Terry Teachout. The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. New York, Harper-Collins, 2002.
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) is not a name familiar to most Americans today. If he is remembered at all, most know him only as the model for the character of the reporter in the play Inherit the Wind. Nevertheless, there was a time when Mencken was one of America's most influential news reporters and cultural critics -- "the leading journalist of the Jazz Age." He began his professional career as the "boy wonder" journalist for the Baltimore newspapers.
During the nine years, from 1914 to 1923, when he and drama critic George J. Nathan co-edited The Smart Set magazine, he reviewed roughly two thousand novels, most of which he considered the work of "100 percent dunderheads." He was justly famous for his harsh reviews -- a selection of which have been reprinted in the book Smart Set Criticism. He was also, however, largely responsible for bringing the works of Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis to the attention of the reading public. He was one of the first critics to recognze The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as being a great novel and played a major role in establishing its status as being perhaps "The great American novel". It was also during this period that he wrote his classic, The American Language (1919).
Subsequently he and Nathan cofounded The American Mercury, which under his editorship from 1923 thru 1933, became one of the most widely read and influential publications in America. As a journalist, his coverage of the Scopes "monkey trial" helped make it the true "trial of the Century" long before O.J.. In the thirties he was a leading critic of the New Deal and an important voice for isolationism and apologist for Hitler.
All this is covered in Terry Teachout's The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, but in Teachout's own words, "this is a life of Mencken, not the life." Rather than trying to present an objective and detailed account of a life, this biography is more the author's personal take on his subject. Teachout explores the reasons for Mencken's successes, his failures, and his ultimate standing in American literary and social history, as well as for the controversy that he continues to be able to provoke to the present day. He quotes Mencken amply, but not excessively, showing him at both his best and his worst.
Mencken was born in the Nineteenth Century and his mindset never quite made it into the Twentieth Century. He spent much of the second half of his life defending ideas that history was busily sweeping aside. He railed against the growing power of the federal government in the early years of the Roosevelt administration; insisted on an elitist brand of politics that favored the "superior man," and generally agitated against progressive domestic causes. He urged, perhaps with ironic intent, that capital punishment be turned into a public entertainment.
He was a dedicated isolationist on world affairs. Of German ancestry, he always remained an admirer of all things German. That admiration included a near slavish devotion to the elitist philsophy of Nietzsche. It also extended to German militarism, even during the two World Wars.
At the same time, Mencken had a passionate, unbending devotion to individual liberty and an undying hostility to those who, for whatever motives, sought to control others' lives or limit their freedom. His opposition to middle class conformity may have had its roots in an elitist worldview, but it was nonetheless liberating for anyone that did not wish to conform. Mencken was almost solely responsible for transforming the term Puritanism from a self-cogratulatory brag to a condemnation.
Teachout finds the greatest weakness in Mencken's thought to be his "extreme skepticism" and "permanent opposition." This excess of skepticism resulted in his often failing to acknowledge genuine cultural progress. Furthermore, Teachout argues that it renders Mencken's thought ultimately "incoherent" as any sort of consistent whole. Given that Mencken was a journalist and not a philosopher, this incoherence doesnt seem like such a terrible failing to me. Do we care whether Walter Chronkite's thought was coherent as a body or is it enough that he reported the facts as best he could at the time?
The epilog of the book goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar position that Mencken occupies in American letters. His is a curiously ambiguous reputation -- accepted by neither the conservative nor the liberal establishment, despite his strong affinities with each. Teachout takes the view that Menckens success was a "triumph of style." Form and content, he asserts, are "inseparable" in Mencken's work. The result of this marriage of content with style ultimately expresses the fundamental characteristics of the "American temperament" "witty and abrasive, self-confident and self-contradictory." Certainly, I must agree that Mencken had style and that whether he was expressing ideas that I find admirable or ones I find repulsive, he did so with remarkable energy and with great mastery of the English language -- or as he would prefer, of the American language.