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Monday, September 12, 2011

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers on H. L. Mencken and the Harlem Renaissance

Guest blog post by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, author of Mencken: The American Iconoclast and editor of the LOA volumes H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series.

For H. L. Mencken, newspaperman, literary and social critic, editor of the Smart Set and the American Mercury, race was a recurrent and vital theme. As early as 1910, Mencken declared that a discussion of the relation between the races was the most important issue in American life. In his newspaper columns from 1911 to 1913, Mencken expressed his concern about the public health problems of Baltimore’s black population with opinions often more progressive than many of the local reformers. In articles and private letters during the turbulent years of World War I and afterwards, he shared his distress as segregation and lynching increased, African-American publications were suppressed, and black dissidents came under surveillance.

It was during these uncertain times that Mencken became friends with James Weldon Johnson, then writing for New York Age. Johnson wanted to meet the Smart Set editor, saying, “Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any American then writing.” Johnson felt that Mencken’s essays, “The National Letters” and “The Sahara of the Bozart,” had not gone far enough. Taking his cue, Mencken later revised “The Sahara of the Bozart,” and went further, maintaining that the hope for Southern literature and culture lay in the hands of black writers. (These later versions are reprinted in the LOA’s edition of Prejudices). In his columns in the New York Evening Mail, Mencken began exploring the possibility of the Great Negro Novel.

As Charles Scruggs has demonstrated in The Sage in Harlem: H. L. Mencken and the Black Writers of the 1920s, both essays were important clarion calls to black intellectuals. W.E.B. Du Bois joined Johnson in quoting Mencken in the pages of The Crisis, The Messenger, New York Age, and elsewhere. “The Sahara of the Bozart” inspired Walter White to write The Fire in the Flint and it was Mencken who persuaded Alfred A. Knopf to publish White’s book. Behind the scenes, Mencken often championed the work of black authors, and many publicly acknowledged their debt. For young Richard Wright, reading the essays in Mencken’s Prejudices inspired him to become a writer.

In 1924, when Mencken launched the American Mercury magazine, he became the first white editor of a mainstream publication to dispense with stereotypes and try to find writers who could depict the complexity of black America. By the time Mencken retired in 1933, the American Mercury had featured fifty-four articles and published fifteen editorials by and about blacks on a multitude of subjects: politics, religion, folklore, art, newspapers, music and race. Countee Cullen, Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Johnson, Claude McKay, and White were regular contributors. George S. Schuyler’s article, “A Negro Looks Ahead,” created a sensation throughout the country during a period when black writers were not featured in white publications, and when many whites regularly tuned into “Amos 'n’ Andy” on their radios.

“Appearing in the American Mercury was regarded as something, and if a Negro was good enough to appear in the American Mercury, then there must be other Negroes who could write as well or better,” recalled Schuyler. The American Mercury’s influential leadership was instrumental in developing African Americans as a writing group; Harper’s and the Atlantic later followed suit.

Mencken admired Schuyler and met with him frequently. In The American Language, Supplement I, Mencken declared that “there were few white columnists” who could match Schuyler “for information, intelligence, independence and courage.”

During the 1930s, when Mencken’s opposition to FDR’s New Deal policies and seemingly callous dismissal of the Depression diminished his popularity, his stands on racial issues strengthened his hold on the black audience. He wrote and spoke against racial discrimination in colleges, private clubs, and restaurants. In 1933, Roosevelt’s refusal to speak out about a lynching on Maryland’s Eastern Shore incited Mencken to write a scathing series of articles for the Baltimore Sun. Mencken argued that the federal government had to adopt a policy to make it “crystal clear” that lynching “is murder, not just a crime.” Determined that this outrage not be dismissed, Mencken joined forces with Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP to promote the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill, and even testified before Congress. Mitchell told his sons “Mencken is on the side of the black man.” For Schuyler, Mencken “had guts.”

When The Diary of H. L. Mencken was published in 1989, thirty-three years after his death, some critics found passages that led them to question whether Mencken was racist. How do we square these passages with Mencken’s heartfelt and continual support for African Americans on both literary and political matters? As I said in my interview with the LOA (PDF) about Prejudices, these contradictions demonstrate what a conundrum Mencken often was. George Schuyler summarized his friend best in an interview: “There was very little gabble about civil rights in those days.” Mencken had “none of the mawkishness that comes from a lot of professional liberals, which is rather nauseating. And so he could chuckle over many things that other people wouldn’t deign to mention. Because he had no illusions about the Negro or about whites for that matter—it was all about the individual.”

Read the exclusive LOA interview (PDF) with Marion Elizabeth Rodgers about H. L. Mencken

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series (boxed set); Harlem Renaissance Novels (boxed set); James Weldon Johnson: Writings

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