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American Mercury, The.

William D'Alton Mann founded the SMART SET (1900-1930) as a monthly magazine of general literature with much the same kind of snob appeal that characterized his more scandalous weekly, Town Topics (1879-1937). The Smart Set was distinguished under later ownerships by the work of a number of brilliant writers. In 1908 HENRY L. MENCKEN became its book-review editor, and the next year GEORGE JEAN NATHAN its theater editor. When Nathan and Mencken became editors and part-owners in 1914, they introduced such contributors as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maxwell Anderson, Eugene O'Neill, and Ruth Suckow, and supplied their own pungent social, literary, and dramatic criticism. By 1923 Mencken and Nathan had tired of the Smart Set and readily accepted Alfred A. Knopf's offer to provide them with a more impressive and dignified forum in a new monthly in which they would have a one-third interest as working editors. It was the American Mercury, founded in 1924. Nathan retired as coeditor after one year, but remained five years longer as a departmental editor. In the new magazine Mencken found it "an agreeable duty to track down some of the worst nonsense prevailing and do execution upon it." Some of the Mercury's departments were continued from the Smart Set, such as the always entertaining "Americana," a collection of current absurdities in popular culture and cults, arranged geographically by states. Not all of the Mercury was negative. There were able articles on folk literature, anthropology, the American Negro, newspapers, major literary figures, philology (with emphasis on examples of American usage), picturesque personalities and events, and unswept corners of American history. Among its contributors were Margaret Mead, Lewis Mumford, Louis Adamic, William E. Dodd, and Fred Lewis Pattee. Notable writers of fiction were Sinclair Lewis, James Stevens, and William Faulkner; among the poets were Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and George Sterling. The beginning of the depression of the 1930's coincided with a recession in Mencken's popularity, and he retired in 1933. Lawrence E. Spivak came into control for the next fifteen years, and the magazine soon became a pocket-size miscellany with strongly conservative tendencies in politics and economics. The price was cut from 50 to 25 cents, and the circulation--never much over 60,000 under Mencken--increased. After the Spivak regime, the magazine had its ups and downs with politics and sex, and eventually became a strong rightist organ of limited circulation.

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Publication:Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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