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The New Republic Online
Thursday, January 23rd, 2003


 

The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken

by Terry Teachout

The Sophomore

A review by Jackson Lears

I.
When I was growing up in Maryland in the 1960s, H.L. Mencken still possessed the status of a demigod. He was the Sage of Baltimore and the scourge of the Bible Belt (a term that he coined), an impresario of words who deflated pomp, pep, and cant with equal panache. To adolescent boys of an intellectual bent, those who had read The Catcher in the Rye and felt surrounded by phonies, Mencken's hyperbolic war on hypocrisy was an inspiration. Against the vacant fun of Rotarians and the missionary fervor of moralists, Mencken reaffirmed a civilized way of life. Or so it seemed at the time.

But revisiting the idols of youth can be a dispiriting business. In subsequent years and on closer inspection, Mencken's politics of style have begun to seem rather threadbare. Behind his relentless assaults on "Puritanism" lay a pinched and parochial mentality, tarted up with Nietzschean bravado but conventional to the core. Mencken had made up his mind about everything by the time he was twenty-five, and he never changed it. His literary and political criticism was often little more than a parade of petit-bourgeois prejudices, about as enlightening as a Saturday-morning seminar in any barbershop full of right-thinking citizens.

The sworn enemy of the "booboisie" was a bit of a boob himself. Like any narrow-minded know-it-all, Mencken was given to sweeping dismissals of entire social groups, including teachers ("the most ignorant and stupid class of men in the whole class of mental workers"), farmers (a "rabble of peasants who sleep in their underclothes"), and Jews ("the most unpleasant race ever heard of"). The champion of Theodore Dreiser was unable to embrace or even to understand the writers who emerged from World War I. Hemingway, Mencken thought, was simply trying to prove he was a "naughty fellow"; Faulkner made no more sense to him than "the wop boob, Dante." Even Thomas Mann eluded Mencken's appreciation, despite his filiopietistic fondness for all things German. The ferment of modernism, from Cézanne and Proust to Isadora Duncan, failed to arouse even a flicker of curiosity in this allegedly bold critic of bourgeois conventions. The arch-foe of philistinism had a blind spot for art and a tin ear for poetry.

Mencken's politics were virtually indistinguishable from those of a small businessman who felt beleaguered by malingering workers and welfare frauds — and a cold-hearted one at that. He remained indifferent to the suffering caused by the Great Depression, convinced that the only original idea in the New Deal was the notion that "whatever A earns really belongs to B. A is any honest and industrious man or woman. B is any drone or jackass." To be fair, his libertarianism was at least consistent: unlike the contemporary breed of "conservatives," he opposed the government's attempt to police what people chose to put into their bodies. (His assaults on Prohibition should be required reading for William Bennett and the other virtuous advocates of our disastrous "war on drugs.") But like many libertarians, he was spooked by the specter of majority tyranny. His desultory reading of Nietzsche reinforced his faith that mob rule was at hand and left him unable to see the anti-democratic trends in twentieth-century American politics — the tendency of managerial elites to remove more and more of the machinery of government from popular influence or even awareness. Contemptuous of the common herd even as he shared many of its convictions, Mencken remained convinced that he was a member of the "civilized minority."

This may account for Mencken's continuing attraction to right-wing intellectuals-in-training — young men for whom reading him is akin to wearing suspenders, a way to demonstrate that petit-bourgeois politics can co-exist with clever elegance, providing a stylish alternative to the drabness of the politically correct. If Foucault is the favorite Nietzschean of the postmodern left, Mencken plays the same role on the postmodern right. He hovers in the fantasy life of many a William F. Buckley wanna-be, legitimating that sense of innate superiority that one can only call sophomoric. The word is easily abused (mostly by middle-aged critics impatient with youthful excess), but in this case it is indispensable. The sophomore acquires the trappings of learning and leaves it at that; he is content to know what he knows.

So was Mencken. Submerged in a torrent of occasionally inventive verbiage, his ideas remained formulaic for fifty years. To be sure, his love affair with words left some enduring monuments. He relished the vagaries of vernacular speech and paid eloquent homage to them in The American Language. He also produced a readable and entertaining autobiography. Yet suppleness of thought was not in his line. Year in and year out, he dusted off the same Victorian mental furniture — positivism, naturalism, laissez-faire economics — and displayed it as if it were a bold departure from conventional norms. In the end he fell victim to the cruelties of fate. Debilitated by a series of strokes, he sank into a truly pitiable senescence — surrounded by books he could no longer read, grumbling about "the morons" on the radio. But his mind had ceased developing decades earlier. It's a little sad, really.

