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H. L. Mencken: Prose Marvel

ISSUE:  Summer 2003
The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken. By Terry Teachout. HarperCollins. $29.95.

A friend and colleague from my working days on The Baltimore Sun asked me some years back to name the journalist most people, anywhere, associate with our newspaper.

“Of course,” I said. “H. L. Mencken.”

“Not so,” said he, or words to that effect, and with a smirk that made me realize I’d been snookered. We had both been editorial writers on the paper, and my friend had written a book on Mencken. He knew a lot more about him than I.

“Who, then?”

“Charlie Corddry,” he said, then told me why. Mr. Corddry at the time was our very competent Pentagon reporter, in The Sun’s Washington Bureau. Since he had snagged a spot among the panelists on the weekly TV show “Washington Week in Review,” his face and name had become familiar to countless people across the nation, who tuned in every Sunday, many more than ever got within range of the late Mr. Mencken’s communications.

I said it was a trick question. The answer was literally true at the time it was asked, certainly not now. H. L. Mencken has beaten death, or at least obscurity, for his name is more prominent in the public consciousness not only than the late Mr. Corddry’s, but just about that of any other writer or journalist this country ever produced, who is no longer at work or alive.

What the question did was to illustrate how notions of fame have changed as the instruments through which it is bestowed have changed and, in doing so, have fractured the nature of it. Since World War II, wrote Leo Braudy, in his book The Frenzy of Renown, “the increasing number and sophistication of the ways information is brought to us have enormously expanded the ways of being known. In the process the concept of fame has been grotesquely distended.” We are confronted today by people famous for infinite numbers of reasons, good and bad, and even for no reason at all. The two words, fame and infamy, once antonyms, have very nearly evolved into synonyms.

For most people, fame, or just being widely known for something or other, is and has been an ephemeral experience. Yet, Mencken’s fame endures. Vincent Fitzpatrick, the curator of the Mencken Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, the holy of holies for Menckenites, which contains just about every scrap that held the estimated 15 million words Mencken put on paper throughout his life, says, “H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain are the most frequently quoted American writers today,” living or dead. He is uncertain who is number one.

It is the task of Dr. Fitzpatrick, a Mencken scholar and biographer himself, to conserve and watch over all this material, plus the stuff that keeps pouring in, which is considerable. Nearly every year he fills a thousand large scrapbook pages about articles about Mencken. More Menckeniana for the Mencken Room.

When I first came to the Baltimore Sunpapers (this is the locals’ term for the two papers published here then; it endures even though only the morning paper remains), it was not easy to walk around in the parts of the building where the journalists lurked without meeting with evidence of Mencken’s long tenure. One of the more famous photographs of the great man hung in the publisher’s outer office, visible to all who walked by the open door: Mencken relaxed on a chair in his garden, a look of dull surrender mixed with disgust on his face, cigar in hand, taken seven years after his incapacitating stroke in 1948, after which he could no longer read or write. The man who took that picture, the dapper A. Aubrey Bodine, was as artful with a camera as Mencken with a typewriter. I always seemed to encounter him standing in the hallway cracking his knuckles, his mere presence resonant of those times and that other presence.

Mencken did not spend that much time in the newsroom. Breaking news was something he had dealt with on the Baltimore Morning Herald and another defunct competitor of the Sunpapers, The Evening News. Commentary became his metier on the Sunpapers, both morning and evening, and continued to be throughout his life. For much of that time he was the editor of the editorial page of The Evening Sun, a newspaper midwived into life in 1910 and euthanized for corporate reasons in 1995. This was the paper where Mencken made his name, and on which I landed a job in 1967.

I had worked in Baltimore before and knew something of Mencken as a personage. I was a cub on a racy Hearst paper across town, The News-Post, the Sun’s “flashier but less fleshy” competitor, in which an atmosphere obtained which might have come directly out of the brain of Ben Hecht. Rewrite men wore fedoras on the city desk, and reporters waited in bars around the city for orders from a city editor addicted to pinball machines and slow horses. He sent us off to cover bank jobs, the arrival of circus elephants, and to sit in police courts watching hackish judges hand down sentences to muggers, snatch-and-grab thieves, and women, dizzied by alcohol, for the crime of applying wet lye to the flesh of their faithless boyfriends as they slept it off. (A very Baltimore form of retaliation.)

