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The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Menckenby Terry Teachout
Synopses & Reviews
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 Mercken's energy and erudition, passion and paradoxes, in a masterful biography of this iconoclastic figure and the world he shaped.
From his carefree days as a teenage cub reporter in turn-of-the-century Baltimore to his noisy tenure as founding editor of the American Mercury, the most influential magazine of the twenties, Mencken distinguished himself with a contrary spirit, a razor-sharp wit (he coined the term "Bible Belt"), and a keen eye for such up-and-coming authors as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He covered everything, from the Scopes evolution trial to the 1948 presidential elections, in the pages of the Baltimore Sun. He wrote bestselling books about the failure of democracy, the foibles of the female sex, and what he memorably called "the American language." But his favorite topic was the one he saw wherever he looked: the sterile, life-denying strain of puritanism that he believed was strangling the culture of his native land.
No modern writer has been more controversial than H. L. Mencken. His fans saw him as the fearless leader of the endless battle against ignorance and hypocrisy, while his enemies dismissed him as a cantankerous, self-righteous ideologue. The surging popularity of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the politician he hated most, eventually caused his star to fade, but the unsparing vigor of his critique of American life and letters — and the raucously colloquial prose style in which he blasted the Babbitts — retains its freshness and relevance to this day.
Himself an accomplished critic and journalist, Terry Teachout has combed through reams of Mencken's private papers, including the searingly candid autobiographical manuscripts sealed after his death in 1956. Out of this material he has fashioned a portrait of the artist as intellectual gadfly, working newspaperman, devoted husband, and faithless ]over. Meticulously researched, elegantly written, and completely absorbing, The Skeptic vividly evokes the life and legacy of a true American legend.
"Mencken's life was a show of its own, but until now he has not been especially well served by his many biographers....With The Skeptic, though, Mencken at last gets his due. Terry Teachout, a former editorial writer and a freelance cultural journalist who publishes all over the place, tells the story with brio, but he resists the temptation to write what Angoff called, in reviewing the Manchester biography, "carbon-copy menckenese." He discusses just about everything that needs to be discussed, but in no instance at excessive length....Teachout has read Mencken's enormous oeuvre with obvious care and delight, and also with a clinical dispassion that permits him to discuss this work with candor and discrimination. The same can be said of his treatment of Mencken the man, which is friendly and sympathetic but also ? as one likes to think Mencken would have wanted ? honest and, when appropriate, unsparing." Jonathan Yardley, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic review)
"This book is Seabiscuit on two legs, unlidding no less than five decades of American life through the lens of one figure. In one sense, Teachout's Mencken is an overly powerful, notably anti-Semitic, egotistical crab, a know-it-all who views common sense as the terrible swift sword of American life. In another, he's an angry, disappointed American calling out eloquently for change in a world where that's never enough. The Skeptic shows us the value and arrogance of Mencken's mission: to speak up loudly in, and for, America." Tom Chiarella, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
"[A] tidy, fascinating biography that has much of the neat phrasing and sly wit that the rancorous writer displayed himself....[Teachout] shows that Mencken could be both a fool and a knave, and even an occasional braggart. Yet he was always honest in his opinions, and Teachout's treatment of the material honors that journalistic impulse." Publishers Weekly
"The first full-scale biography in a generation of the great journalist, editor, and social critic, extending and in some ways supplanting the ones that have come before it....A balanced portrait of the muckraking newsman, and an excursion into American intellectual history and journalism." Kirkus Reviews
"Teachout...writes an engrossing, sympathetic biography, despite concluding that Mencken was anti-Semitic (he certainly kept it under wraps, though) and the fact that Mencken was self-admittedly undersexed." Ray Olson, Booklist
"A balanced, judicious assessment, flecked with sharply critical insights." Washington Post Book World
"Teachout...seems divided in his mind between a guarded admiration for Mencken's adventurous modernism...and a reverence for his innate conservatism....As this century gets under way, it appears to me suddenly to leave the figure of Mencken decidedly shrunken and localized: a fate of which Terry Teachout seems queasily aware without being fully conscious of it." Christopher Hitchens, The New York Times Book Review
"[S]plendid....Mencken's biographer has two tasks: to assess his enduring value and to discern how much of the tarnish that has accrued to his reputation deserves to remain. Teachout — an admirer who refuses to be awed, an apologist up to a point, a clear-sighted critic — is well suited to both tasks." Charles Matthews, The San Jose Mercury News
"[L]ively and unvarnished." Stephen R. Proctor, The Baltimore Sun
"Mencken deserves to be discussed, for he was the most influential journalist that America ever produced. So it is good to have a new biography...and good, too, that the job was done by Terry Teachout...who, apart from having a nice style, is conservative enough not to be shocked by Mencken....My only serious quarrel with Teachout's book is that he doesn't spend enough time on Mencken's prose. He says that Mencken was America's greatest journalist, but he doesn't defend this claim at any length." Joan Acocella, The New Yorker
"Many more people will discover the delights of Mencken's work, thanks to Terry Teachout's judicious but lively assessment." George F. Will, syndicated columnist
"Teachout has brought Mencken to life, in all his rich comic irascibility. The Skeptic is irresistible." Sam Tanenhaus, author of Whittaker Chambers
"[Mencken's] life is worth recounting and is here expertly and fairly summarized....An important book." Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times
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.
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