OPINIONSrnSeven Yearsrnby Chilton Williamson, Jr.rn”The Gaseous Verterbrata who own, operate and afflict the universe have treatedrnme with excessive politeness, and when I mount the gallows at last I may well sayrnwith the Psalmist (putting it, of course, into the prudent past tense): The linesrnhave fallen unto me in pleasant places.”rn—H.L. MenckenrnMencken: A Lifernby Fred HobsonrnNew York: Random House;rn672 pp., $35.00rnIn the past 23 years, enough materialrnhas been released from the sealed depositrnleft by H.L. Mencken at his deathrnin 1956 to superannuate the late CarlrnBode’s Mencken, published a quartercenturyrnago and a pedestrian job in anyrnevent. Thus the time had arrived for arnnew and definitive biography of the critic,rnjournalist, philologist, and memoirist,rnand it cannot be said that Fred Hobson,rnauthor of Serpent in Eden: ILL. Menckenrnand the South, has wasted the opportunity.rnMencken: A Life is incomparablyrnsuperior to Mencken, and while writtenrnwithout the dash of William Manchester’srnDisturber of the Peace: The Lifernof H.L. Mencken (published several yearsrnbefore its subject’s death), it is well writtenrnenough, with an objectivity and distancernthat Manchester’s early experimentrnin the technique of the NewrnChilton WiUiamson, ]r., is senior editorrnfor books at Chronicles.rnJournalism, heavily reliant on a sort of literaryrnchameleonism, precluded. TerryrnTeachout, reportedly at work on still anotherrnbiography of Mencken, is left inrnthe uncomfortable position of a manrnwhose swimsuit has been stolen in thernpublic baths.rnSince the publication of Mencken’srnDiaries in 1989, fashionable criticismrnhas emphasized the “dark side” of H.L.rnMencken, bv which is meant his generallyrnunflattering opinion of various peoplesrnof color, as well as—in particular—rnof the Jews. Hobson, too, finds himselfrnunable to dodge this boring and trivial issue,rnbut only in the course of discoveringrna more profound darkness that previousrnbiographers and critics seem barely tornhave sensed, though intimations havernalways been present for the discerningrnand sensitive reader of Mencken’s writing.rnManchester, it seems, may have beenrnat some pains to portray the Sage of Baltimorernas largclv dc’oid of self-consciousness,rna moonfaced, rotund littlernman in a rumpled seersucker suit whomrnprofessional success and, later, fame discoveredrnwithout his having sought, orrneven much considered, them. By contrast,rnHobson reveals Mencken the careerist:rnshrewd, a clever businessmanrnwith an eye for publicity, and a superbrnself-promoter, adept in many of the mysteriesrnhe denounced when they werernpracticed by Babbitts, Rotarians, Hollywoodrnagents, and politicians. (AlthoughrnHobson’s insistence that Mencken was atrnbottom a genuineU modest man mayrnseem contradictory, the argument is wellrnsupported in the larger context.) Similarly,rnManchester’s Mencken is somethingrnof the rube—the hick from pro incialrnBaltimore—he himself mocked:rnuncomfortable amid the carnal temptationsrnof New York City, the proper Victorianrnwho was moreover too busy professionallyrnto chase after the ladies andrnwho, at the time of his marriage in hisrn50th year, remained hardly less innocentrnthan his famous “Giri From Red Lion,rnP.A.” Yet the facts are as Hobson presentsrnthem. Mencken was ordinarily notrnrumpled but had his suits customtailoredrn(as photographs have always attested).rnNor was he short for a man ofrnhis generation (five feet, eight inches)rnor—except on occasion—notably overweight.rnNor, finally, was he physicallyrnunattractive to women, but rather the reverse,rnas more recently available documents,rnfrom the Mencken estate andrnalso from those of a number of hisrnparamours, attest. Particularly in thern36/CHRONICLESrnrnrn