A Book of Prefaces
115 Pages

A Book of Prefaces


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Published 08 December 2010
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The Project Gutenberg EBook of A Book of Prefaces, by H. L. Mencken This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org Title: A Book of Prefaces Author: H. L. Mencken Release Date: September 22, 2006 [EBook #19355] Language: English Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1 *** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK A BOOK OF PREFACES *** Produced by Martin Pettit and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net A BOOK OF PREFACES By H. L. MENCKEN PUBLISHED AT THE BORZOI · NEW YORK · BY ALFRED · A · 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 CONTENTS I. II. III. IV. Preface to the Fourth Edition Joseph Conrad Theodore Dreiser James Huneker Puritanism as a Literary Force Index 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. A BOOK OF PREFACES I JOSEPH CONRAD §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 [Pg 11] 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 —fascinated, and left wondering. One looks in vain for an attempt at a solution of the riddle in the whole canon of his work. Dreiser, more than once, seems [Pg 12] 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 the Nan-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, almost disregard him; the [Pg 13] 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,