The Last Great Iconoclast
“Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong.”
H. L. Mencken
Henry Louis Mencken may be one of the most beloved loud mouths in the history of journalism. Long before “Crossfire” or “Talk Back Live,” Mencken the newspaper columnist was stirring the pot of American culture, usually pointing out its weaknesses with venomous attacks on religion, politics and human behavior in general.
But Mencken was also one of the preeminent American literary critics of the 1920s, widely credited with helping to launch the careers of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald among others. Yet, his legacy—to his many devotees—is that of a fiery iconoclast who lived the free-spirited life of the old-time journalist. His detractors, meanwhile, remember him as an aimless and bitter man out to destroy everything in which others found the solace of belief.
Terry Teachout’s engaging new biography of Mencken, The Critic: A Life of H.L. Mencken explores all of those legacies. Teachout - - himself an accomplished journalist whose work regularly appears in The New York Times, Time, The National Review, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal—acknowledges the abundance of published Mencken bios and material. Mencken even published his own autobiographical trilogy—Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941) and Heathen Days (1943). In addition, two full-length memoirs and several biographies have been written, including what has been considered the authority on Mencken, Carl Bode’s Mencken (1969).
And while Teachout drew from all of those materials, he also had access to published letters, diaries and other private writings of Mencken that Bode and others were not privy to. The result is a biography that is both sympathetic and critical of the man, one that points out the misconceptions surrounding such a polarizing figure as well as the paradoxes that made up his work. And it may surpass Bode’s work as the new standard.
Mencken spent his entire life living and writing in Baltimore, Maryland—first for the Baltimore Morning Herald as a reporter and later for the Baltimore Sun—where he spent most of his career. While he long served as a literary critic and columnist for the Sun, he was also the editor of Smart Set, an influential American literature magazine, and founded the American Mercury, know for its irreverent commentary and for publishing the likes of Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson.
His commitment to and support of quality literature, however, is often overlooked. While welcoming newcomers like Dreiser and Lewis, he also was a fierce critic of work he considered fraudulent or pretentious, though Teachout points out some would say Mencken himself was guilty of both.
Where Mencken made his biggest mark, however, was in his cultural criticism, mostly found in the pages of The Sun. Joseph Conrad described his writing as “an electric current.” Teachout, however, goes to great lengths to show that Mencken wasn’t simply a lightning rod who sat down at a typewriter with ideas and thoughts spilling forth. Rather, he was a disciplined writer and thinker. He sometimes spent 12-hour days at his typewriter and faithfully retreated to his office three times a day, as Teachout explains, to read, write and reflect on the shortcomings of man.
Yet, he was also one of the most quoted men of the 1920s, which probably fed the belief among younger intellectuals of his time that he was a reactionary and his criticism amounted to what we would know refer to as a somewhat wordier version of the sound bite. Mencken certainly had a flair for the memorable phrase:
The only really respectable Protestants are the Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are also palpable idiots . . .
The capacity of human beings to bore one another seems to be vastly greater than any other animals.
The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.
The fact that I have no remedy for all the sorrows of the world is no reason for my accepting yours. It simply supports the strong probability that yours is a fake.
The great victory of Teachout’s book is that while its author is clearly an admirer, he does not simply celebrate the sheer audacity and occasional brilliance of Mencken’s writing. He explores the claims that Mencken was a bigot and an anti-Semite. He vividly portrays a man who lived a private life often in stark contrast to his public, writing life.
In addition, the complaints with Mencken (of which there surprisingly few but vocal) are listed clearly. It would be disingenuous of Teachout not to point out that Mencken often relied on the use of provocative titles and over-exaggeration or that perhaps it was the energy of his writing that has maintained his legacy rather than the substance of his thought. For instance, his critique of democracy is shamefully elitist. His isolationist view of World War II was fueled by a soft spot for his German heritage. And while not many Americans knew the evil Hitler was unleashing on his people prior to and during WWII, Mencken’s silence on the matter post-war is truly unforgivable.
Yet, one can’t walk away from this book without having at least a modicum of respect for the way Mencken attacked life and his work. Nowhere in American newspapers will you find someone as outspoken and audacious. The manic intensity of his writing is intoxicating. No one challenged institutions like Mencken. Sadly, not many have since.