When the "Sage of Baltimore" wanted to condemn a presidential speech as the worst English he had ever encountered, he wrote, "It reminds me...
“Mencken: The American Iconoclast”
by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
Oxford University Press,
662 pp., $35
When the “Sage of Baltimore” wanted to condemn a presidential speech as the worst English he had ever encountered, he wrote, “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”
The hapless president was Warren G. Harding; the writer was H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), a stylist and iconoclast of early-20th-century American journalism.
The last biography of Mencken — there are half a dozen — was “The Skeptic” (2002) by Terry Teachout. That was a sprightly written and engaging account that focused on Mencken’s writing and ideas but found some fault with him.
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Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’ “Mencken” is written in a simpler style, but it is a fine piece of work and does not argue with its subject. It is twice as long as Teachout’s book and uses the extra space to explore more aspects of his life. For example, in the 1930s Mencken famously refused to condemn Adolf Hitler in any language harsher than he piled on Franklin Roosevelt. Mencken, the hater of propaganda and crusades, including the New Deal, also refused to endorse World War II, commenting on Allied sins, including the “intolerably barbaric use of the atom bomb.”
Teachout could not accept that anyone could have honorably doubted the necessity of American entry into World War II. In contrast, Rodgers explains why Mencken thought as he did: his experience of World War I. She recounts his trip to Imperial Germany in 1917, his personal knowledge of Allied news falsification and “official balderdash,” and his loss of writing outlets in the shutdown of free speech. She cites public accusations that Mencken, a German-American, was an agent of the German Kaiser.
Rodgers is Mencken’s first female biographer, and she does an especially fine job of telling the story of his women — the ones who wanted to marry him and the one who did.
Unlike Teachout, the critic who lauds the Mencken style and then, at the end, says his subject’s criticism wasn’t really first-class, Rodgers regards Mencken as “a writer of authentic genius.” Like Mark Twain, she says, Mencken spoke in an authentically American voice. His battles with the bluenoses helped liberate Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and other novelists of the 1910s and 1920s from censorship. He concerned himself with broad themes, from science and theology to economics and politics, always the raucous and secular advocate of individual liberty.
Mencken fans will like the Rodgers biography. It is still, however, a book about a man who wrote books, and those who don’t know Mencken would be advised to read some of his work first. For example, on theology:
“It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.”