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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, December 17th, 2002


 

The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken

by Terry Teachout

The Sage of Baltimore

A review by Jonathan Yardley

Henry Louis Mencken was the wonder boy of American journalism. Born in Baltimore in 1880, he found employment as a reporter at its raffish Herald in 1899, became city editor when he was twenty-three, and two years later was made editor in chief. When the Herald soon thereafter collapsed, he leaped nimbly to The Sun and remained there for most of the rest of his life, principally as its star columnist but in numerous advisory and managerial roles as well. Meantime, he edited two hugely influential national magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury, for which he wrote criticism that changed the American literary map, and, as Terry Teachout puts it,

In his spare time he produced The American Language, the pioneering study of the divergence of British and American English, which he saw through four editions and two supplementary volumes. He also launched three pulp magazines, wrote a bestselling autobiographical trilogy, edited a definitive anthology of his own writing, compiled a fat dictionary of quotations, translated Nietzsche's Antichrist, served as an unpaid literary consultant to Alfred Knopf, and dictated, by conservative estimate, a hundred thousand letters. Nor was his influence restricted to purely literary matters. As a working reporter and newspaper columnist, he covered everything from the Scopes evolution trial to the 1948 presidential conventions; as a popular philosopher, he produced a still-readable trilogy of "treatises" on democracy, comparative religion, and the history of ethics; as a social critic, he led the charge against the sterile pseudopuritanism of Prohibition-era American culture, an undertaking that his enemies on the left were quick to praise.

If the sin of self-quotation can be pardoned, this is how I described the young Mencken in my introduction to his posthumously published journalistic memoir, My Life as Author and Editor: "He was a force of nature, brushing aside all objects animal and mineral in his headlong rush to the éclat that surely awaited him. He seized each day, shook it to within an inch of its life, then gaily went on to the next." By the time he was in his early forties, he had become what Walter Lippmann called "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." The American Mercury, which he and George Jean Nathan founded in 1924, had a relatively small circulation — it topped out in 1928 at about 84,000 copies — but a large readership, to the point that it seemed, Teachout writes, as if "everyone in the country was either reading the Mercury or complaining about it."

This was almost entirely owing to Mencken. He shaped the magazine's robust, irreverent, contentious character, and his own contributions to it were what readers most avidly sought. No matter where his writing appeared, it was quoted widely, his pungently outspoken opinions debated hotly. Nobody else could make so many people so angry, or make so many others laugh so hard. When, in the second volume of his Prejudices, he ridiculed the South as "The Sahara of the Bozart," a place "almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert," the region rose in righteous outrage; Mencken couldn't have visited Dixie without an armed escort — or an army. He was trying single-handedly to drag American culture out of Puritanism and into the twentieth century, to act as fugleman (one of his favorite words) on this side of the Atlantic for a literary and artistic renaissance comparable to the one then taking place on the other side. He made The American Mercury the chief instrument of this ambitious and unprecedented undertaking. To an astonishing degree he succeeded, and along the way he became, Edmund Wilson wrote, "without question, since Poe, our greatest practicing literary journalist." Teachout calls this "understatement," and I agree. Mencken was the greatest of all American journalists, and he remains that. Indeed, he is the only one who deserves to be called great.

This, as Mencken doubtless would have been the first to point out, has the sound of damnation with faint praise. The newsroom is not a place toward which greatness naturally gravitates. Journalism trades in the ephemeral. Those who practice it tend to imagine that the ephemeral has consequence and that, accordingly, so do they. Mencken knew this to be malarkey, and he said as much in his splendidly acerbic essay "Journalism in America." People who imagine this is not the case are counseled to examine the journalism shelves of used-book stores, lined as they are with collection after collection of columns, reviews, and news reports that were stillborn at publication.

Mencken, an obsessive list maker, scorekeeper, and bottom-line accountant, claimed to have written ten million words. Plenty of these were every bit as evanescent as the millions written by Richard Harding Davis, Anne O'Hare McCormick, Arthur Krock, Dorothy Thompson, Grantland Rice, and other journalistic bigfeet of Mencken's day. But he was a gifted practitioner of what Teachout calls "meticulous serial revision," in the course of which pieces originally written for The Sun were refined and improved for The Smart Set or The American Mercury and then went through the whole process once again, this time rising from mere journalism, albeit of an uncommonly high level, into essays of indisputable staying power that found their way into Mencken's many books. The subjects of some of those essays may now be of little interest (writers whose reputations have flowed and ebbed, ancient political conventions as stale as their smoke-clogged rooms, controversies long since resolved or forgotten), but the magnificent prose with which Mencken addressed them has lost none of its freshness, its sparkle, its comedy. Reading that prose is one of the great joys that literacy bestows on the sentient.