In the sedate environment of the Sunpapers, I discerned two separate attitudes with regard to Mencken, who had died nine years before my arrival: on the one side were the senior editors and executives of the newspapers, the fusty keepers of the treasured Mencken tradition, the curators of the flame of fame he had brought to the institution. It must have been a guttering flame, for one had the idea they thought even a typo now and then could pitch the paper’s golden reputation into infamy. Their mission was far removed from Mencken’s idea of direct, explosive criticism of society, especially of those complacently occupying its political and social apex.

The other group, not really a group so much as a collection of newer, younger people who wanted to see the paper do more investigative reporting, to read and write brisk editorials explaining why, among other things, in the late 1960’s part of the population was trying to burn the town down. They wanted what all journalists want at a certain age: a larger measure of irresponsibility.

Toward Mencken, that “fading glare of the Sunpapers,” we were oddly ambiguous. We thought his writing too prolix and hyperbolic, archaic in fact, exaggerated, garish, gaudy and Teutonic. There were just too many notes in his music: Mencken was Wagnerian. At the same time we wondered where the fire had gone that Mencken had set? Where was the defiance of abiding norms, the rejection of gentlemanly conduct? Why was nobody on staff permitted to refer to businessmen in general as “swine,” as Mencken did? Or the American politician in general as “a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled . . .” as Mencken did? Or describe one president of the United States, as a “pathetic mud-turtle” (Hoover), another as “most repellent” (Wilson) and another, FDR, as a “jackass” with a “Christian Science smile”? (A Mencken two-fer: insulting to both the president and an entire religious sect).

In time most of us grew up, matured so to speak, and came to appreciate the breadth of Mencken’s contribution more fully. For those who didn’t, Terry Teachout has delivered a literate new biography that might hurry the process along. The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken is an analytic narrative of Mencken’s career and personal life, a life intellectually dynamic and physically sedentary, complex and simple, always paradoxical. He understands the dialectic of Mencken’s mind, the wellspring of his success.

Mencken’s criticism of American culture was vigorous and lavish. He was a true scourge, an Attila of the typewriter riding down the ideologues of democracy and religion, ridiculing virtually every expression of the civilization established on this continent. Yet, he seized and enjoyed every advantage it offered, indulged its comforts, especially its comforts.

He professed time and again that he took great pleasure in the slapstick carnival that American life and politics put before him, that it made him laugh. “Where, indeed, is there a better show in the world?” he asked in his essay “On Being an American.” Yet I cannot read this essay without detecting a strong whiff of disingenuity from it, a hint of his disgust seeping out of it.

He was averse to prohibitions of all sorts: of alcohol, the freedoms to speak and publish whatever, of free thinking, free love, of atheism. He especially hated preachers, and the headlock organized religion had put on the society in which he lived. (As recently as 40 years ago, one could not be married in Maryland except by a clergyman.) It may have given him pleasure to tweak it, laugh at it, to attack it, to thump it all with his rubber chicken words. But he hated it, and hatred is intestinally disruptive, and a stomachache cannot be laughed away.

A lovely quality of Teachout’s book is the equipoise with which he manages the contradictions that lived in Mencken, the good and the bad. His presentation is even-handed, offered as much in sorrow as in umbrage. You come away feeling you have engaged the mind of the actual man, brilliant and terrible as it was.

One reason the author was able to achieve this, of course, was the abundance of material he had at hand, owing to Mencken’s determination to write down and save in his diaries and other papers every thought that ever came to him, every prejudice, every suspicion, every flash of anger or disillusionment with a friend or stranger. Cruel and evil thoughts are born in every human mind at some point, and some minds are more receptive to them than others. But few had such zeal to capture and imprison them on paper than Mencken had, and then contrive to have them released long after he was dead and gone, and thereby inured from any counterattack, be it anger, rebuttal, or merely the plaintive expressions of disappointment from those he maligned, those who believed he was their friend.

