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Mencken and His Enemies

Respectable opinion these days has it that H.L. Mencken was a great prose stylist and, in connection with that, one of the greatest American journalists of the 20th century, but not a man whose ideas should be taken seriously. To his credit, Terry Teachout does not entirely subscribe to this view in The Skeptic, his biography of Mencken; he recognizes that “in Mencken, style and content are one.” But in an unfortunate irony, Teachout himself has produced the kind of work that respectable opinion attributes to Mencken. The Skeptic is fine writing in the service of dubious thinking.

There is nothing wrong with The Skeptic’s narrative or the clean, engaging prose in which it is written. Its scale is also appropriate: Teachout has done well to limit himself to a work of under 400 pages, and in that space he covers the facts of Mencken’s life remarkably thoroughly. This itself is an achievement, given how prolific a writer Mencken was: between his days as a cub reporter for the Baltimore Herald in 1899 and the stroke that ended his writing career in 1948, Mencken produced millions of words of journalism and correspondence, as well as writing over a dozen books. His output was varied as well as large, including the first books in English on George Bernard Shaw and Friedrich Nietzsche, a pioneering study of “the American language” in a book by that name, and volumes on religion (Treatise on the Gods), politics (Notes on Democracy), and the fairer sex (In Defense of Women). Teachout discusses all of these works and relates the details of Mencken’s personal life in an effective, economical fashion. There have been longer, more detailed accounts of Mencken’s life and times, but none has had the elegance of The Skeptic.

Which makes it all the more regrettable that Teachout should fail to transcend the mere facts themselves to provide an insightful interpretation of his subject’s life and work. Without belittling Mencken’s thought to the degree that others have of late, Teachout still does not venture far from the respectable critical consensus. He still measures Mencken by the standards of today’s political and literary climate and unsurprisingly finds him wanting. This is certainly true where Mencken’s supposed anti-Semitism—unremarkable in his day, unforgivable in ours—is concerned, but it is no less true when Teachout turns his attention to Mencken’s political beliefs and taste in literature. Indeed, the way Teachout tells it, Mencken was a man out of touch even with his own time—deaf to jazz, blind to the merits of modern art, and naïvely reactionary in his politics. That Teachout should disagree with Mencken’s politics and criticism is one thing; the problem is that Teachout sees these differences as evidence of intellectual failure on Mencken’s part. Within the elite media and political circles of latter-day New York and Washington, in which Teachout travels, views like Mencken’s are unthinkable and can only be accounted for as willful ignorance or else perhaps as a sign of mental illness. Taken seriously, Mencken is well beyond the present limits of permissible dissent.

So Mencken is not taken seriously. The trouble with The Skeptic begins with its prologue, in which Teachout dramatizes an episode at the 1934 Gridiron Club dinner where both Mencken and President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the elite of Washington’s press corps. Mencken delivered an un-characteristically mild diatribe against the president. The president, however, when his turn came to speak, had a humiliating surprise in store for Mencken: Roosevelt’s remarks were lifted verbatim from Mencken’s own polemics against the press. Mencken was furious, and even some of the president’s allies thought he had gone too far. On its own merits this is an interesting anecdote, but why does Teachout include it at the very beginning of his book? Presumably he does it in order to provide support for assertions like this one a little later in the prologue:

Blinded partly by his hatred of Roosevelt and partly by his familial affection for German culture (Mencken was Saxon on his fath-er’s side, Bavarian on his mother’s), he adopted an isolationist line that at its worst was rigid and callous beyond belief: “I find it difficult to work up any regret for the heroes butchered in World War II. Anyone silly enough to believe in such transparent quacks as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill leaves the world little the loser by departing from it.”

In an interview with National Review Online, Teachout said that this remark of Mencken’s was “the most offensive thing he ever wrote.” By using the Gridiron Club story to introduce it, Teachout gives the impression that Mencken’s attitude toward Roosevelt and World War II derived from personal pique, rather than from careful consideration. And by making this the prologue to his biography, Teachout trivializes Mencken’s political thinking.

