The Skeptic (A Life of H. L. Mencken) by Terry Teachout (Harper Collins, 2002)
How would Mencken have reacted to the USA of today? He would have found ample targets on which to pour his scorn – from fundamentalist shenanigans in courthouses to trial lawyers’ antics in (and outside) courtrooms. But would he have had a reliable outlet? His independent, iconoclastic thinking would have endeared him neither to the Left nor to the Right. He could perhaps have alternated with Andy Rooney on Sixty Minutes, or contributed a regular column in Atlantic Monthly. But I can see editors twitching nervously in case of lawsuits, and television executives worried about upsetting their advertisers. In many ways we live in a more sensitive age, and insults to generic “communities” of people (even if they do act foolishly) would encourage calls for Mencken to be silenced. He might have had to resort to an Internet blog, would have been a roaring success with it, and would have checked out his “hits” with glee first thing every morning.
Terry Teachout has written a thorough, stylish and affectionate biography of this influential critic, essayist and linguaphile, making use of Mencken’s diaries that remained unopened until 1991, thirty-five years after his death. He chronicles well Mencken’s rise as an acerbic reporter maturing to discover fresh writing talent, his sadly short but very happy marriage (after a bizarre bachelor life), and the slow decline when WW II wore him down, he failed to refresh his literary batteries, and a stroke finally caused the failure of his powers. He correctly points out Mencken’s intellectual inconsistencies, but fails to recognize that he was one of the first (like Orwell) to conclude that Hitlerism and Stalinism were two sides of the same coin. Overall, however, Mencken never comes to life as vividly as he does in Alistair Cooke’s brief profile in Six Lives (to which Teachout pays veiled respect). The book starts with the promise of a lively encounter between Mencken and Roosevelt, but Teachout backs off from portraying the waspish Mencken in full sting.
The biographer also plays the game of trying to pin down his subject according to the moral fashions and demands of today. (Was Philip Larkin a chauvinist? Was Jefferson covertly anti-democratic and pro-slavery? Was Beethoven a foot-fetishist?) In Mencken’s case, the quest is to determine whether he was anti-Semitic or not, as if the issue were a binary one, or his written record should be interpreted differently were the matter settled. After an earnest analysis, Teachout comes down, safely, with the conclusion that he was indeed guilty. True, Mencken, who trusted his German roots rather too much, was a bit slow to detect the true evil of Hitler, but he was generally disparaging about whole groups of people – including fundamentalist Christians, Southerners, Englishmen, politicians – and he was clearly puzzled by a person’s choosing to define him- or herself primarily by some tribal ancestry. In weighing the evidence to formulate my own conclusion, I found out that Cooke had already voiced an elegant verdict (he knew Mencken well): “It is true that he disliked puritans, teetotalers, Communists, Englishmen, Methodists, and politicians on principle. But if one presented himself who was otherwise a rational and agreeable man, he spontaneously filed and forgot his prejudice.”
And why the title The Skeptic? Gadfly, curmudgeon, cynic, atheist – Mencken was all of these, but encapsulating him merely as a skeptic echoes his desire to challenge without representing the vigor of his assertions. In Types of Men, Mencken described the attitude of the Skeptic: “In the highest confidence there is always a flavor of doubt – a feeling, half intuitive, and half logical, that, after all, the scoundrel may have something up his sleeve.” Yes, in his articles, Mencken occasionally expresses doubt, but not enough to merit such an overridingly wishy-washy epithet. Teachout concludes his study with a reflection that Mencken consigned to his private diary: “My sneers and objurations have been reserved exclusively for braggarts and mountebanks, quacks and swindlers, fools and knaves.” Mencken had no doubt who they were, and what they deserved. He had no doubts that the sleeves of the scoundrels he lampooned were empty.