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Mencken No. 3.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers Mencken: The American Iconoclast. Oxford University Press, 662 pages, $35

One of the most popular television game shows of my youth was a program called To Tell the Truth, whose celebrity panel matched wits with teams of three contestants, all of whom signed affidavits claiming to be the same person but two of whom were in fact impostors. (On one occasion, each contestant claimed to be the real-life victim of mistaken identity portrayed in Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man.) At the end of each round, Bud Collyer, once the mellifluous voice of radio's Superman, intoned, "Will the real Mr. x please stand up?" and, after a bit of preliminary jockeying for position, the real Mr. X would do just that.

I thought of that half-remembered tableau as I read Marion Elizabeth Rodgers's Mencken: The American Iconoclast, whose dust jacket bears a second subtitle, "The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore" Rodgers is the third of a trio of biographers who have published full-length studies of H. L. Mencken in the past decade, the other two being Fred Hobson (Mencken: A Life) and myself (The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken). We were all at work in the Mencken Room of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library for a brief moment in the early Nineties, though it has been years since I saw either of my erstwhile colleagues other than on C-SPAN. For that matter, it had been a couple of years since I last gave any thought to Mencken himself. I'd spent a decade working on The Skeptic, setting down my conclusions about his life and work in the clearest and most artful way I knew how, and that, I assumed, was that. Once the book was published and the post-publication touring and speechmaking complete, I put its subject aside, surprised that I no longer had any interest in reading his writings and wondering if this loss of interest would prove to be permanent. Was Mencken the sort of writer whom one could "solve" like an equation? Or was there more to him than that?

Thus it was with some surprise that I found myself turning the pages of Mencken: The American Iconoclast with not just curiosity but genuine excitement--as well as a touch of amusement. The curiosity was understandable, since I wanted to sec how Rodgers's book stacked up alongside The Skeptic. It was the excitement that surprised me, for I hadn't expected to find myself caught up yet again in the oft-told tale of a life about which I already knew far more than most human beings. What amused me was that Rodgers, like Hobson and myself before her, had done what all biographers, as I now know from hard experience, invariably and inevitably do: she has given us her own version of H. L. Mencken, one that appears to bear a suspicious resemblance to the biographer himself.

Or, in the present case, herself. Rodgers, who has edited two previous books about Mencken, is the only woman I can think of who has written at length about him. Nor is it surprising that her interest should be so uncommon. The Mencken of legend, after all, is a quintessentially masculine personality, a police reporter turned cigar-chomping newspaperman who liked nothing better than to drink beer with his buddies after hours, and though the real Mencken was a vastly more complex piece of work--a piano-playing aesthete who wrote romantic poetry as a young man and retained to the end of his life an acute sensitivity to music--there is in my experience something about his prose style, at once blunt and hyperbolic, that puts most women readers off.

Not Marion Rodgers. You don't pour years of your life into writing a biography unless you feel an initial bond of sympathy with the subject, and, though many a biographer has grown disillusioned along the way, it's obvious from reading Mencken: The American Iconoclast that Rodgers still admires and, just as important, likes the man about whom she has written. But how closely does that man resemble the real H. L. Mencken? Have Rodgers's sympathies led her to smooth his rough edges, or downplay less palatable aspects of Mencken's work that might not sit well alongside her frank admiration? The answer, I suspect, will depend on how much you yourself like Mencken. Rodgers has been honest enough about his unattractive aspects. The coldness, the opportunism, even the anti-Semitism (though she never goes quite so far as to call it that) are all amply documented in her book. Nevertheless, she clearly feels the bad to be vastly outweighed by the good, and while she refuses to turn her face from the former, she has gone out of her way to emphasize the latter.