The human comedy amused Mencken no end, so it is fitting that he still claims our attention as a great comic writer, nearly a half century after his death. It is interesting that the only other American journalists whose names can be mentioned without embarrassment in the same paragraph as his own — Ring Lardner, A. J. Liebling, and Russell Baker — also have seen the world through the lens of comedy. Interesting, and revealing as well: smug bigwigs in the editors' offices and swaggering Scoop Newsboys on the prowl for front-page bylines come and go, but the wits and satirists live on, saluting the passing show with the dark, mocking laughter that is the only fit comment on it.

Mencken's life was a show of its own, but until now he has not been especially well served by his many biographers. Isaac Goldberg's The Man Mencken: A Biographical and Critical Survey (1925) is hagiography. Edgar Kemler's The Irreverent Mr. Mencken (1950) is carping and unsympathetic. William Manchester's Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken (1950) is useful because it had the great man's cooperation, or forbearance, but its prose is most charitably described as execrable. Charles Angoff's H. L. Mencken: A Portrait From Memory (1956), by Mencken's assistant of many years, is a spiteful reminder that no man is a hero to his valet. Carl Bode's Mencken (1969) is thorough, earnest, and oddly lifeless. Ditto for Fred Hobson's Mencken: A Life (1994).

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: "I have made no attempt to be exhaustive," he writes, "so as to avoid being exhausting." And he has paid scant attention to certain people and events, for the entirely sensible reason that he "felt that they were of little or no continuing significance in relation to the larger story of his life and work." 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.

The Skeptic is the book I wish I had written, and then some. This requires a brief explanation. Late in 1980, Mencken's centennial year, I contracted with Random House to write a biography of him. I had barely started work on it when The Washington Star, where I was employed, went belly-up. I moved over to The Washington Post, and quickly decided that I had to abandon the project: I certainly could not ask my new employer for an immediate, prolonged leave of absence, and I worried that intensive exposure to Mencken's prose, with all the temptations to imperfect imitation that it offers, could have deleterious effects on my book reviews and columns.

About a decade later I read with much admiration a piece Teachout wrote about Mencken's diaries (newly brought to light and arousing bitter controversy), and sent him a complimentary letter. After he decided to undertake a Mencken biography, I urged him on in a labor that at times must have seemed overwhelming. Presumably this is why in his acknowledgments he mentions me, along with five others, as having said "the right words at the right times." I never laid eyes on his manuscript. All of which is to say that the judgment of The Skeptic expressed herein is wholly objective, untainted by personal interest. It is also not without reservations and qualms. The Skeptic may well be the best biography ever written of an American journalist, but the competition isn't exactly brilliant and the book isn't without flaws. Teachout's refusal to get bogged down in quotidian biographical minutiae, though admirable, at times causes him to skip too lightly past matters that are more important than this biography will lead the reader to understand or that demand further, more nuanced explication.

Thus Teachout dismisses in little more than a sentence Mencken's complicated and interesting personal relationship with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who spent a good deal of time in Baltimore and saw him often. Teachout barely mentions Mencken's deep admiration for Ring Lardner and fails to understand that it was Lardner, not Mencken, who did the most to capture the American vernacular in written prose, as Mencken himself readily and graciously acknowledged. Teachout is terribly hard on Theodore Dreiser, judgmental about him in ways that Mencken himself, his ardent supporter, mostly managed to avoid; to say that Dreiser "was an idiot savant, capable of creating unforgettable characters on paper but devoid of any other gift save an uncanny knack for persuading women to have sex with him" is as oversimplified as it is unfair. Finally, Teachout writes with authority on Mencken's fondness for music, but tells us on one page that Mencken "hated jazz, which he found 'crude and childish,'" and then a few pages later that The American Mercury "was the first general-interest magazine to write about jazz in anything like a serious way." Perhaps this is true, but at the least one is left to wonder how, or why, its jazz-hating co-editor let that happen.

