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Biography Review    

 

 

THE CONSTANT CIRCLE: H.L. Mencken and His Friends
by Sara Mayfield; Introduction by Edmund Wilson.
University of Alabama Press, 2003 (reissue)
Trade paper, $25.00 (320 pp)
ISBN: 0817350632
 
 
 

Professional “disturber of the peace,” to use William Manchester’s phrase, H. L. Mencken was a vociferous critic of the New South, the New Deal, humanists, Rotarians, the KKK, Prohibition, fundamentalist preachers, anti-obscenity crusades, and many other targets too lengthy to list. Sara Mayfield’s memoir of the Sage of Baltimore—The Constant Circle: H.L. Mencken and His Friends—pulls back the curtain on a gentler, more human figure who Walter Lippman in 1926 called “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people.” Mayfield’s title is a play on the “The Vicious Circle,” the informal name of the group of writers that gathered around Mencken when he stayed at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. The Constant Circle is also an intimate portrait, as the author was a close friend of Sara Hardt, the writer and teacher Mencken ultimately married in his fifties after Hardt had become invalided by illness. Hardt and Mayfield spent their childhood together in Montgomery, Alabama, contemporaries of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and Tallulah Bankhead, and the chapters that deal with Montgomery’s legendary flappers make for interesting reading in their own right.  

Thanks to the University of Alabama Press for reissuing Mayfield’s 1968 fine book on Mencken and his many friendships. Mayfield’s account, with the original introduction by Edmund Wilson, is endlessly fascinating and illuminates the great divide between Mencken the public man and Mencken the private person. Born into a German-American family in 1880, Henry Louis Mencken went no further than high school and began a career in journalism with the Baltimore Sun papers; later he became a household name as editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury. Mencken left his mark with a huge body of work: until disabled by a stroke in 1948, he published thousands of editorials and reviews, maintained a correspondence than ran to over half a million letters, and authored a number of book length studies, including the influential Book of Prefaces and The American Language. Mencken’s literary manner, however, was almost always mocking, irreverent, typically relying on exaggeration for effect, so much so that he rarely failed to generate controversy.  

The cast of characters in Mencken’s personal life, including the friends, acquaintances, the writers he published, and the many individuals he sought to help, demonstrates both his central place in American letters and the personal charm hidden beneath his reputation for belligerence. Ambrose Bierce, Alexander Woollcott, Upton Sinclair, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Branch Cabell, Willa Cather, Clarence Darrow, and Eugene O’Neill are a sampling of the better-known literary figures that felt the pull of Mencken’s personality.  At the typewriter, Mencken could be a brutal critic and hatchet artist, but Mayfield gives us numerous and convincing proofs of his generosity and compassionate spirit.  

We remember H. L. Mencken partly for his striking contradictions. An elitist and advocate of aristocracy (a position that led him to idealize the Old South), he was unfailingly courteous to all visitors and published more African American authors than any editor of his day. In print he castigated movie moguls and theatrical producers as simply “the Jews,” while in private he spoke Yiddish and celebrated the Jewish holidays in the homes of his friends, including Louis Untermeyer and Alfred Knopf. Mencken strongly disapproved of the extra marital affairs of Dreiser and Thomas Woolf, but his relentless advocacy of the First Amendment as editor of The American Mercury led to his arrest on pornography charges. Mencken never missed an occasion to lampoon marriage—“Marriage is a fine institution, but who wants to live in an institution?”—only to become a devoted husband and attendant to his wife. A scathing critic of “do-gooders,” “uplift,” and all forms of public charity, he practiced considerable private benevolence. The author of “The Sahara of the Bozart,” the most blistering attack on the New South ever written, was described by those who knew him as a “true Southern gentleman.”  

Mayfield may have meant to nudge her subject up from Sage to Saint, but she gives Mencken’s more judicious critics their due, notably those who argued that he wasted his immense talent on ephemeral journalism, or in the words of Rebecca West: “He prefers to exploit his personality instead of doing he hard thinking he is capable of.” Maybe so, but taken all in all, Mencken was truly larger than life, and he shaped the American literary climate in the first half of the century like no one else. 

We are fortunate to have Mayfield’s biography available to us again. Although his opinions and largely negative tastes no longer command a wide audience, Mencken’s willingness to walk out of step with his time, to point out frauds in plain language, is still very much in demand. 

 

Vince Brewton
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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