The Skeptic by Terry Teachout
The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken
by Terry Teachout
HarperCollins. 496 pp. $29.95
H.L. Mencken’s historical significance is beyond dispute. As the scourge of the American “booboisie”—a target pursued relentlessly in his voluminous newspaper columns and in the six collected volumes of his journalism, Prejudices (1919-27)—he has a permanent place in the mythology of the 1920’s. As the champion (for a time) of significant new writing both at the Smart Set and then as editor of the American Mercury (1925-1933), and as a prime disrupter of the Genteel Tradition, he helped to institute a major revolution in literary taste. In The American Language (first edition 1919), he made a lasting contribution to philology, and in three volumes of memoirs, Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943), he proved himself a master of autobiography.
Walter Lippmann, writing in 1926, called Mencken “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people.” For Edmund Wilson, he was “without question, since Poe, our greatest practicing literary journalist.” Both of these tributes are quoted by Terry Teachout in the course of his admirable new biography, and he has no trouble producing others equally resonant. Teachout (who needs no introduction to readers of COMMENTARY) also cites Richard Posner’s recent survey of references to “public intellectuals” on the web between 1995 and 2000. In terms of overall number of mentions, Mencken ranks an impressive thirty-seventh; among deceased intellectuals (he died in 1956), he comes in sixth—behind Timothy Leary, it must be said, but ahead of such luminaries as Thomas Mann, W.H. Auden, John Maynard Keynes, and Albert Camus. The Sage of Baltimore is still news.
Some of it is bad news. The publication of Mencken’s diaries in 1989 created a furor. Three decades after his death, it emerged that his private attitudes had often been much nastier than his public utterances. In particular (though he was not short of prejudices in other directions as well), he stood revealed as unquestionably anti-Semitic. The appearance of two previously unknown memoirs in 1993 and 1994 left an even more disagreeable taste; you cannot help wondering how many of those Internet mentions in the years that followed turned on the question of his bigotry.
Fortunately, Mencken remains a living force for worthier reasons—though not quite on the terms he himself would have wished. He was greatly impressed by his own prowess as a thinker. When he dipped into his work, he wrote, he was “struck by the number of ideas that still seem more or less valid and significant today. I have thrown off, in my time, an enormous number of such ideas—possibly more than any other American writer of my time.”
The boast was not entirely unfounded. At his best, Mencken abounds in intelligent observations. But “ideas,” except in the most colloquial sense, seems too grand a word for them. He was certainly not a systematic thinker, he seldom felt the need to think through the consequences of the positions he took, and Teachout leaves you keenly aware of his contradictions.
His iconoclasm, we are shown, went hand in hand with a no less instinctive conservatism. (On one level, as Teachout writes, he remained “the Baltimore burgher who reveled in tradition, preferably German.”) He contrived to be both a nihilist who maintained that the world was a meaningless spectacle and a fervent believer in the gospel of Science. And he never abandoned the conviction, first acquired when he was a young man working in the newsroom of the Baltimore Herald, that life is an incessant struggle for survival. Teachout calls this his “social Darwinsim in shirtsleeves.”
It is not the ideas themselves that make him worth reading, then, but the wit and pungency with which they are expressed. Nor is it the generalizations that count for most in his work, well-turned though they usually are, but the specific cases or characters (which, nine times out of ten, means the specific targets) he discusses. He survives primarily as a master stylist, and as a comic writer of rare power.
What is called for, in the biography of such a man, is a rounded personal portrait rather than an intellectual one, and this is what Teachout provides. His book gives you, to a striking degree, the feel of Mencken, including a strong sense of what his physical presence must have been like. There is an excellent account of the Baltimore milieu where he was born in 1880 and in which he grew up, and of the extent to which it both was and was not German. As one would expect from this biographer, Mencken’s love of music is delineated with an expert hand. His wife Sara, whose death after less than five years of marriage left him devastated, is vividly brought to life. So is the one woman with whom he had been seriously involved before her, the more independent-minded Marion Bloom. (It is an odd coincidence that she should have shared her name with one of the most famous characters in 20th-century fiction, Molly Bloom, who as Joyceans will recall was also christened “Marion.”)