Still, Teachout has studied his subject too closely to fail to see that Mencken’s indisputably masterful style is closely related to his thought, which might be characterized as a kind of Nietzschean libertarianism. Mencken loved German culture, hated U.S. intervention in foreign wars, held most of mankind in sterling contempt, and thought of government as a conspiracy against the superior man. Teachout has some trouble reconciling all of this with Mencken’s style and as a result becomes a rather schizophrenic critic. On a single page he writes both that the power of Mencken’s work “is less a function of his particular convictions than of the firmly balanced prose rhythms and vigorous diction in which they are couched” and that “his charm is inseparable from his habits of thought. However perverse or excessive his underlying ideas may be, they retain much of their impelling force.” Unable to make up his own mind, Teachout resorts to characterizing Mencken as “incoherent” and “self-contradictory,” without providing much evidence for such claims. It is true that Mencken was not a political systematizer, but his disdain for activist government at home and abroad knew few exceptions. There was nothing particularly inconsistent about Mencken’s philosophy, rudimentary though it may have been.

Teachout fares a little better in his assessment of Mencken’s merits as a literary critic. He is unquestionably right that Mencken’s early books on Shaw and Nietzsche are nothing special. And Teachout’s criticisms of Mencken as editor of the American Mercury are persuasive, at least in part: Teachout documents how far Mencken went in re-writing the submissions of others to resemble his own style, turning the magazine at times into practically a parody of his own work. On the other hand, Teachout does not give Mencken enough credit for allowing his magazines—the American Mercury and earlier the Smart Set—to take seriously developments in the arts that he personally disliked. The American Mercury was the first serious magazine to review jazz, which Mencken hated. This willingness to publish criticism at odds with his own tastes should go some way toward mitigating the faults of Mencken’s often idiosyncratic literary criticism. (He thought Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt was the greatest American novel since Huckleberry Finn, for example.) Mencken’s criticism is hardly any closer to modern sensibilities than is his politics, but since he gave the benefit of the doubt to those with whom he disagreed, today’s literary critics who disagree with him might want to extend the same courtesy. Besides, the politics involved in making and breaking literary reputations is even more treacherous than politics of the strictly ideological sort. Mencken’s judgments on art and literature may yet one day enjoy a return to fashion.

Whatever the faults of his treatment of Mencken’s politics and criticism, Teachout at least does not belabor his points on these matters or treat them at undue length. The same cannot be said about his discussion of Mencken’s anti-Semitism, which consumes many acres worth of text in the later chapters of The Skeptic. It is all a lot of hand-wringing on Teachout’s part. The facts are in no dispute: Mencken wrote unpleasant things about Jews as a group and Judaism as a religion, at length in his diaries and more sparingly in his published works. Set against this, Mencken did not discriminate against Jews when hiring—his assistant on the American Mercury was Jewish—and when Hitler’s persecution of Jews became known, Mencken proposed giving all of Germany’s Jews asylum in the United States. There were also many Jews whom Mencken personally helped flee to America. Teachout rebukes Mencken for failing to speak out more publicly against the Holocaust, but here Teachout’s sense of history fails him. Mencken’s silence on the Holocaust is not remarkable; few Americans in the late 1940s realized its significance or knew of its extent.

Teachout looks over the evidence and decides that Mencken was an anti-Semite. It is not an unreasonable conclusion, although it is one that requires Mencken’s words and private thoughts to count for more than his actions; it reduces anti-Semitism to a species of thought-crime. But the case can certainly be made, and considering the importance that so many of Mencken’s earlier biographers and critics have attached to his views on Jews, it is certainly understandable that Teachout would treat the matter seriously. What is objectionable is the excessive amount of space Teachout devotes to ruminating on Mencken’s anti-Semitism, when Mencken’s animus against religion in general and Christianity in particular—a prejudice much more central to his life and work —receives hardly any attention. Here again Teachout has let contemporary concerns override the themes that actually mattered most in Mencken’s life and work, his disdain for evangelical Christians chief among them.

Some reviews have said that The Skeptic is more of an extended literary essay than a biography. That is not true: The Skeptic, while not comprehensive, is very good strictly on the level of basic biography. Ignoring the tendentious prologue and Teachout’s sermonizing in later chapters, The Skeptic serves as a good introduction to Mencken. But that alone is not enough to justify another Mencken biography, and Teachout did not set out to write just another book about “the sage of Baltimore.” For this book to succeed, Teachout had to distinguish himself from past biographers by providing a special insight into Mencken’s life. Teachout hoped that his professional kinship with Mencken—for like him, Teachout is an experienced journalist and critic—would supply that insight, but it has not. Had Teachout taken Mencken on his own terms, even while disagreeing with him, The Skeptic might have succeeded and become the best Mencken biography yet. But as it is, the best that can be said of this book is that it is rather like Mencken’s own works on Shaw and Nietzsche: stylish, but not an important contribution to the understanding of its subject. 

Daniel McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis. 

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about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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