“The Gaseous Verterbrata who own, operate and afflict the universe have treated me with excessive politeness, and when I mount the gallows at last I may well say with the Psalmist (putting it, of course, into the prudent past tense): The lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places.”
—H.L. Mencken

In the past 23 years, enough material has been released from the sealed deposit left by H.L. Mencken at his death in 1956 to superannuate the late Carl Bode’s Mencken, published a quarter-century ago and a pedestrian job in any event. Thus the time had arrived for a new and definitive biography of the critic, journalist, philologist, and memoirist, and it cannot be said that Fred Hobson, author of Serpent in Eden: ILL. Mencken and the South, has wasted the opportunity. Mencken: A Life is incomparably superior to Mencken, and while written without the dash of William Manchester’s Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H.L. Mencken (published several years before its subject’s death), it is well written enough, with an objectivity and distance that Manchester’s early experiment in the technique of the New Journalism, heavily reliant on a sort of literary chameleonism, precluded. Terry Teachout, reportedly at work on still another biography of Mencken, is left in the uncomfortable position of a man whose swimsuit has been stolen in the public baths.

Since the publication of Mencken’s Diaries in 1989, fashionable criticism has emphasized the “dark side” of H.L. Mencken, by which is meant his generally unflattering opinion of various peoples of color, as well as—in particular— of the Jews. Hobson, too, finds himself unable to dodge this boring and trivial issue, but only in the course of discovering a more profound darkness that previous biographers and critics seem barely to have sensed, though intimations have always been present for the discerning and sensitive reader of Mencken’s writing.

Manchester, it seems, may have been at some pains to portray the Sage of Baltimore as largely devoid of self-consciousness, a moonfaced, rotund little man in a rumpled seersucker suit whom professional success and, later, fame discovered without his having sought, or even much considered, them. By contrast, Hobson reveals Mencken the careerist: shrewd, a clever businessman with an eye for publicity, and a superb self-promoter, adept in many of the mysteries he denounced when they were practiced by Babbitts, Rotarians, Hollywood agents, and politicians. (Although Hobson’s insistence that Mencken was at bottom a genuineU modest man may seem contradictory, the argument is well supported in the larger context.) Similarly, Manchester’s Mencken is something of the rube—the hick from provincial Baltimore—he himself mocked: uncomfortable amid the carnal temptations of New York City, the proper Victorian who was moreover too busy professionally to chase after the ladies and who, at the time of his marriage in his 50th year, remained hardly less innocent than his famous “Girl From Red Lion, P.A.” Yet the facts are as Hobson presents them. Mencken was ordinarily not rumpled but had his suits custom-tailored (as photographs have always attested). Nor was he short for a man of his generation (five feet, eight inches) or—except on occasion—notably overweight. Nor, finally, was he physically unattractive to women, but rather the reverse, as more recently available documents, from the Mencken estate and also from those of a number of his paramours, attest. Particularly in the 1920’s when he was in the prime of life, at the top of his form, and at the peak of his notoriety, he found himself in a position to make the most romantically of his carefully cultivated celebrity—and did so. Even after his wife had died, leaving him a bachelor once more at the age of 55, he had many opportunities for love—including, apparently, Blanche Knopf and Marcella Du Pont—although he rejected all of them.

More surprising and somewhat disconcerting is Hobson’s portrait of H.L. Mencken as a man deeply concerned with his own social standing. While the Mencken family had possessed intellectual distinction in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries, the American Menckens, established in the United States in 1848, occupied a modest enough position in the city of Baltimore, where they felt themselves superior to their fellow German-Americans and indifferent to the Anglo-Saxon establishment. As a young man, Mencken scorned—or professed to scorn—Baltimore society; as an aging one, he joined the exclusive Maryland Club, where he dined and drank with the flower of Baltimore society. Most troubling, however, is the reader’s growing awareness of an ego of uncomfortable and finally truly alarming proportions. Mencken’s egocentricity was not of the kind that obliterates kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, and ordinary human decency, since Mencken was all his life a loyal and dutiful son, a dedicated brother, and a man capable of deep friendships (although in these he could also be distressingly unforgiving on occasion). Neither was it of the sort that creates an impermeable aura of self-importance. Hobson comes closest to describing and identifying it when he refers to Mencken’s obsession with being at all times in control, and closer still when he remarks upon Mencken’s enormous pride—by which he does not mean vanity.

