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The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 5, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

Journalist, muckraker, political gadfly, atheist, and conservative dissident, H.L. Mencken "was to the first part of the twentieth century what Mark Twain was to the last part of the nineteenth--the quintessential voice of American letters." So says the eminent critic Terry Teachout in this landmark biography, which explores why Mencken has been largely forgotten today.

Mencken held to ideas that history was busily sweeping aside. He railed against the growing power of the federal government in the early years of the Roosevelt administration, insisting on an elitist brand of politics that favored the "superior man." He advocated an isolationist course in world affairs, even as totalitarian powers swallowed up whole nations; he agitated against progressive domestic causes; and, albeit ironically, he proposed that capital punishment be turned into a public entertainment. Yet he wrote some of the best, most cruelly entertaining journalism of his time, reporting on great trials, minor crimes, and political conventions, skewering received opinion.

Mencken was "something more than a memorable stylist, if something less than a wise man," Teachout concludes. This careful portrait--the first full-length biography to appear in more than 30 years--gives ample evidence for that verdict. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

There is no lack of material on the curmudgeonly early-20th century journalist, and a devotee could spend years wading through Mencken's three-volume autobiography, two early biographies, and essays in the scholarly journal Menckeniana. However, Teachout simplifies the process for the casual reader, distilling the weight of information on Mencken into a tidy, fascinating biography that has much of the neat phrasing and sly wit that the rancorous writer displayed himself. Organized chronologically, the book follows the fat baby (Mencken noted that if cannibalism hadn't been abolished in his home state of Maryland, he'd have "butchered beautifully"), the teenage cub reporter, the editor and finally the memoirist. By drawing on published works and recently discovered private papers, Teachout puts the skeptic into context, giving as much insight into the Jazz Age as into the writer who hated jazz. Whether describing the quirks of novelist Theodore Dreiser, the rise of the pulp magazine, or the importance of the Scopes trial, the author brings deeper understanding to Mencken's passionate diatribes, and shows that the journalist was not just a product of his times, but a shaper of its attitudes. Although Teachout, a music critic for Commentary, obviously has an avid fascination for and admiration of the man who was determined to take on "braggarts and mountebanks, quacks and swindlers, fools and knaves," this is not a hagiography. He shows that Mencken could be both a fool and a knave, and even an occasional braggart. Yet he was always honest in his opinions, and Teachout's treatment of the material honors that journalistic impulse.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (November 5, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060505281
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060505288
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #673,801 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary, and the author of "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington," which will be published in October of 2013. I also blog about the arts at In addition to the books on this page, I've written a play, "Satchmo at the Waldorf," which was produced in 2012 by Shakespeare & Company of Lenox, Mass., Long Wharf Theatre of New Haven, Conn., and Philadelphia's Wilma Theater, and the libretti for two operas by Paul Moravec, "The Letter" and "Danse Russe." "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," which came out in 2009, was my first book about music, but I've been listening to jazz ever since my mother told me to come see Satchmo singing "Hello, Dolly!" on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, and I was a professional bassist before becoming a full-time writer. Among other things, I've written the liner notes for such albums as Diana Krall's "All for You," Maria Schneider's "Coming About," Karrin Allyson's "Daydream," Marian McPartland's "Just Friends," Luciana Souza's "Neruda," and Roger Kellaway's "Live at the Jazz Standard."

Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

75 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Mark_Frederic on December 2, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Terry Teachout's new biography is largely a rehash of Fred Hobson's biography of Mencken and to complete the feeling of déjà vu, the same controversies that greeted Hobson's book swirl around this one as well. Unlike Lord Byron or de Sade, Mencken led a life that was fairly bourgeois and apparently book reviewers resent it, thus playing up his alleged anti-Semitism. It is something of a fad these days to unmask literary anti-Semites and those who do it sometimes make themselves look foolish. One dunce who reviewed this book for the Seattle Times and compared Mencken unfavorably to Voltaire was apparently unaware of a large body of criticism condemning Voltaire for his anti-Semitism. Teachout himself is apologetic about Mencken's attitudes to the Jews, but doesn't go far enough in pardoning him.
Part of the demonizing of Mencken these days might be attributed to the fact that American society is still intolerant of a critical attitude to religion. Mencken was indeed critical of Judaism. However, as readers of "Treatise on Gods" know, Mencken was also critical of Christianity and Islam. A rationalist to the core, Mencken had little time for people who believed in the supernatural. He detested the religious impulse in Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
As for those who claim that Mencken is racially prejudice against the Jews, they will have to explain away the fact that, as Teachout shows, Mencken had many close Jewish friends and that he used harsh language toward everyone (the English, the Irish, African-Americans, Italians), not just against the Jews.
As so often with the genteel, the critics of Mencken have focused almost entirely on his manner of writing than rather than the substance of his writing. He argued quite forcefully for a humane foreign policy.
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 14, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The title does not begin to suggest (nor could any title) the nature and extent of Mencken's intellectual and emotional complexity. Regrettably, for whatever reasons, he has received very little attention in recent years. My hope is that Teachout's biography will attract the attention it richly deserves and thereby direct attention to someone who was at one time a major figure in America's intellectual community. In Teachout's opinion, perhaps a "sage....not calm and reflective but as noisy as a tornado: witty and abrasive, self-confident and self-contradictory, sometimes maddening, often engaging, always inimitable." Of special interest to me is Teachout's analysis of Mencken's association with the city of Baltimore in which he lived and worked throughout most of his life (1880-1956).
He left school after his father's death (1899) to become a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald, later serving as drama critic, city editor, and then managing editor of the Baltimore Evening Herald. Soon after the Herald folded in 1906, he joined the Baltimore Sun and continued with the Sun as editor, columnist, or contributor for most of his career. He published studies of George Bernard Shaw (1905) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), both of whom he admired. From 1914 to 1923, with George Jean Nathan he co-edited a satirical magazine, The Smart Set; in 1924 he and Nathan co-founded the American Mercury, a cultural magazine for "a civilized minority," which he co-edited for nine years. Mencken has been generally viewed (if viewed at all) as a crusty curmudgeon, never fully appreciated for the quality of his contributions to academic scholarship as well as to journalism during the first third of the 20th century.
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35 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Keith Otis Edwards on December 28, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is not exactly a biography as about 75% of The Skeptic is devoted to an indictment of H. L. Mencken as an anti-Semitic bigot. It is far from being a balanced discussion, as only material for the prosecution is presented, and there is no mention of how Mencken aided and supported Jews and other minority writers. (The second most frequently published author in Mencken's magazine, The American Mercury, was George Schuyler, an African-American.) There is scant notice of how Mencken chose young Alfred Knopf, a Jew, as his publisher, nothing said about Mencken's crusade against the then-common practice of lynching or his war against the KKK (all this at a time when many state governments --e.g., Indiana-- were controlled by the Klan), and reference to Mencken's actual efforts to get Jews out of Germany is relegated to a tiny footnote on page 290. Mencken's 1938 column, "Help for the Jews" is dismissed because he advocated free immigration into the U.S. only for German Jews. (This was, of course, nearly a year before World War II began.)

In addition to the charges of bigotry, another 20% of this book is devoted to Mencken's sex life, as if this were somehow significant, and one gets the impression that this is actually the Kitty Kelley expose of Mencken rather than a serious biography.

In general, "The Skeptic" is remarkable for what it lacks. Anyone unfamiliar with the writing of H. L. Mencken could set this book down and be puzzled as to why there are so many readers who delight in Mencken's wit and insight, as there is no clue provided as to what Mencken's redeeming qualities were. Is there any mention of Mencken's analysis of why politicians behave as they do? Nada.
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