As he builds up his portrait, Teachout displays a sharp eye for the revealing anecdote and the telling quotation. You certainly feel you know Mencken better when you read, first, what one of his closest colleagues on the Baltimore Sun, Hamilton Owens, had to say about him—“never was a man more gregarious, never one who strove more generously to keep his friendships green”—and then see what Mencken had to say about Owens in his diary: “a time server with no more principle in him than a privy rat.”
There are some fine set-pieces, too. The best of them, which Teachout places right at the start of the book, is a dramatic confrontation that took place at the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in 1934. Mencken, who was a guest speaker, followed Gridiron tradition by assailing the presidential guest of honor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, but kept his comments fairly mild. Wily FDR, who had bathed Mencken in smiles before the speeches began, responded with a blistering denunciation of American journalists—a speech that turned out to be something Mencken himself had written seven or eight years earlier.
Mencken maintained his composure—at the end of the dinner he shook Roosevelt’s hand and said, “Fair shooting”—and when he got back to Baltimore tried to laugh off the episode. But it marked the end of what had been, by Menckenesque standards, a honeymoon with Roosevelt in his press comments, and the beginning of a notoriously bitter campaign against the President that never let up.
In retrospect, this episode has also acquired symbolic significance, which is why Teachout gives it the prominence he does. It suggests the prestige that had accrued to Mencken as a public commentator during the 1920’s; and it shows him at the point at which his popularity—and his authority—were about to decline. But the minor detail is no less arresting. On arriving at his hotel before the dinner, for instance, Mencken found that he had forgotten to bring a dress shirt. He borrowed one from a colleague, then cut himself while shaving and failed to notice that his shirtfront was spattered with blood. Luckily his colleague alerted him, and he was able to send out and buy another shirt just in time. Nerves? Anxiety about his wife, who was ill? Whatever the reason, reading about the incident makes him the more real.
To anyone who knows Mencken only from his work, some aspects of the figure Teachout portrays are bound to come as a surprise. The gap between the style and the man was often a wide one. In his writing, Mencken seems bold and worldly: it could be easy to conclude that he was a recklessly beer-quaffing bohemian. In life, however, he was a very cautious person, a great hypochondriac, and a mother’s boy: he lived with his mother until she died (he was forty-five at the time) and did not get married until five years later.
Where the man was prodigious was in the amount of work he got through, and in the verve he brought to it. Here, for the most part, Teachout makes a first-rate guide. It would be hard to improve on his account of Mencken’s career in journalism in general, both as a writer and as an editor. But when it comes to one department, literary criticism, he can be somewhat less rewarding.
Part of the trouble may be that Teachout does not seem particularly engaged by the literature of Mencken’s period. He is casually dismissive, for example, of the excellent William Dean Howells, cheerfully bracketing the author of A Modern Instance and The Rise of Silas Lapham with such forgotten mediocrities as Gene Stratton Porter and Harold Bell Wright. (This is an echo of Mencken himself at his most cavalier.)
At the same time, Teachout shows little enthusiasm for many of Mencken’s favorites, with Theodore Dreiser arousing his particular distaste. He makes a great deal of the notion that, in championing Dreiser early in his career, Mencken was operating from largely opportunistic motives: the young critic was giving his own reputation a boost by associating himself with a rising star. There is something to this, as Mencken himself conceded. But it seems unlikely that Teachout would be so taken with this interpretation if he himself felt the impact of Dreiser’s power.
Where he shows a much surer touch is in the emphasis he puts on Mencken’s admiration for Huckleberry Finn. He also does justice, within the limits of space, to that hefty and constantly enlarged masterpiece, The American Language. Here you are reminded that, however much Mencken may have lampooned homo boobus Americanus, his own prose owed an enormous debt to the vitality of the American vernacular.
As for the brutalities, Teachout puts in a plea of mitigation where he can, but he certainly does not attempt to tone them down. On the contrary, he takes care to give us some samples of the Sage of Baltimore at his worst, full in the face. Mencken’s refusal to lament the fallen of World War II, for example: “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.” That is a sentence that manages to get things wrong in about seven different ways, all of them vile.
Yet while it would be hard to forget Mencken’s offenses even if we wanted to, we should be big enough to set them aside most of the time—long enough, at least, to give ourselves a chance to appreciate his lasting virtues. He remains a difficult case, but in addition to telling a very good story very engagingly, Terry Teachout’s book makes it much easier for us to achieve a balanced judgment.