None of this, to put it mildly, is news. Twenty-five years ago Charles Fecher, a keeper of the Mencken flame, unwittingly revealed the shallowness of his idol's mind in Mencken: A Study of His Thought. Revelations of Mencken's anti-Semitism surfaced soon afterwards. And yet conservatives keep returning to the sage's shrine. The persistence of the pilgrimage to this deeply unworthy master merely exposes the impoverishment of the political culture of contemporary conservatism: its tendency to mistake prejudices for ideas, its straining to locate antecedents with even a modicum of style and wit.

Mencken's most recent conservative devotee is Terry Teachout, who is convinced — now more than ever — that the Sage of Baltimore has something to say to us. The decline of New Deal liberalism and the renewed legitimacy of conservative thought, he believes, have readied Mencken for resurrection. "It took longer than he expected, but times have indeed changed," Teachout observes. "Mencken's social and political views, long thought irreversibly outdated, have become a resurgent strain in American thought. Like it or not, the Mencken Weltanschauung is once again a force to be reckoned with, and written about." Earlier chroniclers of Mencken were mostly liberals who were embarrassed by or openly dismissive of Mencken's political and social ideas. But not Teachout: "Unlike Mencken's previous biographers, I write, very broadly speaking, from his point of view," he remarks. "I have not hesitated to be critical when I thought it appropriate, though I have also sought to place my criticism — particularly as regards his alleged anti-Semitism — in an appropriate historical context." Judging by this introductory promise, it looks as if we are in for a full-scale effort of rehabilitation.

The good news is that Teachout outwits himself, that he is too honest to succeed at rescuing Mencken from Mencken. Though he insists that Mencken was more than a mere comic stylist, that he sought to make a substantial contribution to American thought, in the end the biographer's hopes are defeated by the limitations of his subject. It seems that gradually he came to suspect that if Mencken's views really did become a "resurgent strain" in American culture, we could be in a hell of a mess. Teachout frequently finds himself making damaging admissions about this man whose worldview is supposedly ready for — and worthy of — renovation. By the time Teachout has assembled the abundant evidence of Mencken's anti-Semitism, for example, the malady is far more than merely "alleged." It is undeniable, and "historical context" does nothing to mitigate it. The historical context, after all, was the rise of Nazism and the war against Hitler.

Then there is the problem of Mencken's lack of curiosity — a fatal flaw, one would think, in anyone who sets out to be a "reviewer of ideas." Teachout admits that modernist art and literature were simply lost on Mencken, and that his failure to see anything of value in such writers as Henry James or James Joyce revealed a self-assurance recalling "the philistinism of his father, the bourgeois burgher from Southwest Baltimore who knew what he liked and liked what he knew." When Mencken turned his attention from reviewing literature ("he wrote amusingly about books of no importance") to reviewing ideas, Teachout admits, "the deeper waters in which he had started to swim were over his head."

Before the end of the book Mencken has drowned, and Teachout has abandoned any effort to rehabilitate his erstwhile hero as a thinker for our time. Concluding that Mencken was "something more than a memorable stylist, and something less than a wise man," he traces this absence of wisdom to "a fundamental inadequacy in Mencken's thought: a skepticism so extreme as to issue in philosophical incoherence." Yet Teachout's own account suggests a different conclusion: that Mencken's chief shortcoming was not his disbelief in received opinions, but his inability to question his own opinions; not incoherence, but rigidity. His skepticism was highly selective, and often little more than a pose. In Mencken's politics of style, the Nietzschean nihilist cohabited comfortably with the proper bourgeois. (Equally strange alliances emerged in postmodern conservative politics during the recent era of hip capitalism.) The key to this co-existence of contradictions was Mencken's own intellectual laziness — his refusal to examine his assumptions for half a century. Not a great track record for a sage.