If God really is in the details, then Teachout may not be headed for heaven. But if you care more about the big picture, he is in every instance almost exactly right. He sees Mencken and his work both whole and in their subtle shadings. Two decades ago, contemplating the challenge of getting inside Mencken's heart and head, I found the prospect daunting, but Teachout has met that challenge with imagination and originality. The closest any biographer will ever get to knowing his subject's inner self is an educated and empathetic guess; Teachout's is unfailingly astute.

The biggest problem Mencken presents to his biographer is that in many respects, some of them important, he was not a nice man. As is by now well known, he harbored sentiments that bordered on (alas, they probably were) racist and anti-Semitic. He promoted many black writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and he had many close Jewish friends, yet he had "deeply equivocal feelings" about Jews and, apparently, blacks as well. Though he called many people his friends, and many were thrilled to be called such by so famous (and famously persnickety) a man, his professional memoir and diaries reveal that he held in private contempt innumerable men and women of whom he spoke kindly in public. He was a rank careerist (by the late 1920s he proudly said in a memo to himself that he had achieved "one of the principal desires of man: I have delivered myself from anonymity") and, in Teachout's judgment, a "poseur" whose public utterances and persona were often calculated for effect rather than accurately representing the man's true character and convictions. On top of all that he was a hypochondriac, a workaholic, outwardly sociable yet inward, aloof, and a grouch.

Mostly this is quite obvious and has been remarked on by innumerable others. Teachout goes deeper, finding in Mencken a man who, for all the bluff and bluster and unconventionality he presented to the public, was, as Dreiser put it with an exclamation point, a "cautious conventionalist!" That observation, which Dreiser recorded in his diary, referred to the cloak of sham respectability that Mencken insisted on drawing over himself and Marion Bloom, a woman with whom he had an affair for a while (Mencken routinely pretended that they were chaperoned by her sister), but Teachout sees Mencken's cautiousness as having far broader implications in his life.

That life, except for the three years after Mencken's birth and "the five years of his marriage and his first year as a widower," was lived in the row house at 1524 Hollins Street, on Union Square in Baltimore. "Nothing about his life is as revealing as the fact that he spent so much of it in one place," Teachout writes. "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." His swashbuckling prose disguised a homebody who rarely did anything to excess ("When it came to dissipation Mencken talked a better game than he played") and who was scrupulously attentive to the person with whom he shared the house, his mother, Anna Mencken: "As unlikely as it may sound, the sharpest, cruelest, most self-assured wit in the history of American letters, the fearless scourge of puritanism in all its forms, was a mama's boy." Elsewhere Teachout writes,

It defies easy explanation that so aggressive a writer should have been so personally cautious ... All we have to go on are the facts. By 1908 he was doubling his paycheck through outside writing, and he could have tripled it by moving to New York. Instead he stayed put, secure in the knowledge that whatever lunacies might beset him during the day, he could come home each night to Hollins Street and a plate of his mother's sandwiches. For all the pleasure he took in a schooner of beer, there was no chance in the world that he would die drunk.

Mencken did not marry until the summer of 1930, five years after his mother's death, when he was nearly fifty years old. Other women had interested him before Sara Haardt entered his life, and he was known as — or liked to represent himself as — a habitué of Baltimore's whorehouses, but he remained steadfastly devoted to his mother as long as she lived. The psychological implications of this I leave for others to explore (Teachout, to his everlasting credit, declines to play Freud except in the most discreet and tentative way), but it is obvious that Mencken placed his mother ahead of all other women. It speaks well of him, then, that when he did marry Sara (who was nearly two decades younger than he, and fated for an early death from tuberculosis, which had been diagnosed well before their marriage), he threw himself into it wholeheartedly. He was profoundly grateful for every moment he enjoyed with her, and devastated by her death, in 1935: "Only his mother's death had put more than the lightest of marks on him, and that could not compare to the emptiness he felt as he faced the bleak prospect of life without Sara, unable to find solace in the belief in immortality that neither of them possessed."