Still, Rodgers tells us rather more about Mencken's bad side than Fred Hobson or I did--if you're measuring by weight, that is. For Mencken: The American Iconoclast is one of those long, expansive, "definitive" biographies that I deliberately set out not to write when I started work on my own book a decade and a half ago. Its 554 closely packed pages of text (not counting source notes) assay out at well over three hundred thousand words, more than twice the length of The Skeptic, and while I doubt Rodgers has told us absolutely everything she knows about Mencken, it feels at times as though she's tried. Here, for example, is the first paragraph of her five-paragraph description of Mencken's high-school graduation ceremony:
 On June 23 Ford's Opera House pulsated to
 the music of Sousa as the Class of 1896
 prepared for its graduation. To John Saville,
 president of the Polytechnic, the highlight of
 the program was the presentation of the
 Chicago World's Fair Medal, for which there
 had been 33 competing schools. For the young
 graduates fidgeting in their chairs, the best
 event of the evening was to come later, at
 Granzhorn's City Hotel, for the banquet of
 Green Turtle au Madeira and Harlequin Ices.

Some readers like that kind of detail. I don't, and neither did Mencken, who called Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy "a heaping cartload of raw materials for a novel, with rubbish of all sorts intermixed" I wouldn't say that Rodgers has piled up rubbish in Mencken: The American Iconoclast, but she has piled fact upon fact in a way that those who prefer shorter books will find unselective. She has also written about her famously cynical subject in a manner bordering on the effusive: "No one, especially not those who grew up with and cherish books, can ever forget the electric epiphany of the event, that moment when mysterious black shapes, so small they appear like ants on a page, suddenly and miraculously are transformed into words with meaning." One need not emulate Mencken in order to write about him, but the contrast between his style and Rodgers's can be jolting.

A long biography also allows for the accumulation of genuinely relevant detail, and Mencken: The American Iconoclast contains any number of interesting facts that I either left out of The Skeptic or--as often--failed to uncover. Rodgers has dug far more deeply into the known primary sources than I did, and her command of them, which is nothing short of masterly, makes it possible for her to shed additional light on several key episodes in Mencken's life, including his pre- and post-marital romantic entanglements, his coverage of the Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925, and his break with George Jean Nathan, co-editor of The Smart Set and co-founder of The American Mercury. (Along the way she also dug up thirty wonderfully evocative photographs, most of them hitherto unpublished.) These discoveries make Mencken: The American Iconoclast absorbing, even indispensable reading for anyone who already has a well-informed interest in H. L. Mencken.

But biographies are not merely matters of fact. Most contemporary biographers seek to supply their readers with an interpretative framework--a way of understanding the facts. Often this framework can be summed up succinctly, if not always fairly. Fred Hobson, who is an English professor, gave us Mencken the literary critic, solid and serious, while I, being a working journalist, was more interested in Mencken as a public intellectual avant la lettre. At first glance, Rodgers appears to be writing about Mencken the libertarian, a devout believer in "liberty up to the extreme limits of the feasible and tolerable,' but on closer inspection it becomes clear that she takes his political and philosophical ideas, such as they are, at something like face value, rarely stopping to probe below the surface. Significantly, her discussion of Mencken's early book about Nietzsche, perhaps the most important influence on his thought, is cursory in the extreme--but, then, she often has little to say about any of his books beyond the tersest of summaries.

What Rodgers has given us, in fact, is an old-fashioned narrative biography, one that contains no interpretative framework of any kind at all. She simply describes the events of Mencken's life in more or less chronological order, mostly leaving it to the reader to draw his own conclusions about them. Except for Nathan, the members of Mencken's immediate family, and the three women with whom he is known to have been on closely intimate terms, she devotes little time to sketching in her cast of supporting characters, nor does she have much to offer in the way of commentary about his work. Instead, she is surpassingly interested in the man himself--in Mencken the personality, the "bad boy of Baltimore" not Mencken the literary critic or public intellectual or amateur philosopher.

I offer this as a description of Mencken: The American Iconoclast, not a criticism. It is possible to write about a well-known person in an infinite variety of ways, none of which is by definition superior to any other. Boswell, after all, had nothing of interest to say about Dr. Johnson's published writings, yet his Life of Johnson is the greatest biography ever written. Moreover, I suspect that Rodgers's essentially non-critical (if not uncritical) approach will please a great many admirers of Mencken who appear to have been discomfited by certain parts of The Skeptic. Take, for instance, her summary of Mencken's opinion of Adolf Hitler:
 Mencken, likewise at first, thought Hitler little
 more than "a clown," and he commented with
 the same flippancy that he had displayed
 toward other "fools" not to be taken seriously:
 "Certainly a man who wears a Charlie Chaplin
 moustache can't be altogether bad."

