H. L. Mencken, Author, S. T. Joshi, Editor, S. T. Joshi, Contribution by . Ohio Univ. $22.95 (264p) ISBN 978-0-8214-1532-0

H.L. Mencken was a man who firmly believed that "[m]en are surely not at their worst when they say what they actually think, even if it is shocking to their neighbors," and 80 years after some of these essays originally appeared in newspapers and magazines, his writings are still hard to resist. Mencken's wit and breadth of knowledge are apparent throughout this collection, but he is at his best and most timely when his targets are politics, the American character and the "militant Puritanism" that, according to him, shapes them both. His skewering of democracy as a system—"this fundamental assumption that a group of idiots, if only its numbers be large enough, is wiser and more virtuous than any conceivable individual who is not an idiot"—is well reasoned enough to provoke a weeklong debate about such favorite (and still hotly controversial) Mencken topics as big government, mob rule and the legislation of morality. A few of the essays included here do not hold up well, such as "The American: His Language"; others, like Mencken's essays about Baltimore and San Francisco, now read like charming period pieces rather than insightful social commentary. Still, the variety in this collection (including a prescient piece on the emergence of the independent film industry) highlights just how many things about America and Americans made H.L. Mencken laugh, wax indignant or at least pick up his pen. (Feb.)

Reviewed on: 01/19/2004
Release date: 02/01/2004
Hardcover - 400 pages - 978-0-8214-1531-3
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