The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken

The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken

by Terry Teachout


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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 Mercken's energy and erudition, passion and paradoxes, in a masterful biography of this iconoclastic figure and the world he shaped.

From his carefree days as a teenage cub reporter in turn-of-the-century Baltimore to his noisy tenure as founding editor of the American Mercury, the most influential magazine of the twenties, Mencken distinguished himself with a contrary spirit, a razor-sharp wit (he coined the term "Bible Belt"), and a keen eye for such up-and-coming authors as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He covered everything, from the Scopes evolution trial to the 1948 presidential elections, in the pages of the Baltimore Sun. He wrote bestselling books about the failure of democracy, the foibles of the female sex, and what he memorably called "the American language." But his favorite topic was the one he saw wherever he looked: the sterile, life-denying strain of puritanism that he believed was strangling the culture of his native land.

No modern writer has been more controversial than H. L. Mencken. His fans saw him as the fearless leader of the endless battle against ignorance andhypocrisy, while his enemies dismissed him as a cantankerous, self-righteous ideologue. The surging popularity of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the politician he hated most, eventually caused his star to fade, but the unsparing vigor of his critique of American life and letters — and the raucously colloquial prose style in which he blasted the Babbitts — retains its freshness and relevance to this day.

Himself an accomplished critic and journalist, Terry Teachout has combed through reams of Mencken's private papers, including the searingly candid autobiographical manuscripts sealed after his death in 1956. Out of this material he has fashioned a portrait of the artist as intellectual gadfly, working newspaperman, devoted husband, and faithless ]over. Meticulously researched, elegantly written, and completely absorbing, The Skeptic vividly evokes the life and legacy of a true American legend.

Author Biography:

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060505295
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/04/2003
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 586,479
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"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.

What People are Saying About This

Paul Johnson

“(Mencken’s) life is worth recounting and is here expertly and fairly summarized ... An important book.”

Sam Tanenhaus

“Teachout has brought Mencken to life, in all his rich comic irascibility. The Skeptic is irresistible.”

George F. Will

“Many more people will discover the delights of Mencken’s work, thanks to Terry Teachout’s judicious but lively assessment.”

Ken Auletta

“Mencken has finally met a worthy biographer. Teachout is the kind of tour guide a first-rate biography requires.”

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The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
labwriter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I haven't read the Fred Hobson biog of Mencken, so I can't compare them.Teachout's book is very readable. This isn't one of those "throw every single fact I know into the book" kinds of biographies. Biographers would do well to follow Teachout's template for conciseness.I love Mencken. He seems more and more relevant in these crazy political days of 2009 and 10. "Nobody every went broke underestimating the stupidity of the American people." Heh. Or how about this one: "Unquestionably, there is progress. The average American now pays out twice as much in taxes as he formerly got in wages." One more: "The men the American public admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.If you asked me, I couldn't tell you why I gave it 4 instead of 5 stars. I read this some time ago, and that's the impression I have of the book--a solid B+.
Guest More than 1 year ago
"The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken," in the works for ten years, is a major new biography of America's greatest journalist. In it, I¿ve made extensive use of Mencken's private papers (many of them put under time seal at his death in 1956) to draw a full-length portrait of the newspaperman turned literary critic who co-edited the Smart Set and co-founded the American Mercury, coined the phrase "Bible belt," covered the Scopes evolution trial for the Baltimore Sun, invented the modern newspaper column, and courted controversy throughout the whole of his half-century-long career. My book is thorough, yet unusually concise for a modern biography¿just 411 pages long¿and I¿ve tried to give it the immediacy and sweep of a good novel. I¿ve taken a fresh look at every facet of Mencken¿s public and private life: his ruthless ambition, his uneasy relations with women, his virtues and defects as an editor, his passion for the American language, his twin obsessions with Germany and the Jews. Above all, "The Skeptic" is written from the point of view of a working journalist who understands H.L. Mencken¿s world. Like him, I¿m a critic with a wide-ranging knowledge of the arts, and I¿ve seen American newspapers and magazines from the inside. I¿ve done my best to bring my own experience to bear on the task of telling the story of a complicated, self-contradictory man. I¿ve sought to write about him both sympathetically and honestly. I hope you like the results.