As truth-tellers, journalists remain the undocumented aliens of the knowledge industry, operating in an off-the-books epistemological economy apart from philosophers and scientists on one side and “creative” writers on the other. We expect philosophers and scientists to argue and prove their claims or die trying. We declare that poets, novelists and playwrights can stage life’s truths rather than demonstrate them. When geniuses do either, insights spurt at point of impact, like blood at the bullet’s point of entry.
But journalists? It’s confusing. To demand that they perform elevated forensic tasks while conveying the news smacks of capitalist exploitation of workers, schoolmarmish control-freakism, abuse of second-rate minds. If journalists wanted to be scientists or philosophers, they’d have stayed in grad school–or accumulated stronger grade-point averages. Yet venturing too far into artistic license still gets your ass canned.
Reporters and editors for respectable outfits keep to modest standards of accuracy, of real sources and confirmable facts, on pain of being humiliated on Romenesko’s MediaNews, boldfaced and multiply linked. The other part of the field offers full-time gasbags–decorous synonyms include “pundit,” “commentator” and “analyst,” commoner ones “jerkoid,” “screamer” and “culture critic.” They grab cable and syndicated-column jobs, lifetime employment no matter how many facts they screw up, so long as they don’t piss off public taste (no actionable racism, anti-Semitism or pedophilia) or their ideologically sensitive employers (“If we’re paying you to talk left, Botox-brain, don’t mess us up by talking right, or going middle of the road“).
Is this a media culture that dares render harsh judgment on H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), the erstwhile “Sage of Baltimore”?
Like an Underwood typewriter by the desk, or London Fog trenchcoat for foreign assignments that never come, a taste for Mencken serves as symbolic projectile for pontificating, old-fogy journalists, usually conservative, almost always male (though maybe there’s a Mencken Fan Club for testosteronic Lady-J’s somewhere). You can spot them in the newsroom–they’re preternaturally certain they share the Baltimore Bulldog’s alleged fearlessness, independence and panache. Terry Teachout, industrious music critic for Commentary and octopussian freelancer, is a middle-aged fogy of 45, so the affiliation shows generational staying power.
Teachout, to be sure, is an admirer. His Mencken ranks as “America’s greatest journalist,” “the sharpest, cruelest, most self-assured wit in the history of American letters,” “the reigning literary panjandrum of the twenties, a critic whose blistering attacks on the culture and customs of the Bible Belt (a term he coined) had made him the idol of every aspiring young writer in America.”
Yes, he writes every. If biographee Mencken, according to Teachout, “lived to exaggerate” and contradict himself, his biographer loyally honors the venerable link between imitation and flattery. Mencken’s “nineteen books and thousands of essays, articles, and reviews,” Teachout asserts, “had won him the undying hatred of millions of devout believers in what he called ‘the whole Puritan scheme of things, with its gross and nauseating hypocrisies, its idiotic theologies, its moral obsessions.'” Might any of those have been aspiring writers in America?
Teachout tells us that his interest in writing about Mencken grew from the belief that while “critics from the early thirties on generally dismissed his claims to being taken seriously as a thinker,” the “tone of American intellectual life has changed,” allowing reconsideration of that judgment. To Teachout, “Mencken’s social and political views, long thought irreversibly outdated, have become a resurgent strain in American thought. Like it or not, the Mencken Weltanschauung is once again a force to be reckoned with, and written about.” Teachout leaves no doubt in the preface that his aim is to restore Mencken the thinker, not just add a backslap to Mencken the stylist, who’s never been out of style.
This Teachout–the booster–might henceforth be distinguished as Teachout I, if maintaining the Roman-numeral conceit didn’t promise to exhaust the present reviewer and irritate the reader. His doppelgänger, Teachout II, is, happily, an excellent biographer, a decade-long dues payer in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, steeped in the scrapbooks and unpublished manuscripts Mencken prepared and donated to shape his reputation. That’s welcome–a refresher course on Mencken-cum-Weltanschauung is just what most readers need before the man’s stature can be judged. But Teachout II’s goods undermine the conclusions to which Teachout I clings. The booster may assert that his man’s image as a “one-dimensional ideologue” is unfair, but the biographer’s evidence supports it.
The oft-told tale of Mencken’s career certainly confirms his indefatigable energy and ambition. The middle-class son of a German-American family in the Baltimore cigar business, he bypassed college to work as a reporter at the city’s Morning Herald in February 1899 and never looked back at academe. Inspired by a childhood love of Twain, Mencken honed a punchy, aggressive, streetwise writing style. At 23, he became city editor; at 25, the paper’s editor in chief. Decades as a newspaperman followed, mainly for Baltimore’s Sun papers, in which he essentially invented the modern polemical column. He spent sixty-seven of his seventy-five years living in the same boyhood home, as conservative in his personal habits as he was bold in his sentences.
