The American Mercury
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|Founder||H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan|
The American Mercury was an American magazine published from 1924 to 1981. It was founded as the brainchild of H. L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan. The magazine featured writing by some of the most important writers in the United States through the 1920s and 1930s. The magazine went out of print in 1981, having spent the last 25 years of its existence in decline and controversy.
Mencken and Nathan had previously edited The Smart Set literary magazine together, when not producing their own books and, in Mencken's case, regular journalism for The Baltimore Sun. With their mutual book publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Sr., serving as the publisher, Mencken and Nathan created The American Mercury as "a serious review, the gaudiest and damnedest ever seen in the Republic," as Mencken explained the name (derived from a 19th-century publication) to his old friend and contributor, Theodore Dreiser:
- What we need is something that looks highly respectable outwardly. The American Mercury is almost perfect for that purpose. What will go on inside the tent is another story. You will recall that the late P. T. Barnum got away with burlesque shows by calling them moral lectures.
And, from 1924 through 1933, Mencken — Nathan was forced to resign as his co-editor a year after the magazine was born — provided precisely what he promised: elegantly irreverent observations of America, aimed at what he called "Americans realistically," those of sophisticated skepticism of enough that was popular and much that threatened to be. Simeon Strunsky in The New York Times observed that, "The dead hand of the yokelry on the instinct for beauty cannot be so heavy if the handsome green and black cover of The American Mercury exists." The quote was used on the subscription form for the magazine during its heyday.
The January 1924 issue sold more than 15,000 copies and by the end of that first year the circulation was over 42,000. In early 1928 the circulation reached a height of over 84,000, but declined steadily after the stock market crash. The magazine published writing by Conrad Aiken, Sherwood Anderson, W. J. Cash, Thomas Craven, Clarence Darrow, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Fante, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albert Halper, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters, Albert Jay Nock, Eugene O'Neill, Carl Sandburg and William Saroyan. Nathan provided theater criticism, and Mencken wrote the "Editorial Notes" and "The Library," the last being book reviews and social critique, placed at the back of each volume. The magazine published others, from newspapermen and academics to convicts and taxi drivers, but its primary emphasis soon became non-fiction and usually satirical essays. Its "Americana" section—containing items clipped from newspapers and other magazines nationwide—became a much-imitated feature, and Mencken further spiced the package with aphorisms printed in the magazine's margins whenever space allowed.
H. L. Mencken rarely if ever flinched from controversy, and he found himself in the thick of it when The American Mercury was just over two years old, when the April 1926 issue published "Hatrack," a chapter from Herbert Asbury's Up From Methodism. The chapter described a reputedly true story: a prostitute in Asbury's childhood in Farmington, Missouri, nicknamed Hatrack because of her angular physique, and a regular churchgoer seeking genuine forgiveness but, shunned by the town's reputed good people, returning to her sinful life.
If that seems a straightforward and uncontroversial enough description, consider that in 1926 it was just enough at the edge that the Rev. J. Frank Chase of the Watch and Ward Society, which monitored material sold in Boston, Mass., for obscenity, decided "Hatrack" was immoral and had a Harvard Square magazine peddler arrested for selling a copy of the issue. That provoked Mencken himself to visit Boston and sell Chase himself a copy, the better to be arrested for the cameras. Tried and acquitted, Mencken's courageous stance for freedom of the press cost him regardless: over $20,000 in legal fees, lost revenue, and lost advertising.
Mencken sued Chase and won, a federal judge ruling the prelate's organization committed an illegal restraint of trade and prosecutors, not private activists, should censor literature, assuming anyone should. But following the trial, the Solicitor of the U.S. Post Office Department Donnelly ruled the April 1926 American Mercury was obscene — the federal Comstock Law, he ruled, barred the issue from delivery through the U.S. Post Office. Mencken challenged Donnelly, aroused the prospect of a landmark free speech case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and legendary Judge Learned Hand. However, because the April 1926 Mercury had already been mailed, an injunction was no longer an appropriate remedy and the case was therefore moot.
Mencken resigned as editor of his creation at the end of 1933, and his chosen successor was economist and literary critic Henry Hazlitt. Differences with the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Sr., however, led Hazlitt to resign after only four months as editor. The American Mercury was then edited by Mencken's former assistant, Charles Angoff. At first, the magazine was seen as moving to the Left, although a year after Mencken's departure Knopf sold the Mercury to Paul A. Palmer, a former Mencken colleague at The Baltimore Sun. By 1936, Palmer had continued the Mencken standard in its content but changed its appearance: It now had the same pocket size as Reader's Digest. Three years later, the magazine changed hands again, Palmer selling to the Mercury's business manager, Lawrence E. Spivak, and, soon, the magazine experienced a dramatic change.