Just as the five years of his marriage were the principal ones in which Mencken lived away from Hollins Street, so they were the only ones in which his private life assumed as much importance to him as his work. His brother August, who lived with him after Sara's death and ministered to him from 1948, when he had a stroke, until Mencken's death in 1956, said that to Mencken, "work was the important thing, and everything else had to revolve around it and fit into it." Long before Mencken graduated from high school, he had figured out that reading and writing were what he best liked to do. He read in great gulps — at least a book a day for most of his adult life before his stroke — and he wrote with undisguised gusto. To few people has so utterly congenial a life's occupation been granted.

Probably Mencken is best known today as a prose stylist and a literary critic, but the most important thing about him is that he was a newspaperman. Teachout understands this. Discussing the "firmly balanced prose rhythms and vigorous diction" of Mencken's writing, he cuts straight to the heart of the matter.

It is, in short, a triumph of style. The fact that this triumph was the work of a common newspaperman has long served to obscure its singularity, especially among academic critics. "The smell of the city room," Charles Angoff wrote in 1938, "was in everything he put between book covers." But what Angoff meant as deadly criticism is in fact central to Mencken's appeal. It was the discipline of daily journalism that freed him from the clutches of the genteel tradition. The city room was for Mencken what Europe was for Henry James: the great good place where he became himself.

Bull's-eye. Mencken adored newspapers and newspaper people. He knew everything that was wrong with the papers and the people, but from the moment he stepped into the newsroom at the Herald he was at home — even more at home, in truth, than he was on Hollins Street. In Newspaper Days, his incomparable memoir published in 1941, he recalled with unalloyed delight "the gaudy life that young newspaper reporters led in the major American cities at the turn of the century...the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth," a lost yesterday when "the days chased one another like kittens chasing their tails."

Newspapers were quite different then from what they are now. Polite society may have read them, but it looked down on those who wrote and edited them. Precious few newspapermen had Ivy League degrees; indeed, most (Mencken included) had not bothered with college, and journalism had not yet risen to the exaggerated place it now occupies in the academic firmament. It was not a respectable business — it had not started putting on airs and calling itself a profession — and it did not attract respectable people. Mencken, whose father was a cigar maker who had elbowed his way to the upper reaches of the middle class, found his true soul mates among the ne'er-do-wells of the newsroom.

His rise was rapid mostly because he was whip-smart and worked his tail off, but also because the Herald was a cheap rag that, as Teachout says, "allowed him to expand into a vacuum." In contrast to it and most other newspapers of the day, The Sun, to which Mencken repaired in 1906, was stuffy, but by then he had established himself and was able to move effortlessly into the clubby, old-Baltimore comforts it offered him. Again, Teachout is on the money.

He tried out in its accommodating pages most of the ideas with which he would later wow a national audience. Most of all the Sun afforded him a measure of security and stability that few freelancers ever know — a consideration of prime importance to a man who, for all the abandon of his public persona, invariably played it safe in his private life.

Mencken had ideas, all right, but they came at least as much from the gut as from the head. Basically there were two of them: first, he was a devout Social Darwinist who believed, with his idol Nietzsche, that "life was a struggle for survival to which some men were ill-suited by the accident of birth," and second, he was a free-speech absolutist whose "whole life," he told Dreiser in 1915, "will be devoted to combatting Puritanism." The first of these made him a severe critic of America's chaotic democracy who preferred Nietzsche's orderly "new Germany," in which he saw the potential for "a delimited, aristocratic democracy in the Athenian sense — a democracy of intelligence, of strength, of superior fitness," presided over by a "superbly efficient ruling caste" consisting, it goes without saying, of clones of Henry Louis Mencken. His affinity for Germany, his ancestral land, got him in trouble during both world wars. His column in The Sun was withheld throughout both, by his own cautious volition, because "he knew the Sun would be neither willing nor able to print what he thought." He used the time during World War I to edit The Smart Set, write books, and generally advance his own interests. During World War II he concentrated on his boyhood reminiscences and the memoirs that would not be published until after his death.

His long campaign on behalf of the Ubermensch produced some deliciously lively prose, much of which is still great fun to read, and a good many bruised feelings, which doubtless gave him malicious pleasure. But his one-man war against the bluenoses was the one that really mattered, the one that made a lasting impression on the national culture. When he began writing about literature in America, early in the twentieth century, it was still under the thumb of the enforcers of the genteel tradition — some of whom, it must be noted, were to be found in the editorial offices of The Atlantic Monthly. First in The Sun, but most influentially in The Smart Set and The American Mercury, Mencken spoke out with passion and no small courage against the Puritans and in favor of the bold young writers who were trying to be heard. Censorship was still much in the air, and in one notable instance Mencken rushed to Boston to beard that particular lion in its den. He performed wonders for the American reputations of George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad, and then turned his attention to Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, and Sinclair Lewis, to name but four.

There were many others. Mencken "saw literary criticism less as an end in itself than as a means of registering 'sharp and more or less truculent dissent from the mores of my country,'" and he rose in praise of any writer who shared that goal. René Wellek claimed in his History of Modern Criticism that Mencken "belongs strictly to the past," but he grasped the crucial point: "Mencken fulfilled an important function ... in liberating the American literary scene from the incubus of complacency and conformity, narrow-minded prudery, blinkering patriotism, and stifling conventions about beauty." Yet Mencken held in utter contempt the very American culture that he wanted to liberate. It is time at last to let Mencken himself speak, at length and fortissimo, about his native land.

Here ... more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly — the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances — is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

There you have it: echt Mencken. There has never been another voice remotely like his in American journalism (though many tried to imitate it and fell short, from William Manchester to Murray Kempton to James J. Kilpatrick) or, for that matter, anywhere else. If words did not exist to serve his purposes, he invented them, and as his delight grew ever greater at seeing the words flow out of his rickety typewriter and onto the page, he brought his prose itself to "the highest conceivable amperage."

Perhaps the most famous example of this is "In Memoriam: W.J.B.," Mencken's mocking obituary notice for William Jennings Bryan, a "poor clod," a "peasant come home to the barnyard," motivated solely by "the ambition of a common man to get his hand upon the collar of his superiors, or, failing that, to get his thumb into their eyes." Teachout correctly calls this "one of the great masterpieces of invective in the English language" and cites Edmund Wilson's description of the "eighteenth-century qualities of lucidity, order and force" in Mencken's writing. As Teachout says, his "special gift was to combine this bright clarity with a contemporary tone of voice." Many issues of this magazine could be filled with cases in point, but I would like to offer one that Teachout does not mention. It appeared in The Evening Sun on March 7, 1921, and deals with the literary style of Warren Gamaliel Harding.

I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

Those nine sentences could be the high point of a lifetime's work for anyone else. Mencken wrote them in — what? two minutes? — at his desk at The Sun or on Hollins Street, a rancid Uncle Willie cigar clamped between his teeth, his beady eyes staring gleefully at the carriage rattling across the page. Gene Fowler, one of the more celebrated hack journalists of Mencken's day, once wrote, "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." Well, for Mencken writing really was easy. If ever he suffered a moment from that form of exquisite self-indulgence called writer's block, there is no record of it. Writing was the great joy of his life, greater by far than food or drink or sex, so his every working day was a holiday.

Possibly it never gave him more pleasure than when, relatively late in life, he moved from criticism and polemics to memoir. By the time Mencken turned fifty, just short of a year after the Crash of 1929, the man who had forced open the gates to let in the new was interested only in the old and familiar, and this had begun to show in his writing. Then something rather miraculous happened. Katharine White, at The New Yorker, invited him to submit pieces. In 1936 he sent her "Ordeal of a Philosopher," a sunny reminiscence of his boyhood in Baltimore. She loved it, and asked for more. It proved to be Mencken's rebirth, for, Teachout writes, "the ornately colloquial prose with which he had spent years belaboring the follies of novelists and politicians proved an ideal medium for the telling of shaggy-dog tales about his childhood and adolescence." In the end these pieces became books: Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days — an autobiographical trilogy that is a classic of American literature, one to rank with Mencken's own favorite, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

All three volumes are still in print, along with several of his other books. This is why he is still among us, and why he will remain so. Teachout believes that Mencken is in for "rehabilitation" because his "social and political views, long thought irreversibly outdated, have become a resurgent strain in American thought." He may be right, but I rather doubt it. Mencken's "conservatism" was more a state of mind than an ideology. It had, and has, little in common with what now passes for conservatism, and diehard ideologues of that persuasion will find small comfort in his claim that he was "constitutionally unable to believe in anything absolutely." With one exception: he believed in the word, and he wrote it like an angel. An avenging angel, but an angel all the same.


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