The American Mercury: A Baltimore Magazine With a Mission
The American Mercury — our inspiration — is considered by many to be one of Baltimore’s literary moment in the sun. It was initiated in 1924, after Mencken left his previous journal, Smart Set. The Smart Set was literary in focus, while The American Mercury was more concerned with American culture as such, outside the domain of universities and belles-lettres. In his biography of Mencken, The Skeptic, writer and Wall Street Journal Theater Critic Terry Teachout includes a few quotes from the prospectus for the new journal, attributed to both Mencken and his co-editor George Nathan:
“The Editors are committed to nothing save this: to keep the common sense as fast as they can, to belabor sham as agreeably as possible, to give civilized entertainment…They will not cry up and offer for sale any sovereign balm, whether political, economic or aesthetic, for all the sorrows of the world.”
“In the field of the fine arts The American Mercury will pursue the course that the Editors have followed for fifteen years past in another place…to welcome sound and honest work, whatever its form or lack of form, and to carry on steady artillery practice against every variety of artistic pedant.”
“There are more political theories on tap in the Republic than anywhere else on earth, and more doctrines in aesthetics, and more reivions, and more other schemes for regimenting, harrowing, and saving human beings…To explore this great complex of inspirations, to isolate their proposals, to follow the ponderous revolutions of the mass mind — in brief, to attempt a realistic presentation of the whole gaudy, gorgeous American scene — this will be the principle enterprise of THE AMERICAN MERCURY.”
The magazine as most know it — a progressive, cutting edge nonfiction journal — lasted about a decade. In 1933 — as the American scene became arguably less gaudy and gorgeous — H.L. Mencken left The American Mercury, and the character of the magazine changed markedly. Mencken had his own sclerotic and even culturally reactionary side; the magazine arguably retained that. By World War II it became a voice for anti-New Deal conservatism; and by the time it ceased publication in 1981, the magazine had moved even further rightward, with little but the name itself to link it to the heady, iconoclastic journal that became a nexus for discussing contemporary culture.
So why take the name? Because despite his flaws, it’s hard to disagree with the mission.
The American Mercury is regarded by some as a cultural high point of the roaring twenties. For the more apocalyptically minded, it was a last gasp. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death it’s referenced as a “last gasp” for American culture:
“In fact, the early decades of the twentieth century were marked by a great outpouring of brilliant language and literature. In the pages of the magazines like The American Mercury and The New Yorker…prose thrilled with a vibrancy and intensity that delighted ear and eye. But this was exposition’s nightingale song, most brilliant and sweet as the singer nears the moment of death. It told, for the Age of Exposition, not of new beginnings, but of an end. A new note had been sounded…theirs was a language that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence.”
We don’t endorse Mencken’s views. And there are probably some still around in Baltimore who knew The American Mercury in the form that it took in the 60′s and 70′s. But we feel that what started the The American Mercury — a need for people to write, truthfully and independently, about the world around them — was a reason for starting a reading series. After three years, our area readers have given us more than enough reasons for keeping it going.