Mencken: The American Iconoclast

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Overview


A towering figure on the American cultural landscape, H.L. Mencken stands out as one of our most influential stylists and fearless iconoclasts--the twentieth century's greatest newspaper journalist, a famous wit, and a constant figure of controversy.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers has written the definitive biography of Mencken, the finest book ever published about this giant of American letters. Rodgers illuminates both the public and the private man, covering the many love ...
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Mencken: The American Iconoclast

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Overview


A towering figure on the American cultural landscape, H.L. Mencken stands out as one of our most influential stylists and fearless iconoclasts--the twentieth century's greatest newspaper journalist, a famous wit, and a constant figure of controversy.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers has written the definitive biography of Mencken, the finest book ever published about this giant of American letters. Rodgers illuminates both the public and the private man, covering the many love affairs, his happy marriage at the age of 50 to Sara Haardt, and his complicated but stimulating friendship with the famed theater critic George Jean Nathan. Rodgers vividly recreates Mencken's era: the glittering tapestry of turn-of-the-century America, the roaring twenties, depressed thirties, and the home front during World War II. But the heart of the book is Mencken. When few dared to shatter complacencies, Mencken fought for civil liberties and free speech, playing a prominent role in the Scope's Monkey Trial, battling against press censorship, and exposing pious frauds and empty uplift. The champion of our tongue in The American Language, Mencken also played a pivotal role in defining American letters through The Smart Set and The American Mercury, magazines that introduced such writers as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Langston Hughes.
Drawing on research in more than sixty archives including private collections in the United States and in Germany, previously unseen, on exclusive interviews with Mencken's friends, and on his love letters and FBI files, here is the full portrait of one of America's most colorful and influential men.

"This biography, the best ever on the sage of Baltimore, is exhaustive but never exhausting, and offers readers more than moderate intelligence and an awfully good time."
--Martin Nolan, Boston Globe

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The most superb and entertaining biography (in any field) that I've read in years, one that has 'National Book Award' stamped all over it."--Joseph Goulden, Washington Times

"This book is both enlightening and marvelous to read."--Blue Ridge Business Journal

"Definitive.... The last word on perhaps the most famous newspaper man of the 20th century."--Bloomsberg News

"Every new generation should rediscover H. L. Mencken, and every journalist should read this fine biography. Marion Elizabeth Rodgers has produced a balanced, measured portrait, proving herself as adept at probing the labyrinth of Mencken's private life as she is at placing his iconoclasm in the context of his times."--The London Sunday Times

"Rodgers isn't the first to tell the story of powerful and controversial thinker and writer Mencken, but her affection for this notorious iconoclast and her access to untapped sources make for a uniquely fresh and absorbing biography."--Booklist (in naming Mencken one of the top ten biographies of the year)

"In this splendid biography...Rodgers juggles the dense narrative of Mencken's life and times with considerable dexterity, while also providing a glimpse into his very private world.... His was one of the key American literary lives of the 20th century and Rodgers has, quite simply, done him proud."--The London Independent

"Marion Rodgers has written a comprehensive and humane biography.... In these troubled times, compared to Mencken, with all his faults, we journalists look like pygmies."--The London Literary Review

"In these parlous times, when 'media personalities' parrot partisan talking points, a visit with Mencken is a seidel of cold pilsner on a hot day. Born in 1880, he died in 1956. Why do people still talk about him 50 years later? The most exhilarating way to find out is to read Mencken: The American Iconoclast, by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. This biography, the best ever on the sage of Baltimore, is exhaustive but never exhausting, and offers readers more than moderate intelligence and an awfully good time."--Martin Nolan, Boston Globe

"The most recognizably human Mencken to date.... The best, as well as the liveliest, up-to-date biography.... Mencken's timeliest quality remains his bedrock principles, particularly his commitment to civil liberty in times of hysteria--and regardless of popular opinion. Would that we could bargain with Hades and trade him for a Judy Miller or a David Frum. But as it is, we can content ourselves with Mencken's works, and be thankful that Marion Rodgers has reminded us of a time when at least one journalist held to an unswerving commitment to liberty, Comstocks and Creels be damned."--Daniel McCarthy, The American Conservative

"Rodgers tells all with considerable verve.... She's certainly covered Mencken's extraordinarily complex life with exemplary thoroughness, sympathy and honesty, and more than a little wit."--Baltimore Sun

"A superb study of the life of the cigar-chomping controversialist, civil libertarian and muckraker who remains the patron saint of journalists, at least of a certain age.... The best biography of Mencken to date."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Skillfully written, broadly encompassing and fairly bristling with documentation, it is, overall, the best--as well as longest--of the [major Mencken biographies]."--Chicago Sun-Times

"A biography that stands out in a crowded field because of her exhaustive research and her deft touch as a writer.... Rodgers manages to make her mark amid all this competition because, among those who have sought to provide a comprehensive, scholarly examination of Mencken's life, she is by far the most capable storyteller. The extent of her research is phenomenal...but she is never overwhelmed by her material. Rather, she is able to weave all these intricate details into a narrative that enables readers to see how this extraordinary life unfolded in real time.... Rodgers' life of Mencken is memorable and engaging...she now stands with the best of the great journalist's biographers." --San Francisco Chronicle

"With obvious affection for her subject, access to untapped sources, and interviews with Mencken's friends and enemies, Rodgers offers an absorbing look at the 'bad boy of Baltimore'.... Rodgers conveys the high spirits and complexity of an American iconoclast and the turbulent times in which he lived."--Booklist (starred review)

"By far the best Mencken biography ever written--and this reviewer has read almost a dozen.... This book is a masterpiece.... If you care about America, ideas, courage, and good writing and read only one biography this year, I would suggest this be the one."--Toledo Blade

"Detailed, pungent, humorous and vivid.... Rodgers presents a wealth of information that, like Mencken's writing, is a true joy to read."--Santa Fe New Mexican

"Even now, almost 50 years after his death, many of Mencken's political insights hold true...as Rodgers shows in this thorough work, Mencken was more than a newspaperman and prolific author.... This is a meticulous portrait of one of the most original and complicated men in American letters." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"H.L. Mencken--Henry to his friends--has always been a hard nut to crack. Now Marion Elizabeth Rodgers has, for once and for all, just about done it.... In clear and forceful prose he would have approved of, Rodgers gives Mencken his 1ightful place in American literature and life. Her book is...captivating."--Anthony Day, Los Angeles Times

"A comprehensive biography of this famously irascible writer from Baltimore."--Library Journal

"The most complete and the most living picture of H. L. Mencken that has ever been attempted, written with vividness and even poignancy. This is a definitive biography."--Charles Fecher, editor, The Diary of H. L. Mencken, and author of Mencken: A Study of His Thought

"A fine piece of work."--Seattle Times

"A detailed look at the life and works of one of America's foremost journalists and social critics, whose public identity outshines his private one."--Denver Post

"Provides new insights into the inner life and character of a man who has always been an enigma.... But it is her sympathetic yet unflinching look at Mencken the lover and Mencken the (falsely) accused bigot and defender of Hitler that make her book special.... Rodgers' biography brings fresh understanding to America's greatest journalist, who approached every subject with complete fearlessness and honesty and the conviction that the writer must always put on a good show. Did he ever."--Memphis Flyer

"H.L. Mencken, the legendary scourge of the booboisie, infuriated red-state Americans while enchanting urban freethinkers, boozers, and long-haired eggheads. In this full length portrait of the great hell-raiser and his era, Marion Rodgers discloses an old-fashioned mama's boy and a warm and apparently irresistable lover of women. Also--what a rarity!--a truly independent mind."--Russell Baker

"Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is a thorough scholar and not--like so many American biographers--an idolater; she has delicate intuition about her subject, a lively awareness of the warts, and overall good judgement."--Alistair Cooke

"The greatest American master of witty invective was also an eccentric, vulnerable human being. So we learn from Marion Rodgers's wonderful book. Wonderful and timely. 'Heave an egg out of a Pullman window,' he wrote, 'and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.' To paraphrase Wordsworth on Milton, 'Mencken! Thou shouldst be living at this hour.'"--Anthony Lewis

"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."--Weekly Standard

Named one of the "Best Books of 2007" by the Arkansas-Democrat-Gazette

Thomas Frank
Any study of the author is bound to disappoint when his own words are cited and the reader suddenly feels the galvanic force of the great man's writing—and, by comparison, the weakness of the biographer's own abilities. Biographies that focus on the development of Mencken's ideas suffer from this problem even when they are well-written…Rodgers circumvents this difficulty altogether by giving us Mencken the man, in impressive and often fantastic detail, while keeping the author's writing and ideas largely in the background. Every lead is chased down: The reader learns about what Mencken drank while in Germany during World War I, the testimony he gave in a censorship case in the 1940s, how much affection this person or that felt for him, and, over and over again, the intimate details of his love life. It is a solid and well-researched work, built on dozens of interviews in addition to heroic feats of archival digging.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
For much of the early 20th century, H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), aka the Baron of Baltimore, was the country's most famous pundit, inspiring both love and fear and sometimes an equal measure of both. As novelist Richard Wright noted, "He was using words as a weapon." His targets were only the biggest issues of his day: Prohibition, puritanism and censorship. Even now, almost 50 years after his death, many of Mencken's political insights hold true, such as this gem: "Nations get on with one another, not by telling the truth, but by lying gracefully." Yet as Rodgers shows in this thorough work, Mencken was more than a newspaperman and prolific author; in 1924, he founded-and continued to edit-the highbrow (and popular) monthly magazine The American Mercury, which printed pieces by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes (at a time when most white editors would have nothing to do with black writers). But Rodgers, editor of Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters and The Impossible H.L. Mencken, doesn't shy away from her subject's faults; she examines Mencken's anti-Semitism and his unsettling devotion to Germany (the land of his ancestors) even as the shadow of the Nazi Wehrmacht fell on Europe. Drawing on research in more than 60 archives (including previously unseen private collections in the U.S. and in Germany), exclusive interviews with Mencken's friends and his love letters, this is a meticulous portrait of one of the most original and complicated men in American letters. Photos. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) is considered one of the most influential and controversial journalists and critics of the first half of the 20th century. Rodgers (Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters) has produced a comprehensive biography of this famously irascible writer from Baltimore. Interestingly, she defines him as eying America as an outsider, even as his voice is considered authentically American. Rodgers draws on a number of archives, both in the United States and in Germany, incorporating the results into a readable whole. In addition to reviewing Mencken's career and writing, she studies his private life in detail and does an excellent job of tying the strands together. She does not avoid consideration of Mencken's bigotry and his failure to see the threat Hitler posed. Including over 50 pages of source notes and an extensive bibliography, this work will be an important addition to the library of any university, especially those with journalism programs, as well as to larger public libraries.-Joel W. Tscherne, Cleveland P.L. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A superb study of the life of the cigar-chomping controversialist, civil libertarian and muckraker who remains the patron saint of journalists, at least of a certain age. Henry Louis Mencken (always H.L., by way of distancing himself from readers) lived in a puritanical age very much like our own, though "he was anything but a moralist-an attitude, he realized, that made him incomprehensible to most Americans." So writes Mencken anthologist and devotee Rodgers, who notes that her subject was born in the horse-and-buggy age and died in a time of jets and television: "when he was a child, typewriters were a novelty," and when he was a cub reporter in Baltimore, the machines were held in suspicion of being somehow effeminate. He learned to peck away at one nonetheless, and with it to create a wide-ranging, astonishingly large body of work, committing something on the order of 10,000 words to paper every day-ephemeral journalism, articles and essays, letters and many books, including the still-standard American Language. A turn-of-the-century bon vivant, Mencken sometimes seemed trapped in the era between the Gilded Age and the First World War; certainly his attitudes toward blacks and Jews were of the 19th century, though he made efforts to overcome some of his prejudices, championing African-American writers as a critic and unsuccessfully urging that the Roosevelt administration admit German Jews fleeing from Hitler. Rodgers's portrait is affectionate but critical; she does not hesitate to bring up troubling issues, and she even reveals that Mencken committed journalistic fictions worthy of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, including one in which he made up the details of a battle in theRusso-Japanese War-many of them, it turns out, correct, but made up all the same. About the only flaw in the book is the subtitle, for Mencken seems to have been born old if not always wise. A pleasure for admirers of the cage-rattler, and the best Mencken biography to date.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195331295
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 9/10/2007
  • Pages: 672
  • Product dimensions: 8.90 (w) x 5.60 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers has edited Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters and The Impossible H.L. Mencken, a popular collection of his best journalism. She lives in Washington, DC.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Boston, 1926
Part One: 1880-1914
1. The Citizen of Baltimore
2. The Eternal Boy
3. August Mencken & Bro
4. Baltimore and Beyond
5. Terse and Terrible Texts
6. Plays and Players
7. The Great Baltimore Fire
8. A Man of Ability
9. A Young Man in a Hurry
10. Broadening Horizons
11. The Bad Boy of Baltimore
12. Outside, Looking In
Part Two: 1914-1919
13. The Holy Terror
14. Mencken, Nathan, and God
15. Round One!
16. Berlin, 1917
17. The Prevailing Winds
18. Over Here
19. The Infernal Feminine
Part Three: 1920-1930
20. The Dry Millennium Dawns
21. Of Politics and Prose
22. That Man in Baltimore
23. The Duel of Sex
24. Old Discord and New Alliances
25. The Scopes Trial
26. In the Crucible
27. Banned in Boston
28. The Great God Mencken
29. A Sentimental Journey
30. The German Valentino
31. The Sea of Matrimony
32. Variations on a Familiar Theme
Part Four: 1930-1935
33. The Tamed Ogre of Cathedral Street
34. Hard Times
35. "Happy Days are Here Again"
36. Maryland, My Maryland
37. The Tune Changes
38. The Late Mr. Mencken
39. A Time to Be Wary
40. A Winter of Horror
Part Five: 1936-1940
41. Baltimore's Friendly Dragon
42. Mencken as Boss
43. Berlin, 1938
44. Polemics and Prejudices
45. Triumph of Democracy
Part Six: 1941-1948
46. The Weapon of Silence
47. On the Home Front
48. Mencken and the Guild
49. Friends and Relatives
50. The Man Who Hates Everything
51. The Great Upset of 1948
Part Seven: 1949-1956
52. The Last Days
Epilogue: The Passing of an Era
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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  • Posted August 22, 2013

