MENCKEN: A Biography by Fred Hobson
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MENCKEN: A Biography

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KIRKUS REVIEW

By timing the posthumous release of his personal papers, Mencken (1880-1956) directs his biographers from his grave. But in Hobson (American Literature/Univ. of North Carolina, Serpent in Eden, etc. -- not reviewed) he has met his nemesis -- a conscientious and uncompromising scholar who has integrated the most recent and revisionary materials into a lucid, coherent, clearly definitive and respectful biography. Journalist, social critic, self-educated philologist (The American Language), an American Voltaire, an urban Mark Twain, a ""nay-saying Whitman,"" as Hobson calls him, Mencken was the official curmudgeon, the public voice for all the private prejudices and negativity of America through the 1920's. In essays, books, and articles, he expressed a fashionable contempt for religion, gentility, romantic love, women, Blacks, Jews, the South, indeed Americans themselves, a ""nation of misfits,"" an ""Eden of Clowns."" The depth of these attitudes was revealed in the controversial My Life as Author and Editor (1993), in which he served as moralist and public avenger, identifying and dismissing some of the major writers of his age -- his own close friends, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe, among others -- for excessive drinking and womanizing. Mencken's own addiction was work, and writing was his ""incurable disease."" He ended a long and fitful courtship because the woman became a Christian Scientist (a special problem to an atheist and hypochondriac), and at age 50, only after the death of his mother and sister, married an English teacher, having at best flirted with opera singer Gretchen Hood, film star Aileen Pringle, and writer Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Preferring the company of men, he believed that Freud had overrated sex, which was low among his priorities. His rage for order was expressed in a huge paper trail he left of his life -- a strategy, Hobson says, for ""concealment and diversion."" Even as he pursues Mencken's tracks, however, Hobson honors his privacy, respects his truths, and preserves his dignity.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1994
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Random House