Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Henry Louis Mencken, 1880-1956
Mencken, Henry Louis, 1880-1956. Editor, essayist, and critic. Henry Louis Mencken was a writer of enormous national influence who also played a leading role in southern intellectual life of the 1920s. A native of Baltimore, he became a contributor to the Smart Set and the American Mercury. As such, he was, Walter Lippmann wrote, "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." In particular, he conducted a crusade against American provincialism, puritanism, and prudery— all of which he believed he found, to a degree larger than elsewhere, in the states below the Potomac and Ohio. Mencken shocked southerners when he published a severe indictment of southern culture, "The Sahara of the Bozart," which first appeared in 1917 in the New York Evening Mail and was reprinted in his book, Prejudices, Second Series (1920). In his essay he charged that the South was "almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert." "In all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate," he contended, "there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera-house, or a single theater devoted to decent plays." Most southern poetry and prose was drivel, he charged, and "when you come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like, you will have to give it up, for there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud-flats and the Gulf." Nor, Mencken added, a historian, sociologist, philosopher, theologian, or scientist.
The essay, written in characteristic Menckenian hyperbole, suggested that the condition of the modern South was especially lamentable because the antebellum South, particularly Virginia, had been the seat of American civilization. Mencken attributed the decline of southern culture to the "poor whites" who, he charged, had seized control of the South after the Civil War. Particularly to blame were the preachers and the politicians. What the South needed, he maintained, was a return to influence of a remnant of the old aristocracy.
Mencken's "Sahara" and other essays on the "godawful South" attracted widespread attention in Dixie in the decade that followed. Traditional southerners denounced him as a "modern Attila," a "miserable and uninformed wretch," a "bitter, prejudiced and ignorant critic of a great people." But other southerners such as James Branch Cabell, Howard W. Odum, Gerald W. Johnson, Paul Green, Thomas Wolfe, and Wilbur J. Cash declared their agreement with the substance of the indictment.
The Southern Literary Renaissance followed Mencken's "Sahara," and literary historians have suggested that Mencken shocked young southern writers into an awareness of southern literary poverty and thus played a seminal role in the revival of southern letters. But as important as Mencken's effect on southern literature was his effect on the general intellectual climate of the "progressive" South. Menckenism became, as the 1920s progressed, a cultural force, a school of thought for iconoclastic southerners. Not all young southerners accepted him: Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and other southern Agrarians challenged him with particular vigor. In the mid-1930s Mencken lost interest in the South, as the South lost interest in him. Nevertheless, his impact on southern letters, even if indirect, was felt for many years.
University of Alabama
Carl Bode, Mencken (1969); Fred Hobson, Serpent in Eden: H. L. Mencken and the South (1974); William H. Nolte, H. L. Mencken, Literary Critic (1966).