Iconoclasts in the Archives

Posted on July 3, 2019

Today's post, written by Tracy Melton '85, member of the William & Mary Libraries Board of Directors, honors the life and legacy of author and Professor Emeritus of English Carl R. Dolmetsch by taking a closer look at his papers and the vibrant personages within them.

A typed letter from a Frank R. Adams, dated May 1, 1955, addressed to Mr. Dolmetsch. Adams, a contributor to Smart Set, writes about Nathan and Mencken, who he calls "the most amusing characters to work with that I have ever met" and "highly respected and even feared members of society." A handwritten note from Adams is added at the end, answering Dolmetsch's question: he was writing in other publications before he started to contribute to Smart Set.
"The most amusing characters"

Before Jon Stewart ’84 and Trevor Noah, before Stephen Colbert and John Oliver and Saturday Night Live, before Tina Fey and Samantha Bee and Andrea Gibson, there was George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken. A slice of the Nathan/Mencken story lives in the Special Collections Research Center at Swem Library.

A century ago, as co-editors of The Smart Set and then The American Mercury, Nathan, the suave Manhattan theater critic, and Mencken, the brash Baltimore newspaperman, author, and literary critic, were a dynamic duo. They jauntily criticized authority and sparked a generation to think independently, to challenge conventional wisdom, and to seek rationally toward a new reality, freed from the tyranny of tradition, and to do it all with aplomb and a wink.

Today, Nathan is largely invisible in American cultural history, and Mencken is most often remembered for racist and anti-Semitic comments. Their cultural influence, though, was significant. They roused and guided intellectually minded, “in-the-know” Americans before and after World War I. Nathan shaped the evolution of American drama. Mencken, the literary critic, promoted writers like Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mencken, the cultural gladiator, vigorously and mockingly took on prohibitionists, book banners, and cultural con artists of every stripe. Most famously, perhaps, was his ruthless coverage of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee.

In the 1950s, while writing and editing his bestselling The Smart Set history and anthology, future W&M English Professor Dr. Carl R. Dolmetsch met with Nathan in Manhattan and with a stroke-impaired Mencken in the backyard of his Baltimore home. Dr. Dolmetsch also corresponded with many of the duo’s Smart Set authors.

Dr. Dolmetsch’s Smart Set papers are in Special Collections (Carl R. Dolmetsch Papers, UA 6.111). They provide an intimate look into the making of American culture at an absolutely pivotal moment. The letters from Smart Set authors often display the shared bravado, humor, and serious purpose that bent American culture in new directions, some of them toward Jon Stewart and his contemporaries.

Typed letter from Thyra Samter Winslow to Dr. Dolmetsch, dated May 15, 1955. Winslow's letterhead includes an ornate capital "T" in a floral pattern in the upper left corner of the page. In this letter, Winslow responds to a draft Dolmetsch sent her, providing her revisions and edits. The letter includes the quote from Winslow cited in the blog post.
Letter from Thyra Samter Winslow to Dolmetsch

They are fun too. Smart Set author Thyra Samter Winslow had a bountiful, magnetic personality and a birth date she roamed forward in time. She was also the writer Nathan and Mencken most often published. In a letter housed in Special Collections, she asks Dr. Dolmetsch to make a small edit to his text, “You could, maybe, change the line about my writing in the same vein I did. Maybe I do—I’m SURE I do! But you see I gotta make a living writing and editors being mostly weak minded would immediately believe that I was dated, and might quit buying my things. And I’d hate to die of starvation.”

Author’s Note: Dr. Dolmetsch died in Williamsburg on June 7, 2019, just weeks before his 95th birthday. I had spoken with him shortly before. He told wonderful, vivid stories of flying on the presidential campaign plane with Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952; meeting with prominent literary figures while working on The Smart Set, including Thyra Samter Winslow (“a siren”) and H.L. Mencken himself, in August 1955; and appearing on The Today Show with Barbara Walters in 1966. That appearance, promoting The Smart Set, made the book a New York Times bestseller! Dr. Dolmetsch clearly cherished the opportunity to live in Vienna, Austria—his hometown—while researching Mark Twain’s time in the city. The resulting book, Our Famous Guest: Mark Twain in Vienna, won several awards and received a Pulitzer nomination. As an English professor at William & Mary, he and his wife Joan (Downing) were gracious hosts for numerous writers and scholars visiting Williamsburg.


References and More to Explore:

Carl R. Dolmetsch Papers, Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries. https://scrcguides.libraries.wm.edu/repositories/2/resources/209.

Message on Carl Richard Dolmetsch from Provost Michael Halleran, June 17, 2019.

Library catalog entry for The Smart Set: A History and Anthology.

Library catalog entry for Our Famous Guest: Mark Twain in Vienna.