Book Title/Author: The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken by Terry Teachout
Publisher/Year Published: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2002.
How I got a hold of this book: I checked this book out from my campus library in Stillwater.
Why I read this book: I chose to read this book for a class.
Rating: 4.5 stars.
H.L. Mencken was one of the best-known critics of the 1920s. He is probably best known for his involvement in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, however he made his career as a journalist, essayist, editor, and book-writer. Terry Teachout attempts to rehabilitate Mencken in the eyes of twenty-first century people as Mencken’s “social and political views, long thought irreversibly outdated, have become a resurgent strain in American thought” (xiii). Teachout writes the story of Mencken’s life through Mencken’s point of view by using many of his own writings as quotations and evidence. Teachout is critical when warranted, but he states that he attempted to put his criticisms in the proper historical context.
Mencken was born in 1880 in Baltimore. At age three, his father moved the family into the house Mencken would live in for the rest of his life, minus the years he was married and one year after his wife passed. At eight years old, his literary career began when he received a Baltimore No. 10 Self-Inker Printing Press. Interestingly, his father ruined the lower-case rs, which forced him to use the initials “H.L.” on his work. He soon read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which shaped his style.
In his early 20s he began working in the newspaper business. Mencken’s coverage of the Baltimore fire of 1904 can be said to have marked his transition from “cocky young city editor” (65) to a serious newspaperman. The author suggests that Mencken might have benefited from college. True, no class could have taught him what he learned as a newspaperman, but a formal education would have been useful for what he had wanted to do as a critic. Except for the world wars, Mencken spent the rest of his professional life working for the Baltimore Sunpapers.
Mencken soon entered the magazine world with a friend George Jean Nathan. They first edited Smart Set, but eventually began working on the American Mercury. This magazine has become a symbol of the 1920s, though probably far more people had heard of it that had seen, much less read, a copy. The magazine had literary features, but also editorials and articles on all aspects of American life. Everyone seemed pleased with the Mercury except Bible Belt editorial writers, liberal intellectuals, and Nathan. Many pieces of the Mercury were so heavily edited and rewritten that they all sounded like Mencken wrote them, which was fine initially because he was the main draw, but it did not lend itself to longevity. By 1929, the most astute critics realized that Mencken had run his course, was on the verge of over-playing his hand, and had missed the points of the 1920s.
Throughout the 1930s, Mencken churned out editorials and numerous books. The constant theme in his articles was the ineptitude of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. The big difference from his earlier work was that hardly anyone was laughing anymore. Teachout asserts that Americans probably were not so reluctant to laugh, as they were tired of laughing at what Mencken laughed at (258). During the war Mencken went into exile because of his views toward Hitler. All his life he was very proud of his German heritage. And, while he would never have approved of what Hitler was really doing, Mencken underestimated Hitler, calling him a boob, rather than seeing him as evil. Because Mencken refused to attack Hitler in his writings, he began getting the wrong kind of attention.
In 1948, Mencken had a massive stroke. It affected the part of his brain that allowed him to read and write. He lived a life of limited mobility for the next eight years and still managed to publish some books that he dictated to his stenographer. Mencken, either actively, passively, directly, or indirectly helped the careers of Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Sinclair Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh, among others. He published many books on topics that interested him. He began with the first work on George Bernard Shaw and wrote In Defense of Women, Damn! A Book of Calumny, The American Language, Treatise on the Gods, A Mencken Chrestomathy, and a number of posthumous collections.
I really liked this book. I thought it was a very interesting approach to a biography. However, I got tired of Mencken as a historical figure because, it seemed, he latched onto a subject and satirized it over and over until it had passed from relevance and amusement into extreme weariness. Mark Twain, whom Mencken idolized, also did this. Still, I think Mencken is a worthwhile character to read about. Teachout's style is very clear and straightforward. The author does a good job of staying with his chosen focus--the evolution of Mencken's writing, while integrating the personal story in a seamless way.