restricted access Anti-Menckenism: Nathanael West, Robert M. Coates, and the Provisional Avant-Garde
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Anti-Menckenism:
Nathanael West, Robert M. Coates, and the Provisional Avant-Garde

We are all too serious about art in America . . . so serious that we treat it as we treat the dead . . . with respect and no attempt at communication. That man who produces works of art is either treated as a god or as a rather ridiculous and useless member of society. As long as this attitude obtains there is little hope for art in America. If groups, cliques, revolutions, movements, tricks will change this we are for groups, cliques, etc.

—Anonymous, “Notes on Contributors,” The Little Review

The new magazine launched by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in January 1924, American Mercury, claimed an advantage over all its predecessors in the field of public affairs. As Mencken wrote in his editorial for the inaugural issue, American Mercury’s strength was that it was “entirely devoid of messianic passion. The Editors have heard no voice from the burning bush. They will not cry up and offer for sale any sovereign balm, whether political, economic, or aesthetic, for all the sorrow of the world.” Dedicated instead to a brand of sarcastic realism that Mencken and Nathan had honed [End Page 518] in their previous venture Smart Set, The American Mercury would base its editorial imperative on perpetuating a muckraking journalistic tradition. Only now this muckraking applied broadly to literary, cultural, and political institutions—as if all forms of “messianism,” whether socialist, avant-garde, progressive, or right-wing, were P. T. Barnumesque exercises in hucksterism. In his editorial, Mencken implicated A. Mitchell Palmer (the architect of the Red Scare), the Klu Klux Klan, the Anti-Saloon league, and William Jennings Bryan in the same breath as Bronson Alcott and Karl Marx; each, he implied, embodied forms of utopian thought that were not only useless but also dangerous. By contrast, American Mercury would possess only one ideological presumption, one “hallucination”: namely, “the hypothesis that the progress of knowledge is less a matter of accumulating facts than a matter of destroying ‘facts’” (Mencken 27).

In an extension of this hypothesis, the literary critic Ernest Boyd printed in the same inaugural issue a snide literary portrait entitled “Aesthete: Model 1924.” The essay directed Mencken’s and Nathan’s characteristic debunkery toward a group of young writers and critics who lived largely in Greenwich Village and were associated with cosmopolitan little magazines like Broom, the Dial, Secession, and the Little Review. This group included Malcolm Cowley, Kenneth Burke, Matthew Josephson, Robert M. Coates, Hart Crane, Waldo Frank, and William Slater Brown, whose literary careers in New York were marked not only by their wartime experiences but also by their travels to Paris in the early 1920s.1 Boyd’s composite portrait of the Greenwich Village Aesthete satirized a generation of American writers barely beyond their undergraduate years, who had briefly “breathed the same air as the Dadaists, met Picasso and Philippe Soupault, and allowed Ezra Pound to convince them that the French nation was aware of the existence of Jean Cocteau, Paul Morand, Jean Giraudoux and Louis Aragon” (53). Boyd dismissed the false authority that these young writers conferred on themselves, partly through their pretensions to internationalism, but especially through their rise to editorial status through the ranks of little magazines that, however spuriously, granted this typological aesthete “an accredited mouthpiece . . . a secure place from which to bestride the narrow world in which he is already a colossus” (51). Boyd attacked the young aesthetes for sidestepping the normal channels for literary success, skirting “those sordid encounters with the harsh facts of literary commerce which his predecessors accepted as part of the discipline of life.” More disparagingly, Boyd criticized this group of friends for their “herd instinct”: what the Greenwich Village aesthete wanted to do, Boyd writes, was “to lead a cult, to communicate a mystic faith in his idols, rather than to make them available for genteel appreciation” [End Page 519] (54). The aesthete thus becomes, in Mencken’s terms, both the dangerous utopian and a member of the so-called booboisie, at once a charlatan and a rube.

Boyd’s proposal for curing these youths was to prescribe “a...


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