Mencken (1880-1956) authored or contributed to hundreds of books and pamphlets, wrote thousands of articles and reviews for newspapers and magazines, and by the mid-1920s was described by columnist Walter Lippmann as "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." But until Schrader recently published H.L. Mencken: A Descriptive Bibliography, no one had compiled a comprehensive list of the works of the "Sage of Baltimore."
Prof. Richard Schrader (English)-"Pick up any book by Mencken and this tells you where it fits into the family history of Mencken's books." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Schrader's 650-page volume chronicles where, how often, and in what form Mencken's writings appeared. It contains more than 500 entries that range from the landmark 1919 study The American Language to humorous pamphlets printed as practical jokes. It offers a "genealogy" of Mencken's books, Schrader says, containing information on first printings, styles of binding and paper, typography, dust-jacket illustrations and other publishing details. The bibliography includes hundreds of previously unrecorded pamphlets and broadsides that Schrader turned up in the course of his research.
"Pick up any book by Mencken and this tells you where it fits into the family history of Mencken's books," said Schrader. "Not only collectors but booksellers want to know what they have. And in the future, anyone who wants to re-edit or re-print Mencken will know which editions were most authoritative."
As a popular columnist for the Baltimore Sun and editor of the influential literary magazines The Smart Set and the American Mercury , Mencken "was America's leading man of letters and literary arbiter of the 1920s," said Schrader. "He covered political conventions and events like the Scopes Trial at which journalism became art. He wrote the first book on George Bernard Shaw. He was the first to write in English on Nietzsche. He was the first to publish James Joyce in this country. He promoted the literature of Conrad, Ibsen, O'Neill, Dreiser, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis."
Favorite targets of Mencken's pungent prose included politicians, academicians and the backward areas of the American South, Schrader said. Mencken also took aim at Prohibition, Puritanism and middle class values, he said, and at Christian fundamentalists who pressed the anti-evolution Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee, as well as other representatives of organized religion.
Mencken "applauded dissent," even when doing so was not popular, Schrader said. He opposed what he saw as the intrusive Big Government nature of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. From his base in Maryland on the border of the old Confederacy, he attacked lynching and segregation.
"Mencken defended free speech and stood up for dissenters, no matter their politics," said Schrader. "For many writers of the 1920s, he was the ideal audience."
For Schrader, who keeps a small collection of Mencken memorabilia in his Carney Hall office, the massive project has been a labor of love.
"It has had two rewards," he said. "One is aesthetic. Mencken was one of the stars of the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house, which was remarkable for both its author list and the beauty of its products. Even its trade issues met high standards for typography, design and binding. I consider them works of art."
The other perk of his research into forewords and frontispieces, he said, has been this: "When all else fails, you can always read Mencken."
One group Mencken held up to particular ridicule was the university professoriate, Schrader noted, specifically teachers of English, whom he dismissed as second-rate pedants: "A professor must have a theory as a dog has fleas," wrote Mencken in a 1917 essay, "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism."
Schrader takes the skewer in stride, going so far as to tape the quote to his office door. "Since I don't have a theory," he quipped, "I'm not offended."
Return to Nov. 12 menu
Return to Chronicle home page