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.
"Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him in contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses."
Mencken always saved his sharpest barbs for politicians and governments, for censors and do-gooders, for meddlers and interlopers and prohibitionists who dragged down the superior man. His vociferous opposition to America's entry into World War I cost him his newspaper gig at the Baltimore Sun and caused the powers that be to declare him an enemy of the state. The Justice Department shadowed him, and the War Department read his mail. Fearing the worst, Mencken buried his most confidential papers in his backyard. When he returned to public letters after the war, he claimed that the government did him a favor by liberating him from daily journalism and giving him the time to write five books.
Still, the harassment further radicalized him against an institution he already despised. "In so far as my personal relations with it offer any evidence the government I live under is devoted exclusively to extortion and oppression," Mencken wrote. Ignoring death threats from the rabble, he campaigned in his newspaper column against segregation and the lynching of blacks on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Yet Mencken's proto-libertarian politics did not celebrate liberty for everyone. As a neo-Darwinist who never fully escaped the Victorian era, he wrote, "Liberty, of course, is not for slaves; I do not advocate inflicting it on men against their conscience." Most "Negroes and women" were not worthy, he believed. (I remember nearly dropping my first volume of Mencken back in 1971 when encountering his racist references to "Mississippi darkeys" and "Hottentots.") Ethnic immigrants he thought uncivilized, and he published many foul and acerbic comments about Jews.
When Teachout announced his plans for a Mencken biography back in 1990, he promised it no sooner than 1994, a vow he kept, as the year 1994 brought publication of rival Fred Hobson's H.L. Mencken: A Life but nothing by Teachout. In fact, when the millennium passed the biographee was more prolific than biographer, publishing three new books: The Impossible H.L. Mencken, a collection of newspaper work; A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, another "best of" collection (edited by Teachout); and the autobiographical My Life As Author and Editor.
Now comes November 2002, and with it—finally! finally!—Teachout's much awaited The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Teachout brings to the project the grounding, energy, and clear, clever prose required. But after all his gestating, Teachout has birthed a book that reads more like one of those short biographies of famous people sold under the "Penguin Lives" rubric than it does the Manchesterian epic he promised his readers more than a decade ago. Or worse, it resembles the world's longest literary essay with biographical details. Teachout admits as much in his book, writing that The Skeptic is only a "partial portrait" and that he avoided writing an exhaustive biography "so as to avoid being exhausting." I suspect that it's his own exhaustion, not the reader's, that Teachout sought to dodge.
Teachout isn't the first writer to choke when thrust too close to Mencken. In 1981 the Washington Post book critic, Ring Lardner biographer, and fellow Menckenphile Jonathan Yardley contracted to write a life of Mencken, only to bail five years later. Among other reasons for giving up the assignment, he wrote, "I did not think I could write sympathetically about him because of what I saw as his antisemitism and racism." Another announced Mencken biography, by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers from Oxford University Press, appears to have vanished in the mists too.
Why did Teachout sour on the man he surely once worshipped? As one who has gorged himself on Mencken, I can sympathize with the biographers who rushed in to appraise Mencken's life and then turned away, disgusted by his cruelty, small-mindedness, and transparent bigotry. Without a doubt, Mencken treated classes of people miserably in his work. He wrote caustically about Jews publicly and scabrously privately. He called blacks savages and worse. None of this is news to even casual readers of Mencken. It's been a huge part of his legend since the late '50s, when a former managing editor of the American Mercury constructed an entire memoir around Mencken's bad-mouthing of Jews.
But what serious reader hasn't turned on a favorite writer, finding the taste of his words rancid after consuming too much of it? I suspect that in swilling the 5 million words that was H.L. Mencken and spending three times as long as he intended on the project, the minnow Teachout unexpectedly found himself swallowed by the whale, and this passable book is his writ for release from the belly.
That the reputation of H.L. Mencken has fluxed can't be blamed on his biographers. He wrote from another place called the past, where all sorts of slurs were, if not acceptable in polite society, common. Without fear of censure or admonition, one could write about wops, japs, micks, pollocks, the shanty Irish, frogs, hunkies, hebes, dagos, krauts, spics, and nips and attribute to them the hoariest of ster-eotypes. Mencken's reputation might have stabilized, his ugly excesses sinking and the best of his work rising, if he hadn't otherwise plotted to thrust himself back into the public eye from time to time.
The terms of his will scheduled the release of his private papers at 10-year intervals, starting in 1971 and ending in 1991. The uncorking of each installment has sounded across the culture like a time bomb, with the 1991 vintage being the most racially bilious. We read Mencken because he was great, but we also read him because he provokes from the grave.
It would trivialize Teachout's labors to call The Skeptic an unfair and distorted book because it repeatedly judges Mencken's foul and acerbic comments about Jews and blacks by 21st century standards of propriety. Although Teachout tags Mencken an anti-Semite, he cuts the man some well-deserved slack by acknowledging his many lasting friendships with Jews and the flatteries he granted them. Considering the climate of the times—quotas on Jews existed at Ivy League schools and hotels "restricted" them—Mencken's views on Jews were moderate. His opposition to World War II came from a position of intense Germanophilia and intense distrust of FDR and England. Although Mencken often made light of Hitler, he campaigned vigorously to save German Jewry after Kristallnacht, writing in their defense and personally signing immigration affidavits on the behalf of specific asylum seekers. But so huge was Mencken's Germanophilia that he argued against bringing Polish and Romanian Jews to America. Even German Jews looked down on them, he wrote; their proper refuge from Hitler was Russia.
Yet the book's constant refrain is one of disapproval. Mencken's work on Nietzsche was not much noticed by later scholars, Teachout warns. Furthermore, his magazines were filled with the contributions of hacks. Of course, that's true of other great magazines, such as Harold Ross' New Yorker. But a magazine is by definition an ephemeral thing, hard to judge outside its context.
Although Teachout lauds Mencken's lexicographical work in The American Language, he looks down on the man's music criticism, berates him for not appreciating the literary modernists and jazz, faults him for losing his perfect political touch during the FDR era and not seeing through Hitler soon enough, and denigrates him as a fickle friend. Has any giant been labeled a midget so many times?
Teachout writes of his hope "to portray H.L. Mencken sympathetically but honestly," but in the necessary scrutiny of biography he lets "honesty" trump "sympathy" on most every page of The Skeptic. If you were new to Mencken, you might come away from this book with the notion that he was the most fearless and gifted journalist of the last century, but you'd first ask why we still read such a creep.
Teachout telegraphs his intentions to shrink Mencken in The Skeptic's epigraph, quoting a line from James Gould Cozzens about the "Fool Killer," the heroic slayer of idiocy who ultimately finds himself humbled. This flows into the first chapter of The Skeptic, which recounts the 1934 Gridiron Club meeting of politicos and journalists in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Mencken did not like much and would grow to despise, got the better of Mencken in a contest of wits. How? By quoting Mencken's vicious attack on the intelligence of his fellow pressmen and, after the snickering died down, citing Mencken as the source. For a life filled with so many triumphs, this stinging instance should hardly stand as his emblematic moment.
In the field of toxicology, there's a maxim that describes how one substance when taken in moderation is beneficial and at extremes is a poison (think salt, or heroin). "Dose determines toxicity," they say. In Teachout's case, I'd say that the diligent biographer overdosed on Mencken—both his life and his work—and that this book is its own postmortem.