Thomas Quinn Curtiss has reunited George Jean Nathan with his cohort, H.L. Mencken together with the rest of their set: Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Edmund Wilson, Sean O'Casey, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alfred Knopf, Jack London and Somerset Maugham. The magnificent abandon of their enterprise and the hard drinking Bohemian wisdom of their writing propelled them and fueled generations of readers with their wit and philosophy. This is a biography of an era of men whose stories could only be written by an eyewitness.
Curtiss's quasi-biographical study is at its best when he focuses on the friendship and collaboration of Nathan and Mencken when they were co-editors (and occasionally ghostwriters) of the jazz era literary magazine The Smart Set. If Nathan and Mencken had different styles and temperaments--Nathan was a Harvard-educated dandy, Mencken a self-taught newspaperman--they were united by an urgent desire to elevate America's critical standards and similar tastes for realistic, rather than sentimental, art. Curtiss offers a lively portrait of these two iconoclasts, filled with details ranging from their penchant for practical jokes to the forging of a seamless working relationship that spanned a decade. Foremost among their efforts was the introduction of innovative American and European artists, despite censors and the ongoing resistance of what Curtiss calls the "Puritan camp" of critics ruled over by "hat dreary octogenarian, William Winter." Given that Applause is a theater book publisher, perhaps it is predictable that there would be less about the discoveries of O'Neill, Fitzgerald and Joyce, or about Nathan and Mencken's own writings (no more than two of Mencken's reviews are directly discussed), than there is about the critics, playwrights, producers, actors and managers of the New York theater world from 1900 to 1930. Moreover, it is difficult to overlook the somewhat awkward structure of this work, treating as it does two who prized above all else the craft of writing. FYI: Applause will publish The World of George Jean Nathan: Selected Essays and Reviews, edited by Charles Angoff, to coincide with The Smart Set. ( paper 520p )