Radio and television
Spivak even more than Palmer revived the Mercury for a brief but vigorous period — Mencken, Nathan, and Angoff themselves contributed essays to the magazine again. From there, Spivak created a company to publish the magazine, Mercury Publications, and soon the company began publishing other magazines, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (1941) and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1949. But perhaps in new financial difficulty, the Mercury merged with Common Sense in 1946, and by 1950 the new Mercury owner was Clendenin J. Ryan, who changed the name to The New American Mercury. Ryan was the financial angel for Ulius Amoss, the publisher of International Services of Information in Baltimore, and a former Office of Strategic Services colonel who specialized in operating spy networks behind the Iron Curtain for the purpose of destabilization of communist governments and the neutralization of their leadership. Ryan's son, Clendenin J. Ryan, Jr. was one of the financial sponsors of Young Americans for Freedom started by William F. Buckley, Jr., according to Doug Caddy, Ryan's Georgetown University roommate. Ryan began yet another transformation of The American Mercury toward another direction.
In 1945, while editing the magazine, Lawrence Spivak created a radio program called American Mercury Presents "Meet the Press." It was brought to television on November 6, 1947, as Meet the Press, which is the single longest-running news program in television history, a fixture on NBC every Sunday.
William Bradford Huie—whose work had appeared in the magazine before—had gleaned the beginning of a new, post-World War II American conservative intellectual movement. He sensed correctly that Ryan had begun to guide The American Mercury toward that direction. He also opened the magazine's pages to more mass-appeal writing, by the likes of the Reverend Billy Graham and Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover. With boldness if anything, Huie seemed en route to producing what one of his staffers would have an easier time producing a few years later—the young William F. Buckley, Jr., whose God and Man at Yale was a best seller, worked for Huie's Mercury, invaluable experience for his 1955 creation of the longer-living conservative National Review. Buckley would succeed at what Huie was unable to realise: a periodical that brought together the nascent but already differing strands of this new conservative movement.
Antisemitic and racist takeover
Huie found himself facing financial difficulties sustaining the Mercury as he pursued the new direction, and was forced to sell to a sometime financial contributor, Russell Maguire, owner of the Thompson Submachine Gun Company, in August 1952. Rather than turn over editorial control to Maguire, Huie stepped down as editor after the January 1953 issue, and was replaced by John A. Clements, a former reporter for the New York Journal and Daily Mirror who was director of public relations for the Hearst Corporation. To the disgust of Huie, within a very short time Maguire steered the magazine “toward the fever swamps of antisemitism," as National Review publisher William A. Rusher would describe it. The new owners then took a periodical which had once been published by Alfred A. Knopf and had once featured the work of W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes on a journey into the nether world of national socialism. The sale to Maguire spelled the end of The American Mercury as a mainstream magazine, though it survived, steadily declining, for nearly 30 more years.
Various interest groups, beginning with the Anti-Defamation League, accused Maguire's Mercury of ongoing and increasing Jew-baiting, particularly when it drew a number of purportedly anti-Jewish comments from the writings of Mencken himself back for reprint. The influences of Rockwell, and later the Rev. Gerald B. Winrod and General Edwin Walker, on the editorial policy of the Mercury resulted in anti-Semitic, White supremacist, and pro-fascist articles becoming commonplace in the magazine. Control of the American Mercury had passed from the traditional journalistic anti-establishment, into the domain of extremist factions, and the editorial policy never attempted to regain credibility within mainstream intellectual circles.
Maguire did not remain long as the magazine's owner/publisher, but what he started other owners continued for the rest of the magazine's life. Maguire sold the Mercury to the Defenders of the Christian Faith, Inc. (DCF), owned by Reverend Winrod and located in Wichita, Kansas, in 1961. Reverend Winrod was known as "The Jayhawk Nazi" during World War II, and was once tried and convicted for violations of the Sedition Act of 1918.
The DCF sold it to the "Legion for the Survival of Freedom" of Jason Matthews in 1963, and the LSF cut a deal in June 1966 with the (original) Washington Observer, that telegraphed a merger with Western Destiny. Western Destiny was a Liberty Lobby publication owned by Willis Carto and Roger Pearson, the largest recipient of Pioneer Fund grants in history. Pearson was well known neo-Nazi and pro-Fascist who headed the World Anti-Communist League during its most blatantly pro-Fascist periods. Pearson was a close associate of Wickliffe Draper, founder of the Pioneer Fund. By then The American Mercury was a quarterly with a circulation of barely 7,000, and its editorial content was composed almost entirely of attacks upon Jews, African Americans, and other minorities.
A 1978 article praised Adolf Hitler as the "greatest Spenglerian." Another new ownership for the troubled magazine was announced in the autumn of 1979, and the spring 1980 issue celebrated Mencken's centennial, and lamented the passage of his era, "before the virus of social, racial, and sexual equality" grew in "fertile soil in the minds of most Americans." The last issue concluded with a plea for contributions to build a computer index — with information about the 15,000 most dangerous political activists, actual or alleged, in the United States.
The new American Mercury was created in 2010 by a group of volunteer writers and editors, among whom are some who collectively worked with the contributors and management of the print Mercury for over 40 years.
The publishers refer to themselves as the "Jefferson-Mencken Group."