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Friday, September 10, 2010

H. L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan: A Legendary Ten-Year Literary Partnership

Today many Baltimore residents will be celebrating Mencken Day, in honor of the 130th birthday of one of their most famous residents—as they do each year on the Saturday before September 12, the date of his birth in the city he lived in until his death. In commemoration of the festivities, it seems only fit to recall the friendship that launched his career.

George Jean Nathan first met H. L. Mencken when they were interviewed together in the New York offices of The Smart Set in May 1908. Mencken was twenty-eight, Nathan, twenty-six. Thomas Quinn Curtiss describes the scene in The Smart Set: George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken:
When Nathan arrived in [Norman] Boyer’s office he found the managing editor chatting with a cherub-faced, snub-nosed young man whose golden hair was parted in the middle and slapped down like a butcher’s on Sunday morning. The stranger’s clothes—a stiff, starched collar, gaudy strawberry tie, checkered suit, and yellow shoes—typified a provincial dandy or race-track tout.

On seeing Nathan the man leapt to his feet and thrust out his hand. “I’m H. L. Mencken of Baltimore,” he exclaimed, his bright, blue eyes sparkling. “I’m the biggest damned fool in Christendom and I don’t want any boastful reply that you claim the honor.”
By the fall of that year Mencken would be The Smart Set’s literary critic and Nathan its drama critic. So began one of the great literary partnerships of the twentieth century. The Smart Set had a limited budget—it paid just one cent a word—and so specialized in discovering new writers. Mencken and Nathan quickly proved such popular and prolific contributors that when new owners took over the magazine in 1914 they offered the editor position to Nathan. He agreed, “but only if Mencken comes with me.” Nathan became the senior partner, Mencken his co-editor. Together they relaunched The Smart Set, promising “to give its readers a moderately intelligent and awfully good time.”

Each issue featured some twenty short stories, ten poems, four articles, a novelette, and a play. If Mencken and Nathan couldn’t sign enough stories in time for publication they included anonymous contributions of their own under pen names. Edmund Wilson would later describe what The Smart Set meant to him as a youth:
In the spring of 1912, just before graduating from prep school, I somehow happened to pick up a copy of The Smart Set, a trashy-looking monthly, and was astonished to find audacious and extremely amusing critical articles by men named Mencken and Nathan, of whom I had never heard. I continued to read The Smart Set through college, at first with a slight feeling of guilt, for it was making fun of everything respectable in current American drama and literature.
From 1914 to 1923 Mencken and Nathan would use the magazine to publish the newest voices in American literature: Willa Cather, W.E.B. Du Bois, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Nathan paid him thirty dollars for his first published story), Dashiell Hammett, Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Ezra Pound, and many more.

Mencken and Nathan developed a clear division of labor: Nathan did all the office editorial work, copyediting, and the layout of the magazine. Mencken’s job was to “keep on the lookout for good stuff.” As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers describes their working relationship in Mencken: The American Iconoclast:
Each Monday and Friday for nine years, Nathan carefully tied brown paper packets containing Smart Set manuscripts and sent them to Mencken in Baltimore. If Mencken found one he liked, he marked it “Yes” and returned it to Nathan. If Nathan liked it too, it was set in type at once, and the author’s check went out at the end of the week. If Mencken dissented, the manuscript was returned. The procedure also worked in reverse order, Mencken to Nathan. No time was wasted on discussion of manuscripts although brief written comments sometimes were included. The “No” of either was final. “The plan was so simple and so practicable that we often wondered that no other editors had ever thought of it,” commented Mencken.
It was a partnership that shouldn’t have worked. As Rodgers points out, “No two men could possibly have been more unlike in style and thought. ‘Nathan detests philosophical questions,’ Mencken said. ‘He sees life purely as an idiotic spectacle. I delight in such questions, though I reject all solutions. Nathan aims at a very complex style. I aim at the greatest possible lucidity.’”

