Friday, January 11, 2013

Making a Compromise with the Public Taste

This week the "American Curmudgeons" exhibit has opened at Rauner Library. Running from January 7th until February 28th, the exhibit displays materials related to Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and H. L. Mencken. We're especially excited about one of the items we discovered while preparing the exhibit, namely a letter from H. L. Mencken to Ezra Pound written in August of 1917. Sadly, we have only the first page of the letter.

Mencken, in addition to his role as relentless journalistic scourge of bumbling idiots and pretentious fools, was the co-editor of several influential literary magazines, notably The Smart Set and The American Mercury. He was as untiring in his support of writers and journalists in whom he saw merit as he was in castigating those who in his opinion were utterly without talent. In this letter, written during his tenure as co-editor of The Smart Set, Mencken puts his influence to work, recommending various writers to another influential editor, Ezra Pound of The Little Review.

In the body of the letter, Mencken plays upon the slogan of The Little Review, "Making No Compromise with the Public Taste," by stating that financial obligations require his own magazine to make aesthetic compromises constantly in order to sell copies. Mencken's literary acumen is evidenced here by his assertion that Pound has been "getting some excellent stuff" into his magazine; only seven months later, the first chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses would be published within its pages, marking the first appearance of one of the most important novels of the century.

To see the letter now, come over to Rauner and take a look at the exhibit. Starting in March, ask for MS-693 Box 1. To see copies of The Little Review, ask for Rare AP2 .L647.

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