The first full-scale biography in a generation of the great journalist, editor, and social critic (1880–1956), extending and in some ways supplanting the ones that have come before it.
Time was when H.L. Mencken’s reporting was the standard against which other journalists measured their own work, with the result that American newspapers of the 1920s and ’30s were full of second- and third-rate imitators of the master. That time has long passed, but New York Times contributor Teachout (City Limits, 1991), editor of the 1995 anthology A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, finds plenty of reasons to suggest that a Mencken revival is long overdue. What thinking person, after all, can deny Mencken’s scathing assessment of the still ascendant “Puritan scheme of things, with its gross and nauseating hypocrisies, its idiotic theologies, its moral obsessions”? What student of contemporary politics would not find a sympathetic guide in a writer whose “sneers and objurations have been reserved exclusively for braggarts and mountebanks, quacks and swindlers, fools and knaves”? Good stuff, indeed, but, as Teachout bravely admits, there are as many reasons to condemn Mencken as to praise him. He subscribed all his life to a suburban brand of anti-Semitism, once describing a contributor to his American Mercury magazine, for instance, as “a Jew . . . of the better sort” and writing to an interviewer, “I don’t like religious Jews” (mind you, he added, “I don’t like religious Catholics and Protestants”). He overlooked the excesses of the Nazi regime until well into WWII, perhaps out of misguided loyalty to his German ancestors. Still, well-placed criticism aside, Teachout offers a portrait of Mencken that emphasizes his extraordinary productivity—he wrote 19 books, thousands of articles, essays, and reviews, and perhaps 100,000 letters while covering national politics for daily newspapers and editing two magazines—and his contributions to journalism and American letters alike.
A balanced portrait of the muckraking newsman, and an excursion into American intellectual history and journalism.