What they shared was a passion for discovering, nurturing, and publishing the work of new American writers, for enjoying humor, and for attacking sacred cows. They also complemented each other: Mencken refused to move to New York; Nathan was very much the Manhattan man about town. Joseph L. Mankiewicz based the character of the acid-tongued ladies’ man and theater critic Addison DeWitt in All about Eve on Nathan. By the 1920s they had become such intimidating arbiters of taste that a popular ditty “Mencken, Nathan and God” satirized their stature.

“Nathan and I never took the magazine seriously,” Mencken later wrote—and it was their irreverent attitude that would prove their undoing. Having lampooned President Warren G. Harding during his presidency, they saw no reason to stop after his death in August 1923. When the printer brought their satiric parody of Harding’s funeral procession to the attention of the magazine’s conservative publisher, he exploded and declared the magazine for sale.

But Nathan and Mencken had been eager to start a magazine of their own. In 1924 they joined with young publisher Alfred Knopf to revolutionize magazine publishing with the launch of The American Mercury. Unlike The Smart Set, which was printed on cheap grade paper, the new magazine was handsome and in a larger format with no illustrations; the paper was imported Scotch featherweight, the binding sewn so that it opened flat like a book. And it didn’t just include stories, poems, and reviews: there were extended profiles of world figures, an entire section on “Arts and Sciences” with essays on medicine, architecture, and language. Although priced higher than its competitors at fifty cents, the first printing of ten thousand copies quickly sold out. By the end of the year the circulation was over 42,000; it peaked at 84,000 in 1928.

Authors flocked to the new magazine and liked what they found. James Branch Cabell explains why: “[Mencken] gives immediate attention to your manuscript, pays spot cash, encloses a return stamped envelope with the proofs and gives you second serial rights without asking.” Many of the innovations introduced by The American Mercury—extended profiles, aphorisms in the margins, and “Americana,” amusing items gleaned from newspapers and magazines across the country—soon became staples of magazine publishing.

Unfortunately, shortly after the magazine’s launch the clear division of labor Mencken and Nathan had cultivated started to unravel. Mencken wanted more social and political coverage; Nathan an equal balance of literature and the arts. More to the point, Nathan no longer cared to handle the editorial office chores. “The Smart Set was fun,” he complained. “The Mercury was a job.” Nathan resigned as co-editor but continued to contribute, come to the office, and retain his stock and seat on the board of directors. This infuriated Mencken such that he took Nathan’s name off the building’s lobby directory and had his desk moved out among the stenographers.

Yet, like a latter-day Bartleby, Nathan continued to come to work. Nathan’s behavior mystified friends and colleagues. Alfred Knopf speculated that Nathan needed Mencken more than Mencken needed Nathan. “After all,” Knopf wrote, “ the theater and H.L.M. were, I think, the two great experiences of his life.” Knopf would eventually buy out Nathan’s share in the magazine for $25,000. The stock market crash a few years later wiped out the value of the remaining stock and, Knopf later acknowledged, Nathan “was the only one to get any cash out of the magazine.”

Mencken continued as editor on The American Mercury until 1933 and Nathan continued to contribute articles until 1930. Despite their differences the friendship continued until 1932 when Mencken read the manuscript of Nathan’s memoirs. He found the chapter on him “full of malice” and errors. Even though Nathan apologized and excised all the offensive material from the published book, Mencken was adamant: “I am through with him.”

Read the Library of America interview with Marion Elizabeth Rodgers about H. L. Mencken (PDF)

Read “The Nature of Liberty” by H. L. Mencken (Story of the Week)

Read “Baiting the Umpire” by George Jean Nathan (Story of the Week)

Listen to a rare interview with H. L. Mencken (YouTube, in four parts)

Related LOA works: H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series (includes Mencken’s essay “George Jean Nathan”); The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes three essays by George Jean Nathan: “The Audience Emotion,” “On Vaudeville,” “Eugene O’Neill”)

1 comment:

  1. I love Mencken's description of the men's contrasting styles. "I aim for the greatest possible lucidity" wouldn't be a bad creed by which to live.

    I've been looking forward to the Prejudices volumes for months--glad to discover they've now been published!


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