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The eminent misanthrope of Baltimore

The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, Terry Teachout, HarperCollins: 412 pp., $29.95

November 10, 2002|Brad Leithauser | Brad Leithauser is the author of numerous books, including "Darlington's Fall: A Novel in Verse" and "The Odd Last Thing She Did: Poems."

It's a small but engaging literary form, deserving of its own modest library shelf: the biographies of curmudgeons. As a genre, it has its own peculiar challenges and evaluative criteria. Its very creation is likely to be haunted by a sense of self-generated menace, as the biographer inevitably begins to wonder how the emerging portrait might have stirred its subject's formidable wrath. If you undertake to write the biography of, say, Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis, you will be daily attended by a bilious ghost who stands ready to dismiss all your painstaking efforts as the laborings of a fool.

H.L. Mencken, the subject of Terry Teachout's biography, was quick to brand those who offended him fools but perhaps quicker still to call them morons or idiots. Connoisseur of vituperation that he was, Mencken was partial to condemnations that had an air of the rational or scientific; words like "moron" or "idiot," with their whiff of IQ-testing and lab assessments, carried a special appeal for him. Mencken wanted his readers to understand that his denunciations were not merely thoroughgoing and unqualified, they were also dispassionate and verifiable.

What would Mencken have made of Teachout's book? He would have had to acknowledge, my guess is, that the writing is fluent and the judgments fair-minded. Teachout's own career in many ways happily reflects his subject's. Although Mencken, the literary man, accomplished much (he wrote books about politics, religion, philosophy and language) and aspired to far more (early on, he wished to be a poet and a novelist), at heart he was a newspaperman, an abiding loyalty understandable to Teachout, who worked for years on the Kansas City Star and the New York Daily News and who is now affiliated with Time, Commentary and the Washington Post. Mencken has found an experienced and affinitive biographer.

Henry Louis Mencken was born in 1880 in Baltimore, the son of a prosperous cigar manufacturer who was himself born in Baltimore. The family's ancestry was German, a fact that loomed large in Mencken's mind from the onset of his career (he was a great one for generalizing about national character traits) and that led him, in his 50s, into deep journalistic follies and a stubborn purblindness as Germany succumbed to the pandemic of Nazism. But however much Europe may have preoccupied Mencken's thoughts, neither Berlin nor Paris nor London rivaled the reality of Baltimore. Nor, for that matter, could New York or Washington compete with his hometown. As an adult, Mencken continued to reside in his childhood house; he spent 67 of his 75 years sheltered under its roof.

Teachout refers to Mencken as "America's greatest journalist," a plausible claim that ultimately acknowledges a spirited, indefatigable triumph over numerous emotional and intellectual shortcomings. An aura of improbability surrounds Mencken's whole career. His limitations, as Teachout evenhandedly points out, were multiple and severe. An autodidact whose formal schooling ended at 15, Mencken was a man of patchy education and broad but hardly catholic interests. The entire modernist explosion in the arts, which unfolded while he was still in mid-career, left him unmoved and untouched. His views, political and aesthetic, were arrived at early in his professional life, after which he remained largely impermeable to new evidence or new persuasions. Although he coined the term Bible Belt, he was ignorant of the South he habitually belittled, as he was of most of the country lying beyond the Baltimore-New York axis of his publishing efforts. He was -- a seemingly insuperable handicap for a journalist -- mostly unobservant and incurious about the hardships and deprivations and painfully postponed aspirations of the working-class people who made up the bulk of his beloved Baltimore, as they made up the bulk of that larger nation whose wayward passage from isolationism to active participation in World War I, from Prohibition to its repeal, from the paralysis of the Depression to the frenzy of World War II so regularly incensed him.

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