collection is an invaluable resource for Mencken scholars and fans and provides an entertaining immersion into the early twentieth-century American zeitgeist.