A skeptic worth remembering

Posted: Dec 31, 2002 12:00 AM
Taking Old Man Mencken's measure is an ongoing job, so varied was his career, so many were its dimensions, both intellectual and personal. The critic Terry Teachout, in the newly published "The Skeptic," certainly won't have the last word; nevertheless, his contribution is worth close perusal. It reminds us that, 75 years after his heyday, H.L. Mencken remains (among other things) a valuable case study in what passionate journalism can occasionally achieve. Yes, passionate. I didn't say judicious. I didn't say morally upstanding. I said passionate. As smasher-upper of post-Victorian assumptions, as professional bad boy, Mencken wrote from the heart. He could be cruel, as in the contemptuous obituary he tossed off concerning William Jennings Bryan. Teachout explores, disappointedly, the Skeptic's more-than-skeptical attitude concerning Jews. Mencken was America's most influential atheist. Hs opposition to Franklin Roosevelt was tinged with real hatred. The Menckenian scorn for "Wesleyans," Rotarians and rural Southerners was, well, nutty. It was just conceivable that various Southern-born Methodist Rotarians made honorable, yea, praiseworthy contributions to the life going on around them. Not such as Henry Mencken would have acknowledged. Acknowledgment would have meant laying aside momentarily the sledgehammer he so enjoyed wielding in the American parlor. Guerre a outrance -- war to the utmost -- was what he normally practiced. There was another side to all this. The privilege that he asserted -- that of speaking his mind frankly -- was anything but a private possession. It pertained to others as well: indeed, to all others. The First Amendment to the Constitution said so. The objects of Menckenian wrath -- Rotarians and so on -- were free to give as good as they got. Many tried. Generally, they failed or fell short. Not that their ideas were defective. "Wesleyanism" -- even the sort that deprived my mother of movies and soft drinks during her early upbringing in small-town Texas -- was exhaustively more convincing than the abrasive call to lay aside all that God-stuff. The Wesleyans/Methodists needed to make this case. That they didn't was hardly Henry Mencken's fault. Mencken's influence depended less on his ideas -- as comfortably as they cohabited with the zeitgeist -- than on the most forcefully exuberant prose style ever concocted. You could love his ideas; you could hate them. Either way, he was a great (hence too-often-imitated) writer. Here he is on Calvin Coolidge: "We suffer most, not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory, but when it is a jitney Mars Hill, with a tin-pot Paul bawling from the roof. Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant?" No batteries are needed to keep 70-year-old passages like this one alight. Words -- rightly chosen, skillfully arranged -- provide their own, perpetually renewable charge. Mencken wrote an estimated 5 million words. The product remains warm, collectively, to the touch. I have been teaching Mencken (along with William Allen White, John Graves, James Jackson Kilpatrick, etc.) in my college writing class. So that my students might go forth and bust the Rotarians? Well -- no. So that they might come to understand better the connection between forceful thought and forceful expression, the way passion builds rhythm and shapes sentences that make you want to get up and march. Or anyway, pump your fist in the air. Modern corporate journalism -- I beg leave to generalize Menckenesquely -- distrusts ideas. The one idea it trusts devoutly is that of profit, coupled with the ideal of customer retention. No intellectual bloodlettings, please! Someone might take offense. Oh, boo hoo. Still, today's journalism would be much worse without the Mencken legacy, a legacy of engagement, fueled by that passion which alone produces writing worth reading. Pick up a copy of "The Skeptic" if you doubt me. Better yet, pick up something -- anything -- by Mencken.