Book Review: H.L. Mencken's Uncommon Fiction

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Book Review: H.L. Mencken's Uncommon Fiction


Byline: Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Few people (save die-hard aficionados) would guess that the legendary critic and journalist Henry Louis Mencken once wrote fiction. Now Douglas Olson, a Mencken aficionado himself, has collected 17 short stories, published between 1900-1905, even unearthing one previously unrecorded by Mencken's expert bibliographer, Betty Adler.

The newly launched independent publisher, Forgotten Stories Press, is devoted to rediscovering the forgotten works of famous writers. In this volume, Mr. Olson has provided a service to scholars and Mencken fans alike. Not since 1973, when scholar Carl Bode assembled The Young Mencken, have we been given a ticket into the world of Mencken - before he was Mencken.

During these early years, Mencken was working at the Baltimore Herald 12 hours a day, seven days a week. In his free time he was writing poetry, articles and short stories, carefully recording every acceptance or rejection. The eventual publication of his material taught him a useful lesson: that the prestige of a reporter is even more nourished by what he does outside the office than by what he does inside and for it. Writing fiction was also valuable in teaching him, by practice, the craft he later assessed as a critic and magazine editor.

In a review in The Smart Set, Mencken noted: It seems easy to spin such droll .. such simple plots But those of us who have poured out our sweat upon the making of short stories know just how much careful planning, just how much effort, goes into every one of them.

Many of the themes and exotic locales of Mencken's fiction reflected his reading, especially that of Rudyard Kipling. His trips to Jamaica and interest in Central America became the setting for many of the stories assembled here, providing a fascinating glimpse into how Mencken perceived the ugly American when dealing with Latin Americans, Europeans and blacks. Others realistically recount tales closer to home. The Cook's Victory was about a Chesapeake oyster fleet, stemming from his experience as a reporter roving the Baltimore waterfront. The Star-Spangled Banner captures Mencken's love and knowledge of music. Although The Last Cavalry Charge, published in 1906, predates the slaughter of World War I, it offers a prescient glimpse of it.

It was not until The Flight of the Victor, published in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly magazine, in 1901, that one begins to recognize the voice of a fledgling satirist. The story, one of the strongest assembled, earned Mencken a whopping $50 and the encouragement of the magazine's editor, Ellery Sedgwick (later of the Atlantic), who praised the young author for the story's directness, simplicity and vividness. It recounts the competition between two rival newspapers in Kingston, both of which ceased labor at dusk. …

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