A superb study of the life of the cigar-chomping controversialist, civil libertarian and muckraker who remains the patron saint of journalists, at least of a certain age.
Henry Louis Mencken (always H.L., by way of distancing himself from readers) lived in a puritanical age very much like our own, though “he was anything but a moralist—an attitude, he realized, that made him incomprehensible to most Americans.” So writes Mencken anthologist and devotee Rodgers, who notes that her subject was born in the horse-and-buggy age and died in a time of jets and television: “when he was a child, typewriters were a novelty,” and when he was a cub reporter in Baltimore, the machines were held in suspicion of being somehow effeminate. He learned to peck away at one nonetheless, and with it to create a wide-ranging, astonishingly large body of work, committing something on the order of 10,000 words to paper every day—ephemeral journalism, articles and essays, letters and many books, including the still-standard American Language. A turn-of-the-century bon vivant, Mencken sometimes seemed trapped in the era between the Gilded Age and the First World War; certainly his attitudes toward blacks and Jews were of the 19th century, though he made efforts to overcome some of his prejudices, championing African-American writers as a critic and unsuccessfully urging that the Roosevelt administration admit German Jews fleeing from Hitler. Rodgers’s portrait is affectionate but critical; she does not hesitate to bring up troubling issues, and she even reveals that Mencken committed journalistic fictions worthy of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, including one in which he made up the details of a battle in the Russo-Japanese War—many of them, it turns out, correct, but made up all the same.
About the only flaw in the book is the subtitle, for Mencken seems to have been born old if not always wise. A pleasure for admirers of the cage-rattler, and the best Mencken biography to date.