A review of The Skeptic: A Biography of H.L. Mencken, by Terry Teachout
If H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) is known widely today, it is probably for coining the term "Bible Belt," or possibly for originating the oft-misquoted adage, "No one…has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people." He said much more than that, equally memorable, often hilariously so. By Mencken's own estimate, his published writings ran "well beyond 5,000,000 words," and his unpublished work and correspondence accounted for several hundred thousand more. He was first and foremost a journalist—arguably the greatest journalist of the 20th century. In his heyday in the 1920s, he was, in Walter Lippmann's words, "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." The leftist literary critic Edmund Wilson, writing in The New Republic, called Mencken "the civilized consciousness of America…realizing the grossness of its manners and mind and crying out in horror and chagrin."
For nearly 40 years, Mencken was a towering figure on the American scene. He was the scourge of boobus Americanus, nemesis of "bureaucrats, policemen, wowsers, snouters, smellers, uplifters, lawyers, bishops, and all other sworn enemies of the free man." Nearly a half-century after his death, he still has a devoted, if diminished, following.
Yet if Mencken is no longer the titan he once was, his presence is still very much felt. Many writers aspire to write like him; all have failed. No pundit working today approaches his style, let alone his influence. He continues to disturb the peace—for reasons that might surprise him, but that would undoubtedly "please his ghost." In particular, he continues to fascinate biographers and scholars. Every few years, it seems, a new Mencken study comes out. Interest rekindled with the publication of his diary in 1989, and its widely publicized and controversial revelations of anti-Semitism, and again a few years later when his two multi-volume memoirs, My Life as Author and Editor and Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work, finally became available to researchers.
Terry Teachout's important new biography, The Skeptic, is not the first to use the new material. That honor belongs to Fred Hobson's 1994 tome, Mencken: A Life, which makes up in detail what it lacks in style. Teachout himself describes his book, which took more than a decade to write, as a "partial portrait." Partial perhaps, but candid, too. Teachout, the gifted music critic of Commentary and a long-time conservative journalist, manages to bring fresh perspective to a figure whose political thought has been largely misconstrued or explained away by previous biographers. Teachout actually takes Mencken's politics seriously—or tries to, anyway. "Mencken's social and political views, long thought irreversibly outdated, have become a resurgent strain in American thought," he explains. "Like it or not, the Mencken Weltanschauung is once again a force to be reckoned with, and written about."
Unfortunately, Teachout cannot quite live up to the promise of this claim, because Mencken's views are neither as clear nor as consistent as they first appear. Teachout tries to place Mencken in the camp of the modern libertarian Right, but he is an imperfect fit. A life-long Democrat who voted Republican twice, first for Harding in 1920 and then for Alf Landon in 1936, Mencken never truly felt at home in any political party or movement. Over the years, he described himself variously as "an extreme libertarian," "a civilized tory," a "reactionary," and an "extreme radical." Mencken got to the bottom of it when he declared: "I belong to no party. I am my own party."
As with the man's ideas, so with the man. The professional hedonist, enemy of Puritanism, a man who preached that what America needed most was "more sin," conducted himself in such a way as to risk being mistaken for a Presbyterian minister. More than once Teachout calls Mencken a "poseur" and a "mama's boy." He was a hypochondriac. He lived at home until his mother died; in fact, he lived in the same Baltimore row house for most of his life, with the brief and notable exception of his five-year marriage to the doomed Sara Powell Hardt. The man most associated with the carefree Jazz Age hated jazz music. He drank, but never to excess, never before sunset, never when he had work to do. "[F]or all the abandon of his public persona," Teachout writes, "invariably [Mencken] played it safe in his private life."
One might say that "creative destruction" was Mencken's game. It might be simpler to call it what it was: bourgeois nihilism. "[I]f I had (or desired) the job of making over the world," he wrote in a private memorandum in 1941, "most of its existing institutions would be destroyed." He dismissed the progressives of his own day as dreamers, and considered "all the larger human problems…insoluble," and so thought it a waste of his time and effort to propose any sort of alternative to the democracy he loathed.
Ultimately, and not surprisingly, Teachout finds it difficult "to reconcile [Mencken's] blank nihilism with the deep-eyed conservatism of the Baltimore burgher who reveled in tradition, preferably German." Yet somehow Mencken "found no difficulty in posing as a nihilistic conservative, and his failure to recognize the absurdity of that position stands in the way of his being taken seriously as political philosopher." In the end, Teachout finds the "fundamental inadequacy" in Mencken's thought to be "a skepticism so extreme as to issue in philosophical incoherence."
Skeptic though Mencken surely was, a better title for the book would be The Iconoclast. One of the more memorable passages from his writings is this description of the iconoclast's vocation, written for the American Mercury in 1924, undoubtedly with himself in mind:
The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe—that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.
That could have been Mencken's credo. But it could also sum up his limitations. Essentially self-educated, his formal schooling ended when he graduated from Baltimore's Polytechnic high school. His real education came from the bustle of the newsroom, from the police precincts and wards he covered as a young reporter, and from from the books he devoured from childhood—Shakespeare, Thackeray, Tennyson, Dickens, Kipling, and above all, Twain (the discovery of whose books in his father's library Mencken called "probably the most stupendous event of my whole life"). Later, he pored over Darwin, Shaw, Ibsen, Thomas Huxley, and Friedrich Nietzsche. "Everything about Mencken," Teachout writes
—his politics, his religious beliefs, his personal relationships, his taste in literature—was conditioned by his certainty that life was a struggle for survival to which some men were ill-suited by accident of birth. His philosophy would become more elaborate, especially after he began to read Nietzsche, but it never strayed far in spirit from the social Darwinism in shirtsleeves that he acquired as city editor listening to drunken reporters gripe about the unfairness of life.
