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Skeptic [Paperback]

Terry Teachout

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Book Description

1 Jan 2004
When H. L. Mencken talked, everyone listened -- like it or not. In the Roaring Twenties, he was the one critic who mattered, the champion of a generation of plain-speaking writers who redefined the American novel, and the ax-swinging scourge of the know-nothing, go-getting middle-class philistines whom he dubbed the "booboisie." Some loved him, others loathed him, but everybody read him. Now Terry Teachout takes on the man Edmund Wilson called "our greatest practicing literary journalist," brilliantly capturing all of Mencken's energy and erudition, passion and paradoxes, in a masterful biography of this iconoclastic figure and the world he shaped.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 410 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Reprint edition (1 Jan 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006050529X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060505295
  • Product Dimensions: 2.8 x 13.3 x 20.1 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,109,683 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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First Sentence
"I am going to Washington Saturday night to make a speech at the Gridiron club dinner, H.L. Mencken wrote to a friend on December 7, 1934." Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  32 reviews
73 of 80 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A rehash 3 Dec 2002
By Mark_Frederic - Published on Amazon.com
Terry Teachout's new biography is largely a rehash of Fred Hobson's biography of Mencken and to complete the feeling of déjà vu, the same controversies that greeted Hobson's book swirl around this one as well. Unlike Lord Byron or de Sade, Mencken led a life that was fairly bourgeois and apparently book reviewers resent it, thus playing up his alleged anti-Semitism. It is something of a fad these days to unmask literary anti-Semites and those who do it sometimes make themselves look foolish. One dunce who reviewed this book for the Seattle Times and compared Mencken unfavorably to Voltaire was apparently unaware of a large body of criticism condemning Voltaire for his anti-Semitism. Teachout himself is apologetic about Mencken's attitudes to the Jews, but doesn't go far enough in pardoning him.
Part of the demonizing of Mencken these days might be attributed to the fact that American society is still intolerant of a critical attitude to religion. Mencken was indeed critical of Judaism. However, as readers of "Treatise on Gods" know, Mencken was also critical of Christianity and Islam. A rationalist to the core, Mencken had little time for people who believed in the supernatural. He detested the religious impulse in Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
As for those who claim that Mencken is racially prejudice against the Jews, they will have to explain away the fact that, as Teachout shows, Mencken had many close Jewish friends and that he used harsh language toward everyone (the English, the Irish, African-Americans, Italians), not just against the Jews.
As so often with the genteel, the critics of Mencken have focused almost entirely on his manner of writing than rather than the substance of his writing. He argued quite forcefully for a humane foreign policy. Unlike the timid Walter Lippman, Mencken urged the US government to take in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. For a man who is so often characterized as nasty, he was surprisingly pacific in some of his politics: he was against participation in both world wars.
Much has been made about Teachout's use of Mencken's unpublished writings for this biography and many reviewers have implied that these writings reveal his dark side. Actually, these unpublished writings appear to reveal some new facts, not new prejudices. If Mencken said nasty things in the diaries, a look at his published writings will show that he was nasty there as well. By the way, he could also be nice sometimes too. Again it's just that Mencken's style is far more biting than anything allowed in today's journalism, which is apparently stocked with aspiring political consultants and public relations people.
The best account of the events of Mencken's life is still his Days books (Happy Days, Newspaper Days, Heathen Days). The collection of his newspaper columns, The Impossible Mencken, is better reading than this biography and a good record of Mencken's opinions on the issues of the day.
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beneath the "Comic Mask" 14 Nov 2002
By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
The title does not begin to suggest (nor could any title) the nature and extent of Mencken's intellectual and emotional complexity. Regrettably, for whatever reasons, he has received very little attention in recent years. My hope is that Teachout's biography will attract the attention it richly deserves and thereby direct attention to someone who was at one time a major figure in America's intellectual community. In Teachout's opinion, perhaps a "sage....not calm and reflective but as noisy as a tornado: witty and abrasive, self-confident and self-contradictory, sometimes maddening, often engaging, always inimitable." Of special interest to me is Teachout's analysis of Mencken's association with the city of Baltimore in which he lived and worked throughout most of his life (1880-1956).
He left school after his father's death (1899) to become a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald, later serving as drama critic, city editor, and then managing editor of the Baltimore Evening Herald. Soon after the Herald folded in 1906, he joined the Baltimore Sun and continued with the Sun as editor, columnist, or contributor for most of his career. He published studies of George Bernard Shaw (1905) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), both of whom he admired. From 1914 to 1923, with George Jean Nathan he co-edited a satirical magazine, The Smart Set; in 1924 he and Nathan co-founded the American Mercury, a cultural magazine for "a civilized minority," which he co-edited for nine years. Mencken has been generally viewed (if viewed at all) as a crusty curmudgeon, never fully appreciated for the quality of his contributions to academic scholarship as well as to journalism during the first third of the 20th century.
To Teachout's great credit, he resurrects rather than revises an abundance of relevant biographical, social, and cultural material which he examines with both precision and circumspection. My guess (only a guess) is that those who read this biography will view Mencken through the filters of their own values. Some will find him "delightful" and "colorful"; others will be offended by his (to put it mildly) political incorrectness; still others will conclude (as Teachout seems to) that Mencken was the archetypical skeptic of almost everyone and everything...except his own opinions. For better or worse, "he was to the first part of the twentieth century what Mark Twain was to the last part of the nineteenth." Until reading this biography, I tended to view Mencken as a reasonably well-educated variation of Archie Bunker. Edmund Wilson once suggested that Mencken's public persona was a "comic mask" which concealed an "all-too-human face." In this context, Teachout has succeeded brilliantly in revealing that face.
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Inquisition versus The Sage 29 Dec 2002
By Keith Otis Edwards - Published on Amazon.com
This is not exactly a biography as about 75% of The Skeptic is devoted to an indictment of H. L. Mencken as an anti-Semitic bigot. It is far from being a balanced discussion, as only material for the prosecution is presented, and there is no mention of how Mencken aided and supported Jews and other minority writers. (The second most frequently published author in Mencken's magazine, The American Mercury, was George Schuyler, an African-American.) There is scant notice of how Mencken chose young Alfred Knopf, a Jew, as his publisher, nothing said about Mencken's crusade against the then-common practice of lynching or his war against the KKK (all this at a time when many state governments --e.g., Indiana-- were controlled by the Klan), and reference to Mencken's actual efforts to get Jews out of Germany is relegated to a tiny footnote on page 290. Mencken's 1938 column, "Help for the Jews" is dismissed because he advocated free immigration into the U.S. only for German Jews. (This was, of course, nearly a year before World War II began.)

