H.L. Mencken

By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2002

A Review of “The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken”
by Terry Teachout

In the Eastern conurbation that stretches from Boston to Washington, Baltimore is a second- or third-tier city, like Hartford or Providence. Most people know it only from its sports teams, or from the novels of Anne Tyler, the movies of John Waters, and the TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” produced by Baltimorean Barry Levinson. Yet as those works suggest, the city seems to have a mysterious relationship with creative types – it’s where Edgar Allan Poe died, where David Byrne grew up, and where Philip Glass and Frank Zappa (not to mention Spiro T. Agnew) were born.

And then there’s H.L. Mencken, who spent virtually all of his 76 years there. In Mencken’s case it’s easy to figure why Baltimore suited him so well. It was close to, but not actually part of, two of his favorite targets: Washington, D.C., and the South.

It was Mencken who gave us the phrase “Bible Belt” and helped turn the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes, charged with teaching the theory of evolution in the town of Dayton, Tennessee, into an international media circus. As journalist, essayist, critic and editor, he sparked a restless anti-authoritarian attitude in a generation of young Americans, even though he was rooted in what seems to us antiquity.

As Terry Teachout puts it in this splendid new biography, “it is possible to forget that we are as far removed in time from the world of Mencken’s youth as he was from the world of George Washington. He was born just fifteen years after Lincoln was assassinated.” When Mencken arrived in the world in 1880, “Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Louis Armstrong, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adolf Hitler had yet to be born.”

But while Mencken was one of the people who made the Twenties Roar, his prominence in the culture began to wane with the onset of the Great Depression. He lived till 1956, an increasingly anachronistic figure, and when his diaries were published in 1989, a frenzy of headlines proclaimed him a racist, a bigot, an anti-Semite.
So Mencken’s biographer has two tasks: to assess his enduring value and to discern how much of the tarnish that has accrued to his reputation deserves to remain. Teachout – an admirer who refuses to be awed, an apologist up to a point, a clear-sighted critic – is well suited to both tasks.

In Teachout’s view, Mencken “was to the first part of the twentieth century what Mark Twain was to the last part of the nineteenth – the quintessential voice of American letters.” It’s difficult for us to understand how potent Mencken’s “combination of antiutopian libertarianism and religious skepticism” was in his day, for as Teachout observes, “many of the targets that now seem to us ‘easy’ were in his day immensely powerful and dangerous, as his skirmishes with the censors make clear.” Viewed outside the context of the times, his faults – a “philosophical incoherence” and a repugnant tendency to stereotype Jews, blacks and others not of his ilk – stand out glaringly.

Bigotry is the more colorful of the two faults, and while Teachout hardly forgives Mencken’s prejudices, he sees them for what they were: an element in the mix that was Mencken, a man unafraid to express his opinions, no matter how unpopular. What startles us about Mencken’s opinions on racial matters is that they seem like those of the boobs he usually lampooned.

For example, in the 1930 “Treatise on the Gods,” Mencken wrote, among other things, that the Jews were “the most unpleasant race ever heard of.” When there were protests from the Jewish community, he agreed to an interview by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, in which he insisted that his comments on the Jews were “about religion, not about individuals. I don’t like religious Jews. I don’t like religious Catholics and Protestants.” But in the posthumously published “My Life as Author and Editor,” Mencken showed no scruples about commenting on individuals, including his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, whom he faulted for showing “a certain amount of the obnoxious tactlessness of his race.”

Often Mencken was like the guy who assures you that some of his “best friends are….” before airing his prejudices. In an editorial in the Baltimore Evening Sun, for example, he dismissed Henry Ford’s vicious writings as “anti-Semitic nonsense,” and added, “I am certainly not anti-Semitic myself.” But then he accused the Jews who denounced Ford’s views of protesting too much, and suggested that Ford “must have mingled some truth with his libels, else the yells would have been less raucous.”

As vile and stupid as anti-Semitism has always been, it was tolerated in mainstream discourse until knowledge of the Holocaust became widespread. Yet as Teachout points out, Mencken hardly acknowledged the Holocaust, even after its horrors had become known. Mencken, who was proud of his German ancestry and had been forced to keep a low profile during World War I, “failed to grasp the full extent of Nazi Germany’s depravity,” Teachout comments. “He looked at evil and saw ignorance. To him Hitler was Babbitt run amok.” In Mencken’s Olympian view of World War II, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill were all just “transparent quacks.”

Defenders of Mencken have pointed out that in 1938 he editorialized in favor of allowing German Jews – but not Eastern European Jews – to immigrate to the United States, and that he helped several escape from Germany. But many of the attempts to mitigate Mencken’s published and unpublished views strike Teachout as “hair-splitting,” and ultimately irrelevant: “It is not his anti-Semitism for which he will be remembered – but that he was an anti-Semite cannot now reasonably be denied.”

So why should we remember Mencken? He was, as Teachout puts it, “something more than a memorable stylist, but something less than a truly wise man.” As a critic, his attacks were brilliant, but he “was more interested in boob-baiting than in covering the remarkable range of cultural developments taking place in America….While it is too easy simply to say that he was as much of a philistine as the philistines whose ignorance he loved to denounce, it is not altogether untrue.” And although he wrote one of the earliest studies of Nietzsche, as well as books like “Notes on Democracy,” “Treatise on the Gods” and “Treatise on Right and Wrong,” these only reveal what Teachout calls “a fundamental inadequacy in Mencken’s thought: a skepticism so extreme as to issue in philosophical incoherence.”

Still, he was a fearless writer whose opinions, even when they were wrong-headed, were couched in a style that made readers sit up and take notice – and come back for more. He once said that “it was the business of a journalist….to stand in a permanent Opposition.” In that context, he was referring to politics, but Mencken was permanently opposed to anything, whether in politics or religion or the arts, that infringed on liberty and promoted mediocrity.

Perhaps it’s the style more than the substance of what he wrote that we should continue to honor. As Teachout puts it, Mencken forged “the first great vernacular American prose style of the new century,” and it has kept him enormously readable into the next century. His amateur philological studies, published in the book “The American Language” and devoted to the premise that the language of Americans was distinct from that of the English, helped liberate our prose.

And as a polemicist, he remains unparalleled. There’s no one quite like him today, even the diatribists of left (Michael Moore) and right (Ann Coulter) who have dominated the bestseller lists this year. But the America that Mencken shook up with his assaults on puritanism and chicanery was a more genteel and insular place. However much we might wish to have his take on, say, Bill Clinton or Jerry Falwell, it’s hard to imagine him in the age of Eminem and Al-Qaida.