From his early 20s on, Teachout’s research shows, Mencken knew what he thought. His Weltanschauung–though the evidence makes Welter-schauung more apt–amounted to unsubtly absorbed Nietzsche (the subject of his third book), seasoned by a prior taste for Thomas Henry Huxley. Color it antidemocratic, anti-Christian, antisuperstition, anti-Puritan, anti-rules of law and morality, pro-authoritarian, beyond good and evil. While some libertarians still think of Mencken as a card-carrying ally because he supported “liberty up to the extreme limits of the feasible and tolerable,” Mencken also contended, Teachout trenchantly points out, that “liberty, of course, is not for slaves.”
“It requires a conscious effort for me to pump up any genuine sympathy for the downtrodden,” Mencken wrote, “and in the end I usually conclude that they have their own follies and incapacities to thank for their troubles.” Unlike the do-good muckrakers, he advised, “I made up my mind at once that my true and natural allegiance was to the Devil’s party, and it has been my firm belief ever since that all persons who devote themselves to forcing virtue on their fellow men deserve nothing better than kicks in the pants.” Elsewhere, he observed, “Like Nietzsche, I console myself with the hope that I am the man of the future, emancipated from the prevailing delusions and superstitions, and gone beyond nationalism.”
Teachout acknowledges that this worldview of Mencken’s–the one that’s supposedly flying high again–“never strayed far in spirit from the social Darwinism in shirtsleeves that he acquired as city editor.” His hero, he writes, was “a finished product” by age 24. And throughout the peak of Mencken’s fame in the 1920s, editing and writing for the era’s hot national magazines–The Smart Set and The American Mercury–the same instruments played, making his orchestral sound distinctly familiar.
Like The New Yorker today, The Smart Set (1900-30) flourished thanks to a sociological quid pro quo: The upper class shoveled money to the magazine, and the magazine assured the upper class that simply getting the thing made it cultured. After he became co-editor with George Jean Nathan in 1914, Mencken described their vision of a “magazine for civilized adults in their lighter moods,” with “nothing uplifting.” By 1923, he was already deriding The Smart Set for mere “cleverness.” The American Mercury, which Mencken founded and edited from 1924 to 1933, sought to be more serious, but it too reeked condescension in its mission “to follow the ponderous revolutions of the mass mind.” Teachout describes it as “a magazine devoted to the proposition that most Americans were uncivilized,” its goal “to jeer at every aspect of the common life of postwar America.” Hardly a surprising turn for Mencken, who more than once wrote that democracy was based “upon the organized hatred of the lower orders.”
Mencken’s scant interest for the rest of his life in exploring ideas more self-critically, in thinking through evidence and weighing it, comes through repeatedly in his pronouncements. His assessments of FDR were typical. “In my book,” he told a student reporter, “that man was an unmitigated S.O.B. He was an S.O.B. in his public life and an S.O.B. in his private life. Any other questions?” On Roosevelt’s death, the robo-curmudgeon wrote in his diary, “He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes.” Like many of his throwaway insults–e.g., “Stravinsky never had a musical idea in his life”–they’re punchy jabs, but tawdry, exhibiting the same shabbiness that attaches to his lifelong anti-Semitism (Jews were “the most unpleasant race ever heard of”), his pro-German-authoritarianism, his white-supremacist leanings and homophobia. Mencken’s now-released private papers confirm all four bents, and Teachout doesn’t dispute them.
A contempt for others surfaces throughout Mencken’s career. When he became city editor, he fired eight reporters immediately and concluded that the remaining ones, “with few exceptions, were either drunkards or idiots.” Throughout his life, he branded those who disagreed with him “morons,” “idiots,” “ignoramuses,” “imbeciles,” “booboisie.” He wrote in 1925: “As I came to manhood and began to deal with men myself, I noticed quickly that the failures were all incompetents–that God had marked them for the ditch, not man.”
What Teachout’s spadework in the posthumously released papers establishes is that Mencken cared more than anything about lasting literary fame. Truth of ideas mattered less to him than pontificating about ideas in a blustering style, and profiting from it. Everything else–with the notable exception of Southern writer Sara Haardt, his beloved and sickly wife who died five years into their marriage–came second.
“I was always fearfully aware of the possibility,” Mencken wrote, “that I might become a mere local worthy.” So he meticulously constructed more than 200 scrapbooks of his work, thinking constantly about how to organize his career for future scholars. He provided duplicate copies of manuscripts to Dartmouth and the New York Public Library, fearing some future fire or revolution at the Pratt might destroy them. In those private writings Mencken acknowledged that he’d decided, as a young critic, to champion some new American novelist (he chose Dreiser) with “considerable self-interest” because it would advance his own career. In a memo to himself he wrote, “This, at least, I have accomplished, and it is one of the principal desires of man: I have delivered myself from anonymity.”
