Terry Teachout's life of the bad boy of Baltimore.
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.
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. 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." By offering a richer sampler of Mencken the reporter and columnist, Terry Teachout would not only have added to his readers' pleasure; he would have buttressed one of his own key analytic points, namely, that Mencken's high-voltage genius (imagine writing those lines about Gerald L.K. Smith on a manual typewriter under intense deadline pressure with little chance for refinement or correction) was capable of refinement into the no-less-engaging, but far more elegant, style on tap in the "Days" books and in the final form of Mencken's essays in the "Chrestomathy." Mencken was, in brief, both a spectacularly gifted daily journalist and a master stylist whose uniqueness is demonstrated by the impossibility of his style's being successfully imitated (multiple attempts thereat notwithstanding). The British broadcaster Alistair Cooke--despite being an Englishman, a breed for which Mencken had very little use--was a friend who once wrote that Mencken would be longest remembered as a great American humorist. (Perhaps Cooke came to that view after Mencken, observing an anorexic, stringy-haired female fan of Henry Wallace at his 1948 convention, said, sotto voce, "My God, just look at that woman. Makes you want to burn every bed in the world.") And there is surely an ample supply of laughs to be had from reading and rereading Mencken, particularly his political reporting and columnizing. But perhaps Cooke sells his friend too short. Terry Teachout may well be both more generous and more accurate when he proposes that Mencken will best be remembered as a unique stylist, a craftsman of American English. For all his bluster and cynicism, Mencken reinforced his readers' joie de vivre as perhaps no American writer since Mark Twain. He continues to do so today. Those who haven't had the pleasure of being seduced by Mencken's craft can now discover him through Terry Teachout, an able and discerning guide--and then go get the Days books and the Chrestomathy on their own. George Weigel is the author of "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II" and, most recently, "The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church."
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