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Esquire
Wednesday, January 22nd, 2003


 

The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken

by Terry Teachout

What Mencken Wrought

A review by Tom Chiarella

The true — if dubious — legacy of columnist H. L. Mencken may be the presence of the innumerable commentators who people the upper reaches of your cable channels every night. Reading Terry Teachout's The Skeptic, you realize that we now live in a world of Mencken undone, in which a dozen talking heads do the work of one central consciousness. We are absent a voice of Mencken's force, a kind of brilliant, daring, cocksure persona that is at once valiant and errant, prophet and crank, a slightly poisonous staple at our breakfast table. Teachout's Mencken is so vigorous, arrogant, insightful, and wrongheaded all at once that he brings to mind Larry King with an active cerebral cortex.

Everything from Mencken's self-described childhood in Baltimore as a "larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie" to his rise as a cub reporter, his roiling diatribes on FDR ("a snake oil vendor at a village carnival"), his relationship with dozens of literary figures of the era (who knew that Theodore Dreiser was a pussy hound?), and his general distrust of government (be warned, W.: "We suffer most, not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory, but when it is a jitney Mars Hill with a tin-pot Paul bawling from the roof") is told in blazing detail, with the kind of color and content that compels you to learn. 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.


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