When H. L. Mencken passed away, one headline writer tried to sum up the wordsmiths career in five words: "Mencken, Critic Of All, Dies." A great critic he was, without a doubt. But he was more than that. Invited in 1930 to contribute his inmost credo to a symposium whose other participants included, among others, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Hilaire Belloc, Mencken wrote:
"I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than to be ignorant.
Few modern American writers have been as controversial as Mencken. Much of what he produced was daily journalism, but his articles, essays and books are still read and appreciated. This is not in the least surprising. He tried to choose his targets with precision: So far as I can recall I have never thrown a dead cat at a single honest and intelligent man. My sneers and objurgations have been reserved exclusively for braggarts and mountebanks, quacks and swindlers, fools and knaves. One can perhaps think of one or two exceptions Menckens misreading of Irving Babbitt, for instance but there is much truth in that assessment.
A new Mencken biography is a cause for celebration. Terry Teachouts The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken is certainly worth a toast, even if the book is somewhat unsatisfying. Unlike Mencken's previous biographers Teachout is writing, "very broadly speaking, from his point of view." I think it would be best to stress that the operative phrase here seems to be "very broadly." This is a fair, but highly critical biography.
I suspect some Mencken fans will be a bit disappointed to discover that Teachout comes across as not very knowledgeable as far as libertarianism goes. "Not until libertarianism emerged as a full-fledged wing of the conservative movement," says Teachout about the object of his study, "did he become a true influence on the right." Period. And that's about it. We learn next to nothing about Menckens importance for what has been called The Old Right. Albert Jay Nock, the libertarian essayist extraordinaire who occasionally wrote for the American Mercury and who was a comrade in arms, is not even mentioned. Not even in a footnote.
Still, I must confess this is a very readable book. I would even say absorbing. Mencken's life was fascinating in so many ways. It was also, to some extent, tragic. Partly, he had himself to blame. Mencken was a peculiar man who subscribed to very disturbing opinions about Jews (although he, at the same time, bravely defended civil rights and derided all sorts of bigotry).
If I were a sentimental person, I do believe that reading about the last years of Mencken's existence would bring tears to my eyes. Sickness, war and politicians like Franklin D Roosevelt all contributed to cast a dark shadow over his days. FDR even robbed him of his ability to laugh at American politics:
"The whole policy of Roosevelt II, whether in domestic of foreign affairs, was founded upon the fanning of hatreds the first and last resort of unconscionable demagogues, at all times and everywhere. This fanning, of course, was done to the tune of loud demands for tolerance."
Sad as Menckens end may have been, there is also much inspiration to be found in a book about the life of this man. He worked hard and enthusiastically but knew how to enjoy himself and how to live in comfort. Menckens daily stroll to the mailbox was among his few forms of exercise. He read whenever he had a chance, and whenever possible he read lying down.
There were many triumphs and many battles well fought, even the ones that were eventually lost. For a while, Mencken was arguably the most influential journalist in the United States, in spite, or because, of his radical ideas. When the American Mercury one of the magazines that Mencken edited reached its circulation peak in 1928 it sold nearly 84,000 copies. In 1932 Mencken was considered worthy of an admiring profile in Vanity Fair, in which Ernest Boyd spoke of him as having wielded an influence in this country comparable to that of Shaw in England And when Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize for Literature the first American writer to do so he went out of his way to make mention of Mencken in his acceptance speech.
Anyone interested in the history and ideas of libertarianism ought to read Teachouts biography, even though it obviously has not been written with such readers in mind. It is the story of a man who was bourgeois by birth and a skeptic by conviction. Mencken himself wrote:
"My father was a capitalist engaged in an active struggle with labor. It was thus only natural that I should grow up full of suspicions of democratic sentimentality. As I came to manhood and began to deal with men myself, I noticed quickly that the failures were all incompetents that God had marked them for the ditch, not man."
Menckens sense of personal superiority was strengthened by an early encounter with the writings of Nietzsche, the subject of his third book and the philosopher whose thinking influenced him more than any other:
"Like Nietzsche, I console myself with the hope that I am the man of the future, emancipated from the prevailing delusions and superstitions, and gone beyond nationalism."
Menckens prose and ideas were pure intellectual dynamite. Their explosive character has, to a significant extent, endured. Here are some examples from the posthumously published Minority Report:
"We must respect the other fellows religion, but only in the sense and to the extent we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."
"The moral bully is the worst of all. Puritanism is completely merciless."
"This is the true secret of the rise and fall of cultures: They rise so long as they produce a sufficiency of superior individuals, and they begin to fall the moment the average man approximates the best."
"The easiest and cheapest way to deal with Dillingers is to kill them. If it be argued that this is mere revenge, the answer is plain: Why not?"
"Government is actually the worst failure of civilized man. There has never been a really good one, and even those that are most tolerable are arbitrary, cruel, grasping and unintelligent."
Most men and women of genius have entertained a preposterous idea or two. Mencken was no exception. But he wrote with style and wit enough to turn admirers into addicts. Along the way he did some good. The English novelist Evelyn Waugh once wrote that it should be the proper function of an intelligentsia to correct popular sentiments and give the call to order in times of hysteria. H.L. Mencken did that.
Teachout notes that when the Associated Press asked Mencken to supply a statement for use in his obituary, he expressed in it only one conviction:
"I have believed all my life in free thought and free speech up to and including the utmost limits of the endurable."