The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, by Terry Teachout, New York: HarperCollins, 432 pages, $29.95
Imagine the horror of writing a great man's biography. Not just your garden variety great man, but H.L. Mencken, the firebrand individualist who reinvented journalism, upended politics, beat the complacent linguists at their own game, terrorized the sincerely pious, and fumigated the halls of literary criticism. A man whose words, a half-century after his death, continue to shape the way we think.
Then imagine piloting that book through the wake cut by the half-dozen existing Mencken biographies, a couple of which have told the great man's story well, and compound the horror with the knowledge that contracts for two other major Mencken biographies have been signed. But your fellow biographers are not your main competition in telling the tale. The subject himself is.
An American Pepys, Mencken recorded nearly every thought that passed through his mind and practically every major social engagement on his calendar. Without being an exhibitionist, Mencken revealed his personal life in three volumes of memoirs, classics of the genre; in many thousands of letters; and in his voluminous and blunt diaries, which he protected from publication until well after his death. Adding Mencken's criticism, commentary, scholarly work, and reportage to the count, this laureate of free thinking and enemy of government committed more than 5 million words to paper before a stroke addled much of his brain at the age of 68 and death harvested him in 1956, eight years later.
Daunted or not, Terry Teachout -- critic, essayist, and lapsed editorial writer (New York Daily News) -- accepted the job in 1990. He told the Los Angeles Times that he intended to write an epic on the scale of American Caesar, William Manchester's 793-page biography of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Born in Victorian America to bourgeois parents in Baltimore, Henry Louis Mencken and journalism met cute when a Baltimore No. 10 Self-Inker Printing Press arrived under the tree on his eighth Christmas. The magic of ink, words, and paper seduced him early on, so when Mencken's father's premature death freed Henry from the family cigar making business in 1899, the 18-year-old hired on as a reporter at the Baltimore Morning Herald.
Still, his lightning rise from cub reporter to critic to editor-in-chief of the Morning Herald by the age of 26 and his early freelance career as writer of articles, fiction, and poetry don't give a clue to the grand influence over American letters that would be Mencken's by his 30s.
From his provincial roost of Baltimore (and neither benefiting from nor hindered by a day in college), Mencken detected greatness in other writers with an extraordinary literary radar. He wrote the first book in America on George Bernard Shaw and one of the earliest studies on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, championed Huckleberry Finn before it was fashionable, and called hell and calumny down on Henry James' prose style from his newspaper column.
"Take any considerable sentence from any of his novels and examine its architecture. Does it wriggle and stumble and stagger and flounder?" Mencken wrote. "Doesn't it begin in the middle and work away from both ends? Doesn't it bounce along for a while and then, all of a sudden, roll up its eyes and go out of business entirely?"
Mencken consolidated his talents as critic and tastemaker and put them on a national stage when he migrated from newspapers to magazines, first The Smart Set and later The American Mercury. Mencken crusaded to make the novel more reportorial, more vernacular, and more real, and he used his magazines to evict the leading (but now mostly forgotten) novelists of the day, William Dean Howells, Gene Stratton Porter, and Harold Bell Wright, from their positions. Mencken believed that the novel should above all report. It should tell the truth about life as it is lived and never, ever preach.
Perhaps no American critic has enjoyed more success in advancing his views on literature as Mencken did between 1914 and 1925 with reviews and publication of such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O'Neill, Joseph Conrad, Langston Hughes, Dorothy Parker, James M. Cain, Willa Cather, and many others. He supported the Harlem literary renaissance and even published early work by James Joyce, although he would later call Joyce's Ulysses "deliberately mystifying and mainly puerile," a book "concocted...as a kind of vengeful hoax."
The Smart Set and The American Mercury had the sort of countercultural impact on their times that the Harold Hayes Esquire had on the '60s, Rolling Stone on the '70s, and Spy on the '80s. If you were a smart young thing who wanted to express your hip worldliness, you carried a Mencken magazine under your arm, cover out. As Ernest Hemingway put it in 1926's The Sun Also Rises, "So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken."
Fiction was only part of the Mencken editorial mix. Pungent social criticism flowed from his pen. He and his writers railed against the "booboisie," the term he coined to describe the uncultured and witless who ran the country. His publications insulted puritans of every stripe, denounced all religions, and mocked all gods. When the state of Tennessee prosecuted high school teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution in 1925, Mencken collaborated with the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney Clarence Darrow on the Scopes defense. Mencken failed to tell his Baltimore Sun readers, for whom he wrote daily trial dispatches, of his partisanship.
Such concealment today would get a journalist drummed out of the guild. But then again, nobody ever took Mencken for an objective reporter. He advertised his prejudices. Mencken's trial dispatches paved a path for the "new journalism" of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, and their brethren, who use novelistic skills to better portray reality. Scopes lost the case, as everyone expected, but Mencken won the battle as William Jennings Bryan, the prosecution's Bible-thumping celebrity witness, died five days after the trial, presumably from the stress of cross-examination. His passing in 1925 inspired Mencken to the heights of invective. Of Bryan he wrote:
"But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.