Jonathan Mirsky

Blue Elephant Unleashed

Mencken: The American Iconoclast


Oxford University Press 600pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

There was never a journalist like H L Mencken (1880–1956), before him or since. In the years when there was no television and American print journalists were stars, Mencken was a supernova. A fabulously entertaining writer, an authority on the American language, very funny, a libertarian – and an implacable hater of Roosevelt, censors, lynchers, Communists, labour unions, and most politicians. He was contemptuous of Jews – but also of all other religious groups – and of blacks, and the poor. But he could be generous and affectionate to individual Jews and blacks. He loved Germany and hesitated to condemn Hitler. He edited two magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury, for which unknown and famous writers alike clamoured to write. For decades he wrote much of the best reporting, notably of the presidential nominating conventions where, even in his old age, he dazzled young reporters by his energy, long hours, meticulous research, flagrant biases (often obsessions) and enthusiastic drinking. If a newspaper wanted to increase its circulation, it had only to announce an upcoming column by H L Mencken. He was also a consumer of fascinating women, whom he regularly betrayed, and a faithful husband to an invalid wife from whose death he never recovered. 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'It would be nice to think that women will achieve equal pay in my lifetime, rather than to watch gloomily as stati… ,
    • In 1660, two of the signatories of King Charles I's death warrant fled across the Atlantic to New England. But were… ,
    • Howard Jacobson's sixteenth novel is 'a love story of sorts, one characterised not by physical desire or even conta… ,
    • 'The sudden immersion in the new and unfamiliar can lead people to write with a rare lack of self-consciousness' P… ,
    • 'Pools bend the rules. Clothes slip off, skin glistens, consciousness heightens. A dreamlike scenario unfolds' Jam… ,
    • 'Although he surely didn’t know W H Auden’s theory that every high C proclaims human freedom and our capacity to tr… ,
    • RT : With beginning tomorrow, we've uncovered a 1997 article from the archive reviewing 'Golf Dream… ,