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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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H. L. Mencken, Critical Firebrand

By Victor Lazofsky, '33

The Magpie, January 1933, v. 34, n. 2, p. 55.

In a style that is vigorous, lusty, and rapid, with a judgment that is usually sane, keen, and penetrating, Mencken denounces the entire cult of American literature. He says that American thinking (meaning the writers) is extraordinarily timid and superficial, that it evades the genuinely serious problems of life as if they were stringently forbidden—that the outward virtues it undoubtedly shows are always the virtues, not of profundity, not of courage, not of originality, but merely those of an emasculated and very often trashy dilettantism. Thus in his denunciative, forceful, blustering methods he accuses publicly the entire American literature.

And to sum up his argument in his own words: "America has not produced any writer worthy of the name of second-rater." Mencken makes no exceptions to his statement although he considers a select few worthy of recognition.

When Mencken makes a general statement to the effect that the American thinking is timid and superficial, he certainly exaggerates. Show me timidity and superficiality in the works of Anderson, O'Neill, and Melville. Those writers would not even think of writing if they had to evade the serious problems of life; but his accusation of the lack of profundity, in many cases is correct; however, there are Emerson, Whitman, and Henry Adams. Can Mr. Mencken deny them? He speaks of the scarcity of courage when men like Poe, Whitman, and Dreiser were the victims of the critics of their day, who set the tone of the native criticism for years; yet they staved off the censure which eventually became effete, and today the first two named occupy niches in the American Hall of Fame, and Dreiser is now at the height of his popularity.

Mencken mentions the deficiency of originality; yet I have not discovered many novels that possess a more original spirit than Melville's "Moby Dick," and certainly Mencken cannot deny the marked individuality of Whitman's innovations in form or Emily Dickinson's pristine twists and turns in expression.

Mencken talks of a trashy dilettantism being one of the propensities of our authors. Truly there is much in what he says, but his blasts are meaningless if he includes Poe's works, Emerson's essays, and O'Neill's plays, and books of like character.

In spite of Mencken's statement that "America has not produced any writer worthy of the name of second rate," I still venture to believe that Hawthorne, Melville, Anderson, Whitman, Poe, Emerson, and O'Neill will quite make the standard.

And even with these few, America has done well considering the handicap she has faced in the form of the frontier, the illiterate West, yellow journalism, immigration, and lack of a background supported by tradition. The burden for the most part has rested upon the literate New England school, and there, puritanical domination prevented original and courageous thought and expression. Still, since 1850 America has taken momentous strides in the field of the literary art.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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