First and foremost among the influences on Mencken's political development was Nietzsche, concerning whom he was the first to publish a study in English. "Every autodidact needs a yardstick against which to measure himself," Teachout observes, "and it was in Nietzsche's Ubermensch that Mencken caught his first glimpse of the role he was preparing to play, the journalist with a hammer for whom Christian morality was 'something to fight, to wound, to hate.' "
Teachout isn't the first to notice that Mencken's Nietzsche is more Mencken than Nietzsche. Scholars today do not take his Nietzsche book seriously, but it does make for interesting reading as a preview of his more mature writing on politics, ethics, and theology. Teachout describes Mencken's reading of Nietzsche as "enthusiastic but shallow," limited by his education generally and his temperament in particular. "His Nietzsche is an all-American type," Teachout explains, "a world-improving, can-do go-getter delighted to have seen through the fraud of Christianity and gone beyond good and evil." Later in life, Mencken tried to downplay Nietzsche's influence in shaping his political thought, but the truth is, he never got over that early infatuation with the prophet of will-to-power, and however superficial his understanding may have been, it colored almost everything he wrote thereafter.
If one theme runs through mencken's political writing, it is the war between liberty and equality, or by proxy, hedonism versus Puritanism. Democracy, as he understood it, was a conspiracy of the inferior majority against the superior few. Although he professed to admire America's founders—he considered the founding era to be America's first and last heroic age—he clearly did not understand their ideas or their implications. "Most of our great men have been transparent damn fools," he wrote. "I except, of course, Jefferson." As with Nietzsche, his reading of Jefferson was superficial, though not entirely mistaken. He was undoubtedly right when he wrote that American government "has now gone far beyond anything ever dreamed of in Jefferson's day." But he disagreed violently with Jefferson's doctrines, viz.,
It is not a fact that all men are created equal, it is not a fact that they are able to choose their rulers wisely, and it is not a fact that their judgments on public matters, taking them in the mass, are prudent and valid, or even worth hearing. But it is a fact that they are better off, the stupid with the intelligent, when the scope of government is rigidly limited, and its agents have no prerogative outside the narrow and clearly marked bounds.
Mencken's view of democracy was Nietzsche with a generous helping of social Darwinism on the side. "What we need to get rid of, if possible, is its control by a majority that is human only biologically, and, hence cannot be trusted to determine wisely the best interests of the country, or even, its own best interests." And yet he believed at the same time that liberty represented "the first thing and the last thing. Let men be free, and whatever they get they will deserve."
America laughed with him through the 1920s. But when the '30s arrived, bringing with it the Great Depression and the rise of national socialism and fascism, the laughter became, shall we say, inappropriate. As a prognosticator and pundit, he could be spectacularly wrong. He was ardently pro-German during both world wars (although more so in the first). In 1936, he wrote "[a] Chinaman, or even a Republican," could beat FDR. He wrote off Hitler in the 1930s as "a demagogue of a very familiar democratic sort," "a politician of a type very familiar in America," whose policies were "quite indistinguishable from the ruffianism of the Ku Klux Klan." Teachout comments: "He misunderstood Hitler as completely as he had misinterpreted Nietzscheâ€¦and for much the same reason: He had no feeling for the darkness in the heart of man. He looked at evil and saw ignorance." If World War II was, as Mencken wrote in one of his many private notes to himself, "a wholly dishonorable and ignominious business," it isn't difficult to imagine what he would think of this undeclared and amorphous war against "the Axis of Evil."
Was Mencken an anti-Semite? Teachout is unequivocal: "It is not his anti-Semitism for which he will be remembered—but that he was an anti-Semite cannot now reasonably be denied." Did Mencken write nasty things about Jews? He did. The evidence is not new, and Teachout discovers no previously unknown "smoking gun." In truth, Mencken wrote nasty things about everything and everybody. A case could just as easily be made for Mencken's anti-Americanism, or his misanthropy. But to claim, as Teachout does, that Mencken's anti-Semitism "cannot now reasonably be denied" is a simplification, at best.
Much of Mencken's enduring appeal has to do with the seductiveness of his language rather than the arguments he makes. Teachout calls it a "triumph of style," but it is more than that. Mencken was "something more than a memorable stylist, if something less than a truly wise man. "
Mencken may have had a philosophy, but he was no philosopher. He was a great journalist. To read his obituary of William Jennings Bryan, or his dissection of Thorstein Veblin, or his examination of Oliver Wendell Holmes's "liberal" jurisprudence, even his bitterest denunciations of the New Deal, is to be thunderstruck and left standing in awe. Yet his career was a struggle to transcend "mere" journalism. "I have been torn all my writing life," he wrote in the early '40s, "by two conflicting desires—the journalistic desire to say it at once and have it done, and the more scholarly desire to say it carefully and with some regard to fundamental ideas and permanent values."
The contradiction is obvious—"permanent values" and the "transvaluation of all values" are tough to reconcile. Mencken could never quite bring himself to regard anything "fundamental" or "permanent" without chuckling. At his very best, he would say that he "knew of no human right that is one-tenth as valuable as the simple right to utter what seems (at the moment) to be the truth." But for him, of course, nothing was "wholly good, wholly desireable, wholly true" and "few doctrines seem worth fighting for. Far from going to the stake for a Great Truth, I wouldn't miss a meal for it."