The Magazine

Mencken the Teuton

When the Bad Boy of Baltimore was bad, he was horrid.

Jan 30, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 19 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Mencken: The American Iconoclast

The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore

by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

Oxford, 662 pp., $35

THIS MONTH MARKS THE 50TH anniversary of H.L. Mencken's passing. Recently described by the New York Times as "the premier social critic of the first half of the 20th century," Mencken poured out more than 70 million words worth of columns, essays, and books over the five decades of his working life. At the height of his influence in the 1920s, Mencken's reputation fatted on the inanities of Prohibition, blue-nosed book-banning, and the Ku Klux Klan, all of which he saw as works of the "boobus Americanus." His broadsides against Prohibition, posturing preachers, and anti-evolutionists made him a hero to generations of college students. But his true quarry was American democracy and the American people, whom he defined as a "rabble of ignorant peasants."

Mencken's mockery of American mores made him, as Walter Lippmann said in 1926, "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." And even now, 75 years after his heyday, Mencken's assaults on the hypocrisy of conventional morality resonate in the political and social debates between red and blue states. He taught his heirs, on both the left and right, how to be narrow-minded with an air of superiority.

Mencken, who was a master of self-promotion even as he mocked corn-fed, 100-percent American "go-getters," made sure that he would not be forgotten; indeed, he saw to it that the controversies around his life would continue well after his death in 1956. In accordance with Mencken's will, the author's extensive literary correspondence was shielded from public view until 1971. His diaries were opened a decade later--again, at his direction--and when a selection from them was published in 1989, they relaunched a longstanding dispute about Mencken's anti-Semitism.

Mencken is a mother lode for biographers. He meticulously kept almost everything he wrote in carefully maintained scrapbooks, along with a trove of personal memorabilia. In 1994 Fred Hobson, a professor at the University of North Carolina, became the first to use the newly available materials in Mencken: A Life, a thoughtful, balanced biography that described him as a "nay saying [Walt] Whitman." Mencken had been an enormous influence on the elitist conservatives of the 1930s and '40s. In 2002, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken by Terry Teachout tried to see if his legacy had something to say to contemporary conservatives. But Teachout found that the sheer "incoherence" of Mencken's bilious outpourings--not to mention his Nietzschean elitism, fondness for German authoritarians, and eugenics--made him, on balance, a dubious inspiration.

Now, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers has also tapped the new material and the voluminous collection of Menckeniana at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore to give us a liberal Mencken meant to inspire progressives in the current iteration of the culture wars. In Mencken: The American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore we get little of the beer-swilling bigot, hypochondriac, and mama's boy who lived at home until he was 45. Rodgers's Mencken is a latter-day Mark Twain, the man whose fights against censorship and for civil liberties were meant to benefit all Americans. The virtue of this book is that, for Mencken's many admirers, it provides a detailed, loving account of their hero as he goes about his life. But Mencken was as shallow as he was amusing. Rodgers's failing is that, unlike Hobson and Teachout, she has very little to say about the substance of his frequent, though failed, attempts to have himself taken seriously as a brilliant stylist, and a thinker as well.

For all of her 662 pages, Rodgers virtually ignores Mencken's World War I writings on behalf of Imperial Germany, that, along with his earlier book on Nietzsche, defined his political outlook. Opposed to American intervention in the Great War on the side of the Allies, Mencken had no objection to war per se: Drawing on Nietzsche's notion of the "will to power," he wrote that "war is a good thing, because it is honest, it admits the central fact of human nature. . . . A nation too long at peace becomes a sort of gigantic old maid." What he opposed were British, and then American, efforts at defeating German militarism.

The war, notes Hobson, "focused his thoughts" and created a clear position. Mencken explained: