The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Menckenby Terry Teachout
When H. L. Mencken talked, everyone listened like it or not. In the Roaring Twenties, he was the one critic who mattered, the champion of a generation of plain-speaking writers who redefined the American novel, and the ax-swinging scourge of the know-nothing, go-getting middle-class philistines whom he dubbed the "booboisie." Some loved him, others loathed
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When H. L. Mencken talked, everyone listened like it or not. In the Roaring Twenties, he was the one critic who mattered, the champion of a generation of plain-speaking writers who redefined the American novel, and the ax-swinging scourge of the know-nothing, go-getting middle-class philistines whom he dubbed the "booboisie." Some loved him, others loathed him, but everybody read him. Now Terry Teachout takes on the man Edmund Wilson called "our greatest practicing literary journalist," brilliantly capturing all of Mencken's energy and erudition, passion and paradoxes, in a masterful biography of this iconoclastic figure and the world he shaped.
In our media-saturated age, where countless pundits and commentators drone on endlessly, saying little, it's refreshing to rediscover H. L. Mencken, whose unique style, brilliant wit, and withering criticism made him one of America's most influential writers and thinkers during the first half of the 20th century. Terry Teachout's biography is an enormously well researched and engaging journey from Mencken's boyhood in Baltimore through his days as a cub reporter to his founding of The American Mercury (one of the most influential magazines of the 1920s) and his eventual fall from prominence.
Best known for his lifelong association with The Baltimore Sun as an editor and columnist, Mencken was a critic with wide-ranging interests and no shortage of passionately held opinions (on FDR: "He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes"). Mencken was equally comfortable (and caustic) writing about politics as he was in the realm of literature and the performing arts; and he helped introduce the American public to the likes of Joseph Conrad and Sinclair Lewis, as well as nurturing the early works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Willa Cather.
Teachout does a masterful job of putting Mencken's long career in the context of his times, including an unflinching analysis of Mencken's anti-Semitism and outspoken antipathy to American entry into World War II, as well as his controversial views on art and love. The Skeptic is a fascinating introduction to a contradictory figure who, in his day, was considered American's greatest journalist but who could never be called anything less than honest. (Winter 2002 Selection)
Time was when H.L. Mencken’s reporting was the standard against which other journalists measured their own work, with the result that American newspapers of the 1920s and ’30s were full of second- and third-rate imitators of the master. That time has long passed, but New York Times contributor Teachout (City Limits, 1991), editor of the 1995 anthology A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, finds plenty of reasons to suggest that a Mencken revival is long overdue. What thinking person, after all, can deny Mencken’s scathing assessment of the still ascendant "Puritan scheme of things, with its gross and nauseating hypocrisies, its idiotic theologies, its moral obsessions"? What student of contemporary politics would not find a sympathetic guide in a writer whose "sneers and objurations have been reserved exclusively for braggarts and mountebanks, quacks and swindlers, fools and knaves"? Good stuff, indeed, but, as Teachout bravely admits, there are as many reasons to condemn Mencken as to praise him. He subscribed all his life to a suburban brand of anti-Semitism, once describing a contributor to his American Mercury magazine, for instance, as "a Jew . . . of the better sort" and writing to an interviewer, "I don’t like religious Jews" (mind you, he added, "I don’t like religious Catholics and Protestants"). He overlooked the excesses of the Nazi regime until well into WWII, perhaps out of misguided loyalty to his German ancestors. Still, well-placed criticism aside, Teachout offers a portrait of Mencken thatemphasizes his extraordinary productivity—he wrote 19 books, thousands of articles, essays, and reviews, and perhaps 100,000 letters while covering national politics for daily newspapers and editing two magazines—and his contributions to journalism and American letters alike.
A balanced portrait of the muckraking newsman, and an excursion into American intellectual history and journalism.
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"I'd Have Butchered Beautifully"
Birth of a Bourgeois, 1880-1899
In 1883, when Henry Louis Mencken was nearly three years old, August, his father, bought a three-story row house that looked out on Union Square, a small park close to what was then the western edge of Baltimore. Except for the five years of his marriage and his first year as a widower, Mencken would live in that house until his death in 1956. Nothing about his life is as revealing as the fact that he spent so much of it in one place. Instead of immersing himself in the frenzied transience of modern-day America, he lived the settled life of a member of the European bourgeoisie, and liked it:
The charm of getting home, as I see it, is the charm of getting back to what is inextricably my own -- to things familiar and long loved, to things that belong to me alone and none other. I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly forty-five years. It has changed in that time, as I have -- but somehow it still remains the same. No conceivable decorator's masterpiece could give me the same ease. It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it I'd be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg.
Mencken would pay a price for the stability he loved so well. During the sixty-seven years he spent at 1524 Hollins Street, he watched his block, once a peaceful, tree-lined enclave, become a slum. Long after his death the streets facing Union Square would be partially (if temporarily) reclaimed, but the surrounding neighborhood continued to crumble. To the cop on the beat today, Southwest Baltimore is the innermost circle of urbanhell, the dingy, drug-ravaged core of a blue-collar harbor town ringed by indifferent white-collar suburbs. Unemployment in Baltimore is high. So is the crime rate: Someone is murdered seven days out of ten, and most of those killings are drug-related (one out of ten Baltimoreans is a heroin addict). So are racial tensions, especially during the city's near-tropical summers. The city's population, eroded by white flight and the long decline of the steel and shipping industries, has been shrinking steadily ever since World War II, when it reached its peak; it was 703,057 in 1990, about 30,000 less than in 1920, when Mencken wrote his first Monday Article for the Evening Sun.
But Mencken's hometown has not changed quite so much since his death as the casual visitor might think. To go to an Orioles game at Camden Yards and watch the easygoing crowd root for the home team is to feel the pleasantness of life in a city slightly off the beaten path, an ingrown, insular, oddly comfortable place that time and prosperity have mostly passed by. The glossy riverside renovations of recent years have had little effect on the outward appearance of the rest of the city, many of whose neighborhoods, including Southwest Baltimore, still share the common architectural denominator of narrow streets lined with shabby old two- and three-story row houses, and a few Mencken-related landmarks have escaped the wrecker's ball. The family home survives in something quite close to its original condition; 704 Cathedral Street, the brownstone apartment house where Mencken lived with Sara, is still occupied, as is 811 West Lexington, his birthplace, though it now lies in the shadow of one of the city's most violent housing projects; Marconi's, the restaurant where the Menckens lunched together in the days of their long courtship, serves up crabcakes at the same address, just around the corner from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, to which Mencken left most of his private papers and three-quarters of the income from his copyrights.
Because so much of Baltimore looks much as it did in Mencken's day, and because he wrote about the city so memorably, the leap of imagination needed to conjure up the Baltimore of the 1880s, the place where the author of Happy Days spent his "fat, saucy and contented" childhood, is in certain ways a short one. Standing at the top of the six white marble front steps of 1524 Hollins Street and looking at the row houses that line Union Square, one sees what Mencken saw in 1927:
The two-story houses that were put up in my boyhood, forty years ago, all had a kind of unity, and many of them were far from unbeautiful. Almost without exception, they were built of red brick, with white trim -- the latter either of marble or of painted wood. The builders of the time were not given to useless ornamentation; their houses were plain in design, and restful to the eye. A long row of them, to be sure, was somewhat monotonous, but it at least escaped being trashy and annoying.
What Mencken was describing was a nineteenth-century middleclass urban neighborhood, a tightly knit community of proud homeowners who, like August Mencken, spent their days immersed in the intricacies of manufacturing or trade. "Such undertakings as these, however admirable in the great scheme of things, however productive of profit, drain off something from the men who direct them," Hamilton Owens wrote in Baltimore on the Chesapeake. "One doesn't ordinarily find ... any great ebullience of spirit, any magnificent spilling over into colorful adventure." For all the pleasure Mencken took in it, the Baltimore of his youth was still a stodgy monument to the Protestant work ethic. Another of his Sunpaper colleagues called it "a slow, plodding, dull town." But the Baltimore of the 1880s was dull by choice as much as chance. Its citizens needed no reminding of the twin convulsions their parents and grandparents had survived: the Know-Nothing riots and the Civil War. Antebellum Baltimore was called "Mobtown" ...The Skeptic. Copyright © by Terry Teachout. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Terry Teachout writes about literature and the arts for the New York Times, Time, National Review, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Commentary. His books include A Second Mencken Chrestomaby, a manuscript he rediscovered among Mencken's private papers. He lives in New York City.
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