Terry Teachout's new biography of H.L. Mencken, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L Mencken, is getting widely huzzahed. Critic Jonathan Yardley, writing in the December issue of The Atlantic, calls it the best book on Mencken yet; no small praise from someone who admits he once had a contract from Random House to write one but had to back out when other professional obligations interfered.
Yardley ends his review by saying that, contra Teachout, he doesn't think Mencken's "social and political views...have become a resurgent strain in American thought." If, as Yardley insists on characterizing those views, they are a peculiar "conservatism" that was "more a state of mind than an ideology," he has a point.
But as modern libertarians have long recognized -- see Murray Rothbard's essay "H.L. Mencken: The Joyous Libertarian," which originally appeared in 1962 in the pathbreaking libertarian student journal from the University of Chicago, New Individualist Review (and was reprinted in Reason in our December 1980 issue) -- Mencken's combination of relentless opposition to busybody comstockery and moralistic reformism, combined with contempt for government in almost all its forms, was far more libertarian than conservative.
Yardley, manfully avoiding this conclusion, quotes Mencken as saying he was "constitutionally unable to believe in anything absolutely." But he misses a Mencken observation that Rothbard quoted: "I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty." If you can't see the libertarian in Mencken, you aren't seeing him altogether clearly.