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American Mercury with Al Hirschfeld's caricature of Ernest Hemingway

The American Mercury is a defunct magazine founded in 1924 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 suffered a silent death in 1981, having spent the last 25 years of its existence much in decay.



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 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 literature by Eugene O'Neill, Carl Sandburg, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Albert Jay Nock, W. E. B. Du Bois, W. J. Cash, James Weldon Johnson, Conrad Aiken, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, John Fante, William Saroyan, Albert Halper, Nathan, providing theater criticism, and Mencken himself, his regular contributions being limited to "Editorial Notes" and "The Library," the latter being book reviews masquing 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 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, arousing the prospect of a landmark free speech case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and legendary Judge Learned Hand. But because the April 1926 Mercury had already been mailed, an injunction was no longer an appropriate remedy.

Exit Mencken

Mencken resigned as editor of his creation at the end of 1933, and The American Mercury was then edited by his assistant, Charles Angoff. At first, the magazine was seen as moving farther left, but a year after Mencken left Knopf sold the Mercury to Paul A. Palmer, a 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.


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 Press, and soon the company began publishing other magazines, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (1941) and The Magazine of Fantasy and 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, MD and a former OSS 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 another transformation of American Mercury, toward another direction, but it would take a familiar journalist to finish what he began.

In 1945, while editing the magazine, Lawrence Spivak created a radio program called American Mercury Presents Meet the Press. Brought to television on November 6, 1947, the show shed the first three words of its name — and remains the single longest-running news program in television, a fixture on NBC every Sunday.

Huie's experiment

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 like of the Reverend Billy Graham and FBI 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, more deeply respected 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.

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. George Lincoln Rockwell, later head of the American Nazi Party worked for Russell Maguire and with a young William F. Buckley, Jr. at The American Mercury during that period. It was at this point that the new owners of The American Mercury took that periodical on a journey into the nether world of national socialism. That sale spelled the end of The American Mercury as a respectable mainstream magazine, though it would survive, steadily declining, for nearly 30 more years.

Within a very short time, Maguire steered the magazine “toward the fever swamps of anti-Semitism”, as National Review publisher William A. Rusher would describe it. Various interest groups which began only 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 both George Lincoln Rockwell and later the Rev. Gerald B. Winrod and General Edwin A. 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 respectable 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 Gerald B. Winrod-owned Defenders of the Christian Faith, Inc. located in Wichita, Kansas in 1961; Reverend Gerald B. Winrod, was known as "The Jayhawk Nazi" during World War II and was once tried and convicted for violations of the Sedition Act of 1917. 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 Washington Observer that telegraphed a merger with Western Destiny which 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 up 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 Hitler as the “greatest Spenglerian”; another new ownership for the exhausted magazine was announced in fall 1979; 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.

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