II.
Like other German immigrants in Baltimore and elsewhere, the Menckens arrived in the United States during and after the revolutions of 1848. But Mencken's grandfather, Burkhardt Mencken, left Dresden for Baltimore "not to embrace the boons of democracy in this great Republic, but to escape a threatened overdose of it at home." Or so the grandson later claimed, providing his own fear of the mob with some ancestral legitimacy but probably not exaggerating much.

Three generations of Menckens distrusted socialists, social democrats, and egalitarian do-gooders of all kinds. Henry's father August, a self-made cigar manufacturer, divided "all mankind ... [into] two great races: those who paid their bills, and those who didn't. The former were virtuous, despite any evidence that could be adduced to the contrary; the latter were unanimously and incurably scoundrels." No wonder Mencken described his childhood as a "larval state" within the cocoon of the complacent bourgeoisie.

Complacency did not preclude literacy. Born in 1880, young Henry grew up surrounded by the monuments of every late-Victorian library: Thackeray, Addison, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Howells, Swinburne, Kipling (who inspired the boy's first bad poetry), and the freethinking Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's defender, whom Mencken declared in retrospect to be "the greatest Englishman of the nineteenth century — perhaps the greatest Englishman of all time." But to a boy mesmerized by the smell of printer's ink, no one could equal the example of Mark Twain. Reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mencken recalled with characteristic hyperbole, was "probably the most stupendous event of my whole life." Twain became Mencken's model: a working reporter with a vigorous vernacular style. Yet while Mencken may have captured some of the rhythms of Mark Twain's "racy prose," as Teachout puts it, he never caught the Missourian's empathetic feel for the common life. Twain sympathized with ordinary folk even as he satirized their foolishness, but Mencken merely dismissed them.

Where he picked up this sense of his own superiority is something of a mystery. Maybe his mental alertness set him apart from the typical students at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Certainly his ambition to write collided with paternal expectation. His father had nothing more exalted planned for him than a life in the family cigar business, but August Mencken's death in 1898 (at the age of forty-five) freed Henry from that fate. At eighteen, he presented himself in the city room of the Morning Herald, and after showing up every day for four weeks he was finally assigned to write a paragraph on an unsolved stable robbery. Teachout records that he went on to "an unbroken string of triumphs" in the newspaper trade. Like many of his contemporaries, from Richard Harding Davis to Stephen Crane, Mencken embraced newspaper reporting as an opportunity to immerse himself in unmediated experience. In his daily assignments, "the heavy reading of my teens had been replaced by life itself ... if I neglected the humanities I was meanwhile laying in all the worldly wisdom of a police lieutenant, a bartender, a shyster lawyer, or a midwife." This was the world that Dreiser would unveil in his novels, the world of drunks and prostitutes and tapped-out gamblers, of furtive backstairs pleasures and pointless barroom brawls. Like Dreiser, Mencken had an eye for the telling details of "life itself" and an incapacity to think seriously about what they told.

Yet his writing was vivid enough to win him his own column within just a couple of years. "Baltimore and the Rest of the World" gave him an opportunity to sharpen his style on subjects soon familiar to his readers: crooked politicians, easily purchased reporters, and inept versifiers; Christian Science; circus slang; and William Jennings Bryan, who was already acquiring a reputation (at least in Mencken's mind) as a spokesman for rural losers. Mencken's worldview was clicking into place. What sealed its political side, according to Teachout, was his promotion to city editor of the Herald in 1903. Mencken recalled the experience in 1925. "I inherited a bias against the rabble," he wrote, and grew up "full of suspicions of democratic sentimentality. As I came to manhood and began to deal with men myself, I noticed quickly that the failures were all incompetents — that God had marked them for the ditch, not man....I had to struggle daily against the incompetence of men full of gabble about their sacred rights. They were stupid and lazy, and I was a better man than any of them, and on all counts."

Mencken's conviction of his own superiority became the core of his political creed. Listening with mounting impatience to the whining of drunken reporters, he soon formulated an irritable individualist outlook that Teachout calls "social Darwinism in shirtsleeves." When the Herald folded and Mencken moved to the Sun in 1906, he carried this ideological baggage with him. Soon he stumbled onto Nietzsche, only a few of whose works had been translated into English. Mencken labored at learning German and read enough in the original to produce The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche in 1908. The book presented that elusive and difficult thinker as "a world-improving, can-do go-getter delighted to have seen through the fraud of Christianity and gone beyond good and evil," in Teachout's words. In Nietzsche, Mencken found what he thought was philosophical legitimation for his own outlook, which up to then had been based mostly on social prejudice and self-regard. Here at last was a philosopher who acknowledged the primacy of "the civilized minority," and even (Mencken thought) imagined that society could be re-organized to recognize and to enhance the power of the superior person. Here at last, to Mencken, was an explanation of his own discomfort amid the common herd: he was an Übermensch! One imagines the college sophomore's comparable self-discovery, sometime after midnight in his dorm room.

