The Magazine

Mencken Trouble

Terry Teachout's life of the bad boy of Baltimore.

Nov 4, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 08 • By GEORGE WEIGEL
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The Skeptic
A Life of H.L. Mencken
by Terry Teachout
HarperCollins, 432 pp., $29.95

IN THE FALL OF 1923, James M. Cain, a reporter then aspiring to a literary career, had lunch in Baltimore with H.L. Mencken, who was on the verge of launching a new journal, the American Mercury. Despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact, that Mencken did nearly all the talking during a four-hour meal, Cain left under the spell. He felt, he said later, "like a boy who had had his baseball autographed by Babe Ruth."

At the time, virtually every literate American would have instantly understood both ends of the analogy. Today, even the most avid young reader might be puzzled on stumbling across Cain's reminiscence--and not by the reference to the Sultan of Swat. Terry Teachout's long-awaited "The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken" thus comes at an opportune moment. It has been a decade or more since a bruising controversy over Mencken's character was precipitated by the release of the diary and literary reminiscences that Mencken had left to Baltimore's Pratt Library under a set of rolling time locks. Teachout has mined these materials in a calmer, more measured spirit. The result, if not a definitive study of the man and his work, is a reliable and enjoyable introduction to one of America's greatest writers, a book that will help post-Boomer generations meet, enjoy, be enraged, and ultimately be baffled by the Bad Boy of Baltimore.

I have been reading Mencken for more than thirty years, and still find him endlessly entertaining--and unsolvable. How could a man who lived such a vigorous social life and who was, by all accounts, an exemplary colleague on both newspapers and magazines, leave behind a diary full of acid deprecations of his former associates and friends, knowing full well that these portraits would only be read when the subjects were long beyond the capacity to defend themselves (and when the author was beyond the reach of criticism)?

Why was the man who was arguably the greatest columnist in American newspaper history so spectacularly wrong as a political pundit, and why did he misread national and international politics so badly in the 1930s? How does one fit into a single coherent portrait the success of Mencken's scholarship on the American language--a discipline he invented in its modern form--and the failure of the books he thought would constitute his intellectual legacy as a "critic of ideas": his studies of democracy, religion, and ethics? How could the man who staunchly promoted Dreiser, Conrad, Cather, Lewis, Norris, London, and Fitzgerald brag about never having read Dostoyevsky and dismiss "The Age of Innocence" as a Genteel Tradition confection devoid of "all character, all distinction"? How could this lifelong skeptic write a violent denunciation of Bryan when the Great Commoner died just after the Scopes Trial--and then blast theological modernism and pen a discerning and affectionate obituary column on the death in 1937 of J. Gresham Machen, the Presbyterian theologian he dubbed "Dr. Fundamentalist"?

"The Skeptic" does not resolve these Menckenian mysteries and conundrums, but it does not avoid them, either. Terry Teachout is clearly sympathetic to his subject, but he gives readers both Mencken's virtues and his warts. These often marched in tandem: Mencken's great capacity for friendship matched his coldbloodedness when friends (like founding Mercury co-editor George Jean Nathan) were no longer useful to him; Mencken's longstanding business relationship and personal friendships with Jews coexisted with his sniping anti-Semitic cracks; Mencken's promotion of black authors and his defense of civil rights went along with his unabashed adherence to theories of racial superiority popular among advanced thinkers of his time.

In getting at Mencken the man, Teachout is particularly successful in coming to grips with Mencken's incapacity or unwillingness to commit himself to one woman--until, that is, he met the Southern author Sara Haardt. The poignant tale of their five-year marriage, a love story beset, and finally doomed, by Sara's sundry illnesses, is well told here. In this instance, as throughout "The Skeptic," Terry Teachout wisely avoids the temptations of long-distance psychoanalysis, temptations to which other Mencken biographers have too readily succumbed.