Making Modernism

Letter from H.L. Mencken to Fanny Butcher, 1921

In this letter to Chicago Tribune literary editor Fanny Butcher, H. L. Mencken discusses Moon-Calf (1920), the best-selling novel by Floyd Dell.  In contrast to Sherwood Anderson’s praise for Dell’s deeply autobiographical novel (“the book makes me love and understand you as I never have before”), Mencken finds this novel’s treatment of sex and marriage confused by Dell’s endorsement of socially progressive theories—especially feminism—that the novel does not convincingly uphold. 

Moon-Calf might be called a Midwestern Künstlerroman, culminating in the protagonist’s dream of a train journey to Chicago.  Like Anderson, Fanny Butcher liked the novel, and she praised the honesty, simplicity, and beauty of Moon-Calf in her November 7thChicago Tribune review.  Moon-Calf also struck Butcher’s soft spot: a debut novel by a writer whom she knew, set in the small towns of the Midwest.  

Mencken, on the other hand, felt that Dell wrote under the influence of the bohemian subcultures of New York City, where he had moved in 1914:  “I have a great suspicion that you have read something into the Dell novel that is not actually there,” Mencken writes to Butcher. “To me, the thing has a Greenwich flavor—batik and Havelock Ellis.”

But Dell’s bohemian inclinations had also flourished in Chicago, where he and Margery Currey formed the heart of the artistic community surrounding the 57th Street artists’ colony.  Essentially, this letter shows Mencken’s typical deflation of the cultural centrality of New York City.  His famous 1920 essay for the London Nation, “The Literary Capital of the United States,” is a scathing indictment of literary cultures in cities other than Chicago.

Perhaps the most influential literary critic of his time, Mencken also felt affection for Butcher, one of Chicago’s key literary figures. Mencken first met Butcher in 1920 when he walked into the Fanny Butcher Bookshop (which Butcher ran from 1919-1927 while simultaneously writing for the Tribune).  Butcher had friendships with many of the most important writers of the twentieth-century, including Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, and Edna Ferber—whom Menken mentions in this letter.  Butcher and Mencken’s correspondence in the Butcher Papers at the Newberry illuminates the formation of an American literary canon.  It is also rich with literary gossip.  The two critics were on intimate terms.  As Butcher writes in her memoir Many Lives, One Love (1972), Mencken was the only person to call her “Amanda” (her middle name), telling her that it was the “gerundive of the verb amo” and means “about to be loved.”  She called him “Heinie.”

In this photograph, Mencken and Butcher stand together (perhaps in Butcher’s bookshop) reading a volume of The American Language, Mencken’s seminal examination of American English.  The photograph is an apt expression of a belief shared by both critics that American writers had their own immediate resources to fundamentally reshape the rhythms of the English language.  Both were deeply interested in the development and prestige of American literature—and for Butcher, American Midwestern writers in particular.

Liesl Olson, Newberry Library

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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