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The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken

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The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken Cover

 

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

Chapter One "I'd Have Butchered Beautifully" "Birth of a Bourgeois, 1880-1899

In 1883, when Henry Louis Mencken was nearly three years old, August, his father, bought a three-story row house that looked out on Union Square, a small park close to what was then the western edge of Baltimore. Except for the five years of his marriage and his first year as a widower, Mencken would live in that house until his death in 1956. Nothing about his life is as revealing as the fact that he spent so much of it in one place. Instead of immersing himself in the frenzied transience of modern-day America, he lived the settled life of a member of the European bourgeoisie, and liked it: The charm of getting home, as I see it, is the charm of getting back to what is inextricably my own — to things familiar and long loved, to things that belong to me alone and none other. I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly forty-five years. It has changed in that time, as I have — but somehow it still remains the same. No conceivable decorator's masterpiece could give me the same ease. It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it I'd be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg.

Mencken would pay a price for the stability he loved so well. During the sixty-seven years he spent at 1524 Hollins Street, he watched his block, once a peaceful, tree-lined enclave, become a slum. Long after his death the streets facing Union Square would be partially (if temporarily) reclaimed, but the surrounding neighborhood continued to crumble. To the cop on the beat today, Southwest Baltimore is the innermost circle of urban hell, the dingy, drug-ravaged core of a blue-collar harbor town ringed byindifferent white-collar suburbs. Unemployment in Baltimore is high. So is the crime rate: Someone is murdered seven days out of ten, and most of those killings are drug-related (one out of ten Baltimoreans is a heroin addict). So are racial tensions, especially during the city's near-tropical summers. The city's population, eroded by white flight and the long decline of the steel and shipping industries, has been shrinking steadily ever since World War II, when it reached its peak; it was 703,057 in 1990, about 30,000 less than in 1920, when Mencken wrote his first Monday Article for the "Evening Sun.

But Mencken's hometown has not changed quite so much since his death as the casual visitor might think. To go to an Orioles game at Camden Yards and watch the easygoing crowd root for the home team is to feel the pleasantness of life in a city slightly off the beaten path, an ingrown, insular, oddly comfortable place that time and prosperity have mostly passed by. The glossy riverside renovations of recent years have had little effect on the outward appearance of the rest of the city, many of whose neighborhoods, including Southwest Baltimore, still share the common architectural denominator of narrow streets lined with shabby old two- and three-story row houses, and a few Mencken-related landmarks have escaped the wrecker's ball. The family home survives in something quite close to its original condition; 704 Cathedral Street, the brownstone apartment house where Mencken lived with Sara, is still occupied, as is 811 West Lexington, his birthplace, though it now lies in the shadow of one of the city's most violent housing projects; Marconi's, the restaurant where the Menckens lunchedtogether in the days of their long courtship, serves up crabcakes at the same address, just around the corner from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, to which Mencken left most of his private papers and three-quarters of the income from his copyrights.

Because so much of Baltimore looks much as it did in Mencken's day, and because he wrote about the city so memorably, the leap of imagination needed to conjure up the Baltimore of the 1880s, the place where the author of "Happy Days spent his "fat, saucy and contented" childhood, is in certain ways a short one. Standing at the top of the six white marble front steps of 1524 Hollins Street and looking at the row houses that line Union Square, one sees what Mencken saw in 1927: The two-story houses that were put up in my boyhood, forty years ago, all had a kind of unity, and many of them were far from unbeautiful. Almost without exception, they were built of red brick, with white trim — the latter either of marble or of painted wood. The builders of the time were not given to useless ornamentation; their houses were plain in design, and restful to the eye. A long row of them, to be sure, was somewhat monotonous, but it at least escaped being trashy and annoying.

