- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2006

MENCKEN: THE AMERICAN ICONOCLAST. THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE BAD BOY OF BALTIMORE

By Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

Oxford, $35, 662 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN

The time has come for our faux-intelligentsia — academia, the arts crowd, the media — to swallow, however grudgingly, its political correctness and recognize Henry Louis Mencken for what he was: a towering figure of American literature and political journalism during the 20th century. Such a judgment is reinforced by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’ “Mencken,” the most superb and entertaining biography (in any field) that I’ve read in years, one that has “National Book Award” stamped all over it.

Even a reader familiar with the Mencken saga will find vivid and fresh material here. And Ms. Rodgers wisely tells her story in her own words, without yielding to the temptation to emulate her subject, although there are HLM quotations aplenty to illustrate how he made such a noise for more than half a century.

And oh, what a noise. Mencken’s formal — I use the word advisedly — education stopped at the high school level. HLM resisted his father’s attempt to bring him into the family cigar business, and, soon after his death, marched down to the Baltimore Herald and hung around for evenings until an editor dispatched him into a blizzard to find what news he could in Germantown. Two sentences about a horse theft resulted. No matter: He was now a newspaperman, in the first of his many professional elements, prowling a port city with a “pervasive rowdiness and bawdiness … the general air of devil-may care freedom … .”

But Mencken’s vision soared beyond the narrow bounds of daily journalism. Even as he tenaciously worked his way up to Herald city editor and then columnist and editor for the Baltimore Sunpapers, he read voraciously; indeed, his self-education honed an intellect of far more substance than most of the academics he delighted in deriding. Music. Medicine. Theology. Philosophy (he wrote “The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche” at age 27). Literature. A man of boundless curiosities.

And of energy as well. He was a multi-tasked man his entire career, producing a volume of work that would stagger a dray horse. Ms. Rodgers shows him concurrently editing first the Smart Set, then the American Mercury, the latter arguably the most read and most quoted magazine in the country during the 1920s; writing editorials and covering national politics for the Evening Sun; reviewing literally scores of books a year for his own publications and others; and producing a seemingly ceaseless flow of books.

His multi-volume “The American Language” would be more than a life’s work for an ordinary mortal, which HLM surely was not. More than 100,000 of his letters are in the Pratt Library in Baltimore. To persons who love good literature, Mencken’s chief contribution to letters was his advocacy of such realist novelists as Theodore Dreiser and James Branch Cabell, helping each through censorship brawls with blue-nosed “wowsers.”

Sadly, too many present-day Americans know Mencken solely through the occasional printed sound bite which political writers pilfer in an attempt to appear erudite. I concede that the material he left is irresistible. Consider his comment on the election of Calvin Coolidge in 1924: “The American people, having 35,717,342 native-born adult whites to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out the Hon. Mr. Coolidge to be he head of state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master chefs, and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back on the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies.” Writing with deadlines ticking in the background, Mencken produced lineal yards of such prose from 1904 to 1948.

The irony of Mencken’s fall from grace, beginning in the 1930s, is that he spent most of his career on the “right side” of the issues deemed important by the current PC crowd. Free speech? HLM dug into his own pocket — and risked jail — defending publications of books and magazines (including his own American Mercury) deemed inappropriate by prudes.

Civil liberties? HLM’s very last column in the Baltimore Sun, before suffering a disabling stroke in 1948, derided city fathers for denying blacks access to tennis courts in Druid Hill Park. Religious tolerance? HLM single-handedly made a national spectacle of the prosecution of a young Tennessee biology teacher — the famed “Monkey Trial” — for teaching Darwin’s ideas on evolution in his classroom. He brought in as the defense lawyer the famed William Darrow, who made a public fool of William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted the case.

Why, then, the leftist/academia hatred of Mencken? Several reasons. As a libertarian, he opposed the statist elements of the New Deal and ridiculed President Franklin Roosevelt and many of his programs. As a German-American with emotional ties to his origins, he was slow, too slow, to recognize the evils of Hitler, in large part because he felt that British propaganda had rushed the United States into World War I; he feared (incorrectly, it turned out) that a remake was in the offing.

Most damning, as a diarist HLM was brutally frank in putting his racial and ethnic views into writing in his diary, published in 1989, 33 years after his death. Even HLM admirers felt twinges of revulsion at his derision of blacks, Jews and Southern “lintheads” who infested his Baltimore neighborhood.

Critics pounded the stuffing out of Mencken. Peculiarly, many spoke with considerable hypocrisy. For instance, the National Press Club made a show of stripping Mencken’s name off part of its library. (I unkindly pointed out, in a letter to a paper across town, that Mencken published black authors in The American Mercury “at a time when the press club was as segregated as the Alabama legislature.”)

The United States Postal Service junked a campaign by the Mencken Society to issue an HLM commemorative stamp. (Perhaps Sen. Paul Sarbanes, of Mencken’s Free State, could use his last year in office to revive the idea; Mr. Sarbanes has been seen enjoying himself at Mencken Society gatherings.)

As for “anti-Jewish” bias, to be sure Mencken used horribly offensive and stereotypical terms. Yet: For more than 50 years, Mencken’s publisher and bosom friend was Alfred A. Knopf, who was Jewish; son Pat Knopf told me on several occasions that he “never detected one iota of bias” in HLM, nor did his father.

Ms. Rodgers’ enchantment with Mencken began in 1981, two weeks before her graduation from Goucher College, when she “literally tripped over a box of love letters” between HLM and Sara Haardt, an alumna and writer. “Taped to the top of the collection was a stern command, written by Mencken himself, that it was not to be opened until that very year.”

This exchange of tender, romantic correspondence revealed a tender side of the gruff Mencken seldom displayed in public. A randy womanizer — “The German Valentino,” friends called him — Mencken reveled in the company of show girls and actress, all the while scoffing at marriage. I admit that my cynical eyes tear up at his decision to marry, at age 50, a woman 18 years his junior who suffered from tuberculosis of the kidney, and who physicians gave only three years to live (she lasted five). Ms. Rodgers used the correspondence for “Mencken & Sara,” which led inevitably to the painstaking research she put into the current biography.

So what did Mencken mean to America? As Ms. Rodgers summarizes, his guidelines were “sound information, common sense, good taste, lively wit, and ready humor … .” Further, “that iconoclasm, whatever its perils, is at least one of the more gallant and stimulating sports.” On the eve of Mencken’s death 50 years ago this month, his friend the novelist James Cain found the prospect of life without HLM “frightening.” He continued, “For we live in troubled times, with the censor, the bigot, and the patrioteer in full cry again. And one wonders who the big bull elephant will be, to smash at them hard again, and whether there ever will be another one quite as big, quite at brave, quiet as mad as Mencken.”

Joseph C. Goulden edited “Mencken’s Last Campaign,” on his coverage of the 1948 presidential election. He was a founder of the H. L. Mencken Society.

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