The Skeptic: A Book Of Calumny

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The
law of diminishing returns is at work when one reads multiple biographies
of the same subject. As I read each of the biographies of H. L.
Mencken over the years, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was
reading the same book over and over again. Each one promised to
reveal some new and previously unobtainable information, but by-and-large
it was the same version of the same story accompanied by the same
quotations. Soon, it seemed, there would be more histories of Mencken
than books actually written by him, and I vowed never to purchase
another Mencken biography.

This
conclusion was reinforced once the reviews of Terry Teachout’s new
biography, The
Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken
, began appearing in various
journals and it became apparent that this would be yet another condemnation
of Mencken as not a serious thinker but a narrow-minded bigot.

Not
to purchase such a book was one thing, but when a friend lent me
his copy my latent gullibility kicked in and I succumbed to the
bait of the “new information” it allegedly contained. Alas, once
into the book it was like the second week of owning a bargain used
car; not only were my worst suspicions confirmed, but it turned
out to be more hopeless than anything I could have imagined.

The
Skeptic turns out to be a book of limited scope. About 20% of
it is devoted to Mencken’s sex life, and that is the only portion
in which I learned anything new. I now know that Mencken had a vasectomy
late in life, that it was done in the hope of rejuvenation, and
that “he did not have a particularly strong sex drive.” As I am
not interested in H. L. Mencken for purposes of titillation, I found
this topic to be dull, but at least it is not infuriating as is
the book’s main focus.

About
75% of the book is devoted to proving that Mencken was an anti-Semite
of the most virulent and churlish genus. If you think that this
estimate is exaggerated or that I am emulating Mencken by employing
dramatic overstatement, I invite you to pick a copy of The Skeptic
up off the library shelf or retail display. (Please don’t purchase
a copy.) Turn to the index (about the only good thing that can be
said of the book is that it has a superb index) and look under “Jews.”
Then look under “anti-Semitism.” Now add the total number of entries
under those topics together, and you will see that there are more
pages devoted to that combination than anything else except “American
Mercury.”

Certainly
any competent biography of Mencken must address the subject of his
frequent grumbling about “prehensile kikes” and other unpleasant
epithets. But not only does Teachout not offer a balanced discussion
of the issue, he is the voice of the prosecution who drags out every
piece of damning evidence to wave in our faces; he demolishes the
exhibits of the defense — the 1938 column “Help for the Jews” is
not exculpatory because Mencken advocated only that German Jews
be allowed to immigrate to the US; scant mention of Mencken’s actual
efforts to get Jews out of Germany is relegated to a tiny footnote
on page 290.

Teachout’s
book is thus a boon to those who disapproved of Mencken all along.
William Jennings Bryan was right and so was Mencken’s foe Stewart
Pratt Sherman — in fact, both men are treated sympathetically in
the book. What all this means, of course, is that Teachout has done
the job on Mencken and succeeded where the censors and patriots
and evangelists had failed. He has killed Mencken, as no one who
had previously been ignorant of Mencken would now ever consider
reading him — a possible exception being the type of person who
would want to hijack a plane or blow up a building in New York.
The numerous reviews have been unanimous in their condemnation of
this warped and bitter old man (old — apparently Mencken was always
old), and from this day hence anyone who sees the name Mencken in
print will automatically think, Oh yes, he’s the guy who hated
Jews; or, I know who that is, he wanted the Nazis to win
so they could kill the rest of the Jews.

And
how does this reflect of us deluded fools who actually profess to
admire Mencken? Do we love him and read his books over and over
because we too are consumed with a burning hatred for Jews? Do we
have choice passages underlined and pages dog-eared and handwritten
scraps of paper stuck in books because we know choice bigotry when
we see it and that’s what inspires us to burn our crosses?

Apparently
so, as in the remaining fraction of The Skeptic there is
no clue as to what Mencken’s redeeming qualities were. In the millions
of words he had published during his lifetime, all mention of Jews,
whether good, bad, or indifferent, amounts to less than the total
of impurities in a cake of Ivory soap, so what about the fundamental
themes he expressed over and over? Is there any mention here of
Mencken’s analysis of why politicians behave as they do? Sorry.
Does it discuss the significant relationship between Christianity
and democracy that Mencken held was central to our society? Not
here. Does it give an example of his shrewdness such as the deft
condensation of three pages by Thorstein Veblen down to one banal
paragraph? Not at all, as the name Veblen does not appear. Does
it even acknowledge Mencken’s contribution in changing the national
literature from being based on moralism to a basis in realism? Nope.

Ah,
but I must confess at once that this last negative is not quite
true, as there is some discussion of Mencken as an editor and literary
critic. According to Mr. Teachout, Mencken was a terrible editor
whose constant meddling with manuscripts kept successful and competent
authors from submitting anything to the American Mercury.
Mencken was obviously a very poor literary critic because he didn’t
like Hemingway and instead championed a ghastly author named Theodore
Dreiser who is deservedly forgotten today. The American Mercury
itself was of no significance, as it was merely a short-lived fad
that featured the works of unknowns who couldn’t have been worth
reading.

It
has always escaped me exactly why Mr. Teachout is held in high esteem
as an author. It defies the imagination that anyone who writes for
a living could be so utterly bereft of any gift for storytelling
that he could ruin the marvelous tale of how Mencken discovered
the novel Main
Street
by Sinclair Lewis, or suck all the adventure out
of the Hatrack prosecution in Boston, or spoil the spectacle
of the Scopes Monkey Trial, yet in each case Teachout’s account
reads like the Cliff’s Notes version of William Manchester’s
Disturber
of the Peace
.

And
consider this choice passage from page 79 of The Skeptic:

Had
Harry Mencken been more deeply scarred by his father’s early
death than he realized — or cared to admit? Did the relief that
swept through him when August died, and the shame that surely
followed it, make him cleave too closely to his mother out of
a sense of guilt? Or was there some other trauma in his young
life that he succeeded in hiding from the eyes of prying biographers?
. . . All we have to go on are the facts.

Well,
at least “eyes of prying biographers” is a fraction less trite than
“prying eyes of biographers” would be, but the Redbook pop
psychology, the purple passion, the melodramatic final sentence
straight from Jack Webb. Add the vasectomy details and the damning
evidence, and this reads more like the Kitty Kelly biography of
Mencken.

One
can easily understand the motivation of Charles Angoff for trying
desperately to damage Mencken’s reputation, but what is Terry Teachout’s
impetus? Does he wish to be known to posterity as the investigator
who exposed the sham of The Sage? Is he eager for regicide so that
he will now assume the title of The Great Debunker? Did he suddenly
get religion and decide that Mencken was no longer to his taste?
Is he that desperate for a buck?

Or
what?

January
16, 2003

Keith
Otis Edwards (send him mail)
lives in Dearborn, MI. He ain’t never been to collitch.

See
Murray N. Rothbard's classic on Mencken, “The
Joyous Libertarian
.”


     

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