It was his colossal ego that drove Mencken to leave, as Charles Fecher (the editor of the Diaries) has written, “the most complete collection of manuscripts, letters, miscellaneous papers, and other memorabilia of [almost] any writer in the English-speaking world.” “From his 50’s on,” Hobson adds, “he was actively engaged in the business of posthumous image management”—a task that occupied an increasing amount of his time at the expense not of his familial obligations and social involvements but of the work itself. After his mental incapacitation by stroke in 1948, Mencken stated that his chief regret in life was not having accomplished all the writing he had wanted to do, and in fact a number of long-planned works remained incomplete. Yet, were it not for the “Diaries” (begun at the age of 50), for “My Life as Author and Editor” (a manuscript that was eventually edited and published by Jonathan Yardley), for “Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work,” and for other, similar, projects, many or all of the intended formal manuscripts might have been finished. The choice was his, and he decided in favor of preserving the life rather than advancing the work. It is not one that many artists would be likely to make. I can recall wondering years ago, as a graduate student blasting away through the immense collection of letters, mostly trivial, in the New York Public Library, why Mencken had thought that anyone would really care.

Previous biographers have had little to say on the subject of Mencken’s health prior to the catastrophic hemorrhage of November 23, 1948. But Hobson is careful to demonstrate how his physical deterioration, becoming apparent shortly after the trauma of Sara Haardt Mencken’s death at the age of 37 in 1955, resulted three years later in a minor stroke that led him to conclude that he would not live long past 60. By 1940 or thereabout his condition was “perilous” from arteriosclerosis, and Dr. Ben Baker of Johns Hopkins warned him that a fatal stroke or coronary could fell him at any time. Thereafter, though he was to live for another 15 years, he did so in the fear and later—after 1948—in the hope that every day might be his last. In the autumn an agnostic’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of immortality, and such thoughts as these, more than anything else perhaps, were the impetus behind the immense labor of self-preservation. For years I had suspected that H.L. Mencken would have made a devout Catholic, and Hobson’s careful and revealing treatment of Mencken’s exceedingly ambivalent attitude toward religion—Catholicism in particular—goes far to justify that suspicion.

Believing that nothing is plainer than that the universe is grounded upon law, and that law is necessarily an expression of will, Mencken regarded atheism as the philosophy of fools. Yet while he remained an unbeliever all his life, Mencken was also a superstitious man—with good reason, as the aweful Friday the Thirteenth again and again brought disaster to himself and to close family members. Indeed, Hobson calls attention to what he describes as “that same order and harmony, a remarkable symmetry” to his life—a symmetry that pious commentators, operating from a supernatural perspective, would find intriguing. Strange as it may seem, the Hound of Heaven appears to have dogged Henry Mencken’s 75 years, from the time when, as a small boy, he had looked west from his upstairs window into the convent garden of the House of the Good Shepherd and watched the nuns promenading there to the final days of his life when, from the same window, he observed another generation of sisters. I lis fascination for religion was life-long, as was his sensitivity to its beauty and charm—again, primarily in their Catholic manifestation. After reading Hobson’s description of the seven terrible last years (seven, as with a biblical drought or famine), when Mencken could neither read nor write and sometimes barely even speak, any homilist worth his salt would conclude that he was being offered a final chance. He never took it. Why not?

The answer, of course, is pride—pride in the purely human as well as in the theological sense. He was, after all, a man who had always congratulated himself on never having changed his mind on any matter of appreciable substance, and on no subject had he been more noisily dogmatic than on the “preposterousness” of Christianity. But more importantly, the author who in his Treatise on the Gods had described the Bible as “probably the most beautiful book in the world” found himself simply unable to accede to a faith that for 2,000 years had appealed to hundreds of millions of “human blanks,” as well as to hundreds of thousands of the world’s greatest intellects. In regard to Christianity, Mencken was less impressed by Louis Pasteur’s Catholicism than he was by a Tennessee yokel’s fundamentalism. In this crucial matter of Christianity, the intellectual and social pride of Henry L. Mencken finally condemned him, more thoroughly and terribly than any of his greatest detractors, in his lifetime or since, could possibly have contrived to do.


[Mencken: A Life, by Fred Hobson (New York: Random House) 672 pp., $35.00]