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A Book of Prefaces by Mencken, H. L. (Henry Louis), 1880-1956

A Book of Prefaces by Mencken, H. L. (Henry Louis), 1880-1956

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A BOOK OF PREFACES
By H. L. MENCKEN
PUBLISHED AT THE BORZOI \u00b7 NEW YORK \u00b7 BY
ALFRED \u00b7 A \u00b7 KNOPF
COPYRIGHT, 1917, BY
ALFRED A. KNOPF, Inc.

Published September, 1917
Second edition, 1918
Third edition, August, 1920
Reprinted, January, 1922

Set up, electrotyped and printed by Vail-Ballou Co., Binghamton, N. Y.
Paper (Warren's) furnished by Henry Lindenmeyr & Sons, New York, N. Y.
Bound by the Plimpton Press, Norwood, Mass.

MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
BY H. L. MENCKEN

VENTURES INTO VERSE
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: HIS PLAYS
MEN VERSUS THE MAN

With R. R. La Monte

A LITTLE BOOK IN C MAJOR
A BOOK OF CALUMNY
[The above books are out of print]

THE PHILOSOPHY OF FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE
A BOOK OF BURLESQUES
IN DEFENSE OF WOMEN
A BOOK OF PREFACES
PREJUDICES: FIRST SERIES
PREJUDICES: SECOND SERIES
THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE

New York: Alfred A Knopf
A BOOK OF PREFACES
1
CONTENTS
Preface to the Fourth Edition
\u2022
I. Joseph Conrad
\u2022
II. Theodore Dreiser
\u2022
III. James Huneker
\u2022
IV. Puritanism as a Literary Force
\u2022
Index
\u2022
PREFACE TO THE FOURTH EDITION

This fourth printing of "A Book of Prefaces" offers me temptation, as the third did, to revise the whole book,
and particularly the chapters on Conrad, Dreiser and Huneker, all of whom have printed important new books
since the text was completed. In addition, Huneker has died. But the changes that I'd make, after all, would be
very slight, and so it seems better not to make them at all. From Conrad have come "The Arrow of Gold" and
"The Rescue," not to mention a large number of sumptuous reprints of old magazine articles, evidently put
between covers for the sole purpose of entertaining collectors. From Dreiser have come "Free," "Twelve
Men," "Hey, Rub-a-Dub-Dub" and some chapters of autobiography. From Huneker, before and after his
death, have come "Unicorns," "Bedouins," "Steeple-Jack," "Painted Veils" and "Variations." But not one of
these books materially modifies the position of its author. "The Arrow of Gold," I suppose, has puzzled a
good many of Conrad's admirers, but certainly "The Rescue" has offered ample proof that his old powers are
not diminished. The Dreiser books, like their predecessors that I discuss here, reveal the curious unevenness
of the author. Parts of "Free" are hollow and irritating, and nearly all of "Hey, Rub-a-Dub-Dub" is feeble, but
in "Twelve Men" there are some chapters that rank with the very best of "The Titan" and "Jennie Gerhardt."
The place of Dreiser in our literature is frequently challenged, and often violently, but never successfully. As
the years pass his solid dignity as an artist becomes more and more evident. Huneker's last five works changed
his position very little. "Bedouins," "Unicorns" and "Variations" belong mainly to his journalism, but into
"Steeple-Jack," and above all into "Painted Veils" he put his genuine self. I have discussed all of these books
in other places, and paid my small tribute to the man himself, a light burning brightly through a dark night,
and snuffed out only at the dawn.

I should add that the prices of Conrad first editions given on page 56 have been greatly exceeded during the
past year or two. I should add also that the Comstockian imbecilities described in Chapter IV are still going

on, and that the general trend of American legislation and jurisprudence is toward their indefinite continuance.
H. L. M.
Baltimore, January 1, 1922.
[Pg 11]

The Project Gutenberg eBook of A Book of Prefaces, by H. L. Mencken
ALFRED \u00b7 A \u00b7 KNOPF
2
A BOOK OF PREFACES
IJOSEPH CONRAD
\u00a7 1

"Under all his stories there ebbs and flows a kind of tempered melancholy, a sense of seeking and not
finding...." I take the words from a little book on Joseph Conrad by Wilson Follett, privately printed, and now,
I believe, out of print.[1] They define both the mood of the stories as works of art and their burden and
direction as criticisms of life. Like Dreiser, Conrad is forever fascinated by the "immense indifference of
things," the tragic vanity of the blind groping that we call aspiration, the profound meaninglessness of
life\u2014fascinated, and left wondering. One looks in vain for an attempt at a solution of[Pg 12] the riddle in the
whole canon of his work. Dreiser, more than once, seems ready to take refuge behind an indeterminate sort of
mysticism, even a facile supernaturalism, but Conrad, from first to last, faces squarely the massive and
intolerable fact. His stories are not chronicles of men who conquer fate, nor of men who are unbent and
undaunted by fate, but of men who are conquered and undone. Each protagonist is a new Prometheus, with a
sardonic ignominy piled upon his helplessness. Each goes down a Greek route to defeat and disaster, leaving
nothing behind him save an unanswered question. I can scarcely recall an exception. Kurtz, Lord Jim,
Razumov, Nostromo, Captain Whalley, Yanko Goorall, Verloc, Heyst, Gaspar Ruiz, Almayer: one and all
they are destroyed and made a mock of by the blind, incomprehensible forces that beset them.

Even in "Youth," "Typhoon," and "The Shadow Line," superficially stories of the indomitable, that same
consuming melancholy, that same pressing sense of the irresistible and inexplicable, is always just beneath the
surface. Captain Mac Whirr gets theNan-Shan to port at last, but it is a victory that stands quite outside the
man himself; he is no more than a marker in the unfathomable game; the elemental forces, fighting one
another,[Pg 13] almost disregard him; the view of him that we get is one of disdain, almost one of contempt.
So, too, in "Youth." A tale of the spirit's triumph, of youth besting destiny? I do not see it so. To me its
significance, like that of "The Shadow Line," is all subjective; it is an aging man's elegy upon the hope and
high resolution that the years have blown away, a sentimental reminiscence of what the enigmatical gods have
had their jest with, leaving only its gallant memory behind. The whole Conradean system sums itself up in the
title of "Victory," an incomparable piece of irony. Imagine a better label for that tragic record of heroic and
yet bootless effort, that matchless picture, in microcosm, of the relentlessly cruel revolutions in the
macrocosm!

Mr. Follett, perhaps with too much critical facility, finds the cause of Conrad's unyielding pessimism in the
circumstances of his own life\ue000his double exile, first from Poland, and then from the sea. But this is surely
stretching the facts to fit an hypothesis. Neither exile, it must be plain, was enforced, nor is either irrevocable.
Conrad has been back to Poland, and he is free to return to the ships whenever the spirit moves him. I see no
reason for looking in such directions for his view of the world, nor even in the direction of his[Pg 14]
nationality. We detect certain curious qualities in every Slav simply because he is more given than we are to
revealing the qualities that are in all of us. Introspection and self-revelation are his habit; he carries the study
of man and fate to a point that seems morbid to westerners; he is forever gabbling about what he finds in his
own soul. But in the last analysis his verdicts are the immemorial and almost universal ones. Surely his
resignationism is not a Slavic copyright; all human philosophies and religions seem doomed to come to it at
last. Once it takes shape as the concept of Nirvana, the desire for nothingness, the will to not-will. Again, it is
fatalism in this form or that\ue001Mohammedanism, Agnosticism ... Calvinism! Yet again, it is the "Out, out,

A BOOK OF PREFACES
3

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