But even had he stayed around, he probably would have been able to withstand it. Mencken was used to counterattacks. He either ignored them, or turned them to his own uses. He collected insults to his person by the bagful; they came to him from all parts of the country, many quite vulgar. These he published in a book titled, Menckeniana: A Schimpflexikon. (A collection of abuse, which sold well.) It is a boring book, only occasionally funny, filled with page after page of low and unimaginative invective, epithets such as “weasel,” “maggot,” “ghoul,” “polecat,” “mosquito,” “cockroach,” “diabolist,” even “gangrene,” or assessments of his work fashioned from descriptive references to the fluids of organic disintegration, both animal and vegetable.

This book encourages one to ask just whose bad taste is more manifest, those who indulged this kind of thing, or the man who collected it, then saw it bound and published, no doubt because he thought it evidence of the large place he occupied in the world. Mencken was one of those people who yearned for fame from an early age, and never doubted it would come to him. It was this certainty that encouraged him to hire a newspaper clipping service, starting in 1903, to gather every word printed about him from coast to coast, articles which he pasted in his huge scrapbooks. Even today, that’s how Dr. Fitzpatrick gathers his 1000 pages of Menckeniana every year. “We have an unbroken record,” he says. “A hundred years of it.”

Mencken was always other than he appeared to be. He encouraged the impression that he lived the life of a radical, antisocial bohemian, especially on those occasions when he was staying over in Manhattan. Yet, in Baltimore, where he spent most of the days of his life, he returned home each night to the comfortable house that stood before Union Square, 1524 Hollins Street, where his mother always left him a spread of sandwiches, this until her death in 1925 when Mencken was 45.

He was hard of heart. He could coldly cut off contact with friends of many years to advance his career (his colleague and co-editor on The Smart Set magazine and the American Mercury, George Jean Nathan, felt the pain of being frozen out after Mencken had him bumped from the Mercury) or demean them in writings, the sting of which he knew would come to them many years later when these opinions were released into the public realm (in his diary he described his close associate at the Sunpapers, Hamilton Owns, as “a time server with no more principle in him than a privy rat”), or fail to commit to a woman he loved, Marion Bloom, because she was not sufficiently Victorian bourgeois, as he was, and worse, embraced Christian Science, a sect he particularly despised.

He was a smug social Darwinian, who, as Teachout writes, “believed that all men were created unequal, and his reading of Nietzsche left him certain that the strong ones—among whom he numbered himself—would naturally prevail over their inferiors unless blocked from doing so by external forces . . . Christianity and democracy,” the twin pillars of “envy-empowered” Puritanism.

He could find the pleasure of relief, near joy, in the death of a loving father: “My father’s death in 1899 was really a stroke of luck for me, for it liberated me from the tobacco business and enabled me to attempt journalism without his probable doubts and disapproval to hamper me, but the loss of my mother was pure disaster. . . .” No more sandwiches.

He had contempt for black people and hated Jews, though not Jews individually so much as the idea of Jewry (“the most unpleasant race every heard of). Though he never went to college (newspaper-men didn’t in his day), he was a voracious reader with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. But he exhibited all the arrogance of the autodidact, the deficiencies that un-directed, “I-did-it-my-way” education often yields—in his case astounding ignorance of the world beyond Baltimore. During World War II, he suggested that the United States take in a few hundred thousand of Germany’s persecuted Jews, but as for the greater number in Eastern Europe, they should be removed to “a land where there is no prejudice against them. . . . That land is Russia.” It is difficult to know for certain if this bespeaks a titanic ignorance, the cruelest cynicism, or simply an example of how inhumane he was capable of being.

For someone as clear-sighted as he was, the eye of his mind was often blind as a bat’s. He assiduously declined to acknowledge the existence of the Great Depression, which was one cause for his falling popularity in the 1930’s. In World War I he would have supported in his writing the Central Powers, led by imperial Germany, if he hadn’t suspected the government would lock him up and his neighbors burn his house down.

