(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With the posthumous publication of the famous critic’s diary, edited by Charles A. Fecher (The Diary of H. L. Mencken, 1989), and recollections of his early friends and acquaintances (My Life as Author and Editor, 1993), the reputation of H. L. Mencken suddenly began to decline. The man whom Walter Lippmann had once called “the most powerful influence on a whole generation of educated Americans” appeared in his most private writings to be guilty of flagrant anti-Semitism, racism, and homo-phobia, as well as unrestrained hostility against Southerners and rural life in general. If the 1920’s had one been heralded as “the decade of Mencken,” the 1990’s seemed to be a low ebb in Mencken’s reputation. All at once, the author was accused of embodying all the bigotry and blindness that had led the nation into two world wars, habitual violations of civil rights, and a host of other evils still endemic in modern society.

Fred Hobson’s Mencken: A Life provides a much-needed corrective to this point of view. Endeavoring to present Mencken as a flawed human being who was nevertheless a great author and a product of his time, Hobson succeeds in developing a balanced and comprehensive portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most influential literary figures. Though aware of Mencken’s greatness, Hobson never attempts to gloss over his genuine limitations. For example, Hobson provides a particularly devastating account of Mencken’s feelings toward homosexuals. Mencken’s homophobia, nowhere alluded to in the works that he published during his lifetime, has emerged only through a careful study of his letters and the entries made in his secret diaries. On the other hand, Mencken’s feelings of superiority over the Jews were well known even in his lifetime. Though such feelings may have been common among members of his class and profession, in Mencken’s case they became increasingly pronounced, and an increasing embarrassment, as World War II continued.

In the end, Mencken’s flaws of character proved more costly to himself than offensive to those who read his weekly columns. His homophobia, for example, deprived him of the opportunity to become acquainted with Hugh Walpole, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Somerset Maugham. His pro-German and anti-Jewish sentiments, enunciated in articles throughout the 1930’s and early 1940’s, led to his increasing isolation and, ultimately, to his being disregarded altogether. During World War II, the society that had lionized Mencken only a decade earlier all but ignored his political commentary and turned its attention instead to his works on American English and his nostalgic sketches of his early life.

More than anything else, Mencken was a curious set of contradictions. Though much of his life was marked by contempt for the Jews, his closest friend was the Jewish publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Though he filled his diaries and personal correspondence with derogatory terms for blacks, he had been more receptive to such black authors as George S. Schuyler, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes than most editors of his time. Though he maintained a lifelong disdain for both marriage and the Deep South, in 1930 he suddenly married a woman who came from Montgomery, Alabama, the very heart of the Confederacy. As Hobson’s biography makes clear, much of what Mencken believed he was writing in jest or for rhetorical effect was read, even in his own lifetime, with a seriousness that had never been intended. This practice has continued, even expanded, with the appearance of Mencken’s diaries. The hyperbole with which he addressed many of his subjects is no longer considered an appropriate form of humor.

Perhaps the most telling of all the contradictions in the life of H. L. Mencken was his ability to combine religious skepticism with social and political conservatism. Mencken’s conservative views were derived from the tradition of Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, rather than Edmund Burke. He distrusted the pious certainties of clerics no less than the social utopianism of New Dealers. For Mencken, the enemies of society included both religious fundamentalists such as William Jennings Bryan (whom Mencken characterized as “ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest”) and supports of big government such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the members of his “Brain Trust.” Roosevelt, Mencken believed, was a traitor to his class, while Bryan represented a crude simplicity...

(The entire section is 1827 words.)