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.