As a superior person, Mencken assumed he had a license for the sweeping dismissal of "most human beings." He summarized his beliefs in 1943: "The existence of most human beings is of absolutely no significance to history or human progress. They live and die as anonymously and as nearly uselessly as so many bullfrogs or houseflies. They are, at best, undifferentiated slaves upon an assembly line, and at worst they are robots who leave their mark upon time only by occasionally falling into the machinery, and so incommoding their betters." But like other social Darwinists (then and now), Mencken equated Darwinian evolution with human progress. There was no warrant for this delusion in Darwin — or in Nietzsche, for that matter; but even the supposedly skeptical Mencken entertained it as a possibility. "Like Nietzsche, I console myself with the hope that I am the man of the future, emancipated from the prevailing delusions and superstitions, and gone beyond nationalism."

As progressive visions go, this stuff might have been benign enough — if the part about nationalism had been true. But throughout his career Mencken remained committed to his own breed of German nationalism. It embittered him (with abundant justification) against the superpatriots who bullied Germanophiles during World War I; it also prevented him from ever seeing the true significance of Hitler. Its locus classicus, according to Teachout, was Mencken's "The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in November 1914. A celebration of the Nietzschean New Germany that was allegedly emerging under Kaiser Wilhelm II, the article elucidated views that Mencken held all his life but never expressed so openly again. The essay contained Mencken's parallel discoveries of his own Anglophobia and his dawning German "race-consciousness." Exalting Kultur over Puritanism, Mencken hailed the conquering supermen of the Wilhelmine state, the "superbly efficient ruling caste" presiding over a social order that embodied his utopian ideal: liberty for the select few, authoritarian control for the rest. This vision never wavered; Mencken never made his peace with democracy.

His experience during World War I only confirmed his disdain for the manipulable masses. Rampant Germanophobia was genuine; xenophobic thugs were on the prowl. Mencken had no interest in provoking them directly. As Teachout observes, Mencken "valued his creature comforts too much to dodge the rocks of the mob." He prudently gave up his daily column in the Sun and retreated to his study to work on A Book of Prefaces and In Defense of Women — the latter a celebration of Woman as balm for the busy man. It was also during the war that he and George Jean Nathan took over the moribund magazine The Smart Set and turned to the merchandising of chic, writing clever reviews about mostly unimportant books.

But even after he returned to daily journalism in 1920, Mencken remained restless within the literary limitations of The Smart Set. "He wanted to edit a journal of ideas," says Teachout, "and that The Smart Set could never be." Mencken began to plan his own magazine, which appeared as The American Mercury in 1924. He and Nathan parted bitterly and barely spoke to each other again. The divorce was typical of Mencken's friendships: "When any one for any reason offends me," he said, "I simply purge them from my list of acquaintances and give them no more thought." The superior man had no need to cultivate forgiveness, or to seek it.

Nathan thought that Mencken's move from The Smart Set to The American Mercury was a move from literature to politics. He was right, but only if one defines politics largely as a matter of taste. "In politics it will be, in the main, Tory," Mencken told Upton Sinclair, "but civilized Tory." The American Mercury gave Mencken's politics of style its fullest expression at an optimal historical moment: a time of complacent business triumphalism ("the New Era") and hypocritical public moralism. There were plenty of perfectly ridiculous people scurrying about, from Ku Kluxers and fundamentalists to Christian Scientists and Rotarians, demanding attention from satirists and parodists. Mencken stepped up to the plate. He became the Tom Wolfe of his day, skewering the pretenses of the earnest, the intellectual, the badly dressed.

