MENCKEN: THE AMERICAN ICONOCLAST. By Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. HarperCollins. 553 pages. $35.
Fifty years ago this month, Henry Louis Mencken died quietly in his sleep in the Baltimore house in which he lived nearly all his life. He was more than ready to go; a stroke had taken the joy from his life, robbing him of his ability to read and write.
When he died he was seen as a has-been. True, he had been the nation s most devastating and influential literary, and perhaps even cultural, force of the 1920s.
A brilliantly mesmerizing writer, he had been a comet that illuminated the sky, a force that taught thousands of bright youngsters that it was all right to think for themselves.
Richard Wright, as a poor black boy growing up in Memphis, forged a note so that he could check books by Mencken out of the library. The future great writer was overwhelmed.
This man was fighting, fighting with words. What amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.
But by the time he died, Mencken had been largely forgotten. He had despised Franklin D. Roosevelt and had been on the wrong side of the zeitgeist during the Great Depression. Worse, he was defiantly pro-German, and though he saw Adolf Hitler as a clown, he never grasped the enormity of Nazism, and never commented on the Holocaust even after the facts were fully known. He had many faults, and wasn t inclined to admit them.
Had the best literary critics and cultural historians been asked in 1956, they would undoubtedly have guessed that by now, Mencken would have been completely forgotten.
Well, they would have been wrong. If anything, Mencken has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years, due in part to several new biographies, of which this is by far the best ever written and this reviewer has read almost a dozen.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers has been fascinated by Mencken since, as she tells it, she literally tripped over a box of love letters that had been written between Mencken and his much younger wife, Sara Haardt. She later turned that correspondence into her first book, and subsequently edited a collection of Mencken s own writing.
This book is, however, a masterpiece. Nearly a century after his heyday, Mencken is still a figure who it is essentially impossible to be neutral about. He was simultaneously brash and sentimental, a breaker of icons and in many matters of taste, a Victorian. He fought segregation, promoted black literature, and was capable of racist utterances, especially in the privacy of his diary, that are today hard to believe.
Though some of what he wrote is hopelessly dated, his observations on evolution vs. creationism are still as telling and as fresh as they were back in the days of the Scopes trial. He undoubtedly would have been struck mute with amazement that the question is still being argued about, and then roared with laughter at mankind s folly.
Yet he is, and was, important. The author, who grew up largely in Chile, knows exactly why. I was struck by Mencken s fierce belief in liberty and how he viewed the United States from the point of view of an outsider.
The delicious irony is that Mencken, like Mark Twain, is one of the most American writers we have, she adds.
More than ever, America needs Mencken today to read his marvelous prose and be inspired by his unflinching courage.
We live in a time that in some ways recalls the cultural oppressiveness of Mencken s last days, a time when we could all do with a bit less profile and a bit more courage among those who market their opinions.
I believed all my life in free thought and free speech, Mencken told an obituary writer.
He loved stirring up the animals and being denounced by those he despised, but though he hated moralists, he was in a way one himself.
He had a warm side and a softer heart than most people imagined.
His own life was touched by romantic sorrow and, at its end, tragedy almost as classic as that of the ancient Greeks. But though he was generous of spirit, he was never, ever politically correct.
If you care about America, ideas, courage, and good writing and read only one biography this year, I would suggest this be the one.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade s ombudsman.