The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken , by Terry Teachout. HarperCollins, 410 pages, $29.95.
It’s tempting, when trying to give a sense of H.L. Mencken’s place in American literature, to reach for lofty comparisons. Alistair Cooke called him the American Voltaire; he was also a popularizer of ideas like Shaw, a foe of religion like Nietzsche, and a lexicographer like Dr. Johnson. Edmund Wilson, whose own polymathic career would have been impossible without Mencken’s example, wrote in 1921 that “Mencken is the civilized consciousness of America, its learning, its intelligence and its taste, realizing the grossness of its manners and mind and crying out in horror and chagrin.”
But unlike those great writers, who managed to build lasting monuments on the swamp-ground of punditry, Mencken wrote very little that survives. He was a titan among journalists, working for 50 years on the Baltimore Sun , The Smart Set and the American Mercury ; but as he admitted, “my existing books, in fact, are all bad. I am at my best in articles, written in heat and printed at once.” And a taste of his work is enough to satisfy most readers’ appetites: a few book reviews, a handful of editorials, a couple of columns and a brisk stroll through the memoirs. Only an addict would think of poring through all six volumes of Prejudices , and even an addict might hesitate before Treatise on the Gods or Notes on Democracy . For everything about Mencken, from the industrial bulk of his production to the twitchy gusto of his prose, to the irresponsibility of his ideas, reveals a writer who did not take himself quite seriously enough. If Mencken was a literary artist (to borrow his quip about Dr. Johnson), then a cornet-player is a musician.
Terry Teachout’s excellent new biography succeeds by taking Mencken for what he’s worth and not demanding more. The Skeptic is blessedly brisk, considering the sheer length of Mencken’s career and the abundance of his opinions, and remarkably judicious. Mr. Teachout writes that “unlike Mencken’s previous biographers, I write, very broadly speaking, from his point of view”-which is to say, he doesn’t dismiss out of hand Mencken’s strong libertarian and anti-egalitarian views. And his sympathetic exposition of those views makes his censure of Mencken’s shortcomings, as a man and a writer, all the more credible.
Though he lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, the essence of Mencken’s philosophy never changed. One of its pithiest statements can be found in his landmark essay “The National Letters”: “[The] lower orders are inert, timid, inhospitable to ideas, hostile to changes, faithful to a few maudlin superstitions. All progress goes on on the higher levels …. This, indeed, is at once the hall-mark and the justification of an aristocracy-that it is beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.”
This is hardly a novel creed: It’s equal parts social Darwinism, Nie-tzschean elitism and Republican laissez-faire . That it satisfied Mencken for so long with so little modification is due, as Mr. Teachout shows, largely to the conclusions he drew from his own life. Born in 1880 to a Baltimore tobacco-merchant with no interest in high culture, Mencken was badly educated and sent as a teenager into the family business. But he was innately bookish, and he dreamed of being a reporter. One of the most poignant and revealing documents in The Skeptic is Mencken’s application to a journalism correspondence school: “Age? 19. Occupation? Clerical work in factory. Time to devote to literary work? 4 hours a day.” Mencken lifted himself from this intellectual proletarianism to an unparalleled height of literary reputation and influence, and did it entirely by his own efforts. The lesson, to him at least, was obvious: Those who succeed deserve all the credit for their success, and all its fruits; those who fail deserve mockery and contempt.
Everything good in Mencken stems from this proud root: his love of liberty, his hatred of superstition, his high literary standards. In the 1910’s, as columnist and then co-editor (with George Jean Nathan) of The Smart Set , he demanded that American writers produce a literature worthy of their civilization. In the 1920’s, as editor of the American Mercury , he took aim at the rich targets of the Jazz Age, from plutocracy to Babbittry to fundamentalism. His attacks were fierce and intemperate-when William Jennings Bryan died in his sleep five days after the Scopes “monkey trial,” Mencken told his friends, “We killed the son-of-a-bitch”-but that only made them more delightful.
Mencken’s narrowness, his lack of a truly cultured mind, meant that his ideas remained on the level of prejudices. He hailed robust realists like Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, but as Mr. Teachout writes, when the modernists of the 1920’s came along, he greeted them “as if they were merely another species of boob.” He lampooned American politicians as corrupt morons, but when the crisis of the Depression approached he could not grasp its seriousness, saw nothing in F.D.R. and the New Deal but charlatanism, and wrote in 1933: “If the American people really tire of democracy and want to make a trial of Fascism, I shall be the last person to object.” Another sign of his crankiness was his growing anti-Semitism. Though he had many Jewish friends and colleagues, he could not conceal his revulsion at Jews in general: “[T]hey have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom.”
Mr. Teachout is unsparing about all of these failures, yet he finally finds Mencken an irresistible figure: “He 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.” Mr. Teachout shrewdly notes that “such praise would have been repulsive to a man who fancied himself a member of the international aristocracy of superior beings, but the passing of time has made it easier to see how very American he was.” Perhaps the point deserves to be underlined that Mencken, if he was quintessentially American, was American above all in his too-easy acceptance of the second-rate. He may have been just the Voltaire we deserve.
Adam Kirsch’s first book of poetry, The Thousand Wells (Ivan R. Dee), was published this October.