What Mencken was describing was a nineteenth-century middleclass urban neighborhood, a tightly knit community of proud homeowners who, like August Mencken, spent their days immersed in the intricacies of manufacturing or trade. "Such undertakings as these, however admirable in the great scheme of things, however productive of profit, drain off something from the men who direct them," Hamilton Owens wrote in "Baltimore on the Chesapeake. "One doesn't ordinarily find ... any greatebullience of spirit, any magnificent spilling over into colorful adventure." For all the pleasure Mencken took in it, the Baltimore of his youth was still a stodgy monument to the Protestant work ethic. Another of his "Sunpaper colleagues called it "a slow, plodding, dull town." But the Baltimore of the 1880s was dull by choice as much as chance. Its citizens needed no reminding of the twin convulsions their parents and grandparents had survived: the Know-Nothing riots and the Civil War. Antebellum Baltimore was called "Mobtown" ...

Synopsis:

When H. L. Mencken talked, everyone listened — like it or not. In the Roaring Twenties, he was the one critic who mattered, the champion of a generation of plain-speaking writers who redefined the American novel, and the ax-swinging scourge of the know-nothing, go-getting middle-class philistines whom he dubbed the "booboisie." Some loved him, others loathed him, but everybody read him. Now Terry Teachout takes on the man Edmund Wilson called "our greatest practicing literary journalist," brilliantly capturing all of Mencken's energy and erudition, passion and paradoxes, in a masterful biography of this iconoclastic figure and the world he shaped.

Synopsis:

When H. L. Mencken talked, everyone listened — like it or not. In the Roaring Twenties, he was the one critic who mattered, the champion of a generation of plain-speaking writers who redefined the American novel, and the ax-swinging scourge of the know-nothing, go-getting middle-class philistines whom he dubbed the "booboisie." Some loved him, others loathed him, but everybody read him. Now Terry Teachout takes on the man Edmund Wilson called "our greatest practicing literary journalist," brilliantly capturing all of Mencken's energy and erudition, passion and paradoxes, in a masterful biography of this iconoclastic figure and the world he shaped.

About the Author

Terry Teachout writes about literature and the arts for the New York Times, Time, National Review, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Commentary. His books include A Second Mencken Chrestomaby, a manuscript he rediscovered among Mencken's private papers. He lives in New York City.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780060505295
Subtitle:
A Life of H. L. Mencken
Author:
Teachout, Terry
Author:
by Terry Teachout
Publisher:
Harper Perennial
Location:
New York
Subject:
Historical - General
Subject:
Journalists
Subject:
Authors, American
Subject:
Editors
Subject:
Editors, Journalists, Publishers
Subject:
Historical
Subject:
Biography - General
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Trade PB
Series Volume:
107-8
Publication Date:
20031104
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Yes
Pages:
448
Dimensions:
8.02x5.33x1.13 in. .85 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Biography » General
Biography » Historical
History and Social Science » Journalism » General
History and Social Science » Journalism » Journalists

The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken Used Trade Paper
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Product details 448 pages Perennial - English 9780060505295 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , When H. L. Mencken talked, everyone listened — like it or not. In the Roaring Twenties, he was the one critic who mattered, the champion of a generation of plain-speaking writers who redefined the American novel, and the ax-swinging scourge of the know-nothing, go-getting middle-class philistines whom he dubbed the "booboisie." Some loved him, others loathed him, but everybody read him. Now Terry Teachout takes on the man Edmund Wilson called "our greatest practicing literary journalist," brilliantly capturing all of Mencken's energy and erudition, passion and paradoxes, in a masterful biography of this iconoclastic figure and the world he shaped.
"Synopsis" by , When H. L. Mencken talked, everyone listened — like it or not. In the Roaring Twenties, he was the one critic who mattered, the champion of a generation of plain-speaking writers who redefined the American novel, and the ax-swinging scourge of the know-nothing, go-getting middle-class philistines whom he dubbed the "booboisie." Some loved him, others loathed him, but everybody read him. Now Terry Teachout takes on the man Edmund Wilson called "our greatest practicing literary journalist," brilliantly capturing all of Mencken's energy and erudition, passion and paradoxes, in a masterful biography of this iconoclastic figure and the world he shaped.
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