Ultimately Mencken's politics of style were as superficial and unsatisfying as Wolfe's. But Mencken's prose was often quite engaging, and his targets — at least some of the time — were very deserving. Consider his assault on "Puritanism." The word was historically misleading, the real Puritans having been lusty hands at drink and copulation, and it was sloppily deployed. Still, no one could deny that, with the passage of the Volstead Act and the coming of Prohibition, a puritanical morality had acquired the unprecedented backing of federal government force. This was the period, after all, when one could not get a legal drink from sea to shining sea (though Maryland and New York, to their everlasting credit, never passed any legislation to enforce the Volstead Act). When "Puritan" meant "Prohibitionist," Mencken's libertarian scorn was richly justified.

Yet Mencken's crusade against Puritanism was at once too timid and too arrogant. He celebrated novelists whom he thought were victimized or undervalued by guardians of gentility — Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis. But he remained inert to the appeal of the entirety of the modernist canon, from Dostoevsky and Proust to Joyce and Woolf. Ulysses was "deliberately mystifying and mainly puerile," he thought. "I have never been able to get over the suspicion that Joyce concocted it as a kind of vengeful hoax." The problem is not that he failed to pay homage to certain now-canonical writers (modernism is not without its own dogmas and rigidities), but that he simply refused to engage with this literature at all — just as he ignored other forms of cultural ferment in the 1920s. He thought that jazz was "crude and childish" and modern dance a pointless charade. Of Duncan's dancing, he wrote that "its meaning, at bottom, was exactly that of any other dancing, which is to say it had scarcely any meaning at all."

Mencken wore his prejudices proudly. The same man who railed against "the general smugness and lack of intellectual enterprise that pervades American journalism" eventually came to embody a certain smugness and lack of enterprise himself. Within a few years The American Mercury had lost its sense of intellectual excitement. Mencken's interests had narrowed and, under his heavy editorial hand, every contributor sounded like him.

Mencken's timidity toward the avant-garde was matched by his arrogance toward rural tradition. The American Mercury's disdain for the myth of the virtuous yeoman, along with its "single-voiced consistency," may have accounted for its popularity on college campuses. "The undergraduates must have their gods," The Daily Iowan observed in 1924, and Mencken was one of them. The desire to feel superior to the poor yokels back home has always posed a strong temptation to young people who have just left the provinces and are hoping to enter a wider world. Mencken had no such excuse. His contempt for the farm folk was boundless and deep; it turned his criticism into caricature. He directed his rage at many targets, but he brought it to white heat when he focused on William Jennings Bryan — the Great Commoner, and to Mencken the personification of the ignorant rural mob.

Mencken's hatred for Bryan led him to some revealing excesses. In 1926, the Scopes trial seemed to Mencken an opportunity to nail the Great Commoner for good. A Tennessee high school teacher named John Scopes was being prosecuted for breaking a new state law against teaching evolutionary theory. Mencken had no interest in Scopes, except as an ideological weapon. He suggested that the ACLU deliberately "sacrifice" the teacher and " `use the case to make Tennessee forever infamous' by luring Bryan onto the witness stand `to make him state his barbaric credo in plain English and to make a monkey of him before the world.'" This is pretty much what happened: Bryan indeed took the stand and revealed his beliefs in all their rigid literalism. Then he died before he could make his concluding statement to the jury. Scopes was convicted of a misdemeanor. The trial entered liberal mythology as a heroic battle for enlightenment.

But a closer look at the conflict between Mencken and Bryan reveals a struggle more subtle than a war between light and darkness. It was a clash between two dogmas, and Mencken's social Darwinism was the less humane of the two. His belief that the ideal of "the survival of the fittest" could be implemented in human affairs amounted to a warrant for eugenics and might well have sanctioned the systematic extermination of the "unfit." Bryan had been attacking the nihilistic implications of social Darwinism, correctly identifying that creed as "the law of hate — the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak." This was the criticism that was contained in his concluding statement, which was published posthumously. It does not justify legislation against the teaching of Darwinism, but it does suggest that Bryan was something more than a stupid fundamentalist stooge. Indeed, Bryan understood a key distinction that Mencken missed — even though his idol Huxley had been one of the first to make it. In his classic essay "Evolution and Ethics," Huxley had insisted that the power of evolutionary theory as a scientific explanation did not make it a suitable basis for making moral judgments and organizing human societies. Bryan, despite his ignorance, avoided this terrible category mistake. Mencken embraced it fervidly.