Mencken was convinced of the superiority of German civilization and culture over just about any other. Though he had been incubated in an ersatz version of it in Baltimore, for this was a burgher’s town, he spoke little German. But he could read it and write it, and he published the first explication of Nietzsche’s philosophy in the United States. He was an untraveled man, especially for someone so prominent. He had visited Germany, several other European countries on a few occasions, and Cuba once, in 1917. His ignorance of the world seemed to contribute to his certainty of what went on in it. In neither world war was he ever able to perceive the land of his father’s fathers as an enemy deserving of defeat. During World War II he did his best to ignore the Holocaust, and when he did address it he suggested the Jews brought it on themselves for being too successful in German society. He withdrew his byline from the pages of the Sunpapers for the duration of both conflicts.

His predictions were sometimes so wrong as to be stupefying. On the long-range consequences of World War II, for instance, he wrote: “To me the war, or, at least at all events, the American share in it, is a wholly dishonorable and ignominious business. I believe that will be history’s verdict upon it.”

But sometimes you can find among his observations, made so long ago, an uncanny relevance to events unfolding in our own times, as this, written following the paroxysm of American chauvinism that attended World War I. It was part of a paper he wrote offering a strategy of protest for the Sunpapers against the politically unhealthy situation that obtained at that time: “No man of active, original and courageous mind, unless he be rich or of established position, is any too safe in the United States today. The desire for draconian laws has passed beyond the stage of interference with private acts; it now seeks to challenge even secret thoughts. And this enterprise, instead of being checked by a judiciary jealous of the common rights of man, is actually fostered by a judiciary that seems to have forgotten the elemental principles of justice and rules of law.”

Who can read this without thinking of the U.S. Patriot Act, passed so hurriedly in October, 2001, or the Pentagon’s scheme to create an immense database by gathering all the personal, financial and medical information of every American that can be gleaned by the sweeping surveillance technology available today? Or of the hundreds of hapless souls trapped in the whirlwind of antiterrorist fervor who languish in American prisons without charge, without access to attorneys, people whose names the government refuses to reveal?

Since 1925, six full biographies of H. L. Mencken have been published, including Teachout’s, and who knows how many learned articles, pamphlets, monographs, Ph.D. theses, and reviews of all these? There is more to come, a biography by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, and a reissue of Dr. Fitzpatrick’s book, first published in 1989. So why does this “Mencken industry” continue to flourish? What is the cause of the enduring interest in the work of a man who dealt in the ephemeral currency of the news, and whose heyday had come and gone by the early part of the last century? And finally, why is it almost certain that we will never see his like again?

The latter question prompts two possible answers: first, our society has changed; second, the talent for exquisitely calibrated billingsgate, irony, the facility for broad and devastating generalization, not to mention an unswerving commitment to logic and honesty of expression, and the despairing outlook to animate it, are just not likely to come together in a single human being, at least not one who is working on a newspaper. And even if it should, it would be unwelcome, or drowned and lost in the oceanic tide of shallow entertainment, the effluvium on television and in film, the cacophony of opinion written and broadcast, news, ersatz news, the blither of advertisements, public relations pablum, the oil of contrived events, all the effluence of our vast, hydra-headed means of communication.

To absorb one of Mencken’s Evening Sun columns required a little time, a little thought, a little effort to deal with paragraphs often more than 20 lines long, and sentences occasionally beyond 30 words in length, a vocabulary so vast as to enable an uncommon precision to the expression of his ideas.

That society has been changed is obvious, and not only by the multiplication of the media. We have grown more squeamish as we have opened up: one cannot use ethnic slurs freely, not even in the interest of humor, without reaping a barrage of determined disapproval by people bent on primitive sanctions. Our racial, cultural and ethnic diversification have perforce made us, if not more sensitive, at least more wanly cautious. These segments of the population—once nearly impotent—has the means now to respond, through the courts, through boycotts, by stimulating contempt for those who would abuse them. Nor can establishment newspapers, or any of their hired help, afford to refer to businessmen as “swine” just for the fun of it, for fear of losing ads, or politicians as “bootlickers” for fear of losing sources, so necessary to the way journalism is done today.

