If you ever go back to the book reviews printed during the Great Depression, take a look at the reception Scott Fitzgerald got. Your jaw will drop. Today anything he wrote—any word he typed or scribbled—is considered publishable and praiseworthy. But most of the critics of the Depression era treated him and his works with irritation or contempt. Some, especially the Marxist ones, scoffed that he had the scale of values of a high school senior. There are, in other words, fashions in literature as well as in bluejeans. Today Mencken is unfashionable, particularly among the Manhattan mandarins. Any book sympathetic to him rates stiff scoldings. He was a prejudiced man, as he freely admitted, and the trouble is that his prejudices are not always those we like. Yet it’s possible that his reputation will rise again, along with a more just estimate of his strengths and weaknesses.
We find an abundance of material for such an estimate in Serpent in Eden. It describes how he both derided and supported the South, how the different parts of the South reacted to him, and how he helped and hindered the southern literary renaissance.
It all started with a single outrageous essay. Timing had a lot to do with it. “The Sahara of the Bozart” hit the bookstands at exactly the right season. It appeared in a collection of Mencken’s essays entitled Prejudices: Second Series, which was issued in October 1920. A shorter and earlier form, to me equally brilliant, had appeared as a column in the New York Evening Mail one night in November 1917. Nobody noticed it; it came too soon. But with the world war done and its backlash of cynicism manifest throughout the country, the essay made a steadily widening impression.
In Virginia, in the Carolinas, in Louisiana, even in Mississippi, it was noticed by the brightest of the young newspapermen and writers. Among the first of them was Gerald Johnson of the Greensboro, N.C., Daily News. No mere overnight sensation, “The Sahara” continued to be noticed and 10 years after publication was still affecting some remarkable Southerners, among them W. J. Cash of the Charlotte, N.C., News, who went on with Mencken’s encouragement to write his classic The Mind of the South. More little magazines began to be founded below the Potomac and more than one of those already in existence but half asleep revived as the result of Mencken’s barbs.
The best magazine to emerge was the Reviewer, published in Richmond by Emily Clark, who shrewdly used her little‐girlishness to sustain a first‐rate publication. She got Mencken to advise her and even to contribute.
The universities showed both the short‐run and the long‐run effects of the essay. Faculty members, puffing on their pipes, discussed it at their lunch tables and in their lounges. Its deepest effect came, understandably, at the university readiest to receive it: the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. Its faculty already ranked as the most energetic and eminent in the South. Its leader in rallying social forces was Howard Odum, but it showed distinction as well in the humanities and especially in literary studies.
Throughout the 1920s Mencken kept up his brisk attack. He did it, however, with liking if not love. Strange though it sounds, he felt drawn to the South, felt comfortable in it in many ways, and wanted it to improve. He himself would have jeered at the notion that he hoped to reform an erring quadrant of a country. Yet any examination of the bulk of his comments during the decade shows his good will. He hailed the accomplishments of James Branch Cabell, enjoying his elegant wit and romantic cynicism. He defended him from the censors, local and federal, official and unofficial, who sniffed the obscenities in his pages on Poictesme. He looked around eagerly for Southern talent. He opened the American Mercury in particular not only to incisive journalists like Johnson or Cash, but to the authors of short stories, essays, and poems. He published four of William Faulkner’s short stories in the Mercury in the early 1930s. And when he finally married, he married a Southern writer, Sara Haardt of Montgomery, Alabama.
In the first half of his book Hobson brings together the evidences of Mencken’s effect, levying on letters, newspaper reports, periodicals, and many other prime sources. In the second half he moves on to the story of Mencken’s waning influence and a description of the elements in Southern culture that Mencken failed to appreciate.
This part of the book centers on the “fugitives,” led for polemical purposes by Allen Tate and Donald Davidson. They came from Vanderbilt University and proved to be the most gifted group of writers to develop in the South during our century. From the outset, in the early 1920s, they were devoted to poetry, and to intricate poetry. By the end of the 1920s they had become devoted to land as well as literature and had announced themselves as defenders of the Old South. They soon regarded Mencken as blind and bigoted: blind to the values of poetry which they saw so clearly, bigoted about an agrarian South, formed before the Civil War, which to them lay much closer to Utopia than did the noisy, egalitarian North. Allen Tate submitted poems to the Mercury and Mencken promptly sent them back; these facts summed up the situation.
During the 1930s most of the fugitives moved to posts in Northern universities and carried their contempt for Mencken with them. They charged him, correctly, with the failure to respond to modern and modernistic poetry. They charged him with neglecting the novels of the two Southern giants of the time, Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. And they found his basic stance as a critic distasteful. The scrutiny of the text, the subtle sympathy for atmospheres, the appreciation of the source, these were the hallmarks of the “new criticism” the fugitives founded. They were never characteristics of Mencken’s mode. He relished wit, clarity, precision, and gusto.