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Crazy talk
Terry Teachoutís life of Mencken

The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken
By Terry Teachout. HarperCollins, 426 pages, $29.95.

When I first read H.L. Mencken, in the mid í60s and my mid teens, he seemed to be a bracing voice of common sense, a lively and witty dissenter, a clear-eyed beacon in a sea of idiots. When I re-read him recently, browsing through his famous self-selected anthology A Mencken Chrestomathy, he seemed like a serious case of arrested development. The prodigious irreverence that once spoke to my post-adolescent sense of alienation now gave the impression of being too vast by half, a permanently choleric disposition that served to hold too much of the world at bay. Even his appreciations were dotted with insults, little jabs at that multitude that didnít share his elevated sensibility. His range and his energy could still be impressive, and he could be insightful in his outrage, but generally he came across as a smart guy who never grew beyond the limitations set by his infatuation with his own cleverness.

Although Terry Teachout appreciates Mencken as a writer and thinker more than I do, heís scrupulous enough not to gloss over some of the famously spiky journalistís more appalling beliefs and opinions. He also gives a highly readable account of Menckenís only moderately eventful life. Born in 1880 in Baltimore, where he lived until his death in 1956 (and with his mother until her death in 1925), Mencken was an autodidact with a knack for cutting through the gentility and banality of the prevalent culture of his day. His great decade was the í20s, when he set the tone at the magazines Smart Set and the American Mercury, covering the Scopes trial and becoming something of a campus idol, somebody that all those kids with sharp tongues that they had to hold in abeyance could look up to. His American brand of monomaniacal contrariness anticipated everyone from Hunter S. Thompson to Bill OíReilly. His personal life was far from purple ó though fame bought him a brief encounter with some Hollywood tail ó and just when his abiding crankiness seems more than one can bear, thereís a poignantly brief late-in-life marriage to a woman who was already seriously ill.

Mencken railed against the vapidity of American culture but remained provincial in his tastes, the main exception being his love of most things German, which he saw as his rightful heritage. But even then, it was a romantic notion of a 19th-century Germany he clung to. Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms were definitive musical peaks; Nietzsche was a philosophical one. " The years he had spent editing the [Baltimore] Herald, " Teachout writes, " had taught him that all men were created unequal, and his reading of Nietzsche left him certain that the strong ones ó among whom he numbered himself ó would naturally prevail over their inferiors unless blocked from doing so by some external forces. "

The external forces were Menckenís lifelong enemies, Christianity and democracy, the former having " imposed Nietzscheísí Ďslave moralityí on the human race " while the latter, " by vesting sovereignty in the tyrannical will of the mob of weak-minded slaves, prevented the minority of unbelieving supermen from remaking the world along meritocratic lines. " Well, as my grandma used to say, " thatís just crazy talk. "

Mencken was anti-Semitic and racist, and though at times itís difficult to separate these specific prejudices from his general misanthropy, to give them pride of place, Teachout supplies enough relevant quotes to quell even his own doubts, deciding, " In the end one grows weary of hair-splitting. . . . To admit the truth about H.L. Mencken is not to dismiss the self-evident fact that there was far more to him than his deeply equivocal feelings about the Jews. Itís not his anti-Semitism for which he will be remembered ó but that he was an anti-Semite cannot now reasonably be denied. "

Toward the end of the book, Teachout asks, " But who now admires H. L. Mencken? " , adding that he " was never fully accepted by American conservatives, mainly because of his hostility to religion. . . . Nor did the right-wing populists of post-Reagan era find his antidemocratic philosophy palatable " and then suggesting that the answer is, uh, libertarians. As for the rest of us, the non-libertarians, heís still an entertaining period piece, and a model of how to dissent with gusto. But one best read when youíre young, before you become too emotionally engaged with the world outside your head.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 5, 2002
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