This exuberant collection of H. L. Mencken's reviews and short essays—most of them previously unassembled—will agitate, annoy, and thrill any thoughtful reader. Though the bulk of these literary pieces were written from 1910 to 1930, Mencken remains a breathtaking, beguiling critic, and—along with Edmund Wilson, probably Gore Vidal, and possibly John Updike—one of the few twentieth-century American men of letters whose reviews will be read throughout this century (as Mencken wrote of Huckleberry Finn) "not as a solemn duty, but for the honest love of it, and over and over again." Mencken could be exasperatingly wrong (see, for instance, his complete misreading of The Age of Innocence), but even then it is delightful to read so intelligent and honest a writer at work. Although this will (I hope) be the only occasion when these two figures find themselves in the same review, Theodor Adorno wrote that "luck and play" were essential to the essay, and Mencken's pieces gathered here bear this out. One can follow Mencken as he finds his way to his ideas, open-mindedly but never tentatively, until the essays gel.
Mencken's views on the novel are so elegant and commonsensical that it's no wonder they've been ignored by the bulk of practitioners and critics: "What are the hallmarks of a competent writer of fiction?" he asked. "The first, it seems to me, is that he should be immensely interested in human beings, and have an eye sharp enough to see into them, and a hand clever enough to draw them as they are. The second is that he should be able to set them in imaginary situations which display the contents of their psyches effectively, and so carry his reader swiftly and pleasantly from point to point of what is called a good story."