Our own Morgan Meis at The Smart Set:
H.L. Mencken was a bastard. He had a core meanness that showed itself in his writing and in his personal life. Without that meanness, though, his writing might never have gotten so startlingly good. Lots of people need lots of things to do what they do. Mencken simply needed to be hard.
In the early part of the 20th century, America needed Mencken. We needed him to wash away some of the Emersonian/Whitmanian enthusiasm that had started to clog up the collective joint. Not that Emerson and Whitman didn’t have their place. As Mencken himself notes in his essay “The National Letters,” it took Emerson and then Whitman, among others, to stand up and defend the possibility of an American Mind and an American Voice. They did so with boldness and with prose falling over itself in its excitement about itself. Sometimes with Whitman it seems that we’re but one or two orgasms away from the final utopia of ecstatic democracy. This newfound confidence, speaking out, proclaims that America has finally figured out what it is. An American literature of the late 19th century was coming out of the Wilderness with something to say.
Mencken wasn’t so sure.
More here. See also this article about Menken, also at The Smart Set. And also read their very funny Ombudsman’s piece here.