BOOK REVIEW: The Skeptic
by James MacLaren
The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken
Terry Teachout, 2002, HarperCollins
H. L. Mencken just won’t go away.
The man, for all his flaws (and I’m beginning to suspect that it may be because of all his flaws), has taken firm root in Our Culture, and seems to be spreading, insidiously, like some grave malady.
To my way of thinking, Our Culture is the better for it.
Yes he was anti-Semitic, but he railed against the Kristallnacht, even as those who held the levers of power in their hands failed to move them.
Yes he was racist, but he fought hard against his own home town (Mencken was a Home Town Boy if ever there was one) when the cops sought to segregate white and black on the public tennis courts.
Some people can’t seem to get past these two unpleasant details of the man, and therefore choose to denigrate his entire life’s work. Some people are categorically unable to deal with paradox and self contradiction. Some people, I suppose, will, in fact, fail to remove the baby from the basin and throw said baby right out the window along with the dirty bathwater.
Some people, are possessed of more than their own fair share of evils and stupidities, and will seek to brush aside all that comes before them pointing out those very evil and stupid things that they hold so dearly.
For myself, when eating fish, I’m perfectly happy to remove the fishbones, proceed with gustatory glee, and then praise the worth of the fish. If you have trouble eating fish because bones keep getting stuck unpleasantly in your throat, the problem may not be in the fish, but perhaps in you.
It was, after all, a fish. It swam in the water, came complete with fins and scales, and wasn’t the least bit bashful about its fishness.
So to, did Mencken swim through the waters of his own time, not the least bit bashful about his Menckenness.
Many things have been written, by many men (and women too, for all of you prickly politically correct i dotters and t crossers out there; and oh by the way, the fun HL would have had with you) about Mencken, not all of it particularly well-done, accurate, even-handed, or even worth reading.
Terry Teachout seems to have kept the lights on for the entire time he was examining Mencken. It’s quite enough for him to plainly state those regrettable aspects to Mencken’s personality, and also quite enough for him to allow Mencken’s white hot brilliance to irradiate the surroundings on its own terms.
This is a Good Thing.
This is a Good Biography.
Mencken wrote unselfconsciously toward INTELLIGENT people, and let the dolts and dullards bedamned. The man watered nothing down. The man dumbed nothing down. That there were sufficient intelligent people out there reading his stuff to keep him in business, more or less, for pretty much the first half of the twentieth century, is a comforting thought concerning the first half of the twentieth century.
If Mencken were alive today, he might be going a little hungry.
The Entertainment Industry (didn’t particularly exist in Mencken’s day) has had no salutary effect upon the general intelligence of the populace from the look of what I see around me every day, these days.
Mencken HATED bullshit. ANY bullshit. ALL bullshit.
And he wasn’t shy about letting those who dealt in bullshit know exactly what he thought about them, and their bullshit enterprises. Lowborn or high, it did not matter. Shams, quacks, charlatans, axe-grinders, agenda hawkers, priests, lawyers, and politicians, it just did not matter. All came in for what they were due. Mencken was very even-handed that way.
Bullshit that seeks to enslave, or to destroy in the minds of men that which is worthy, he hated the most. Paradoxical to be true, but I’ve already spoken to that and shall not revisit it.
People that seek to enslave men’s minds and bodies came in for especial excoriation from Mencken. He got it wrong a few times, but his heart was always in the right place.
This biography, as biographies will, starts with his early life and proceeds forward in spacetime up to the man’s death. The epilogue is especially good, coming as it does, right after the body of the book. Many good things by Mencken. Many good things about Mencken.
I’m guessing there’s more than just a few of you out there who haven’t read all that much, or perhaps even any, of Mencken’s stuff. People seem to recognize the name, but when questioned seem unable to fill in any real detail regarding the man.
This is a Bad Thing.
One of the things that marks Mencken’s work for the genius that it is, is its readability all these years after it was written. This is trebly so in consideration of the fact that he dealt overwhelmingly with topical material. He dealt with the foibles of his day, but managed to extract the core truths regarding those foibles, and then further managed to communicate it in a way that stands the test of time.
This is no small achievement.
Mencken remains (and I expect he shall continue to remain for no small time to come) a Fun Read. His pokings and proddings of prejudice and poltroonery tickle the funnybone even as they give the heart and mind something a bit more substantial to masticate.
One can only wonder what he would have made of the present day versions of that bullshit which infests this globe.
‘Tis a shame he’s no longer with us and a double shame that no one of his stature has come along to pick up his cudgels.
Read this book.
Then go read Mencken.