And, later on:
 Mencken nevertheless still exhibited a stupefying
 naivete about Hitler and his ultimate aims.
 Even at this stage, after five and a half years of
 Nazi rule, many other Americans did not understand
 that anti-Semitism was one of the
 keystones of Nazism. So while Mencken in
 letters termed Hitler an "idiot" "lunatic"
 "maniac" a "preposterous mountebank"
 whose "whole scheme seems to be insane," to
 some degree he continued to see him basically
 as a "buffoon" and essentially harmless.

Compare this approximately parallel passage from The Skeptic:
 [Mencken] misunderstood Adolf Hitler as
 completely as he had misinterpreted Nietzsche
 and Conrad, and for much the same reason:
 He had no feeling for the darkness in the heart
 of man. He looked at evil and saw ignorance.
 To him Hitler was Babbitt run amok, and he
 thought it inconceivable that such a buffoon
 could long pull the wool over the eyes of the
 most civilized people on earth. Sooner or later
 they would have to catch on.

Or look at our climactic perorations side by side. First, Rodgers:
 He held to these guidelines: sound information,
 common sense, good taste, lively wit,
 and ready humor. In Mencken's hands, they
 were the best way to combat cowardice, censorship,
 the suppression of individual rights,
 and the hypocrisy of frauds that have existed
 since time immemorial. Beyond his brilliant
 writing style, Mencken's great contribution
 was his courage to write what he thought....
 What remains is the satirist of devastating
 ferocity. When Mencken remarked that "Mark
 Twain, dead, promises to stir up the animals
 even more joyously than Mark Twain, living"
 he could have said the same of himself.

I, too, mentioned Twain on the next-to-last page of The Skeptic, but to different effect:
 One cannot help being impressed by the
 stubborn way in which Mencken the self-made
 philosopher grapples, in his unpretentious,
 take-no-prisoners way, with the permanent
 things: the limits of art, the rule of
 law, the meaning of life. The simplicity, one
 comes to realize, is inseparable from the message.
 In Mencken, style and content are one,
 and the resulting alloy is more than merely individual:
 it is a matchlessly exact expression of
 the American temper. He was to the first part
 of the twentieth century what Mark Twain was
 to the last part of the nineteenth--the quintessential
 voice of American letters.

If you like the first set of excerpts more than the second, you will likely prefer Mencken: The American Iconoclast to The Skeptic.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: is there any real need for three full-scale Mencken biographies? In a sense, of course, this question will answer itself (as Mencken the social Darwinist would have mockingly pointed out). So let me ask it in a different way: was Mencken important enough to be written about at such great length on three closely spaced occasions?

In the eyes of the academy, of course, the answer would obviously be no: Mencken isn't even taught there, much less studied. He is as politically incorrect as it is possible for a writer to be. And my own feeling, now that I've had time to recover from the experience of spending nearly a quarter of my life to date writing a biography of him, is that he occupies a slot in between the first and second tiers of American authors, if only because so much of his work has proved to be of purely ephemeral interest. An uneven but memorable essayist, a charming autobiographer and correspondent, a literary critic and editor of rare panache but constrictingly narrow cultural sympathies, a derivative thinker and amateur philosopher ... what does all that add up to? In The Skeptic I called him "America's greatest journalist" and I still stand by that: it establishes his enduring significance without exaggerating his rank in the pantheon, which I take to be somewhere in between, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson.

Speaking as a newspaperman, I don't know that any of us, however gifted, is worthy of three biographies. But there they are, Mencken No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3, each one distinctly different in tone and approach. And which one is the real H. L. Mencken? As the author of The American Language might have put it, grinning wickedly, you pays your money and you takes your choice.
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Author:Teachout, Terry
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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