Literary ambition itself is no crime. Without it, we wouldn’t have literature. But because Mencken’s ambition ran to philosophy, however cracker-barrel, it matters whether he ever tried, intellectually, to get things right. That’s part of the difference between being a serious writer or philosopher and becoming a showbiz act. Style, the truism holds, can’t be completely separated from content. Mencken’s work is a case in point. If his specialty was over-the-top generalizations–and many of them were false–it’s simple-minded to claim that his one-liners nevertheless showed great style. Just as a weak foundation eventually takes down the whole building above it, soft truth–OK, let’s call it falsehood–collapses a claim in toto, without leaving the “style” standing.
Teachout’s emphasis on Mencken as a “skeptic,” driven home by the book’s title, thus disturbs, because it clashes with almost everything we learn here about him, and because that’s a distinguished job title in philosophical history, paid for by some thinkers with their lives. Far from being, in Teachout’s formulation, “a lifelong skeptic who claimed to be ‘constitutionally unable to believe in anything absolutely,'” Mencken began and marketed himself as a true believer in his own hand-me-down Friedrichisms. Teachout quotes a memo that “H.L. Nietzsche” wrote to himself: “I belong to no party: I am my own party.” On another occasion he observed, “Far from going to the stake for a Great Truth, I wouldn’t even miss a meal for it.” Why bother, after all, if, as he told a friend, “life is quite meaningless–a spectacle without purpose or moral”? Mencken’s core career belief–that stirring controversy by aphorizing with a hammer promised a sure path to literary fame–is, Nation readers need hardly be told, a still potent journalistic MO. But if literary ambition is no crime, it’s a tort against the public good when it drives writers to ritualistic abuse, predictable dogma and monomaniacal rants.
There’s no doubt many contemporaries regarded Mencken highly, and Teachout piles on the quotes. Walter Lippmann, whose enthusiasm later dimmed, famously described him as “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people.” Edmund Wilson called Mencken “the civilized consciousness of America” and “without question, since Poe, our greatest practicing literary journalist,” though he also tempered his praise later. Joseph Wood Krutch, in this magazine, announced that “Mencken’s was the best prose written in America during the twentieth century.”
Style, to be sure, remains the most challenging aspect of Mencken to assess. Granted, his liberating vernacular broke the back of the Jamesian stiffness that inhibited American criticism before him, and helped to bury the genteel tradition. Teachout rightly remarks that “not since Twain had there been an American writer so unafraid to speak the American language.” Does that outweigh the formulaic namecalling, the derision, that fueled Mencken’s vibrator sentences? Teachout, no roaring stylist himself, would seem to answer yes in a particularly flatfooted line: “Much of Mencken’s power as a writer lay in his ability to convey the complexities of his personality through the medium of his prose.”
When Teachout campaigns for Mencken’s importance on that score late in the book–great stylist, ergo giant of the earth–he comes closest to persuading us that his man endures as a crucial figure of American literature. Certainly Mencken’s unquestionable scholarly accomplishments–his groundbreaking work in The American Language and his eccentric anthology of quotations–would no more admit him to that pantheon than they’d punch a ticket for a solid career lexicographer. The style argument nonetheless fails. First, it reminds us that Teachout never successfully redeems Mencken the Thinker. As a literary critic, Teachout reports, Mencken suffered from “constrictingly narrow” taste, found European Modernism “a joke” and was “wrong as often as not.” Teachout understandably doesn’t wade deeply into that body of work. In it, one finds that for all Mencken’s vaunted championship of twentieth-century American realism, his frequent idea that major fiction requires “a salient individual” resisting “harsh and meaningless fiats of destiny,” might have led him, had he kept reading novels into his 60s, to replace Lord Jim as his model of an incomparably great novel with The Fountainhead.
Teachout concedes further that his man was “no systematic philosopher,” that “intellectual consistency was never his strong suit,” even if he devoted the second half of his life to writing about “general ideas.” The problem, though, isn’t Mencken’s lack of system–James and Dewey eliminated the need for that–but his resistance to evidence, counterargument, information, fair judgment. At long last, the style end-run around the deflated “Mencken as Thinker” campaign fails. Pound for pound, or clause by clause, Mencken pays the price for choosing a philosophical form–generalization about everything under the sun–then corrupting it with flashy, jaunty hyperbole. Teachout, to his credit, accomplishes in this splendidly informed, oddly internecine biography what Mencken seldom did: He digs up evidence and faces it, even if it doesn’t usually shake his faith in Mencken’s greatness.
If Mencken came back today, lost some weight off his bull neck and bought lifts for his shoes, there’s no question he’d be a hit. In fact, he’d be Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, with a little William Safire mixed in. He wouldn’t need a hip new global positioning device because, like so many of today’s media stars, he’d always be coming from the same place. Just another undocumented knowledge worker, playing fast and loose with truth, getting away with murder, while rolling up the royalties and side gigs. That hardly seems cause for celebration, either about Mencken or the journalistic Zeitgeist of our time.