(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Terry Teachout appears to lose sympathy with his subject in The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, even though he takes great pains to strike and maintain a balanced tone and resists the temptation of applying modern social views to Mencken’s times. Indeed, he grows exasperated with Mencken toward the end of the book. The reaction underscores how very difficult a figure Mencken was. However clear and energetic his prose style or great his influence on early twentieth century American letters and linguistics or deftly incisive his social and political criticism, Mencken distresses twenty-first century sensibilities. Even his devotees, Teachout included, recoil at some point. When Mencken tossed out an idea—and he tossed out a great many in his columns, stories, editorials, and books—he always hit somebody, and he appeared to enjoy making enemies. That is what makes Teachout’s biography fascinating, if not agreeable, to read.

Henry Louis Mencken came to believe early in life that he was cast in a superior mold. He was born in 1883 in Baltimore, where he spent his entire life. His father, a cigar manufacturer, provided the family, which included two brothers and a sister, a solid middle-class life and imbued them with the value of industry and allegiance to their German heritage. Young “Harry” was educated in mediocre schools but excelled, showing a flair for writing, and on his own read the great works of literature (Mark Twain was his idol); however, his formal education ended with high school. His father insisted he enter the family business rather than go to college, which Mencken did dutifully but also resentfully. He wanted to be a newspaper man. Then, when he was eighteen, his father died. In a passage that first reveals the chilling ambition in Mencken’s character, Teachout recounts that Mencken was pleased at his father’s death because he was suddenly free to follow his own bent. Nowhere does Teachout find evidence that Mencken mourned his father or much thought about him. It is a trait Mencken showed throughout his life, the ability to dismiss and forget people who came to bore or displease him, however close they had been to him before. That is not to say Mencken was completely cold-hearted, but he was unrelenting.

Mencken soon landed a job with the Baltimore Morning Herald, a struggling, second-rank daily. Here his real education as a writer began. As a cub reporter, he covered police beats and city hall politics, witnessing and writing about the crime, corruption, ethnic strife, and venality of a big city, and he did so with freshness and clarity. He appears to have quickly hardened himself to the downtrodden, disadvantaged, and destitute. He in fact sometimes ridiculed the losers in society. Meanwhile, he rose rapidly in the paper’s hierarchy. This hard-knocks, gritty practical experience formed his mentality, and once formed, according to Teachout, it never deviated from its primary viewpoint. That viewpoint was an absolute certainty that life is a struggle for survival for which some people are better equipped than others. Furthermore, he thought himself among the best equipped. He subscribed to a practical social Darwinism, supported eugenics, and saw no reason to coddle the fools, the weak-minded, and the pseudo-intellectuals in America.

At the same time, Mencken read voraciously, learned German, and in essence educated himself in intellectual matters, including philosophy. He served as the newspaper’s theater and literary critic, and his survival-of-the-fittest assumptions informed his criticism. However, his mind was too vigorous and curious to be satisfied with newspaper reviewing. He wrote short stories and the first book-length critical study of British playwright George Bernard Shaw (1905) and was the first person to translate a book by Friedrich Nietzsche for an American audience (1907). In his studies of Shaw and Nietzsche, he betrayed a weakness typical of self-assured autodidacts: He read into them his own preconceptions. In Nietzsche’s Übermench (superman) Mencken found his ideal, the superior man who by right dictates his own terms in life. In Shaw he thought he saw a kindred spirit, a forthright critic who lambasted absurdity and humbug.

Mencken moved to the Baltimore Sun in 1906, where he became one of the first columnists in American journalism and helped define the column’s form and style. His notoriety spread beyond Baltimore. He soon was considered the nation’s most innovative young editor. He also developed a virulent dislike of religion,...

(The entire section is 1862 words.)