Actually, Mencken did very little reporting except as a young man; he was not the sort who would check facts, or seek the disinterested observer. Being wrong did not necessarily undermine his authority. His conclusions were usually the result of his puissant deductive powers, and rooted in a Hobbesian cast of mind. He was a man so religiously averse to false hopes that it constituted a faith he put far above those of others. His essay “On Suicide” seems to me to crystallize his commitment to human reason, and at the same time it reflects the existential despair of his vision of life. (“What could be more logical than suicide?”) It also explains why he worked so hard, never took the ultimate, “logical” exit himself.

Perhaps the only soft spot in Mencken’s total faith in rationality was a phobia Dr. Fitzpatrick described as treiskiaderka, an unbearable fear of the number 13. But perhaps Mencken did not think it an unreasonable fear: his father died January 13, 1889; his mother December 13, 1925; his wife Sara on May 31, the same digits in reverse.

With all that, paradoxically again, he was enormously capable of happiness. He found it in the simplest of human pleasures: cigars, beer, music, his hearth.

There are of course reasons that explain Mencken’s continuing popularity other than his radical journalism, the treasury of epigrams and aphorisms he left behind. There were other fields in which he excelled. The American Language, his analysis of our vernacular tongue, revealed him as a first-rate scholar and philologist. His three personal reminiscences, Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, showed him to be one of the finest memoirists and social historians of his time. His six books titled Prejudices made manifest his acute powers of social observation. They contained short pieces on subjects as varied as ethics, food, poetry, sex education, music, eugenics, the undeserved obscurity of Ambrose Bierce, and, his encounter with Rudolf Valentino, and other topics, some outdated others of eternal interest.

(Valentino, grateful for Mencken’s advice discouraging him from fighting a duel, gave the journalist a fine pair of red suspenders, which he then wore while posing for a drippingly romantic painting, by Nikol Schattenstein, which made him look less like a skeptical newspaperman than a callow Victorian poet, gazing into space as if in search of his muse. It decorates the Mencken Room at the Pratt, which also holds the better books from his personal library).

Mencken was a magazine editor of unusual perspicacity, first at the Smart Set, later at the American Mercury; he discovered or advanced the careers of writers such as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather.

Mencken is much with us today because he managed to elude the curse that afflicts all periodical journalism. Nearly every newspaper printed ends up as fishwrap, or goes on to some other pedestrian and ignominious fate. These days newspapers are recycled or, more likely, sent off in their abundance to clog the landfills. That is also the sad destiny of nearly every idea they contain, snatches of wisdom or uncommonly vivid formulations of common sense. Someone once said that the best writing, the more incandescent ideas, always appear first in newspapers, as the first reports of history do. This is not a rash observation, considering the great number of people engaged in writing for newspapers and magazines. Many of these ideas, snatched from the welter of common and popular events, banged into shape, and published under the pressure of deadlines, are only sketches, or half-formed, even half-baked, but some are worthy of further work, and might be developed and thereby invested with longer life.

Mencken understood this and, as Teachout tells us, assiduously reworked the substance of his newspaper columns, expanded on the ideas and represented them in his books and magazines, all of which were bound and wound up in libraries from coast to coast, and in this way he eluded the bottom of the birdcage.

Another reason Mencken is still very much with us, according to Teachout, can be summed up in a word. Style. As the editor of A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, published in 1995, Teachout wrote: “He is the only American journalist of his generation whose work is still read—who is, indeed, a genuinely popular writer. The artificial respiration of tenure-hungry scholars has played no part in keeping his memory green; to the extent that he is remembered, it is because there is something about his writing that appeals to the common reader.”

And the uncommon one as well, one might say.

Mencken fashioned a literary style so thunderous and powerful, explosively funny, withering in its skepticism, rigorous in its commitment to honesty, logic and the truth as he saw it, which more often than not was far clearer than the perceptions of the great majority of the blind men wandering in and even running the country into which he so regretted having been born. His was a triumph of style, a style strong enough to carry many a weak argument to victory. He was, as he is often portrayed, a bridge between literature and journalism. He made the latter a grander endeavor than it had been before in this country, and bestowed upon every one of us who practice the craft of journalism a measure of respectability that most of his earlier contemporaries went without. Love him or hate him, every single one of us is in debt to him for that small gift.


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