Thursday, October 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 177: H. L. Mencken, Portrait of an Immortal Soul (#192)

H. L. Mencken, "Portrait of an Immortal Soul" (1919) from H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series:

Here's a curious piece, that starts off with some Mencken humor and ends with an almost talk-show-host-esque plea to look for this book in bookstores--a plea made years after the bookstores stopped selling this book. "Don't miss the story of it in the book," Mencken says, sounding like Jon Stewart or David Letterman or Charlie Rose.

The story behind this piece is that Mencken was sent a novel, saw something interesting in it, and helped the writer revise it. This book was published in 1915 as One Man--the title is Mencken's--by "Richard Steele." Today, that's a dick joke, but back then it was a pseudonym--and probably also a dick joke--to cover what Mencken describes as an autobiography where the author strips down naked to expose his weaknesses and the dangers of Puritanism. No wonder Mencken found something interesting in it.

However, One Man sank without making much noise; so four years later, Mencken publishes this appreciation of the book that he had a hand in editing. Which would be pretty rank collusion except (a) Mencken is up-front about his involvement and (b) is this book even for sale anywhere? There's also no analysis or commentary about why this book failed in the marketplace, only a long (five of seven pages) appreciation for how this book is naive and honest and personal.

It's interesting to read the famously acerbic Mencken not even attempt acerbity. Even when he's defending civil rights, he does so from the arch position of an apologist for police brutality. But there's no mask here--just Mencken's sincere interest in this personal story of a man who was ruined by someone else's moral order.

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