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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Teachout is also a wise guide to what is enduring in Mencken and what seems likely to endure for a very long time: his pioneering work on the distinctively American form of English; his essays in their refined form, to be found in "A Mencken Chrestomathy"; and his three volumes of reminiscence ("Happy Days," "Newspaper Days," and "Heathen Days"). In fact, if Teachout's biography induces new generations to read just the Days books, he'll have done readers a spectacular service. "Happy Days," as Teachout suggests, is a remarkable memoir of childhood that is affectionate without being sentimental--no small trick. "Newspaper Days," Teachout rightly notes, is quite simply the best portrait ever written of American journalism in the early twentieth century. "Heathen Days," the most chronologically miscellaneous of the three, is also the least consistent in quality. But its irresistible lampoon of secondary education in late-nineteenth-century Baltimore, its hilarious (and wholly accurate) portrait of a 1917 Cuban revolution, and its tale of the effects of illicit bourbon at the 1920 Democratic convention are things that one can return to, again and again, simply to admire Mencken's mature mastery of his unique style--perhaps the most distinctively American of all twentieth-century literary voices.

What I miss in Teachout's "The Skeptic" is more of that voice--not so much in its later, smoother tones, but the raspier, deliberately grating voice of Mencken the political reporter and columnist. Having committed biography myself, I understand that some tough calls have to be made in selecting what gets quoted and what ends up on the cutting room floor. But if "The Skeptic" is to serve as a full-bodied introduction to Mencken's art for a new generation, then isn't something important missing when gems like Mencken on Warren G. Harding's inaugural address in 1921 don't make it into the book?

"On the question of the logical content of Dr. Harding's harangue of last Friday, I do not presume to have views. . . . But when it comes to the style of the great man's discourse, I can speak with . . . somewhat more competence, for I have earned most of my livelihood for twenty years past by translating the bad English of a multitude of authors into measurably better English. Thus qualified professionally, I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm . . . of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Or Mencken on Gerald L.K. Smith at the 1936 convention of the Townsend pensioners' movement:

"His speech was a magnificent amalgam of each and every American species of rabble-rousing, with embellishments borrowed from the Algonquin Indians and the Cossacks of the Don. It ran the keyboard from the softest sobs and gurgles to the most ear-splitting whoops and howls, and when it was over the 9,000 delegates simply lay back in their pews and yelled."

Or Mencken covering the 1932 Democratic convention, wrestling with its Prohibition plank:

"Since one o'clock this morning Prohibition has been a fugitive in the remoter quagmires of the Bible Belt. The chase began thirteen hours earlier, when the resolutions committee of the convention retired to the voluptuous splendors of the Rose Room of the Congress Hotel. For four hours nothing came out of its stronghold save the moaning of converts in mighty travail. Then the Hon. Michael L. Igoe, a round-faced Chicago politician, burst forth with the news that the wet wets of the committee had beaten the damp wets by a vote of 35-17. There ensued a hiatus, while the quarry panted and the bloodhounds bayed. At seven in the evening the chase was resumed in the convention hall, and four hours later Prohibition went out the window to the stately tune of 934 3/4 votes to 213 1/4, or more than four to one. So the flight to the fastnesses of Zion began."