- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

In the summarizing final chapter of this fine new biography of H.L. Mencken, Terry Teachout quotes a passage Mencken had underlined in Richard Wright's autobiography, "Black Boy." Wright describes borrowing one of Mencken's books from the library and taking it home: "That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened "A Book of Prefaces" and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean sweeping sentences."
Wright asked himself how, indeed whether, one could write like that, using words as weapons, and decided that yes, words could be weapons: "I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it." It is a fine moment, the aspiring young black writer heating up his supper while discovering the possibilities of combative style in the words of a man whose racial and religious sympathies were, to say the least, of limited range.
Mr. Teachout suggests that this passage from "Black Boy" testifies to the liberating force Mencken's memorable diction and rhythms exerted on Wright, and that it was nothing less than "a triumph of style." And although Mencken the writer shouldn't be reduced to a style merely, it is nevertheless crucial to what keeps him alive for us today.
If it isn't too grandiose a stretch, something like this might be claimed for Mr. Teachout's vigorous biography which at 410 pages and considering the many books and events in its subject's life of seven decades is, unlike most American biographies, of modest and model length. He did not attempt to be exhaustive, Mr. Teachout notes, "so as to avoid being exhausting."
It's also probably the case that since, like Mencken, he is a working journalist (a stint on the Daily News and all sorts of reviewing of the arts) he knows how long to go on and when to cease so 10 crisp chapters flanked by prologue and epilogue are enough to get the job done efficiently. The book is subtitled "A Life of H.L. Mencken," and though it contains first-rate literary criticism of Mencken's works, Mr. Teachout subordinates such commentary to making the portrayal vivid, even if that sounds hard to avoid with such a vivid figure as Mencken.
Mr. Teachout's prologue begins auspiciously by not beginning with the usual ancestral clearing of the decks, but with a December evening in 1934 when Mencken attended a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington. The guest of the evening was President Franklin Roosevelt who would listen, then respond to speeches by various journalists, members of the "loyal opposition," foremost of whom was Mencken who had the first (but not the last) word of the evening.
Previous to the dinner, Roosevelt had given him what seemed like a kindly recognition, and Mencken's speech in its cynical ribbing of the New Deal was relatively genial and not ill-natured (so Harold Ickes thought). When it came Roosevelt's time to answer the speeches and conclude the evening, he began by congratulating Mencken on the temperateness of his remarks, then launched into an attack on American journalists by calling them "oafs and fools" while characterizing their profession as "pathetically feeble and vulgar" and "generally disreputable."
Only one person in the room, Mr. Teachout writes, knew that the remarks were taken verbatim from one of Mencken's essays in "Prejudices: Sixth Series," and Roosevelt didn't reveal until the end that the author of this onslaught was "my old friend Henry Mencken." Laughter and cheers from the assembled; "I'll get the son of a bitch," whispered Mencken to his neighbor. But not that night.
"A Permanent Opposition," Mr. Teachout's title for his prologue, is a wholly apt way to sum up his subject in three words and signals that Mencken remained steadfast in his opposition to such phenomena as the genteel tradition in American fiction, or Baptists, or jazz. It is not however his aversion to any of these that has stood him in bad stead, but rather his prejudices against Jews, which became most apparent with the publication of his diary in 1989.
Although he thought himself "not rationally to be called anti-Semitic," few have agreed; and Mr. Teachout, adducing Mencken's "deeply equivocal feelings" on the subject, sums up the case by declaring that "it was not his anti-Semitism for which he will be remembered but that he was an anti-Semite cannot now reasonably be denied."
He invites us instead to remember Mencken for brighter, more distinctive achievements: his becoming editor at 25, of the Baltimore Herald, a daily paper in a city of 500,000 inhabitants; his early championing of American novelists like Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis whom he felt to be in the true American grain (like his hero Mark Twain) as against the "neutered evasions" of William Dean Howells and other "genteel" figures; his editing, with George Jean Nathan, of the Smart Set and later, on his own, of the American Mercury.
Speaking of his reviews in the Smart Set and the volumes of "Prejudices" as they followed one another, Mr. Teachout identifies in Mencken what he calls a style of "slapstick vigor" and isolates the distinctive quality of Mencken's reviews: "Never before had American literary criticism been so much fun."
But however much fun Mencken's literary criticism provides and it provides a lot more than most examples of the genre Mr. Teachout doesn't shirk pointing out the strong limitations of what Edmund Wilson called, Mencken's "admirable literary sense": "American literature before Mark Twain was a closed book to him, European modernism a joke." He bragged of never having read "The Brothers Karamazov," and although the Smart Set published two stories from Joyce's "Dubliners", Mencken dismissed "Ulysses" as "deliberately mystifying and mainly puerile."
His inability to give Howells his due, while understandable in a man whose first two books were on iconoclasts like George Bernard Shaw and Nietzsche, is nevertheless a limitation of taste; as for Henry James, Mencken found his prose "indigestible," asking about the Jamesian sentence "Isn't it wobbly with qualifying clauses and subassistant phrases? Doesn't it wriggle and stumble and stagger and flounder? … Doesn't it often bounce along for a while and then, of a sudden, roll up its eyes and go out of business entirely?" D.H. Lawrence he found "in the main, horribly dull," and his judgments of contemporary poets Frost, T.S. Eliot, Yeats are conspicuous by their absence.
As for his "thought," Mr. Teachout finds in it "a skepticism so extreme as to issue in philosophical incoherence." By contrast, the books of Mencken's that will last are the autobiographical ones, beginning with the memoir of his boyhood, "Happy Days"; his little-read but original "In Defense of Women" (the story of Mencken's brief marriage to Sarah Haardt, who died of tuberculosis, is affectingly told by Mr. Teachout); his attractive writing about music, as collected in "H.L. Mencken on Music" (1961); and, best-known, his many times revised "The American Language."
There are also available for inspection two Mencken "chrestomathies," one of essays and excerpts compiled by the writer himself just before his stroke in 1948, the other recently edited by Mr. Teachout from another Mencken manuscript. But whatever books of his remain in print and the situation looks pretty good at present they will be read not by professors and their students (like Edmund Wilson he doesn't "fit" into courses), but by the mythical general reader who perhaps still survives.
Such a reader may find enliveningly incorrect the man who announced "I never wash my hands after taking a leak. That's the cleanest part of me"; who on the testimony of a friend "dressed like the owner of a country hardware store"; and who, the evening of his last day on earth, bothered by chest pains and before going to bed, downed three martinis and chatted with his friend Louis Cheslock about an afternoon performance he'd enjoyed of "Die Meistersinger." Terry Teachout's invaluable labor of love in this biography is something Mencken would have been pleased by, and it will do major service in keeping alive the memory of the sage of Baltimore.

William H. Pritchard is the author most recently of "Updike: America's Man of Letters."

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