III.
As Puritanism waned, the Great Depression spread and world war again loomed, and it was harder to praise Mencken for his "leadership of dissent," as Edmund Wilson had done in 1925. Mencken himself still believed he was a dangerous rogue, skewering "The Uplift" at every turn. Yet as a New Yorker contributor observed in reviewing his Treatise on Right and Wrong in 1934, "One is puzzled to note that the author refers to his treatise as this 'present ribald book.' I wager it would not bring the mildest flush to the cheek of a Radcliffe junior." As Mencken's cultural outlook began to seem predictable, his prose style became mannered and his politics ethically obtuse. Amid the mass poverty of the slump of the 1930s, Mencken continued to articulate his libertarian aphorisms, attacking "the vast army of parasites" created by the New Deal and insisting that the only lesson to be learned from the Depression was "the massive fact that hard thrift and not gambler's luck is the only true basis of national wealth." One could imbibe the same bromides in The Saturday Evening Post.

Mencken's opposition to labor unions on abstract contractualist grounds revealed the underlying brittleness of his thought. He simply could not see how unequal power complicated the contractual relationship between employer and employee. Complaining about the Sun's New Deal sympathies, he argued that the newspaper "cannot protest when striking workers are deprived of the right of free assemblage and remain quiet when violent [pro-union] legislation impairs the inviolability of contract. It cannot denounce one man for robbing the government and stand by silently when another man is robbed by the government." His principled libertarianism remained constrained by the prejudices of his caste.

Among the most prominent of those prejudices was his anti-Semitism, which Teachout documents in detail, concluding laboriously: "that he was an anti-Semite cannot now reasonably be denied." Or even unreasonably: the record is repellent, even within the context of Mencken's less determinedly tolerant era. Though he thought Jews "inherently incapable of civilization," some of his best friends (of course) were Jewish, including Nathan and Alfred Knopf. Mencken was at first put off when he thought Knopf displayed "the obnoxious tactlessness of his race," but eventually he realized that Knopf was a German Jew and indeed (according to Teachout) "something of a social anti-Semite." By 1946, Mencken was relieved to learn that Knopf "realizes himself that there are now too many Jews in his office."

Note the date of that odious remark. Despite Nazism, the Holocaust, and the war, Mencken's anti-Semitism was as durable as all his other prejudices, whether or not they masqueraded as "ideas." Mencken's willful blindness to the Nazi evil put him in the company of home grown fascist ideologues. When Hitler rose to power and began systematically persecuting Jews, Mencken disingenuously worried that "professional kikes" would only strengthen Hitler's hand by provoking more anti-Semitism. The plain fact of the matter, he claimed, was that Nazism was a response to the rising Jewish influence in German culture — the replacement of "German ideas" by "Jewish ideas."

The problem is not simply that Mencken said those words at all, but that he said them in 1945. His Germanophilia combined with his hatred of Franklin Roosevelt to prevent him from learning anything from World War II. Indeed, he summed up the war with his characteristic combination of self-assurance and detachment: "I find it difficult to work up any regret for the heroes butchered in World War II. Anyone silly enough to believe in such transparent quacks as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill leaves the world little the loser by departing from it." Anyone obtuse enough to make such a statement deserves a healthy dose of scorn. Given Mencken's pronouncements, it hardly seems a "horrendous irony" (as Teachout claims) that The American Mercury finally passed into the hands of "a series of anti-Semitic cranks."

Mencken's most honorable conduct involved his stoical endurance of pain in private life. He married Sara Haardt in 1930, when he was middle-aged, knowing that she was about to confront a climactic struggle with tuberculosis. He devotedly nursed her through increasingly frequent bouts of serious sickness, until she died in 1935. He also bore the long and degrading aftermath of a stroke with resignation and humor (along with occasional fits of rage). The situation created an ironic coda for a social Darwinist's life. Even an Übermensch is at the mercy of his arteries, and Mencken endured his affliction with remarkable grace.

Yet finally it is necessary to return to the public man. It was in public, after all, that Mencken made his reputation, and in public (if anywhere) where he will be resuscitated. But don't hold your breath. If even his admiring biographer is finally unable to take the man as seriously as he had set out to do, if the attempt at rehabilitation produces mostly disappointment, then the rest of us can only reach a chastened conclusion: most of the time the legendary H.L. Mencken was not much more than a wise-ass, a sophomore posing as a sage. It's a little sad, really.


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