A Candle for Terry Teachout
Notes on the last cosmopolitan conservative
The critic and dramatist Terry Teachout had many friends, so news of his death at age 65 on the morning of Thursday January 13 spread very quickly. I heard later that afternoon, after listening to an episode of Know Your Enemy dealing with another recent death, Joan Didion. The podcast and Teachout’s death became quickly intertwined in my mind, not just because of the coincidence of timing. Didion and Teachout were both exemplars of a kind of literate and skeptical cultural conservatism that now seems a preciously rare commodity. America in 2022 is enmeshed in the so-called Culture Wars but without any genuine cultural conversation.
I’ve written an obituary for Teachout, a fuller tribute to the man I admired, that will run in The Nation. I’ll share a link to that piece in the newsletter when it’s live. In the meantime, here’s a review I wrote in 2003, for the now defunct Books in Canada, of his biography of H.L. Mencken. (I’m running the review unchanged from its original appearance. If I were writing it today I might amend it slightly).
ALMOST ALL FAME IS FLEETING but newspaper columnists possess a particularly ephemeral celebrity. Millions of readers turn to the op-ed page for a daily fix of pungent ranting or smooth rumination. Yet these little essays disappear from the public mind even before the pages yellow. In the early 20th century Heywood Broun, Dorothy Thompson, Westbrook Pegler and Greg Clark were front-page luminaries, glorying in the fame now bestowed on George Will, David Frum, Mark Steyn and Jan Wong. Yet who now remembers Pegler and company? Torrents of ink that once flooded the newsstands have all evaporated from the popular consciousness.
H.L. Mencken is the great exception to the rule that journalism is doomed to a quick oblivion. Like all good newspaperman, Mencken was immensely prolific. During his long life from 1880 to 1956, he wrote millions of sentences. A startlingly large number of them still sparkle as if they were freshly-minted. Usually published as columns in the Baltimore Sun or as articles for the Smart Set and the American Mercury (two important magazines he edited), Mencken's journalism was later re-worked and collected in omnibus volumes that remain steadily in print, winning new fans year after year.
"There is something delightful about getting an idea on paper while it is still hot and charming, and seeing it in print before it begins to pale and stale," Mencken wrote late in life, looking back on his time as a working reporter. "My happiest days have been spent in crowded press-stands, recording and belaboring events that were portentous in their day, but are now forgotten."
Mencken was not normally a modest man, but in this passage he was being unnecessarily humble. The fact is that many of the events and people he wrote about have not been forgotten, largely because they remain pickled and preserved in his own lively prose. Take the case of William Jennings Bryan, who trice ran for the presidency of the United States and always lost. His last public act was arguing against the teaching of evolution in Dayton, Tennessee in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Mencken reported on the Monkey Trial in Dayton and he had nothing but contempt for Bryan's oily appeals to religious bigotry.
Despite their polar opposite worldviews, the names Mencken and Bryan will be forever linked. Aside from the play Inherit the Wind (itself inspired by Mencken's journalism), Bryan is now chiefly remembered as the subject (and victim) of a great Mencken obituary.
Mencken was quick to dismiss the pious funeral blather about Bryan's sincerity: "He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity," Mencken wrote. "His career brought him into contact with the first men of this time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things...What motivated him from end to end of his grotesque career was simply ambition--the ambition of the common man to get his hand upon the collar of his superiors, or failing that, to get his thumb into their eyes."
This gleefully mean-spirited obit is a characteristic Mencken performance: written with invigorating energy, it combines a confident and sweeping syntax (notice the nice peroration on "all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things") with a rococo vocabulary that swiftly moves from mock high-mindedness ("ignoramuses") to blunt street lingo ("thumb into their eyes").
Although famous as a prose-smith, Mencken had a poet's feel for pacing and diction. In Terry Teachout's shrewd and solid new biography of Mencken we learn that the famed journalist did actually start off writing verse. Mencken's Kipling-inspired juvenilia wasn't very good but it taught him important literary lessons. "I am convinced that writing verse is the best of all preparations for writing prose," Mencken argued. "It makes the neophyte look sharply to his words, and improves that sense of rhythm and tone-color--in brief, that sense of music--which is at the bottom of all sound prose, just as it is at the bottom of all sound verse."
On an intellectual level, Mencken's Bryan obituary expresses his usual contempt for the common man and the sniveling politicians who thrived on flattering the masses. Yet however disturbing Mencken's hatred of democracy may be, only someone tone-deaf to the pleasure of language would fail to smile at his thrashing of Bryan and sundry frauds.
As Teachout observes, there is an interesting tension in Mencken between "the truculent pessimism of his philosophy and the infectious gusto of his temperament." Mencken loved invective and insults, yet even at his nastiest he is always a pleasure to read. "He calls you a swine, and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live," Walter Lippmann astutely noted.
As a journalist who transcended the limitations of his profession to write classic essays, Mencken remains a formidable cultural presence who commands our interest. The question is, does Teachout's biography satisfy our curiosity about Mencken and do justice to this important writer?
The main outlines of Mencken's life have already been covered in lengthy, fact-filled biographies by Carl Bode and Fred Hobson. But Teachout enjoys some advantages over these earlier accounts. Because Bode and Hobson have already done the main biographical spade-work, Teachout is free to be selective and succinct, zeroing in on central aspects of Mencken's career and ignoring a great mass of trivia. Too many biographies are shaggy, baggy monsters, stuffed to the gill with information. Teachout's book, by contrast, reads like a superior New Yorker article from that magazine's glory days: thoughtful, briskly-paced, and aimed at literate readers.
