One does not automatically think of the irascible H. L. Mencken as an idealist. His latest biographer, Terry Teachout, takes pains to portray him as just the opposite, and in the course of The Skeptic calls his subject worse things than sceptical. But Mencken himself, although possessing an unnaturally bleak view of the condition of mankind, was not someone who debunked for the sake of it. His habitual mode as a writer may have been the opprobrious, but his aims were often lofty.
"No normal human being wants to hear the truth," he wrote. "It is the passion of a small and aberrant minority of men, most of them pathological. They are hated for telling it while they live, and when they die they are swiftly forgotten." At such times he sounded a note not so dissimilar to that other great newspaperman, the bright-eyed and ardent Charles Foster Kane: "They're going to get the truth in the Inquirer , quickly and simply and entertainingly, and no special interests are going to be allowed to interfere with that truth."
That was Mencken all over; but unmasking, and then battering, those special interests took up so much of his time that many people assumed he was merely a streetfighter. Edmund Wilson saw enough to call him "perhaps a prophet rather than a critic", but this was no crackpot out of the burning East babbling about eternal life. Mencken's message was that life had no meaning or purpose, that almost everyone was a crook and a liar who prospered because of man's vanity and gullibility. "Man is the yokel par excellence, the booby unmatchable, the king dupe of the cosmos. He is chronically and inescapably deceived, not only by the other animals and by the delusive face of nature herself, but also and more particularly by himself - by his incomparable talent for searching out and embracing what is false, and for overlooking and denying what is true."
The message should not have been enough to make anyone essential reading for several decades, but Mencken was often hilarious, unerringly wrote "simply and entertainingly", had an unparalleled armoury of artful invective, was far more cultured, clever and knowledgeable than the average journalist, and in the 1920s and 1930s became one of the most dominant and influential voices in American letters. As co-editor of the Smart Set and the American Mercury , he helped bring to attention F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, but the real star of these journals was Mencken himself, who would issue witty and devastating denunciations of all that he perceived as wrong with the world: the American south, the political class, judges, academics, policemen, other journalists, priests, puritans, the temperance movement, poetry, the English, chiropractors, communism and life itself. No sacred cow could believe itself safely locked in the cow shed: Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Christianity, Franklin D. Roosevelt, American democracy, the popular notion of "freedom" - all were put to the slaughter.
Mencken had loves, too, including Twain, beer, Beethoven, Germany and, importantly, Nietzsche. Nietzsche formed the subject of Mencken's second book in 1907, and years later he was to translate the philosopher's splenetic screed against Christianity, The Anti-Christ . Here was someone of whom he could wholeheartedly approve. Both men were Saxon in origin, both more than competent pianists (there are reports of both being taken to a brothel and spending the evening playing the piano), and both expended much energy unravelling the malevolent effects of Christianity.
"A certain sense of cruelty towards oneself and others is Christian; hatred of those who think differently; the will to persecuteI Hatred of mind, of pride, courage, freedom, libertinage of mind is Christian..." was the Nietzsche version, frequently echoed by Mencken: "It is this survival of sacerdotal authority... and not hookworm or malaria or the event of April 9 1865, that is chiefly responsible for the cultural paralysis of the late Confederate StatesI in every country town there is some Baptist mullah who rules by scaring the peasantry." More generally than any specific dislike, Mencken inherited from Nietzsche the desire to effect a "revaluation of all values": there was a rather grand ideal behind all the assault and battery.
Teachout insists that Mencken did not add up to much as a critic and questions his understanding of Nietzsche. He also castigates Mencken for his lifelong love of Germany, which got him gagged during the first world war when the land of the free locked up the word sauerkraut and put "liberty cabbage" in its place, foreshadowing the current "freedom fries" nonsense. When he quotes Mencken with approval, it is usually not vintage or characteristic Mencken, all of which suggests that Teachout does not really like or appreciate his subject. The final straw is Teachout's preposterous claim that Mencken's "gift for aphorism was only just adequate" - this of the man who deserves a dictionary of quotations all his own.
Unfamiliar to this biographer, who sees "a man who had grown too hard to pity anyone foolish enough to believe in anything", is the Mencken who passionately declared that "no man's opinion is worth a hoot, however well supported and maintained, so long as he is not absolutely free, if the spirit moves him, to support and maintain the exactly contrary opinionI the moment the slightest external reward goes with his partisanship or the slightest penalty with its abandonment, then there appears a defect in his ratiocination that is more deep-seated than any error in fact and more destructive than any conscious and deliberate biasI He may be earnest, he may be honest, but he is not free, and if he is not free, he is not anything."
Now tell me that's not idealistic.
Christopher Wood is a freelance journalist.
The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken
Author - Terry Teachout
ISBN - 0 06 050528 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £18.75
Pages - 412