    WONDERFULLY ICONOCLASTIC.

    “He pummeled censorship, Prohibition, and hypocritical Puritanism with equal ardor. The defense of individual freedom always brought out the best of his powers, and the suppression of civil liberties became one of his dominant targets, bringing it more fully into the mainstream of public discourse.”—page 227/673

    Standard disclaimer: In my personal pantheon of heroes, Henry Louis Mencken has long been idealized, lionized, and even damn near canonized, as one of the all-time truly great Americans. A free thinking wordsmith/linguist extraordinaire and an adorably charismatic curmudgeon, Mencken was one of those incredible people, among the likes of Mark Twain, P. T. Barnum and Clarence Darrow, with whom I could dearly wish to have been friends.

    In her comprehensive ‘warts-an’-all’ biography, MENCKEN: THE AMERICAN ICONOCLASTS: The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers hits all the notes of wonder, wit, wisdom, and weirdness. I enjoyed reading it tremendously.

    Recommendation: What’s not to love about HLM? There’s something in his character and writings to offend practically everyone. Commended more so to the thick-skinned than the thickheaded.

    “I am, in belief, a libertarian of the most extreme variety, and can imagine no human right that is half as valuable as the simple right to pursue the truth at discretion and utter it when found.”—page 116/673

    “I have believed all my life in free thought and free speech.”—page 564/673

    Barnes & Noble NOOKbook edition, 673 pages"

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