With Teachout as the guide, we get a lively tour of Mencken's life starting from his comfy bourgeois childhood as the son of Baltimore cigar maker in late Victorian America. Jumping from there, Teachout hits all the important biographical highlights: Mencken's teenage infatuation with the raffish world of newspaper reporters; his branching out into the world of literature in his literary essays for the Smart Set which championed Theodore Dreiser and Joseph Conrad; his jittery and close-lipped existence as a Germanophile during the First World War; his fierce battle against cultural Puritanism and religious fundamentalism in the American Mercury; his great vogue during the 1920s, when he was hailed as the voice of the Jazz Age (even though he hated jazz); his intense hatred of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both as social reformer and war president (and the attendant decline in Mencken's popularity when he voiced these opinions); and finally Mencken's last sad years when a stroke prevented this life-long print addict from being able to read or write.
In telling Mencken's life story, Teachout draws on his own biography to good effect. The two previous major Mencken biographies were both written by academics. Like Mencken, Teachout is a working journalist who knows his way around a news room and the pressures of writing to deadline. Teachout's crisp cultural journalism has graced the pages of papers like the New York Daily News and journals like Commentary.
An informed knowledge about the day-to-day world of journalism spices up Teachout's prose, as in his description of Mencken's first job at the Baltimore Herald: "Even by comparison with the old-fashioned newsrooms immortalized by Hollywood, the Herald's fifth-floor city room would strike a modern-day visitor as primitive." He notes, "It contained two telephones, no teletype, and a few typewriters--much of the paper's copy was still written by hand--though each desk had its own spittoon, a modern convenience of which Mencken made regular use, then and later." That spittoon is a characteristically nice novelistic detail, wonderfully evocative of Mencken's world.
The personal Mencken that emerges from Teachout's pages is somewhat less lovable than Mencken the essayist. Mencken was able to write so much in part because he was a cold, hard workhorse. He had many companions but few close friends, and even those he was willing to drop if they stood in his way. Largely for career reasons, he was willing to shatter abruptly his once tight bond with George Jean Nathan, a theatre critic and co-editor at The Smart Set and the American Mercury. An off-putting chilliness also characterizes his relationship with women, particularly with his long-time lover Marion Bloom, whom he strung along for years with no intention of marrying.
Mencken displayed love and loyalty to very few of his fellow humans. He doted on his mother and lived with her until her death in 1925 (when he was 45). Teachout describes Mencken as a "mama's boy". It does seem that the death of his mother freed Mencken to at last become serious at love.
With his mother gone, Mencken intensified his courtship of Sara Haardt, a talented Southern writer he had met in 1924 and married in 1930. Sara Haardt suffered from ill-health through almost the whole course of her relationship with Mencken and died of tuberculosis in 1935. Teachout describes Mencken's decision to marry her as an act of gallantry. The best part of Mencken's soul shined through in his kindness and care for Haardt. The coldness of his character disappeared in the warmth of his love for her.
Although skillful in covering Mencken's literary career and personal life, Teachout loses his way in discussions of the political Mencken. Because Mencken hated the New Deal and all attempts to reign in free market capitalism, he is occasionally claimed as a conservative thinker. The American Spectator, a juvenile and distasteful right-wing magazine specializing in sordid gossip and catcalls, used to hold up Mencken as a patron saint.
Teachout is a conservative himself, but much more thoughtful than the overgrown frat boys who edit the American Spectator. Teachout recognizes that there are many aspects of Mencken's thought that are incompatible with modern conservatism. As a young man, Mencken drank deeply from Nietzsche's cup. Like his German master, Mencken would always deride conventional morality and religious piety.
Teachout is disturbed by this "nihilistic" streak in Mencken. Tellingly, in his account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Teachout is very sympathetic to Bryan's critique of social Darwinism. As Teachout notes, Bryan was right to link the teaching of evolution with opposition to democracy. Mencken himself illustrates how a simpleminded interpretation of Darwin could lead to hatred for the masses.
A decent man, Teachout also frets about Mencken's many unkind words about African Americans and Jews. Mencken believed that "the white man is actually superior to a Negro and on almost all counts" and Jews were "the most unpleasant race ever heard of." Teachout is of course right to deplore these opinions. Yet I think he makes too much of them and of Mencken's political philosophy in general.
Near the end of his book Teachout accuses Mencken of "a skepticism so extreme as to issue in philosophical incoherence." But who would read a writer like Mencken in a search for philosophical clarity? I am far to the left of Teachout in my politics, yet untroubled by Mencken's views because I read him largely for his style rather than his sometimes dubious substance.
In 1950 the great literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote a definitive assessment of Mencken, noting that his "miscellaneous writings, too, hold up well--not as doctrine (Mencken as a thinker is brash, inconsistent, and crude) but for a personal rhythm and color that have their dignity as well as their humor. Mencken can be brutal, obtuse; he almost always oversimplifies; but these articles and essays and squibs are none the less literature." Wilson's words deserve to be Mencken's epitaph.
(Post edited by Emily M. Keeler)
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