WASHINGTON -- Can you believe it? In the public prints, I have been called a "pipsqueak," and a "self-important pipsqueak" at that. The scene of the crime is the current Forbes magazine. The felon is Jonathan Yardley, an elderly book critic at The Washington Post. Yardley was asked by Forbes whether any of the "current crop of right-wing pundits" is comparable to H.L. Mencken, the editor and critic, who is best known for his work in the 1920s. I was referred to, along with Ann Coulter (who apparently told CNN in 2006 that she is "the right-wing Mencken"), Mark Steyn and P.J. O'Rourke. Yardley said, "I don't respect a single one of them, much less think that a single one of them deserves to be compared to H.L.M."
I have read Yardley for years, often finding him informative though occasionally disingenuous. Certainly, his disapproval of "self-importance" is disingenuous. When he hands down his judgments, the organ music is rumbling in his head, the incense filling the room -- the holy man hath spoken. As for the comparisons of me with Mencken, I would have thought that my appraisal of him seven years back would have disqualified me for further consideration. In The American Spectator, I reviewed a couple of convincing biographies of "the Sage" and concluded that he was a very amusing, albeit wrongheaded, writer of brilliant prose who, by the 1930s, "had become an anti-Semite, a racist, and a reactionary crank." Yet he was also a fine philologist and editor. The American Mercury, which he founded in 1924 with George Jean Nathan and Alfred A. Knopf, was an exhilarating departure from the musty magazines that preceded it, and the Mercury allowed him to become America's first celebrity intellectual.
He was pronounced by the likes of Walter Lippmann and the editors of The New York Times as a powerful intellectual force. "The most powerful private citizen in the United States" is how the Times put it. Still, after championing a wave of novelists in the 1920s and celebrating the musical masters of the 18th and 19th centuries, he showed no taste for later literary movements and almost no interest in any of the other arts. During years when Eliot, Pound and Yeats were at work, Mencken dismissed poetry as "beautiful balderdash."