№ 5

America’s Skep­ti­cal Sage

—The Globe and Mail, Jan. 25, 2003

The Skep­tic
A Life of H. L. Mencken

By Terry Tea­chout
Harper­Collins, 410 pages, $44.95

Oddly enough, it’s often the great jour­nal­ists who are the first to belit­tle their craft. In 1915, just months after launch­ing the New Repub­lic, Wal­ter Lipp­mann described the news­pa­per com­men­ta­tor as “a puz­zled man mak­ing notes … draw­ing sketches in the sand, which the sea will wash away.” Many years later, the New York Times’ James Reston would be even less char­i­ta­ble: “A news­pa­per col­umn, like a fish, should be con­sumed when fresh; oth­er­wise it is not only undi­gestible but unspeakable.”

With that, Henry Louis Mencken (1880–1956) prob­a­bly would have agreed.

Mencken, often called the Sage of Bal­ti­more, whom Edmund Wil­son called “with­out ques­tion, since Poe, our great­est prac­tic­ing lit­er­ary jour­nal­ist,” could admit pri­vately that he, too, was “just” a news­pa­per­man. “I am at my best in arti­cles, writ­ten in heat and printed at once,” he con­fessed in his mid-40s. “Unfor­tu­nately, they are dead in a few weeks, and so can­not be reprinted.”

His­tory, I sus­pect, might be kinder to the man. Read­ing him now, nearly 50 years after his death, still gives you a pretty sharp jolt. Indeed, no one bites like H. L. Mencken. That blunt, bar­relling prose fixed on its famil­iar tar­gets: politi­cians (of every stripe), the Bible Belt (a phrase he coined), the end­less medi­oc­ri­ties of Mid­dle Amer­ica (the “booboisie”). It was Mencken, of course, who said that no one ever went broke under­es­ti­mat­ing the taste of the Amer­i­can pub­lic. Once, he was even asked why, if he found the United States so second-rate, he still lived there.

Why do men go to zoos?,” he replied.

With Mencken, how­ever, con­tra­dic­tions come with the turf. He could be a rous­ing ally, to be sure, and as the edi­tor of two national mag­a­zines, Smart Set and Amer­i­can Mer­cury, he was one of the first to cham­pion now-classic Amer­i­can nov­el­ists Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather and Sin­clair Lewis. When his influ­ence hit its peak, in the 1920s, he was one of those out­sized char­ac­ters who then seemed to be every­where. He was journalism’s Babe Ruth, its F. Scott Fitzger­ald, its Louis Armstrong.

In The Skep­tic,Terry Teachout’s excel­lent new biog­ra­phy, Mencken isn’t cod­dled; nothing’s been cleaned up. Tea­chout — reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Com­men­tary, Time and the Wash­ing­ton Post — is a gen­uine Mencken fan. But he’s also deter­mined to tackle all things unpalat­able in Mencken’s past, espe­cially the raft of racist remarks (his anti-Semitism, in par­tic­u­lar) which now seem to dog him. So, Tea­chout throws Mencken’s flaws into the open and still shows why he mat­ters: why this news­pa­per­man who never left Bal­ti­more, who lived with his mother in the same house until he was 45, was still “a tremen­dous lib­er­at­ing force in Amer­i­can culture.”

Cer­tainly, Mencken’s story could have been lifted straight out of Hor­a­tio Alger. Born in 1880, at 19 he was a reporter at the Bal­ti­more Her­ald, at 25 its editor-in chief. Soon, he’d cross town to the Sun, where he’d remain for 50 years. Entirely self-taught (he once tried to learn news writ­ing from a mail-order com­pany), and intensely book­ish (he read, in his early 20s, a novel a day), Mencken’s energy for lan­guage and ideas seemed bound­less. To him, Huck­le­berry Finn was the pre-eminent exam­ple of Amer­i­can prose.

He was also enam­oured of Ger­man cul­ture, a taste he devel­oped well before the First World War. Niet­zsche was a par­tic­u­lar hero. (In 1908, Mencken would write The Phi­los­o­phy of Friedrich Niet­zsche — a “young man’s book,” says Tea­chout — and later trans­late Nietzsche’s The Antichrist.) Indeed, as Tea­chout points out, Mencken wrote a goodly num­ber of books, mostly in his spare time, includ­ing trea­tises on democ­racy, reli­gion and ethics, as well as The Amer­i­can Lan­guage, a pio­neer­ing work that showed the diver­gence of British and Amer­i­can English.

In The Skep­tic, how­ever, Tea­chout is remark­ably good at jux­ta­pos­ing Mencken’s jar­ring incon­sis­ten­cies. “Any­one read­ing Mencken for the first time,” Tea­chout observes, “is likely to be struck by the con­flict between the tru­cu­lent pes­simism of his phi­los­o­phy and the infec­tious gusto of his tem­pera­ment.” Mencken was, indeed, a devoted skep­tic and, in his own words, “con­sti­tu­tion­ally unable to believe in any­thing absolutely.” He did think that peo­ple were fun­da­men­tally unequal, and, as Tea­chout explains, “his read­ing of Niet­zsche left him cer­tain that the strong ones — among whom he num­bered him­self — would nat­u­rally prevail.”

Tea­chout isn’t one to flinch; he isn’t about to white­wash Mencken’s even more dis­taste­ful habits of mind. Cer­tainly, Mencken was an anti-Semite. (Before the war, Tea­chout explains, Mencken thought the United States should open its doors to Jew­ish refugees — but only if they were “his kind of Jews.”) And he could rou­tinely dis­par­age blacks, as well. Yet, many of Mencken’s clos­est friends were Jew­ish (edi­tor and critic George Jean Nathan and pub­lisher Alfred Knopf), and he spoke out force­fully against lynch­ing and for civil rights.

But in the end, Tea­chout accepts Mencken’s self-contradictions, his glar­ing imper­fec­tions. Despite his mis­an­thropy and his extreme skep­ti­cism, he was sim­ply the supreme observer of his times. “In Mencken,” Tea­chout con­cludes, “style and con­tent are one, and the result­ing alloy is more than merely indi­vid­ual. It is a match­lessly exact expres­sion of the Amer­i­can tem­per.” Mencken might be mad­den­ing (or worse), but his com­men­taries on pol­i­tics and cul­ture can still seem ter­rif­i­cally precise.

Then again, The Skep­tic is an extremely fine guide. After Teachout’s fin­ished, you’re prone to pick up Mencken, warts and all, this char­ac­ter (this sage, per­haps) pulled with per­fect clar­ity out of the fog of our not so dis­tance past.