Free Minds & Free Markets

H.L. Mencken: The Soul Behind the Sass

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Yet the glow of Manchester's biography radiates from the theme that the Prohibitionists would never have guessed: Mencken was a sweetheart. The sass hid a soul that softened for all the virtues its master deeply admired: family, civility, loyalty, honesty, talent, and an earnest day's work. So much of this biography is a testament to the cleavage between the war-like public persona and the private, gentle man. "His readers thought of him as bigoted, cantankerous, wrathful and rude," Manchester writes. "It was a case of mistaken identity."

Indeed, in a hundred ways the Sage of Baltimore devoted himself to friends, family, and, during a five-year marriage (ended tragically by Sara Haardt Mencken's death at age 37), to wife. Mencken "became the most considerate visitor of the sick on record. Friends who, in health, would not see him for weeks or months, found him at their hospital doors each evening, so long as they remained bedridden, with stacks of fiction under his arm and evangelical quotes on his tongue."

As an editor, he was a miracle. Younger writers clung tightly to precious letters of encouragement, letters he wrote by the gross (he penned more than 100,000 letters in his pre–personal computer lifespan). He strictly maintained a policy of returning all submissions within three days of receipt. As author Manchester would be keen to note, "His consideration of contributors was incredible. If, reading a contribution, he thought it might be sold to a magazine paying more money, the author was so advised, and Mencken offered to withdraw. Stories of promise that, for various reasons, did not suit the Mercury, were returned with notes suggesting magazines they did suit. And those authors who did sell manuscripts received, a month after publication, a notarized transfer of copyright, in the event they should want to publish the piece again.

Those who have sniffed vainly about the latter 20th-century America for a man or madam who is both wise and pleasant will take solace in the fact that one such character did indeed roam this jungle in our century's first half. Manchester, whose well-received Mencken tome launched him toward treatises on President Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and others, does not, one suspects, realize how very correct, about so very much, the object of his first affection was. (Manchester suggests a real fondness, for example, for the political economy of Jack Kennedy.) But he, like the rest of us, has fallen in love with the man Mencken. That's fine; those who escaped the New Deal's reeducation camps are privy, however, to an added bounty in this fluent, colorful account of the swiftest American on record.

Indeed, the clear-headed reader will be saddened, he will miss Mencken's charm and his politics. We could really use him now, what with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Tip O'Neill and Jerry Falwell, Gary Hart and Donna Rice, the Moonies, the feminazis, the Naderite crusaders, and the television evangelists. How Mencken could have—But oh, shut up! So long as there remain fools, uplifters, hustlers, or Congress, we will always be able to use H.L. Mencken, Patriot, American.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett is an economist at the University of California, Davis. On his wall hangs the famous photo of H.L. Mencken swigging a Schooner of malt at Rennert's Hotel at 12:01 A.M. on April 7, 1933, the first legal glass of beer in post-Prohibition America.

Thomas Winslow Hazlett is Hugh H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University. His most recent book is The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smart Phone (Yale University Press).

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