In addition to the charges of bigotry, another 20% of this book is devoted to Mencken's sex life, as if this were somehow significant, and one gets the impression that this is actually the Kitty Kelley expose of Mencken rather than a serious biography.

In general, "The Skeptic" is remarkable for what it lacks. Anyone unfamiliar with the writing of H. L. Mencken could set this book down and be puzzled as to why there are so many readers who delight in Mencken's wit and insight, as there is no clue provided as to what Mencken's redeeming qualities were. Is there any mention of Mencken's analysis of why politicians behave as they do? Nada. Does it discuss the significant relationship between Christianity and democracy that Mencken held was central to our society? Not here. Does it give an example of his shrewdness such as the deft condensation of three pages by Thorstein Veblen down to one banal paragraph? Not at all, as the name Veblen does not appear in this book. Does it even acknowledge Mencken's contribution in changing the national literature from being based on moralism to a basis in realism? Nope.

Ah, but I must confess at once that this last negative is not quite true, as there is some discussion of Mencken as an editor and literary critic. According to Dr. Teachout, Mencken was obviously a very poor literary critic because he didn't like Hemingway and instead championed a ghastly author named Theodore Dreiser who is deservedly forgotten today. The American Mercury itself was of no significance, Mr. Teachout maintains, as it was merely a short-lived fad that featured the works of unknowns who couldn't have been worth reading.

Not only is this not a balanced account, it's a dull read. It has always escaped me exactly why Mr. Teachout is held in high esteem as an author. It defies the imagination that anyone who writes for a living could be so utterly bereft of any gift for storytelling that he could ruin the marvelous tale of how Mencken discovered the novel Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, or suck all the adventure out of the Hatrack prosecution in Boston, or spoil the spectacle of the Scopes Monkey Trial, yet in each case Teachout's account reads like the Cliff's Notes version of previous biographies.

Those who'd like an entertaining and informative account of H. L. Mencken and his times would do well to obtain "Disturber of the Peace" by one of America's greatest historians, William Manchester. Those who merely want to read about an author's sex life would do better with "My Life and Loves" by Frank Harris. Those who expect no pleasure whatsoever from reading may settle for this book.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great review of a great man 10 Jan 2003
By Max Boot - Published on Amazon.com
When I first picked up "The Skeptic" I was a bit, errr, skeptical: barely 400 pages to cover the 40-odd working years of America's greatest 20th century journalist? It didn't seem enough, especially when long-forgotten literary figures often get biographies twice as thick. But it didn't take many pages to convince me. Teachout has delivered a model of concise but enthralling biography. He gives all the essentials of Mencken's life, and a good flavor of his times, without wallowing in matters only tangentially related to the main story line. Besides telling the story of Mencken's life better than it's ever been told before, Teachout delivers the most balanced and convincing critique of Mencken's thinking that I have ever seen. He doesn't slight Mencken's anti-semitism but doesn't exaggerate its importance either. He shows why Mencken's arguments often weren't very convincing, but also why Mencken continues to attract readers a half-century after his demise. He may not have been the Sage of Baltimore, but Mencken was a peerless prose stylist who deserves to remembered as one of the finest writers America has ever produced. Although Teachout modestly bills his book as "a life" it will go down as the definitive biography of Mencken.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Impressive Introduction To The Sage Of Baltimore 22 May 2004
By W. C HALL - Published on Amazon.com
It's now been almost half a century since H.L. Mencken's death, but the debate over his life and works only seems to grow more passionate. Much of this was undoubtedly the design of the Sage of Baltimore himself. He took great care in preserving and ordering his papers, and wrote two volumes of memoir and a diary designed to be opened only long after his departure. The publication of these works--the diary, "My Life as Author and Editor," and "Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work," helped spark a new round of debate about Mencken, and also helped pave the way for Terry Teachout's fine biography.
Teachout has mined the rich Mencken trove to produce a life story that's vivid, engaging and a pleasure to read. He confronts the Big Questions about Mencken--especially his anti-Semitism--quite directly. He celebrates the man's achievements, points out his faults and blind spots, but does so through the perspective of a life-long interest in the man. As he explains in the introduction, his eighth-grade social studies teacher gave him his first book on Mencken.
In a relatively brief 349 pages, Teachout manages to cover the sweep of the Mencken story...from the boy reporter who first made his mark at the end of the 19th century, to the literary critic who made such a splash in the teens and twenties ("discovering" the likes of Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis); to the memorable battles he waged against the "booboisie," the great unknowing masses who he saw as the scourge of society; to the self-trained scholar who performed pioneering work in the field of the American language. It's a great introduction to the man for anyone who isn't familiar with him, and can be read with pleasure by those who do know him. A first-rate biography in every sense.--William C. Hall
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